They had divided up the Saturdays of house-hunting, she said, like bath towels. Hers, his, hers, his. Today was his, and Jan was standing on the sidewalk, turned away casually from the house they had come to look at, as if reading the breeze that blew from the harbor and cataloguing the decades-old stained-glass panels that still remained above some front doors. Mac had known she would do this. At least it’s only this one, he imagined her thinking as she crinkled her nose as a stray hair blew across it. She would laugh at him about this house later, he knew, because she loved him. He knew that too and it made his stomach give a lurch that threatened to topple the narrow street, with its rectilinear square-topped rowhomes and parked cars, brick and formstone, pigeons, and an old man walking a waddling terrier: capsize, turtle the whole thing. It was all very new to him, and he supposed the shock would dissipate over time. But a four month engagement and five weeks of marriage still gave him these surreal jolts. How can anyone function like this? he wondered, and he wondered then what would happen if things changed, about how he would handle a lurch in the stomach from something other than happiness, how she would. But that hasn’t happened yet, he told himself again, and concentrated on looking for Kenny, the guy who was selling the house. He would be driving a beige pickup, he said. And right then a small, aged truck rumbled around the corner by the muddy park, driven by a small grayish man with large glasses.
He waved. He smiled with one side of his mouth only. Jan turned around. “Is that him?”
“I think so.”
They waited, trying not to look like they were waiting, while Kenny maneuvered his pickup into a seemingly improbable spot, got out, and walked over to them.
“Right. This is my wife Jan.” He knew he was smiling too broadly, as he always did when he said that.
“Nice to meet you,” said Jan.
“Kenny Maher. You parked okay?”
“Across from the park,” said Jan.
Kenny nodded. He wore the kind of glasses that changed from normal glasses to sunglasses depending on their assessment of the light. “I’ll give you the tour,” he said. A battered red bottle opener and a braided knot of neon nylon lanyards dangled from the bundle of keys he pulled from his jeans pocket.
Mac glanced at his wife. She looked patient, like a statue of Joan of Arc. She had taken in the house’s shabby fake-stone exterior, the wobbly railings and crumbling concrete steps, and the curtain hanging in the front window, its plastic backing peeling to pieces. Her expression did not change as they walked into the living room and saw the dirty and footworn rust and tan carpet, peach and white pinstriped wallpaper bumping out in odd places as though small gnomes had been trapped behind it, and the sheet of plastic hanging from the dilapidated air conditioner on a narrow window opposite. “This is the living room,” Kenny said. “A lot of potential if you fix it up. Some remodeling, you could make it worth twice as much as it is now. My parents haven’t been much for home improvement the past twenty years or so. That door—“ they were passing the bottom of a narrow, maroon-painted staircase now, going into a room hung with dark-brown faux-wood paneling and smelling faintly of urine “—goes to a walkway outside, between this house and the one next door. You get to the cellar from there.”
He turned and looked at Jan, who was walking behind him. She was gazing up the stairs at the dusty light on the white plaster wall. “He grew up here?” she muttered to him.
“Mmhmm.” Kenny had told Mac as much on the phone.
“Fun house to be a kid in.”
Mac and Jan had parameters. Three weeks ago, on a Friday night, they had made tea and brought blankets to the couch in the living room of their apartment, where they sat down with their cats, Alicia Frankenstein and Juniper Cory Mae Frankenstein, a yellow legal pad, and a pen. “Parameters,” Mac wrote at the top of the pad. After a couple of hours, they had come up with:
1. under $130,000
2. 2-3 bedrooms
3. not huge utility bills
4. maybe painting
5. washer and dryer already would be nice
6. homeowner’s assn. fees?
7. walkable neighborhood
“The eighth,” Jan said, looking at him. “No tacky houses. I know you like them—or are drawn to them—because of the one you lived in—but we shouldn’t waste time looking at something we know we’re not going to get.”
Mac scratched the black spot behind Alicia Frankenstein’s ears. “I know.”
Mac, while he had painted rooms and put up drywall before, took no specific pleasure in the accomplishment. Jan’s parents had bought a fixer-upper house twenty years ago and just gotten to tearing down the hideous wallpaper. Last winter the basement pipes had all spouted at once, like a pod of whales resentful at being ignored. It was, as Jan said, not in her blood to fix up a house. It would annoy her, it would annoy the heck out of her, and it would gall her, but other things would always come first. Other things. Mac watched Alicia Frankenstein turn her head to the side and thought of children with a little flat spot on the bridges of their noses like Jan’s, or with his unusually long toes. They would almost certainly need glasses.
He looked over at Jan, who was puzzling over their legal pad list, and it seemed to him that she couldn’t be real, and when she looked at him and smiled, and shifted to lie down with her head pillowed on his leg, he was terrified.
