We scheduled the appointment during a blizzard. We didn’t want to chance waiting. Suspiciously affordable, we naturally wondered what was the matter with it, but we’d admired it for years, so when we drove by and saw the sign, I hurriedly scribbled down the phone number on a dry cleaning receipt and hoped it wasn’t already under contract. Strange time of year to sell a house in Chicago.
The brick colonial was situated comfortably in the earth, flanked by trees, twice its height and years, settled in their own personal histories. The post WWII home stood as proud memorial to the “American Dream,” (assuming that ever existed,) noble in contrast to the boon of monotonous subdivisions; houses all cut from the same pattern, differing only in the slight color variation of their aluminum siding and roofs; the ones jammed so closely together, they inevitably bred conflict and personal intrusion with the neighbors. A commanding portico centered the front door, and a garden swing moved stiffly in the icy wind. An empty flagpole stood guard.
Ancient ivy, brown and naked with the season, embraced the sides of the house like skeletal palms, cradling something precious. Despite its suburban setting, it was only three blocks from Main Street, Skokie, directly across from a nostalgic park- the kind with cement water fountains and metal slides, the ones cities no longer deem worthy to build or maintain. The elegant permanency of the neighborhood put one in a melancholy time warp. Snow laced through the mesh baseball fence and stacked up on the benches and old-fashioned playground equipment. We made it a weekly habit to pass down Lorel Avenue after Sunday breakfasts. In the summer, there were bicycles, tricycles, and skateboards zipping around the park on the sidewalk; even an ice cream truck. Now icicles the size of machetes hung from the gutters of the house. My face was stung with cold and I tucked my hands under my armpits, slid on the ice, and cursed. The temperature was falling as we slogged through snow to the sidewalk, one lane, narrowly shoveled. The For Sale sign had all but disappeared. A pair of blue jays flicked through a gargantuan evergreen beside the house, jostling off snow that plopped to the ground. Otherwise, there was only the sound and feel of the snow, blowing, drifting, and cutting at our skin. The elegant permanency of the neighborhood put you in a melancholy time warp.
Christmas lights glowed like hard candies up and down the block. Across the park, someone had put reindeer and a sleigh on top of the roof, as they’d probably done since 1969. Surely, it must be getting harder to climb up a latter and hook them up. But it was necessary. That’s the kind of decorum of such a neighborhood.
A single ball of light illuminated the drawn curtains, otherwise, the house was dark. There was no car in the driveway. The frozen buzzer stuck when we pressed it, creating an endless, reverberating gong, larger and more formative than the house itself. We were a few minutes early. I wondered if someone inside was lighting a Yankee candle, shoving items into kitchen drawers, tightening the bed spread; those house-selling prerequisites people do. The door opened inward, creating an impressive vacuum from which a warm tobacco mustiness escaped. A long, spindly arm reached out and fiddled with the buzzer until it unstuck. “Come in!”
She was old, very old, and unusually tall and lean. Bluish wrinkles wound around her narrow eyes and accentuated their vividness; eyes that darted quickly over the two of us; eyes with black eye liner. Her little fluff of white hair flipped in the breeze. We shuffled the snow off our boots, stepped in, removed them, and left them dripping on a Rubber Maid tray. Miniature snowballs fell off my wool coat, ping- ponging onto the floor. Mike shut the vault-like, solid wood door, shutting us in the house’s muffled world- the house we had hoped to enter one day.
She wore a sweater with parrots and pineapples, red men’s house slippers, and red lipstick. A chunk of turquoise dangled from her thin neck. She waved her thin hand to guide us further in, walking well but slightly bent, like a willow. She had a metallic blue cane with silver sprinkles. “I’m Liz. My husband, Edward, isn’t home yet.” She had a magnetic, peaceful smile, like she’d studied with a swami in India or Jane Goodall, bonding with apes in the deep jungles. Webbed smoker’s wrinkles crept around her lips but did not detract from her overall gracious, albeit unique, appearance. Her long legs were lost in the extra fabric of her navy polyester pants; those stretch pants that are sold three colors for twelve-ninety-nine.
