The home has long been a powerful metaphor, and for good reason. The place where we live comes to represent us. But here is a story I haven’t seen before, where the homeowner cannot seem to see his house as it is. Where he can’t stop seeing it as a metaphor. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
I wander from room to room lately, the ones I’ve just finished working on, and I’m waiting for something to happen. Outside the walls of this house, there is so much blinding beauty. Just today I saw a flock of birds come up from the alley and the undersides of their wings shone like water. It felt like those birds were the only things in the world. Inside, it’s a different story.
I bought the house when it was ugly as sin, a beast of stained carpet and dark wood paneling. I tore down the insides with my own hands, rebuilt it piece by piece. Now it’s like I’m living in an anatomy lab. I can see what’s underneath, when all I want to do is forget.
When my girl stops by she says how great the place looks. You’d have to look hard to find a flaw. We sit on the couch and listen to the radio and drink American beer—the same as the fancy kind, I tell her, just disguised in cheap cans. Only a sucker would pay more than $7.99 a case. She takes a sip and says, “Suckers.” We’ve got that good feeling like we’re pulling one over on somebody. Camille is great that way, always game. Even though she’s not very handy, she helped work on the house whenever she could—even polished the old radiators, did the grout on the bathroom tiles. I’ve been wondering lately, though, as I wait for everything to calm down, wait to settle into my home, what it is I do for her. I’m really not sure.
“I can’t believe you did all this,” she says, waving her beer at the walls. “It’s practically professional or something.”
“I can’t believe I did it either,” I say. But the truth is I can. That’s the problem. I can see the individual planks on the floor, each seam between each sheet of drywall, each joist and nail and every speck of my sweat dropped into the belly of this house.
“I’m a genius at picking colors,” Camille says.
“Genius.” I nod. The colors on the walls have ridiculous names like buttercup and aubergine, but Camille says they make you want to stay in the rooms, which is I guess what people look for in paint.
We smile at each other. What would I do without her? I’d pace around the room right now, which is what I really want to do. I’d pace around this place I’ve built, and talk to myself out loud until I was hoarse. I’d tell myself that I’m done, that I did it, that I can close up shop, suture the patient and not look back. As it is, she’s here, and we’re toasting ourselves with cheap beer, and she moves in to kiss me, and I kiss her back.
When my brothers and I were kids, we loved the human body section in the encyclopedia. Each page had a drawing of a person, but the pages were some kind of clear cellophane stuff, so when you turned each one you’d see a different part of the body. First you peeled back the skin, then the muscles, then the organs, and then you were left with the skeleton. We turned those pages so carefully, listening to their crackle, partly wishing we could turn back our own skin and peer in, secretly hoping it never happened. There are some things you can’t forget once you see them, no matter how hard you try.
When my mom died last year, we all had to file through the funeral home and take our turn looking into her casket. What for, I don’t know. I was a grown man and had enough memories of her alive to last a lifetime. We all did. She loved my brothers and me so quietly, but completely. It killed us to think that underneath her ageless presence, under the soft hair and perfectly matched clothes and the eyes that gave us endless patience, something could turn wrong so quickly. At the funeral home, my dad made us stand there and look at her, all frozen and dull, exposed like the body in the encyclopedia. That was his way of saying goodbye, right or wrong, I don’t know.
It’s funny how everybody does things differently. It’s a wonder anything ever gets finished at all, the way people act like their way is the only way. A few weeks ago we’re at my dad’s house. Family dinner, somebody’s birthday, kids racing around like hot potatoes, adults eating egg salad and three different kinds of meat. My dad’s been helping me with the house and he’s talking to my brothers, who want to know about the radiators, which had to be hooked up after we finished laying the wood floors.
“Make sure you treat that water with something,” my brother Steve says. “You can’t just put regular old water in those radiators.”
“Oh yes you can,” says my other brother Mike. “Don’t listen to him.”
“You gotta add chlorine, and I’ll tell you why,” Steve says, wiping egg salad from his plate with the end of a soft roll. “Corrosion.”
“Please,” says my dad, “you don’t need anything special in those radiators.”
Camille is at the other end of the table, and I see her get up and go into the kitchen, pretending to need a drink, when really she’s trying not to laugh, because this is the way it always is. Back and forth, arguments about how to do stuff.
“What are you going to do, drink the radiator water?” Mike is saying. “It’s just sitting there—it’s not like it has to be purified or anything.”
“You treat your pool water, don’t you?” Steve is saying.
“Who’s got a pool?” Mike says. “And who’s going to put chlorine in a radiator anyway?”
“I’m telling you,” my brother says like he invented radiators. “You got to treat it like a pool.”