* * *
In another room with dark fake-wood paneling, five years earlier, Mac sat. This was in a different neighborhood in Baltimore, and the carpet, rather than rust and tan, was the color of moldy bread. Pale sunlight brushed futilely at the thick curtains, and a wisp of smoke escaped towards the light, creeping underneath the curtain and curling up blue against the windowpane. Mac was watching Antiques Roadshow and smoking his morning cigarette. It was a little after noon. He was sitting on a couch. He didn’t know where his roommate, Kyle, had gotten the couch—probably from a relative. It was low-slung and well used, blue and white vertical striped. The white had taken on a grayish cast. Mac glanced at the arm opposite and noticed there were some flakes of ash on it from the night before. I’ll get it when I get up, he thought. Not that he cared, but Kyle, though he didn’t care about the smoking, was tidier than Mac. The last time his girlfriend was out of town, Kyle had cleaned the whole first floor, and his own room, and vacuumed the stairs. That was three weeks ago.
It was Saturday. Mac was working a long shift: two-thirty to midnight. Tips might be good, especially if he could turn on the charm: put some gel in his hair, smile a lot, move quickly and gracefully in his black slacks, white shirt, black tie. He would have to drink a lot of Pepsi to muster the energy for this, though Diet, not regular, as his graceful movement was being increasingly compromised by his chubbiness. He didn’t want to move, didn’t want to get up off the couch, because every time he moved he felt the bulk of his growing belly. He’d have to, though, and soon: make some lunch (or breakfast), go upstairs and shower, get dressed. Not just this minute, though.
On television, Antiques Roadshow was taking place in Bristol, England. There were old paintings of ships and burnt sienna light, and people spoke in British accents. For some reason this comforted him. He lit another cigarette.
* * *
The three sets of climbing feet, funneled into the narrow, steep wooden stairs, made the racket of nine. The maroon paint was chipped to reveal several underlying strata of colors: white, yellow, dark blue. Nicks in the crust, the aggregate of time. The stairs concentrated that old-house smell that Mac liked: wooden railings worn down by hands, a basement foundation settled well into the earth. Jan walked behind him. She had the curious, slightly detached air of a museum guest. He knew that in the car on the way back to their apartment, she would make fun of him, as she had often, for being inexplicably drawn to the tacky and the falling-apart: sixties carpeting, flaking linoleum, windows that had to be propped open with sticks. Jan, like most people, thought such things laughable, if not simply inconvenient. On the second floor was a bedroom where the gray-blue carpet bore three clear footprints, in black tar, by the window: someone had been working on the roof and had climbed in. “There’s still a roll of the original carpeting in the cellar,” Kenny said. “My dad was saying for years, after my nincompoop cousin did that, that he was gonna replace the carpeting in this room, but didn’t get to it before he had to move downstairs. And after he got sick, that just kind of got added to my list of things to do to this house, that—well, you can see I haven’t.”
* * *
Mac had forgotten that this was the night Kyle was having a birthday party for his girlfriend, and had come home from a closing shift to find the usually dark windows blazing with light. Aware that he smelled like a restaurant laundry hamper and that his face was greasy, he helped Kyle get more cups down from the cabinet and poured himself a big glass of vodka with a little bit of orange juice. Then he worked his way through the long and narrow rooms, pausing to wish April a happy birthday and to say hello to a few of their college and engineering-work buddies that he had met before. After that it was time to refill his glass and he went up the stairs, which were wooden and unpainted, and the sound of his echoing feet exceeded the echoing voices. Someone’s raucous laugh hit the wall behind him and bounced. Mac went into his room and closed the door gratefully. He’d been smiling all afternoon and evening, and his face hurt.
He positioned himself on his bed and leaned his forehead against the window. He knew that his heavy arm could get splinters from the sill, but he couldn’t feel any. The window heaved slightly, as if breathing. Not spinning yet, but soon.
Maybe he should go to grad school. A B.A. in Biology hadn’t gotten him far. He’d scoured the listings, and it had seemed like all the jobs for Bio majors were already taken. He’d tried substitute teaching, which he had always viewed as a fallback plan. He knew science, therefore he could teach science. He hadn’t anticipated, however, that confronting so many teenage minds in one room would be so complex: How best to reach them? How to keep them from whispering like that when his back was turned? Was he too harsh or too lenient? He knew the material, sure, but he didn’t like teaching, and remembering the several dispassionate teachers that he had had growing up, he decided to keep out of that field, for the good of the kids. Restaurant work, however, one didn’t need to be passionate about. And he could apply his major: He knew that herb-encrusted veal medallions were animal and vegetable, mineral too if you put salt on them. Serve some clams with linguine and white wine sauce, and he could see the diagram in an old textbook of a clam’s inside. Look! There are the valves! And everywhere humans eating, their digestive systems working, rumbles and enzymes, tongues and stomachs and brains. This was the kind of stuff that went on in his mind in the interstices of the constant internal monologue of water for table four, two is getting impatient, two Caesar salads, one cream of crab, two Caesar, one cream, then the water, then two.