She was the woman who made her husband bacon and eggs and percolated coffee every morning and roast beef on Sundays, she greeted Trick or Treaters with homemade Rice Crispy Treats and candy corn. She dropped pennies for Unicef into their cardboard milk boxes from church. Because that’s how it was in those days. She, in her holiday apron, stood over the stove, clouding up the windows boiling sugar for Divinity Candy, packing neat gift boxes for her neighbors. She volunteered at the nursing home and saved Green Stamps for small appliances; made Campbell’s soup casseroles for others in times of infirmity. She gladly took in little Sally’s gold fish when her family went to Wisconsin for vacation. With her garden trowel, she’d dug graves for her children’s frogs and gerbils and helped them make popsicle stick crosses. Yes, and this was a woman who knew how to entertain. She never broke a sweat lying out a holiday spread. Created clever birthday cakes, played bridge, made cocktails, even pink squirrels and grasshoppers; knew good jokes; used calligraphy to make individual place cards. All completed smoothly and naturally, in a timely, economical fashion. All this I knew right away. Thus, after all these years, Liz had attained the pinnacle of peaceful satisfaction, knowing that she’d lived her life well and appropriately, and would soon put a serene period at the end. (But then, some people say I read too much into things.) “You can leave your coats on this chair,” she said casually, gesticulating with long nails, as if having planned and rehearsed to say it that way. We laid them over the purple velvet parlor chair. None of the furnishing remotely matched. They looked to be picked, plucked, and adopted from estate sales and church bazaars.
“Thanks for letting us come with such short notice. I’m Mike, this is Chris.” We shook hands confluently. Our hands were cold and numb as were hers. Our eyes connected like two night trains barreling head on. The ballroom-size living room had an archway and a ten-foot ceiling with crown moldings that matched the portico. Cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling blew in gentle veils from the heating vents. A blackened fireplace with carved Corinthian columns had a marble hearth. Clean, white birch logs and several sections of faded newspaper, stood ready by a set of brass fireplace tools.
The living room adjoined a screened-in porch that contained a suite of bamboo furniture, dead houseplants, and an empty birdcage that was large enough for a Toucan. As if there was no other good place to put it, a life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne was wedged behind the wicker sofa; his ten-gallon hat speckled in snow. Quickly, she drew the curtains over the porch doors. “Do you have children?” she whispered to me.
“No,” I simply answered without explanation. I didn’t feel I needed one.
“My children loved to play on the porch, drive their little cars and trucks around… have tea parties. Lots of children in the neighborhood back then. There’s a nice table out there for eating out in the summer, and a stone barbeque under the snow. Just the two of you then?”
“Yes,” I repeated. “And our dogs, of course.”
“Dogs? Seems like a perfect house for children. She nodded, disappointedly.
We’d lost the baby in January. Stillbirth. We hadn’t yet gotten over the shock. Although she was born looking completely normal, I blamed myself for drinking before I knew I was pregnant and several times during. After, there seemed to be every excuse to drink. But I stopped cold turkey. It hurt worse without the alcohol. It still felt like my womb had been yanked out of me. I swore I didn’t deserve another. Buying a house was the first proactive thing we’d done since. Thirty-four and looking for our perfect house. Wherever or whenever it appeared by fate, it would represent years of ground beef, Dollar Store paper towels, and a husband who worked eighty hours a week.
“Beautiful floors,” Mike cut in, changing the subject. The well-seasoned, pegged, oak floor was protected by an antique Aubusson rug, that had earned its satin-slick, faded patina. I braced myself for the inevitable: the dilapidated kitchen (or) bathroom in need of plumbing and/or tiled work. Leaky roof, caved-in ceiling. High water marks in the basement. Raccoons in the attic. Termites. There was a reason for the price. There always was.
“What a beautiful rug.” I said.
“That carpet was my mother’s. From Katmandu,” she said. “I forgot how she got it…some prince or something….”
