The house was a piece of shit, but it was the best I could afford. I remembered hearing something about “curb appeal” on the Home and Garden Channel. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew this wreck didn’t have it. I knew it was going to be an insurmountable amount of work to get it presentable before Lilly and the kids got back, but what else did I have to do? I was armed with a tool box and a YouTube account. Come hell or high water, this dump would be a home.
I took shop in high school, learned a few things in the Army, and could fix stuff here and there. I wouldn’t say I was handy, but I had the potential to be handy. If nothing else, I was resourceful. Most people were faking it at their jobs anyway. There’s no such thing as a professional. The human brain can only hold so much rote information. Of course you need a base to work off of, but what it really comes down to is looking like you know what you are doing and knowing where to go to get the right answers. No lawyer knows every civil code by heart. No doctor knows the exact name of every prescription for every ailment. But they know how to find it.
The house was unliveable. I inspected each room taking down detailed notes of all things that would need to be replaced, painted, or fully removed. Hardly anything was salvageable. It was a hunter green, seventies ranch monstrosity. Nothing had ever been updated and I couldn’t even confirm that it had good bones. It was built, lived in for maybe a generation, and left to rot. The rooms were hollow and cramped. Popcorn asbestos ceilings. I was afraid to start looking for toxic mold. I’m sure a slick realtor out there would sell it as “vintage”. I found myself questioning if I should just burn it down and start from scratch. No, the plumbing was fine.
On the front door a handwritten note was tacked, with a five dollar gift card for a coffee shop. “Here’s to new beginnings! Your friend, Arty”. I crumpled up the note but pocketed the gift card.
Inside, a chunky calico cat sauntered around the door to the master bedroom and jumped when she saw me. Despite all the serious flaws I tallied up on my list, there hadn’t seemed to be anything pest related. She let out a strained mew that sounded like bacon crackling in a pan.
“Fry. That’s your name.You can stick around.” I extended my hand to scratch her head. She leaned back, wanting to check out my scent first. She flicked her tail, eyes wild and wide. She was a stray in an all you can eat buffet of rodents and bugs. She didn’t want me screwing up this good thing she had going. I reached out to pet her again, but she lowered her hefty body and bared a primal hiss. I’d have to earn her trust, and I was okay with that as long as she kept the rats out.
I sat on the dirty living room floor and scratched out some general plans in my notebook. I’d tackle the big items first and work my way to the smaller ones. I didn’t know when Lilly was going to get here, but I wanted to have most of the major work done. I wanted it to be perfect, but I’ve never really been perfect. I wanted her to know that I was capable. Useful. And the kids. They needed to know that I was there for them this time.
I spotted a brown spider in the corner near the front door. Her web was ragged and torn. I wanted to think she had caught something earlier that put up a good fight, but I knew it was because I had thrown a broom in her corner after sweeping up inches of dust and debris around the house. I watched her make her way across the partially constructed web, assessing the damage, deciding not just how to repair it, but make it even better than before.
Filth from the floor coated my seat. I’d begin here, I couldn’t handle another minute with this floor. I started ripping out the nasty, thick carpet. Lilly hated carpet. She wasn’t wrong to hate it. No matter how well you try to clean carpet, it clings onto all the skin flakes of the previous resident. The smell from where their dog pissed in the corner. Crumbs dropped from every greasy meal. Mites. Fleas. Spider eggs. Even if you put in new carpet, it is still disgusting. Someone else’s grime is worse to be certain, but I don’t want to walk around in my own shit either.
The carpet ripped off clean and easy, like a patch of skin from a burgundy sunburn. I rolled it up, and loaded it into my pickup truck. The neighbor, who watered the same goddamn patch of grass for half an hour everyday, eyeballed me as I chucked the carpet into the truck bed.
“You fixing the place up?”
“Yep”, I said, walking back towards the front door. I didn’t want to make friends yet. That was more of Lilly’s thing. She was always so kind and outgoing in every way I wasn’t.
The neighbor took a long glug from his can of beer.
“Yep. That’s honest work you’re doing, that is.”
Dots of water from the hose sprinkled on his paper-white, nearly hairless legs.
I went inside to get back to work. Maybe I’d converse with him more next time. But probably I wouldn’t.
Open floor plan. That’s what they always talk about on these shows. “The kitchen just feels so closed off,” the wife says. “I want to be able to see the family while I’m making our Sunday supper.”
“Yuh, and I can ask her to grab me a beer while I’m watching the game!”, her yokel husband jokes every. single. time.
Lilly had never mentioned an open floor plan before, but it did seem like a nice idea. We were always so closed off from each other. Eat dinner as fast as you can and run off to your respective room for the rest of the night. Anything that could bring us together, even just a little bit more, was something I wanted.
The sledgehammer ripped through the wall with cathartic ease. With each punch through the drywall, the living room revealed itself and I could already picture Celeste and Gloria playing Uno on the floor. Lilly sat on the couch watching a travel show, sipping on a Diet Coke. I was making supper this time.