“You don’t go swimming in a radiator,” says my dad, always the final word, wrong or right.
I don’t need to go for walks in the park, because the city is fine by me. In the neighborhood where I bought my house, people talk about blight, but if you look at everything right, you will see sights that break your heart they’re so pretty. Like the red brick house behind mine. It might be a crack house, but the way it shoots up like a reed against the blue sky, the way those bricks drink up the setting sun, there’s nothing I’d rather look at. Or the tin roof next door. It’s rusted in patches, but to me it looks like a field of scrub brush, browns and oranges like you’d want to lie down in. You could think of all these buildings piled up against each other, no space to breathe, and you could think that somebody forgot about all of us, left us to rot. Or you could see it like I see it, all colors and angles and lights, the most beautiful place on earth.
Sometimes Camille and I walk in the cemetery. I prefer the city sidewalks, but she likes the grass and trees, and I guess I can see her point. My mom is buried here, but we don’t usually visit her grave. It’s not that kind of trip to the cemetery. Last week we took the loop that ends down by the pond, where about 10 ducks live year round. I mean to tell you it is a jewel, that pond, lily pads strewn across it like a nervous system, and the rocks that surround it, flat like the tombstones on the hill. So last week we’re sitting on one of those rocks and Camille says, “Would you look at that?” She points to the center of the pond. “There’s a hanger in there.”
It takes me a minute, but eventually I see the triangle corner of a white plastic hanger poking up through the water. “Oh yeah,” I say. “Weird.”
“Who would put a hanger in a pond?” she says.
“Maybe the ducks have a dry-cleaning habit?” I say.
“That can’t be it,” Camille says, always deadpan. “Everybody knows that dry-cleaners use wire hangers.” She slaps my knee. “Really, though. It pisses me off that people have to throw their trash everywhere.”
“I know. And who’s got a hanger in the middle of a cemetery anyway? I could see if it was like a gum wrapper or even some Kleenex or something. But who brings a hanger to a graveyard?”
“Yeah,” she says, “and then who has to get rid of it so badly right at this instant that they throw it into a pond?”
We look at each other. I like these moments when we’re feeling riled up about the same dumb thing. We’re a lot alike, my girl and me.
“Anyway,” I say, “If you look at it long enough, it’s kind of nice. Look at its reflection—it looks like wings.”
“That’s what I love about you,” she says. She’s not usually philosophical this way, but something about the sunshine or the pond or the unexpected hanger—I don’t know—but something makes her tell me, “You see things like that. Like your house. I mean, that thing started out as god-awful ugly, but you saw what it could turn into. And look at it now.”
Two ducks come rocketing across the pond like jet propelled bowling pins, all sleek and purposeful.
“The house is not what I want it to be yet,” I tell Camille. “It’s just not. Nothing is what I want it to be.”
She makes a duckbill with her hand and then actually quacks at me. “C’mon,” she says. “It’s gorgeous. It’s perfect. Just a touch or two and it’s done. You should feel proud.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I say. “And I’m having trouble forgetting all the junk that’s underneath all the new parts.” I put my arm around her. “Forget that,” I say. “The only thing I want to look at right now is what’s right here. You’re the prettiest thing going.”
“That’s your solution for everything,” she says, grabbing my hand that rests on her shoulder.
Don’t look, don’t think about it, don’t look. Well, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since I got these walls painted. The other day my one brother stops by to see the progress, and while he’s talking about how good it looks, I’m wondering if I could push my fist through the drywall and touch insulation. I know it’s there.
“You’re a goddamn crazy bastard for putting down white carpet, you know that?” Steve is saying.
Under the carpet is the new padding, 10,000 staples, the old wooden planks, the dust of 75 years of people tramping around this home, and then what?
“We could pull it up,” I say, quietly enough so that I’m not sure Steve can hear me.
“Hunh?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say. “What can I say? I like white carpet.”
“Yeah, well you better like brown carpet pretty soon, because that’s what you’re going to have.”
My dad comes up from the basement where he’s been washing out brushes. “White carpet is nice,” he says. “Your mother liked white carpet.” Which is funny, because just the day before he was telling me how I should’ve gone with something darker, more practical. He’ll never change. Always contrary. Looking at things from 12 different angles, as long as none of those angles is yours.
My mother had a cat almost as old as she was, and in the months before she died, it was like that cat knew what was happening even if none of us did—that my mom was sick, and that soon enough, both of them would have to go. That stupid cat used to crouch over the heating vents on the floor and pee into them. Once or twice is all it took, and it had stunk up the whole house. Every time the heat came on, it was like something made from sugar and poison had died and spread its sickly sweet self into every air molecule. My mom was good at hiding the odor; she’d light so many scented candles we thought sure she was going to burn the whole house down. My dad would complain that the house smelled like a blueberry pie, and she’d tell him to shut up, that at least it didn’t smell like cat piss pie. We all knew it was there, though, and we were amazed at how one stupid little animal could wreck things so bad.