One could tell the house was built in no hurry, no shortcuts, the right way- to get improve with age, like an old screen star;not thrown up in three days like the new ones. A faux Tiffany lamp sat on a dust-encrusted mahogany table, and had created the shadowy light in the window. A campy, ceramic crocodile ashtray that said, “Welcome to Tampa” joined the lamp, by a faded crossword puzzle, pencil, and magnifying glass. There was lipstick on a cigarette butt. Next to the table, a weathered wing chair boasting a mashed-in seat cushion in lively sixties upholstery: Pop Art; like a montage from Laugh In. The arms were darkened from skin contact, and the indentation in the cushion showed about forty years of hard labor: jumping kids, pet hair, and spilled Cheerios. The entire room was an aggregate of mixed jumble, passively glowing through layers of magazines and dust; a time capsule, seemingly satisfied with its efforts to house a generation. Her eyes clouded over and her black eyeliner smeared into her wrinkles. She sighed. “I’ll just sit down while you look around.”
On the wall among years of family photos and all mediums of art, was her wedding photo. It was her, under the Pricilla Presley hair lacquered in a lofty bouffant. The groom was in uniform, holding her hand in a way that displayed her engagement ring and their smooth, young hands. They looked like intelligent and well-bred. In love. The photo had hung there so long the wall around it was discolored. She caught me looking and revived. “My husband was in the service. Navy. Korea.” Her eyes clouded over again and she stared at the photo of another young man also in uniform, not smiling. “That one went to Vietnam but he never came back. Never found him. I haven’t had time to look for him with all that’s going on.” This seemed a strange thing to say. “He painted that picture over there when he was in high school. Had talent.” The picture was of purple oak trees , leaves blowing in the wind.
“I’m sorry.” She shrugged.
I felt a bit claustrophobic. The room had a kaleidoscopic, 360 degree effect; you couldn’t possibly take it all in at once or establish any schematic pattern. It felt as though we had entered a snow globe that had been shaken and couldn’t get out. Squeezed and stacked around the room were all styles of domestic paraphernalia: statuettes, over-sized books, ceramic jars, pots, ashtrays, magazine racks, half-packed boxes-items procured like those in the cellar of Xanadu; not one single piece of anything matching another, and yet all symbiotically belonging together. She had managed to fit it all in, in a permanent fashion. Anything moved would leave an immediate geometric piece of clean surface. And I had the impression nothing wanted to be moved. Books, records, and family albums, all jammed into the built-in shelves on either side of the fireplace, flanked by bronze baby shoes and chintzy keepsakes. What appeared to be an urn, was centered on the mantel, below an enormous painting of Venetian gondoliers.
Somehow, amidst all this, I’d missed the dingy white cat expanded over a burgundy Chesterfield. It had been watching us; thinking…stewing…flicking his tail. It unnerved me. Cats. I’ll take a dog with drool and gas any day of the week. It yawned, displaying pink gums and one fang, then started licking itself. It was missing fur in several places and had startling cataracts like spherical moonstones. “This is Roger’s house.” Roger gave me the glowing eyeball and spread his toes. “He’s over twenty years old. My husband found him in the alley when he was taking out the trash.” I took another look at the cat that was years overdue for a bath, and probably would have a heart attack if you gave him one.
The wallpaper curled at the seams, but the plaster underneath appeared solid. We could strip and paint. I began my mental expenditure list: strip and paint walls, get rid of cat smell. In the dining room, a very dry, overgrown spider plant with many parachuting, dying “babies,” was just managing to survive on a wobbly wrought iron stand. The lady and the cat moved with us into the room., watching us, deeply, as if we were being tested for something. “We love collectibles,” she said, “Edward and I’ve done a great deal of travelling. But my son says it’s time for us to move on.” She sighed, looking around the room.
“You only had one son?”
“And two daughters. Boys are easier in case you were wondering. Mind if I smoke?” Obviously, we wouldn’t say ‘no’ nor did she wait for an answer. “Now where did I put that pack…” she mumbled, shuffling back to the wing chair. I was surprised she was a smoker yet hadn’t coughed. “Feel free to look around,” she again gestured. I’ll just be in the living room. I’m sure Edward will be home soon.”
Mike was intrigued. He always had that perky look when he was. He switched on the chandelier that glowed dimly. The fixture seemed excited to be turned on. The crystal tear drops, and the bulbs that still worked, tried to sparkle and blink inside their nest of cobwebs and grime, like a lighthouse during a storm at sea. The dining room table was covered with half-packed boxes of stemware and fine china. Now I met the reality, worse, because I was expecting it. The wallpaper- gold, with four, enormous yellowed peacocks, one on each wall. I tried not to let it detract from my impartial viewing, but it wasn’t possible.