I had to run to the hardware store to pick up supplies I’d need for Celeste’s room. Celeste loved to read, and her new room had a beautiful view of the Japanese maple tree in the backyard. I was going to build her a window seat, something she’d mentioned before. She could lay back on the comfy cushions. Take out the book she had been waiting for from the library. Fry would jump on her lap and doze. She was going to love Fry.
I stood in the spot where the window seat would be placed and looked into the backyard. I’d have to get to that too, if I had time. It was a good size to be sure, but overgrown. There was plenty of room for the dog Gloria not so subtly dropped hints about wanting. Fry would be enough for now. If she remembered to feed Fry regularly then we could talk about getting a dog. Lilly would hate having a litter box in the house. The dust. The smell. The digging at 3 AM. I’d put a pet door into the backyard. I’d have to pick up supplies for that too.
When I walked out to my pickup, the neighbor, like clockwork, stood in in his spot drinking his beer and watering his same old patch. You could have told me he was a ceramic fountain and I would have believed you.
“Hey bud, you got a minute?”
I didn’t. The hardware store closed at seven and it was—I don’t know. Probably close.
“Not really”, I said opening the door to my truck.
“I never introduced myself. I’m Jay.”
He paused waiting for me to reply.
“Paul.”, I told him.
“It won’t take long, Paul. I know you’re working hard, and believe me, no one respects that more than I do! But…we do kinda have a rule in city limits about keeping down construction noise before 8 AM and after 8 PM. I’m sure you’re just trying to finish up your work, and believe me I get it…”
I climbed into my truck and shut the door. I gave Jay a big thumbs up and drove to the store.
Over the next several weeks, my life and that house were completely intertwined. I grouted. I plastered. I painted. Electric work was still daunting but I found some good sources. I’ll admit, there were a few errors, but I never got too hurt, and eventually things worked right.
The spider expanded her web in the corner alongside me. She spun the silk just how she wanted, every segment a careful thought. Soon, a wayward fly would find itself trapped in the fruits of her labor, and while she feasted she would be reminded that all of her hard work served a necessary purpose.
Fry was my only companion those days. She’d stretch her body out as far as it could go so she could get maximum coverage from an extra bright sunbeam shining into a room I was working on. She always seemed to be napping, but she was never far from wherever I worked.
“We’re getting close, they’ll be here soon.” I’d remind her.
I’d eat when I remembered, usually picking something up from a drive-thru. Sometimes I’d get some grilled chicken for Fry if I remembered. She was finding plenty of vermin to eat, but I wanted to give her a treat every now and then so she’d stick around. I needed her to stick around.
Jay’s list of grievances was getting longer and more frequent. Fence too high. Fence too short. Power tools scare his dog. His wife has migraines and has to nap at three every day. He even complained about Fry. Said she was crapping in his wife’s tomato plants. That made me love the cat even more.
One night when I was loading in some wood from the truck, I made the mistake of leaving my door open. Jay made his way up to the house, rapped on the front door and let himself in.
“Hey Bud, I was just noticing your…”
He paused and looked around the house. I was carrying way more wood than I was comfortable holding and was in no mood to talk.
“What do you want?”, I barked.
Jay’s can of beer started slipping from his hands. He caught it before it dropped and started to back out of the doorway, his eyes still darting around the room.
“What on earth happened…”
“I think you should leave.” I said.
Jay backed up and out the door.
“Listen, forget it. I don’t want any trouble. Really. I’ll leave you alone.”, Jay said as he ran back to his house.
I dropped the wood on the floor. Most days, I’d work myself well into the night, starting back up as soon as the sun touched the crest of the valley. I took a good hard look around the place.
“I’ve really done a lot.” I thought to myself. My hands ached. My neck was stiff. It had a been a few months of non-stop work and nearly every room in the house had been improved by my handy-work. Everything I saw, a reflection of everything I had ever wanted to give to Lilly. In the bedroom, even Fry, who was usually out hunting by now, was curled up on my quilt. I’d take it easy tonight for once. I was almost there.
A tremendous booming on the front door woke me up just after sunrise. Maybe Jay decided to come back after all. Maybe he had a complaint about my trim color festering away inside of him. He might have thought about coming over to say something to me several times in the night. I imagined him being haunted by images of my cornflower blue trim. It ate away at him every time the color flashed in his mind until finally he had worked up the courage to knock on my door before he went mad.
I stumbled towards the front door, sleep still blurring my vision when I saw him. Not Jay. Arty Phelps. His gaping maw, and fat hands around his fogged up glasses trying to stare through the front window into my house.
“P—P—Paul! I—I— know you’re in there!” Arty’s whiney voice stuttered through the glass.
A jolt of adrenaline shook my consciousness like a skittering mouse spotting an owl in the trees. What did he want? We had an agreement.
Before he could see me, I snuck back into the master bedroom, closed the blinds extra tight, and climbed back onto the mattress I had been sleeping on on the floor. I’d have to get a later start today. I’d be behind. I might not even be able to start at all. Lilly will understand. The kids probably wouldn’t know any different. Outside, I could still hear his irritating voice spouting off.