I met Camille just after my mom died. Good timing, it seems. Or bad, if you take into account that half the time I am thinking that we’re all going to be dead pretty soon, or kind of morbid things like that. But she puts up with it. So far.
“What ever happened to that cat?” she asked me on one of our first dates. We were eating pancakes at a diner, and I was thinking that I liked the way she cut her stack of pancakes all at once, into a hundred little square bites, all waiting to be scooped up.
“It ran away,” I told her. “And nobody wanted to find it.”
“Seriously?” she said. “Did you even try?”
“Have you smelled cat pee in a heating vent?” I asked her. “Some things are just too hard to forgive.”
So I’ve got a house of my own. Too much space for one person, really. I thought I’d settle in easily, though, move in my few belongings and start having the family over for gatherings. I can’t do that yet, because I can’t stop thinking about what’s covered up, how the house is really just a thin veneer over a whole lot of dirt and crooked lines. There’s no closing the lid on that idea.
Camille has my shirt off now, and we’re lying on the couch, feet tangled. Our cans of beer are on the floor, mine crushed and empty. She kisses my neck and I say, “I can’t do it,” meaning I can’t have the relatives over for some three-meat dinner, but she thinks I’m talking to her.
“What do you mean you can’t do it?” she says, sitting up.
“Not you,” I say. “I was just thinking of something else and I said that out loud.”
She looks at me like the squirrels out back when you interrupt them burying a nut, like, How could you? Everything was going so well.
“Well what are you thinking about?” she asks me.
So I tell her, explain to her about the anatomy pages in the encyclopedia, tell her that I can’t relax. I say, “It’s like I’ve done surgery on my own self and can’t get the image out of my mind. I can’t get all these things out of my mind, and I want to wash my eyes out or burn them or do something to make it so I can just be. So I can just live.” I’m up off the couch now, pacing the living room, looking at that molding and thinking about how many hundreds of nail holes are in it. Putting my palms on the door casings I built and raising my voice to tell my girl that I can’t do it. “That’s the problem, Camille. I can’t do it. I can’t fucking do it!”
Then I’m pounding the wall in front of me, grieving my knuckles on this buttercup paint and this joint compound and drywall and the insulation that lies underneath, punching my heart out until it might burst through the other side.
But it doesn’t. I step back and look at the pitiful dent in the wall, look at Camille, who’s still sitting on the edge of the sofa. I’m feeling relieved that I’ve finally told her—it’s like, I’m crazy, but at least now I don’t have to shoulder all the crazy by myself.
She stares at me hard for maybe a full minute.
“What’s happening here?” I say, starting to think I should’ve just kept my trap shut. I sit next to her, but I can’t meet her stare; I can only look at my fist, look at the plaster dust and the blood on the mound of each knuckle.
“You’re not a surgeon,” Camille tells me. “You’re not even a real construction worker or floor finisher or whatever the hell else you did on this house. You’re just a guy who fixed up something ugly and made a place that any normal human being would want to live in.”
Camille has watery eyes all the time, so I can’t always tell when she’s crying. Most of the time even when I know she’s crying I just tell myself it’s that dang weepy eye and go on about my business because God knows I don’t know what to say to anyone who’s sad enough to cry actual tears. So she’s staring at me and her eyes are wet, and she says, “People work hard every day to make a home, don’t you know that? Even the birds can turn trash into a nest. And when they do, I know for damn sure they don’t wonder if it’s all going to fall to pieces. And they don’t complain that they can’t see the forest for the trees, or whatever the saying is. They just sit in it, for Christ’s sake. They just sit.”
I’m smart enough to know that tears on the cheeks and a red nose are not just allergies, so I put my hand on her knee, even though I’m thinking maybe I’m the one who needs a hand on the knee, seeing where my confession has gotten me.
I tell her, “I know.” I tell her, “I wish I was different.”
“You’re not looking at what’s in front of your face,” she tells me.
But I am. I see it all: the house, Camille, my dad and brothers, my mom, the deep blue sky outside the window and the chimneys stabbing the air. I’ve seen it all. I made it all. I put the pieces together in the only way I know how, and what I’m left with is the idea that I’ve put them together in a way that won’t hold. From where I stand, it looks like I need stronger hands, a stronger heart, layers of bone and skin that will root me to this life. I’m looking at Camille, and I’m not saying any of this out loud. And my girl’s looking at me like she might walk out the door, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to line it all up straight.