The bay window matched (yes, remarkably something matched) the one in the living room. I pulled open the dried orange taffeta curtains. The neighborhood was dark now, snow blowing sideways. Beaming snow flakes swarmed beneath the street lamps, illuminated, like a billion July insects. Our car was covered in at least two fresh inches of snow. Hopefully a plow wouldn’t come by and snow us in. Good thing we’d started keeping the shovel in the trunk. If necessary, he could steer while I pushed, but I wasn’t spending the night here.
A black lacquer Japanese hutch with jade inlay, (naturally) did not match the Colonial dining room table, nor the Shaker chairs, nor the surprise of the two-by three foot Peter Max print. The herding together of all these things was truly a challenge to one’s sensibilities. Either the family had energetically eclectic taste or major architectural confusion. I decided they chose to be unique-which in my book, was ok. Besides, we weren’t buying the furniture anyway. (Although I had no idea how the hell they were going to get it all out.)
I saw a price tag hanging off the hutch, attached with a bit of Scotch tape- another hanging off the corner of the table. Now that I looked, these small, hand-written tags were connected to most everything. Either they’d never bothered to take them off or they were selling these yesteryear gems. Maybe they just wanted to be reminded of the good deals they got. I’ve done that. The gilded, neoclassic mirror over the hutch had to weigh at least a hundred pounds and looked like something from of Balmoral. How they found the studs to support it was a mystery to me. It was marked a measly one-hundred-seventy-five, and would be trickier to move than a grand piano or a Brunswick pool table, which might account for the cheap price. The uncovered hardwood floors had plenty of miles on them and were darkened and dented. Could be sanded. Mental Expenditure.
Through a swinging door, designed to separate the kitchen from the dining room, was “Adventure Land,” as Alice Kramden once described her kitchen on the Honey Mooners. This socially correct design (servant door to the kitchen as ascribed by Amy Vanderbilt’s home etiquette, I’m sure) was to keep the hostess or “Hazel” unseen during dining. Of course, that was in the day when one was a feasibly economic addition.
A tag hanging off an old Austrian Cuckoo clock by the door read, “Price Negotiable.” The little cuckoo was falling out of its hatch, hanging by a tiny spring. I heard the cane approach; tap tap tap, cigarette smoke preceding her. And there she was behind us, cat following with its moon-colored eyeballs. “Do you like the clock? We picked it up on a trip abroad. It’s highly collectable.”
“Are you selling all these things?” Mike asked. Her demeanor changed. For a moment she looked lost and threatened. That cloudiness started in her eyes again.
“Of course not! Why would I do that? Not all of them….” she sharply retorted. I resisted glancing at Mike. Her sudden authoritarian rebuttal caused me to obediently freeze. Her cane tapped with us into the kitchen and she resumed her good cheer. “I picked this linoleum myself! Looks almost new, doesn’t it? Had the girl wax it once a month. The waxer is in the panty.” She looked directly at me.
“They don’t make that stuff anymore,” Mike offered philosophically.
“Do you like to cook, Chris?”
“Mike loves to cook.”
“That’s wonderful. A man should know how to cook, just in case. My Edward never lifted a finger in the kitchen!” I looked around, and there it was…. The old General Electric double-stove-almost as big as a small car, and probably straight out of the 1952 Sears Catalogue. It stood like a confederate monument, stalwart and stubborn, right across from its cohort, the 1952 Kelvinator. House Expenditure.