“P—Paul! P—please! Wuh—We need to talk!”
I pulled my pillow over my ears and snored.
Later that week when I was heading out to the hardware store Arty tried to ambush me. He had shoved countless letters and notes under my door, none of which I was ever going to open. I scanned out the front windows before I left. No car in the driveway. Nothing across the street either, but there it was. The butt of the most ill-fitting khaki pants I’d ever seen. Bulging out like an over-baked cake from the side of my boxwood hedge. Arty was actually crouching there for lord knows how long waiting to pounce, or topple over, when I came out. Good god, I was embarrassed for him. Does his wife know this is what he does all day?
I snuck out the back, hitched myself over the fence, and into the neighbor’s backyard. He was at work anyway and his wife was usually too wine-drunk to ever give a damn. I jogged through his yard, opened the chain-link gate, and crossed the street to a bus stop. I just needed a few screws and some paint samples. Nothing I couldn’t carry.
Friday morning was when it all fell apart. Fry paced back and forth on my quilt. “If you’re hungry go kill something!”, I shouted at her, as I harrumphed to my other side.
“C—C—Christamighty! MY HOUSE!”
It was Arty. He was inside. I’ve never considered myself much of a spiritual man, but the next few minutes are probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to an out of body experience. My arms and legs moved without my thinking. I felt myself slip out from my body and watched my hairy back, boxers, and morning stubble slowly make their way to the living room. Arty ran at me red-faced and moist. His stammer was the worst I’ve ever heard.
“I—I’ve never seen anything like this—E—EVER!”
A police officer stood in the doorway holding a stack of papers. The brown spider’s web was nearly finished.
“F—f—first you don’t pay for three months…”
“Are you Paul Clark?”, the officer asked. The word, “yes” fell out of my mouth. One, maybe two more days and the spider’ s web would be complete. She had started from nearly nothing and had built a near masterpiece.
“B—b—but to do THU—THU—THIS! T—T—T—To my house! I—It’s madness! I—I was charging you way unn..under market rate you know! A—and when I said you ccc—could make improvements I didn’t mean…”
I watched myself rub morning crust off the sides of my mouth.
The police officer handed me the papers.
“I’m here to serve you an eviction notification. You have ten minutes to…”
Arty stormed from room to room.
“Oh—Oh—Oh g—great! There’s no WALL!”
It was a work of art. She was born with the instinctual ability to build a web, and no matter how she did it, it was always perfect.
“Sir, we aren’t flexible on time. I suggest you start getting your things now…”
“WUH—WUH—WAS THIS ROOM ON FIRE?”
Fry bolted out the open front door. All I wanted to do was follow her but my body was incapable of moving.
“I—I—don’t even know what this is supposed to be! Is it a—a—a d—door? Wuh—wuhh—window? I—it just looks like a h—h—h—HOLE to me!”
Moving clockwise she expanded her web.
“Sir, you really should…” the officer urged.
Arty threw his arms in the air as he charged at me.
“P—P—Paul. I tried to d—d—do you a favor. Y—you need to get your things and get the h—h—hell out!”
“I’m waiting for Lilly and the kids. They’ll be here anytime now.”
“Y—y—you know that’s impossible. Not only won’t that happen, but it cccc—can’t happen! Yyyyooou— Yoou promised me there wouldn’t be any problems, Iiii—I just wanted you to get back on your feet….”, he stomped his pudgy feet, shaking the creaky wooden floor. The vibrations of his fit knocked over the broom in the corner, taking the spider’s fragile web with it.
“Iiiif—if I had known! Mmmuhh—My wife said it was a bad idea! III—I only let you because I felt bad for you. Nnnn—not paying the rent is one thing, but this is something eh—eh—else! Iiii’m not a chhhaaa—charity you know!”
“They’re on their way. Just a little longer.”
“Y—you need help, P—P—Paul. P—p—professional help!”
Arty talked with the police officer as if I wasn’t in the room. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because I didn’t want to.
“P—P—Paul, I’m gonna need you to go here with Officer Mason…”
I watched my body step back.
“Wait wait wait, you aren’t being arrested. You aren’t going to jail. I’m just going to take you where you can…”
The world went white.
I saw the neighborhood from above. All the little tract houses, nearly the same but with just enough identifiers to make them someone’s own. A lawn gnome. A graduation sign. A doormat welcoming “Mi Casa Es Su Casa”. The sun shone through the oak trees that lined the sidewalks in front of all of the perfect boxes holding families, memories, history. I always wanted to give Lilly that life but I never could. I wanted to give Celeste a window seat where she could read her books but I never could. I wanted to give Gloria a dog door so we could get a golden retriever but I never could. I’ll still give them those things. I just hope they can find me where I’m going.
Molly Osborne is a Los Angeles based writer. She has written short stories and screenplays. She works in stop motion animation production. She lives with her husband and a band of wild cats. She is currently writing a speculative fiction novel.
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