[This is a story I’ve been poking at for a little over a year without much success. I’ve kept busy with other projects, none of which are really going anywhere, while this one floats around in my gray matter as an idea that I’ll eventually get to. And that’s where it will remain unless I set those other projects aside and give this one some attention, which is where you come in.
Bear with me for a week or two while I get this draft down; well, it’s not really a draft so much as a freewrite with a little editing. Maybe it will be good, but probably not. Regardless, you’ll be watching a work in progress, which might be kind of fun but probably not. You are welcome to provide suggestions, encouragement, discouragement, constructive criticism, or destructive denunciation, whatever floats your boat.
Or just skip it all together. You could be looking at sexy album covers, you know. ]
I paid 280,000 dollars for this house. My parents sold it for thirteen grand. That was the price to pack up everything we couldn’t sell and head halfway across the country in a Bel Air wagon that we abandoned on the side of the road just outside of Indianapolis after the transmission gave out. My father screamed at the emerald green corpse as the rush hour traffic whizzed by. My little body shook and my hair fluttered when the big trucks raced past, and my father screamed “You worthless piece of shit” while he kicked a big dent into the driver’s door.
It took me a little while, but I finally found one–same year, same ugly green paint. Sixteen grand, three thousand more than they sold the house for. It’s parked right out there in the driveway, right where my mother used to park it. All in I’m at around 300k just for the car and the house, and I’ve barely touched the interior. Three hundred thousand dollars and counting, just to die.
Fifty years ago this street was rotten with kids: on their way to and from the elementary school two blocks away, selling Girl Scout cookies, skipping rope, riding their banana seat bicycles down the big hill upon which our houses were built, stealing crab apples off of the Petersons’ tree. I don’t remember any of us eating them, and I don’t remember the Petersons caring whether we took them. The whole thing was a pantomime of juvenile shenanigans, something we thought we were supposed to do because we saw Johnny Whitaker do it in a kids’ movie.
There are no kids now, no life of any sort on this once busy street. Occasionally I’ll see a neighbor walking to or from a car or peering through a slit in their curtains, but that’s it. When I came out to look at the place, I saw the next door neighbor standing in his backyard, peeking over the fence. “Hey, did you buy your place from the Swede?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?” he said.
“I knew him when I was a kid.”
“No, I don’t know him,” he said. That was the last time we spoke, though I still catch him staring over the fence when packages arrive. His hair is turning gray, but you can tell it was once as black as his eyes.
The packages. Some are big, like the stainless steel and Formica kitchen table. It was out of fashion back when my sister and I squared off each morning over bowls of sugary cereal, a castoff that was handed down from a better off aunt, or maybe a bargain that my mother found in a downtown thrift shop. It’s “mid-century modern” now, which means “more expensive than a brand new kitchen table.” The hardest part was finding the chairs that we used to have. They didn’t match the table, with their tapered, black vinyl backs. I always leaned toward the table when I ate my cereal, else my bare back might touch that cold vinyl.
Some of the packages are small, like the cereal boxes that arrived today for the table: Kix, Kaboom, Crunch Berries, Sugar Crisp. My sister and I chose our cereals based on two criteria: The prize inside and whether the box was big enough to blot out the sibling at the other end of the table. My favorite prizes were always the records built right into the backs of the boxes: Bobby Sherman, the Archies, the Sugar Bears, the Jackson Five. The only thing I hated about them was that I had to finish the entire box of cereal before I could claim my prize. I could hear my sister at the other end of the table burying her arm elbow deep in her box of Fruity Pebbles, digging for a rubber band-powered Flintstone Mobile wrapped in crinkly plastic. Meanwhile, I had to eat every damned bit of my Super Sugar Crisp before I could cut my new record from the back of my box.
She called just after I installed the phone, a black, rotary kitchen wall phone just like the one Ma Bell used to provide. I don’t know how she got the number, but those tired bells clanged while I was out on the service porch hooking up the gas dryer. I could feel the little black eyes follow me into the house.
“Hello?” I said.
“I heard you bought the house,” she said. No hello, no how are you.
“That’s right,” I said. I cradled the receiver between my ear and shoulder just like my mother used to while she navigated the triangular space connecting stove, refrigerator, and sink. In all the years we lived here, I don’t think she ever made a meal without talking on the phone. I never knew who she was talking to, and I never cared.
I listened to the loud silence crackling between my sister and me while I opened a package resting on the kitchen table. Inside waited a Ben Cooper Halloween costume consisting of a short-sleeved smock that ties behind the neck and a plastic skeleton half mask with a thin elastic strap. It looked so small. I couldn’t imagine ever breathing through the two tiny holes poked into the skeleton’s nostrils.
“Well, I don’t think it’s fair,” she finally said.
“Why’s that,” I asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
“Because it’s not just your house.”
“That’s what the deed says.”
“You know what I mean,” she said.
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s our house. I grew up there, too.”
“It was listed. You could’ve bought it,” I said.
“That’s not the point.”
“I think that’s exactly the point.”
Another long pause. I looked at the phone hanging on the kitchen wall, its coiled cord physically tethering me to this house, to this reality. I saw my mother crumpled on the floor sobbing, the handset dangling by that same coiled cord.
“It’s half my house, too,” my sister said.
“Send me $140,000 and then we’ll talk,” I said.
“Oh my God, where did you get that number from? You know they only go $13,000 for that place.”
“That was 50 years ago,” I said.