Pots, pans, and an odd array of dishware, aprons, oven mitts, and gadgets lined the countertops like a brigade. The room had the musty smell of liquor store boxes, cleaning supplies, and the emptiness that always accompanies change. The cupboards were airing out, empty, except for an old nut grinder and lemon squeezer on the very top shelf, way in the back. The second hand of an electric clock on the yellowed wall still ran. There was a small breakfast nook with green Naugahyde seats and a yellow Formica top, barely big enough to fit an adult person, but large enough to accommodate kids having an after school snack. Probably apple slices and juice. Maybe a fresh cookie- back when Liz was brunette. And I knew her kids were allowed to lick the beaters, dripping with cake batter, and set the timer for brownies with their grubby little fingers. I could almost smell meatloaf and potatoes…. We hadn’t eaten. “There’s a rotisserie attachment that goes in the oven, Chris. Should still be in there. My husband loved his chicken that way- just salt and pepper, lemon juice . And you can use the built-in griddle for pancakes and bacon. That’s what we did.”
Gingham window curtains drooped solemnly over the porcelain sink, facing outward into the backyard and numerous snow-laden trees and shrubs, the garden swing, and a snow-filled birdbath. A dingy, bent outside thermometer read fifteen degrees. An empty bird feeder swung crookedly off a tree by the window. “I’ll have to have Edward fill that bird feeder. The birds need their nutrition when it’s this cold! That reminds me… I need to get suet.” The tapping cane was getting on my nerves, as was the cigarette smoke. “Oh, did I mention the floors upstairs are oak, too. ‘Course we carpeted. Shag. Avocado.” Expenditure…. Despite all the negatives and questionables, the house was built like a tank.
“How many bedrooms?”
“Three. My husband and I have the master; the kids each have their own. The boy had his own, of course. They’re away at school now.” I glanced sideways at Mike and did the math. “Well, go ahead and look around. I won’t bug ya.” She tapped out of the kitchen with her cigarette dangling out of her mouth. The cat followed.
“You go upstairs and I’ll check out the basement, ok?” Mike whispered.
“Why are you whispering?”
“I don’t know.” Mike peeked in the living room and asked if he could go downstairs to look at the furnace. She was submerged in the wing chair, blotting out her cigarette into the crocodile, and staring into the blackened fireplace. She held the cane tightly with her spare hand, as though she might need it as a weapon.
“What? The furnace did you say? It’s original. Top of the line. My husband always buys the best. You end up saving money in the long run, he says.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mike’s brows furrowed as he wondered just what it would look like. Hopefully it wouldn’t look like the last one- a giant black and aluminum octopus. (Turns out that what they’re actually called: Octopus furnaces.) Still gives me the creeps. I decided to go ahead upstairs while he went down, hoping I’d see him again. The carpeting was thread-worn; a stained oatmeal color that bled into matted avocado shag at the top of the stairs. The edges of the carpet were packed with white cat hair. More photos lined the stairway.
Meanwhile, Mike found himself in Club Room, replete with wet bar and smoke-covered fox hunting prints on cedar siding. Not cheap. On the shelves behind the bar were cocktail glasses, a half bottle of Triple Sec, root beer schnapps, Campari, Angostura Bitters, and a flashlight. There was a little packet of cocktail napkins on the bar and an old shot glass with a naked woman inside. Several gaming tables were pushed back against the paneled walls. The room gave off an uncomfortable aura- it felt like a crowd of people behind decks of cards were watching him. It gave him an uncomfortable feeling, unwelcoming, foggy, as if the room resented the intrusion. Lack of lighting, of course.
A blue Maytag washer and dryer were tucked away in the next room by old boxes of detergent on shelves lined with faded contact paper and plastic clothespins. The rumble and hum of the struggling furnace created a vibration across the cold cement floor. It was a ‘58 Bryant, turquois, no gangly arms or pot belly. There were several repair stickers on it; dates of service and the company’s name and phone. Jack’s Furnace and Air, GR6-4186. Beside the washer was it was the sump pump, which meant no water in the basement. If it still worked. A positive.
Shelves of board games: Candyland, Twister, Mouse Trap, Operation, Ouija, Battle Ship, Monopoly, Risk, and ping pong paddles, Halloween costumes, canoe oars, and empty mayonnaise jars (for collecting bugs? Buttons?) lent a very particular smell of old plastic, rubber, glitter and detergent. Oh yes, and the fishing poles, vinyl bowling bags, waders, snow boots, roller skates, ice skates, and plastic Barbie boxes. The obligatory family Ping Pong table leaned against a wall covering more artwork. Lots of it. The entire basement appeared exhausted and caught off guard, during its interminable thirty year nap.