He’d go to the library tomorrow morning, check the classifieds again, if it was open and if he wasn’t too hungover. He took another sip of his vodka and looked at the view, familiar now, of phone and electric wires crisscrossing the orange night sky above a jumble of rooftops. The rooftops were all flat, most tarpapered, with a few decks. Gray houses, brick houses, houses covered with Formstone (had that fooled anyone, even when it was new decades ago, into thinking the house was really stone?). Houses with children. Houses with families that had been there for decades. Some people that had come from Eastern Europe and still went to the Polish Catholic church in Fells Point. Men and women in Gap pants and contact lenses were drinking in bars where, centuries ago, curious young men had passed out over their grog and woken up on strange ships at sea, shanghaied. He liked thinking about this richness of the thousands of lives that had lived in this neighborhood, this city. Down by the water people had fallen in love and murders had been committed. In those houses right now, all nearly identical in dimension, people were reading bad or good novels, doing drugs, stewing in their own juices, talking about things banal or brilliant, sleeping. It was like the sea. He put his drink on the windowsill and laid back on his bed, hitting his head on the wall. He laughed. If he was perched here above the sea, then this room with the creaky door, bumpy plaster walls, and cigarette burns in the trampled brown carpet—unvacuumed since he’d moved in—was his little ship. It was small, it leaked, the portholes had to be propped open with sticks, and the captain, who was also the crew, was a drunkard. Mac laughed. “I’ll keelhaul ye, ye drunkard!” he said, in what he thought was a pirate’s drawl. He stripped off his clothes and threw them on the floor.
The next day the library was closed in the morning, and in the afternoon Mac had to go to work.
* * *
“This was my room,” Kenny said. “And that one was my brother’s. My sister was in the room downstairs with the linoleum. She put carpets all over the floor—she had a thing for decorating, that was before she went into the convent—but my ma just used it to hang laundry in after that. It’d be a nice master bedroom, though, with some new flooring.”
The top floor was divided into two rooms, with a door in between. The door was open. Mac tried to close it. Something in the tiny tarnished brass mechanism wouldn’t stick, and it creaked open again resolutely.
“Nice view from here,” Jan told Kenny. Mac hadn’t even looked yet; he’d been preoccupied with the door, the creaking wood. The window faced south and looked out over a tangle of wires and flat city rooftops, clotheslines and decks and tarpaper, to where a blue-gray haze could be descried, the harbor and the opposite shore.
“Yeah. You can see the lights at Fort McHenry from here at night. The Fourth of July fireworks too, from the backyard. Could put a deck out here too, that would increase the value by ten thousand . . .”
“Did you ever try to climb on the roof from here?” Jan asked. “It would probably be pretty easy.”
“Yeah. Not too often. My sister would take books out there sometimes though. But it’s steeper than it looks; once my dad caught her at it, and he whooped her…”
Mac thought he could see, in the far cloudy smudge, a white shape trailing a gray ribbon of wave: a big cabin cruiser. The window faced south; in the opposite room it faced north, uphill. It was hot. In the summer you’d have to keep open the door and both windows to get a cross-breeze. All night, the windows would rattle and the door would shudder, like a tiny wooden boat in high seas, sheets rippling like sails. It was a ship, and the room far below with the dark wood paneling and awful carpet was a cocoon. With some heavy drapes it could be kept dark all day. Up here, there was a splintered windowsill with flaking paint.
“All that’s really left to see is the kitchen and backyard,” Kenny said. They began pounding down the narrow and tightly winding stairs.
“I like the steps,” Jan said. “When was this house built?”
“Nineteen-twenties. The bathroom on the second floor is from the forties. Kitchen just got retiled and repainted last month. I wanted to keep this place in the family, but my son bought a place in Salisbury last year and it’s hard to rent a place like this out.”
The kitchen was all white, white and gray tile and stark-white walls. The old gas stove was yellow-white, as was the refrigerator. The old white ceramic sink was large enough to wash several babies in. Through the kitchen was a little hallway, a bathroom off of it with a dryer and washing machine, with a hose leading from it into a once-clean clawfoot tub. A dinged aluminum and glass door opened into a fenced concrete patio, with a bit of dirt enclosed by cinderblocks where verdant weeds grew. There were a few old trash cans, a white plastic table and some chairs.
“Did your parents ever plant anything there?” Jan asked.
Kenny smiled lopsidedly. His glasses had gone dark again. “Zucchini.” Mac thought that behind the guy’s glasses his eyes had gone wistful. It wasn’t right that he had to give up the house. “Towards the end of the summer, my ma couldn’t give it away. All the neighbors got sick of us offering them zucchini.”