“You know I don’t have 140,000 dollars,” she said. “You’re just being hateful.”
I tossed the costume’s shipping box toward the back door, turned the Super Sugar Crisp box so that I could see the record on its back. Five songs by the Sugar Bears, including “Anyone But You.”
“Goodbye, Karen,” I said.
I couldn’t remember exactly what color the bathroom was so I chose a very light green paint–almost an off white with a slight green tint. When I removed the modern vanity mirror and I saw the notch cut into the drywall, I remembered watching my father shave, carefully stroking his cheeks with his safety razor then rinsing it in the porcelain sink. When he was finished he’d twist the handle of the razor and its head would split open like the bomb bay doors on the model plane we built together. He’d open the medicine cabinet, pluck the used blade from the safety razor, and push it through a slot cut into the back of the cabinet.
“Where do they go, Daddy?” I asked.
“Nobody knows,” he always answered, dragging out the O’s like wispy spirits drifting through the ether.
I wrote down “safety razor” on my notepad followed by “medicine cabinet” and “model plane,” and then I got to work painting.
The neighbor finally showed himself. His house is uphill from mine, so his driveway is a couple of feet higher than my yard. A cinder block retaining wall keeps his driveway from sliding into my yard. I was out there with a shovel when he burst through his back gate shouting, “What are you doing?”
“I’m digging,” I said.
“You leave that wall alone. I don’t know what you’re up to, but you leave that wall alone.”
“I’m just doing some planting, that’s all.”
“I’ll figure it out. You’re doing something in there. It’s a grow house, isn’t it?”
“I’m just planting some mint, that’s all,” I said.
“You leave that wall alone.”
“I’m not touching the goddamned wall.”
“Why you planting mint? That shit spreads like a weed,” he said.
“Because this is where it goes,” I said. He was a short little guy with thick limbs and those black eyes. He pointed a sturdy finger at me, and then he walked away. I felt nauseous and tired. I poked the shovel into the loose dirt, went inside and took a nap on the old couch I bought earlier that day.
The doorbell woke me up–a real bell, mechanical and brass. It was not an unpleasant sound to wake up to. I cracked the curtain. Dr. Hubler stood on my front porch, scrolling through her phone while she waited for someone to answer, and then she rang again.
“Just a minute,” I said, though I doubt that she could hear me. I opened the door and said, ” What are you doing here?”
“May I come in?” Dr. Hubler asked. The only thing more out of place in this neighborhood than her Mercedes was her. I held the door open and then motioned for her to take a seat on the couch. She surveyed the room–the unpacked boxes, the Avon bottles resting atop the console television, the string art and Keane prints hanging on the walls–and then she sat where I asked. I grabbed a chair from the kitchen and sat across from her.
“I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m not paying for this,” I said.
“I’m here on my own time,” she said. “You’ve been skipping your treatments. I’m concerned about you.”
“That’s very kind, but I’m through with treatment,” I said.
“You barely started. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”
“You pinched me for 25 grand. That’s enough.”
“I’m just a doctor. I have no control over what things cost or what your insurance covers,” she said. “My job is to diagnose and prescribe a course of treatment.”
“I know that, and I’m not blaming you,” I said. “But I’m done.” Those big Keane eyes stared at the two of us, sad and frightened.
“You are going to die if you don’t return to treatment,” Dr. Hubler said. I thought I heard a tiny particle of emotion vibrating in her voice.
“I know that,” I said.
“It’s none of my business, but you seem to be making a lot of purchases,” she said, and she motioned to the stacks of unopened parcels cluttering the living room. “And judging by your decor, I assume that they’re all related to a strong nostalgia that you’re feeling. That’s perfectly understandable. Remembering a time when you were young and healthy can be a great comfort, but you cannot hide in the past. You’re wasting your money on comforting your spirit and pinching pennies when it comes to healing your body. You will die, and none of this stuff will matter then.”
Her logic was sound and her delivery measured. Dr. Hubler was a good doctor. No, she was better than that. Only a great doctor would track down an AWOL patient on her own time and try to talk some sense into him. I admired her.
“You have a very difficult job,” I said. “I’ve always envied doctors–not their status or their incomes but their focus. I bet you always knew that you were going to be a doctor. Me, I drifted. I got my first job at 14 scooping ice cream, and then retail, construction, delivery, restaurants. I was 30 before I fell into a career, and then I rode that son of a bitch as long as I could, socking money away so that I could enjoy maybe 10, 15 years of retirement before old age got me.
“Over those 40 years of work I managed to put away a half million dollars. That’s what I have to show for giving my life away to a string of employers who could give a damn about me–500 grand. So let’s say your treatment cures me. After paying you, the hospital, the pharmaceutical companies, the medical supply companies and physical therapists, that $500,000 will be gone. Wiped out. I’ll be staring at 60 with no money, no job, and no prospects. Nobody is going to hire a diseased old man. So what do I do then, live out my last 20 years sleeping on the sidewalk? No thanks.”
“I think you may be exaggerating a bit,” Dr. Hubler said.
“No, I’m not exaggerating in the least,” I said. “I worked my entire life just to give my money to you? We could’ve skipped the middle man all these years and just had my paychecks shipped to your HMO. Well, I’m not doing it. I’m opting out. It’s my money, and the healthcare industry isn’t getting another penny of it. It’s my life, and I’ll die as I wish.”
“Sounds like your mind is made up,” Dr. Hubler sighed. She stood and shook my hand. “Best of luck,” she said.