We met at the top of the basement stairs the powder room. The strikingly dated red and white tiles were in perfect condition-the toilet and sink, real porcelain. They were actually gleaming. The medicine cabinet had a slot to dispose razor blades—old glass aspirin bottles, Pepto Bismol, Band Aids, and an ancient Revlon lipstick. (I always notice these things.) No hand towels, soap, or toilet paper.
It appeared there was no real disaster lurking in this house-yet it didn’t feel right to either of us. All of it was beyond intriguing. There must be something we hadn’t yet seen. Back in the living room, the cat was either sound asleep or deceased on the Chesterfield, as was Ms. Liz in her wing chair. I didn’t see her chest rise or fall. Suddenly, her eyes, opened, just a squint. In a few moments, she was smiling again. “Do you like Burt Bacharach?” I couldn’t recall if I did or not, but nodded yes. “Ed and I have lots of records. All kinds of music. I can put some on while we’re waiting for him….” She struggled out of the sunken upholstery and tapped over to a mammoth glass high-fi and turned a manila-colored button. “Takes a little while for the tubes to warm up.”
“Whatever you like, I’m sure we will,” Mike said, smiling. He had grandparents so he was good with old people. As she was pulling out a Roger Williams album (hi-fidelity,) we heard the grumble and grating sound of the garage door going up. It startled me. A door slammed and I heard someone come through the kitchen. A middle-aged man in a camel coat and glasses came through the dining room andstood in the entryway. He had a surprised look on his face, now beet red from the cold. We stared at one another several moments .
“How did you get in?”
“Liz let us in…we came to see the house. I’m Chris and this is my husband, Mike. Mike put his hand forward toward the man whose face had now turned a motley white.
“Liz, my Grandmother….. It smells like someone’s been smoking in here. So…how did you get in? Sorry I’m late by the way… accident on the highway.” He looked cautiously around the room and removed his glasses to wipe the steam off them.
I turned around toward the stereo. A record was spinning on the rubber turntable and there was an orange glint emitting from the hot tubes. Her cane was propped up against the fireplace. “I’m Mrs. McDanial’s grandson, Connor. He shook Mike’s hand, while simultaneously unwrapping his Burberry scarf . He looked at our coats on the chair and the ashtray.
“Liz let us in. About forty-five minutes ago.
“Yes, my Grandmother.”
“ She said Edward would be here soon. Maybe she’s in the bathroom?,” I offered. He shook his head no.
“My grandmother’s been gone a few months now. She lived here alone for a long time. Died in her sleep. We found her in here-in that chair.” He nodded toward the upholstered wing chair. The cigarette she had twisted out still smoked slightly. The furnace kicked on again to fill the awkwardness. “Sorry to upset you with that. I just come to feed the cat and show the house.” We all stared at the chair, and then I went over and snubbed out the cigarette. There wasn’t anything to say, really.
“My Granddad. He’s been gone since 2000. This isn’t the first time this has happened. I should be getting used to it….” We nodded understandingly and got our coats and boots. “Sorry again to surprise you…” he apologized, coming to open the door for us.
“I’ve heard of these things happening,” I said, surprised by my composure. Mike stared at his feet. As the pressure of the cold air sucked us into the outside darkness he added:
“There’s an estate sale this Saturday at ten if you’re interested. Let me know about the house.” We said we would, tried to smile a little, and shakily made our way down the slick steps.
The strained lights from the Catholic Church down the street cut through the snowstorm like a blurry beacons, and the six o’clock bells rang, muffled. Joy to the World. Traffic was hushed. Christmas lights on bushes blinked dully.
The last thing I heard was the soft crunch of the snow under my boots, as it melted down my ankles and between my toes. The car door was heavy to pull open against the deepening snow, and I slid into the seat, like a plastic manikin, unable to feel any physical sensation. My ears rang as if my head was underwater at the bottom of a swimming pool- sounds, far, far away. The back tires spun, but then we were moving through the tire tracks of other cars. The park, quilted in white crystals, was illuminated by the old, outdated street lamps, and the house melded with all the others in the night storm, and went back to sleep.