* * *
Kyle’s girlfriend April had said months ago that she’d plant flowers in the backyard. Mac was glad she hadn’t. Kyle never came out here, so the back yard remained Mac’s place. The only improvement he’d made to it since he’d moved in was to put an empty coffee can for his cigarette butts next to the old green bench. The bench was made from metal; it was too hot to sit on when the sun shone on it. Chains had once suspended it from its armrests so that it swung slightly back and forth: a glider. The chain on one side had broken years or decades ago so it no longer glided, but wobbled unevenly: the wobbler.
He sat there, on the wobbler, facing the red gate that opened into the alley, pretty much every night. When he came home from work he was too wound up to go to sleep, and it was too hot in his room. He would pour himself vodka from a big plastic bottle, and put some ice cubes in it, then sit outside until he was ready to pass out.
The plastic pinwheel daisies in the garden next door were still. A basketball bounced rhythmically away down a distant alley. The summer traffic thrummed underneath everything. The shadows were orange and brown and black. Some insect had been buzzing in the weeds for weeks. The weeds got taller and taller and grew out of the cracks in the concrete that in mid-afternoon was so hot it burned to look at, resolutely clinging to the barest scrap of soil.
He didn’t want to be doing this all his life, or now. He should move along, get going with his life, do something more or at least start to figure it out. The frightening thing was that he could quite comfortably go on living like this probably for the rest of his life. He took to it: to the cheap vodka like a baby to its bottle, to stasis in the decrepit house like a caterpillar to its cocoon. It was comfortable to sit on the couch in the dark of the fake wood-paneled room, the bad smell that he had grown used to, until his very flesh became one with the cushions. In fifty years it’d be him, older, fatter, sitting on the same couch, his dark and unnoticed cocoon, his ship with the timbers worn and sails frayed, but his very own sad ship always at home on the sea.
* * *
He should live in this house. He looked at Jan, and the very familiarity with which he saw her was unfamiliar. Mac knew that way she stuck her thumbs into her pockets, the light in her eyes as she chatted with Kenny about plants (curious, so curious, so interested, how?), the slope of her shoulders. It just wasn’t right; it couldn’t be. She was drawn to light, he to dark, how could he be married to someone like her who was so clearly too good for him? How was he married at all?
He was dizzy. He closed his eyes and felt the heat from the concrete radiating onto his face.
“So what do you think?” Kenny said. He opened his eyes, and Jan was talking, explaining how they weren’t looking to do much remodeling, glancing over at him with this look on her face. It had pity in it, but it was something more.
“There’s so much history to it,” Jan told Kenny. “I wish Mac and I could give it the kind of attention it needs, but we need to find something more suited for our, um, skill level.”
“Well, a deal like this isn’t for everyone.” He emphasized the word deal, Mac noticed, but it didn’t have a cruel edge to it. “If you change your mind, though, give me a call.” They shook hands, and as Mac stepped towards him and took his small-boned but hammer-callused hand, his own arms went cold. He needed this house, its lingering sad odors, stains and peeling paint, and he must sit in that room in the dark wasting time because otherwise, things were too good to be true. But he couldn’t, he thought foggily. He was going to live with Jan. “Thank you for your time,” he told Kenny. “Thanks for showing us around.”
Mac maneuvered the car out from the snug parallel parking spot, surprised he hadn’t hit the car behind or in front. He and Jan hadn’t said a word between the house and the car until Jan said, “You don’t need to be all sheepish.”
“I’m not. I’m just thinking.”
“You’ve done a really good job so far picking these places out,” she continued. “I knew you were going to take us to see at least one tacky house that was exactly what we were not looking for. It’s okay.”
“Well, I think the next one we’re going to is better,” he said. His voice still sounded mechanical and faraway. Buck up and take it, he told himself. Just let yourself be happy for once. “It’s up in Hampden.” See? We might get a house in Hampden and be happy.
“Mac, I still don’t get it,” she said slowly. “You’ve told me about how being at such a low point is comfortable for you, and I understand, but I still don’t understand, if you know what I mean.” Mac glanced over at her. She was looking straight ahead, her heavy, pondering look, but a smile flickered on her lips. “But I will. Eventually.”
Mac felt as if the last tether had broken. The world had finally gone and flipped upside down, and he was falling. Distances and depths were infinite and he was going so fast that all the things in himself he held onto were being sheared away. He was falling, sure enough, and continued to fall. It was unstoppable. But as he continued to fall he realized he was weightless. Was this falling? Or perhaps flying felt like this, and fear became exhilaration. Things just might, just might work out. He knew he was a mess, but Jan knew it too. They could work with each other, until maybe he could be as comfortable with this new joy as he had been with his misery. He wouldn’t say no to that.
“You will?” he asked, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it anyway.
“I hope so.”