Tuesday, November 1, 2011



Johnson & Company Builders

They spotted the sign at the entrance to a subdivision of houses under construction, across from the ice cream store where they had strolled. They were young and in love and she ordered rocky road and he, the mint chocolate chip, and then they crossed the street, laughing and talking as lovers do, their tongues franticly flicking like snakes’ to catch the drops of sugary sweetness sliding down their cones. A light rain began to fall and, clutching hands, they ran across the street between cars and set off jogging down the muddy subdivision road flanked by shells of houses. “Let’s go in,” he said. “Can we?” “Why not? No one’s around.” And so they ran toward a plank where one day concrete steps would stand, balanced themselves like high-wire walkers, and emerged into a skeleton home where they traced paths on the dusty subfloor and tried to imagine the layout of rooms from the skeleton bones. Afterward, they walked back to her apartment. That night, she dreamed of the house she would have someday with just those rooms, and furniture as she liked it, and her man beside her.


Open House

They noticed the sign low along the road as they drove near the place where she had grown up. “Look! Can we stop?” She said. They did and it was love at first sight. Not for him; the garage was too small. But for her, it had an abundance of trees and spring bulbs and shrubs and a stream in the back, everything she had ever wanted. Yes, the kitchen and bathrooms were small but she saw no need to waste space on those little-used rooms. The many windows radiated light and brought color to the hardwood floors and grass cloth wallpaper and striped wallpaper she wouldn’t have chosen on her own, but there it was already hung for her and it was more tasteful than she believed she could ever be. She abandoned him at the apartment that day and returned with a tape measure to make sure it was all she thought it was. A week later they were in contract.



The sign meant the house was theirs. Theirs, not hers, she realized as they dragged their mattress down the hall on that hot August afternoon. “This way to the master bedroom,” he said as he pulled to the left. “No, that’s on the street side,” she said as she pulled to the right. “No, this is the master bedroom,” he said. “No, this one is away from the street and looks over the treetops,” she insisted. “No, this one has the attached bath; It must be the master,” he shouted. “No!” She screamed, —and by this time they were both holding the same end of the mattress, staunchly defending their inviolable choice in that stifling narrow hallway with the mattress sandwiched between them, heaving shouts like cannonballs across the river Styx as its stream flowed down their burning faces and stung their eyes so they could no longer see on that sultry afternoon—“we must use the room with the trees; It has two closets.” “No, the other one’s bigger.” “No, this one is.” They still don’t know who decided to end it, but they did love each other after all, and she conceded that love was more important than bedroom location. They took time out for sandwiches and drinks and she agonized over the shrieking display they had presented to their new neighbors.


For Sale

No, not their house. Never their house. They saw the sign appear across the street and they wondered who would move in. Theirs was a short street and the house had only one previous owner: an older reclusive couple. Not too much later, Bob Gresham moved in and filled the neighborhood with laughter. He was their age, attractive and affable, with two school-age daughters, Christy and Katie, who came to stay on weekends, and a full-time Boxer breed of dog, named Sassy, whom he loved. They watched Bob play Frisbee with Katie and Christy, throw the stick for Sassy, mow his lawn, and wash his shiny blue Mustang convertible. Sassy made friends with the other dogs in the neighborhood and Katie and Christy played with the other children and Bob was everyone’s best friend. On a bright summer’s day, they would see Bob and his girls laughing in his gleaming Mustang convertible with the top down, and Sassy sitting tall and proud in the back. But the girls became teenagers and stopped coming for weekend visits. The company Bob worked for was sold and he was suddenly jobless.



There may have been no sign on Bob’s door (they heard the news from other neighbors and neither of them wanted to risk knowing the truth.) Bob no longer mowed his lawn regularly, and he was rarely seen outside with Sassy; but they did see him, from time to time, driving down the street in his Mustang with the top down and Sassy by his side. If they stopped him along the road as he returned, a glance into the car revealed a liquor-store bag and a fast food bag on the floor with a heap of trash; his clothes stunk of cigarettes and bourbon.


Bank Owned. No Trespassing

That was the red-lettered decal in the window of the south-facing front door that they could view from the street, and as they later learned, was on the north side door into the garage, as well. The day before Bob was under order to leave the house, they helped him move most of his belongings into a storage facility. No one knew where he was going to go; some things he kept secret. The day of the final move, just after dawn, she rang the doorbell and then called her husband when there was no response. He walked to the north side garage door, heard the car’s putter, and tried to look through the window, but it was too dark inside the garage. He tore off his blue-plaid shirt, wrapped it around his hand, and rammed his plaid-covered fist through the sign: “Bank Owned. No Trespassing.” The car rumbled and the glass plinked as his hand broke through. The spikey shards tattooed his arm in jagged crimson sliding onto the gray concrete. He pushed the door open, smearing a ruby swath across the doorway, and jabbed the overhead door button. Sunlight slipped through the door’s enlarging gap, as the murky haze drifted away. The blue Mustang convertible, its top down, sputtered on as Bob lounged on the back seat, Sassy next to him, her head on his lap. Bob’s left hand hung down; his fingertips barely brushed an empty bottle of Scotch. His right hand rested on Sassy. Bob’s skin looked hard like a doll’s and had a bluish pallor; the dog’s lips oozed white froth.

He ran out of the garage and grabbed his wife. Over her shoulder the morning’s toast, eggs, and juice flowered the lawn. She called 911 and wrapped his sacred arm in hers, holding it close. They leaned into each other as they waited, tense and guilt-shrouded, gasping together like fish in search of water, as waves of grief, pain, and terror surrounded them. They stumbled toward the curb carried by the current of approaching sirens and sat on the unyielding surface. Uncomprehending, speechless, and scared, they agreed to pay attention to signs, signals, and symbols, always and forever, amen.

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