“Bit of a fixer upper,” Harry’s father said.
He said it to be funny. He says a lot of things to be funny that aren’t, and this bothers me. I think
he knows when he says them that they aren’t funny, and that people laugh just because they know they’re supposed to, and this bothers me more.
The realtor laughed politely. Her Ocean Spray — catch the wave — aggressively sculpted hair had a level of finish that I had tried for years to achieve on our kitchen table. It was not hair. It was hair as envisioned by action figure designers. It was hair you could stick bumper stickers on.
“Well,” she said. She said it in a diffusing way, not like she was intimidated by Harry’s father but rather like she had seen his type before and knew how troublesome the male of the species could be. “They’d indicated they were willing to put some work into a property.”
‘They’ meant Harry and I. Actually, in many cases it meant merely me. As now, when Harry was physically several yards away and mentally several miles, peering into a hole punched through the high, high plaster wall of the foyer. As far as puncture wounds went, the hole in the plaster was the least interesting the house had to offer so far. As we’d driven up the driveway, it had quickly become apparent that most of the windows on the first floor were smashed out, and as we’d climbed the rather lengthy stairs to the front door, some sort of varmint had darted into a dangerous looking crevice under one of the overgrown steps.
“What’s the asking on this one?” I asked. I scrubbed my toe through a pile of wet muck beside the window. Beneath it, the wood floor was stained black by the oak leaves.
The realtor consulted her clipboard. I felt badly that I couldn’t remember her name. I wanted to say she’d introduced herself as Denise, or something else that sounded like it went with sharp teeth — Francine? — but I had no facts to back this up. “One ninety. But it is eight-thousand square feet.”
“So is my entire lot,” Harry’s father said. “But I probably don’t have to mow it as much as this.”
I had a game I played with Harry’s father and it went like this: he said something stupid, and I pretended that he was a foreign tourist and I couldn’t understand his language.
The realtor looked at me. “With this land around it, it could be an incredible investment.”
“Do you hear that, Harry?” I asked, raising my voice. “An investment.”
This pulled Harry’s mind from the jagged patch of sunlight that plummeted from an oriel window far overhead. This seemed to be a very dark house, altogether, except for some places where it was the brightest place on earth. Perhaps it was just the light that made every shadow seem so deep. Or perhaps it was the depth of the shadows that made the light so profound.
“That would depend on the, the, uh, the financing,” Harry said. I could see that his brain had been someplace far away and that winding back to us was taking an effort. He was tapping his index fingers against his thumbs like he did when he was grounding himself in the real world. “We both have, uh, strange professions and financing is . . .”
We all waited for him to finish, and when he didn’t, I said, “Harry’s a freelancer for NASA. He develops ideas for them. He’s not officially on their books.”
“I see,” said Denise-Francine, like she really did. “And you are–? Maybe you already told me. I’m sorry.”
I took a step toward Harry, who leaned into the next room curiously. He mouthed back at me it’s a f-ing ballroom. From the glow in his expression, I could already imagine myself having to explain to legions of friends and family why Harry and I needed eight thousand square feet of Tudor home.
“I’m a comedian,” I answered, finally. Harry glanced back at me again, his nose wrinkled. At first I thought he was making fun of the dour way I replied, until I realized that he was smelling something. I could smell it too. Something delicious, the best smell ever invented. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
Harry’s father said, “Say something funny.”
“I don’t work for free,” I said.
The realtor smiled a thin, lipstick edged smile. She asked, “Would you like to see the rest of it?”
I glanced out the glinting edge of the closet window to see how low the sun was getting. From here I could see the edge Harry’s father’s car in the drive, but not the realtor’s. Harry’s father drove a blood red Toyota MR2 Spider that said he was physically available if not emotionally. The sun blazed the rich orange of luxury car commercials across the Toyota.
“We’ve got plenty of time to still make our dinner date. Harry?”
I didn’t have to ask. He was running a fond finger across a mildewed bit of carved wood. Denise-Francine took us through a wide open ball room with beautiful, warped wood floors, through a dusty kitchen still equipped with copper pots, past a water-logged but opulent sitting room with three chairs in it. One lay expired on its back, legs jutting into the air like a bloated corpse. I had to fetch Harry at one point, as he’d wandered into another massive room and stood with his head tipped back, staring into the depths of a crystal chandelier complex as a universe.
All the while, Harry’s father made little grunting sounds meant to convey simultaneously how much work the house clearly needed and how little he regarded Harry and I as equal to the task. If I imagined each grunt as him merely passing a troublesome cork of gas, it made his presence more tolerable.
“I suppose we’d have to live somewhere else while we restored it,” I said, glancing at Harry for confirmation. He stood inside a massive fireplace, pointed in my direction but not looking at me. There was something about the way his head was cocked that made it look like he was listening to something in the chimney above him. He sniffed again, but I didn’t smell anything this time.
The realtor consulted her clipboard. “Apparently there is an area in the basement that is livable, with separate heating zones. It’s partially underground, so the roof damage doesn’t affect it. Would you like to see it?”
I looked at Harry’s sooted face. He was delighted, but he was delighted in the way that a child is delighted by an amusement park. No child really wants the upkeep of their very own roller coaster. But it was Harry’s father’s expression that cinched my decision. He was looking at his fingertips as if he had touched something nasty in the house and it had got on him.
“Yes, let’s,” I said.
The basement was a warren of rooms. Some of the light switches didn’t work and we had to press through a room full of thick darkness to feel along the opposite wall for the next door. The air was scented with damp and insulation. The realtor continued to consult her clipboard.
“Ah, here is the apartment,” she said. She sounded relieved, as if worried that we would give up before we found it. Pushing open the door, she led the way into a surprisingly spacious room, all concrete floors and brick walls. A basement, but a basement as pictured by Hollywood. It was also pleasantly cool; the realtor closed the door behind us to shut out the damp.
“Well,” she said, voicing what we were all thinking, “This is nice.”
Harry wandered off in the direction of the opposite wall, his dreamy expression suggesting that he was imagining where a bed might go in this subterranean studio apartment. Harry’s father glared at the realtor as if he held her responsible for every ill in the world.
“What is the square footage of this apartment?” I asked.
Denise-Francine studied her clipboard. “A little shy of fourteen hundred square feet. That’s a good size. You could rent it out, later. Or –” and this with a knowing glance at Harry’s father — “turn it into an inlaw suite.”
Harry’s father destroyed the subtlety of the comment by baldly declaring, “Not this in-law.”
He checked his watch as I stepped further into the room. I caught a whiff of that lovely smell that I’d smelled earlier and set off around the perimeter, looking for its source. A few feet into my search, I realized that it was not the best scent ever, but rather the worst, like something rotting, and a few feet after that, I realized I didn’t smell anything at all. I stopped.
“What are these?” I asked, then. Because at my feet was a small metal door set into the bricks. No taller than my hand, with a little knob that looked like an appealing cabinet knob, the kind you opened as a child just to feel the slippery porcelain in your palm. There was a second door set into the wall fifteen or so feet away.
The realtor consulted her clipboard. She flipped over a page. “Those are the demon doors.”
“I beg pardon?”
She flipped back and forth between the pages. “Yes, yes. Those are the demon doors. Apparently they were put in with the central heating in 1952. I don’t think — no, no, they convey. You open them up and ask a question and you’ll get the truth.”
Harry’s vague expression had disappeared entirely. Harry’s father grunted, but I forgave him for it this time. I demanded, “There are demons behind those doors?”
“Not always,” she said.
“But there are sometimes demons behind those doors?”
The realtor seemed perplexed at my tone. “They’re only small ones. Do you see the size of the doors? They’re meant for general usage. Not satanists.”
Harry laughed then. “Okay, what are they really?” and I realized that of course, she was joking. As someone who had basically invented the dead-pan delivery, I felt a little shamed. Crouching beside the door at my feet, Harry pulled on the knob. It was black behind the door. Black like a dead bird’s eye.
“Don’t put your hand in there,” I said, because Harry had been known to do stupid things.
Harry gave me a withering look.
“Aren’t demons supposed to twist the truth around?” I said. “I don’t think I would want a question answered by demons.”
At that, I could’ve sworn that I heard something from inside the hole. Not surprising, really, given that the house had been abandoned so long. There could’ve been any number of animals nesting in that cavity. Only, it didn’t sound very much like an animal moving around. It sounded like the crackling of leaves or the burning of paper or the whisper of small voices.
“I have a question for them,” Harry’s father said. “Where did the realtor go?”
Author’s Note: sort of kind of based upon a dream. And looking at way too many houses for sale in my lifespan.
Image courtesy: hugojcardoso