| Long Time Coming |
By Edie Claire
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"NOT THIS HOUSE!"
The young real estate agent in the driver's seat lifted one perfectly plucked eyebrow in my direction as she steered her Geo smoothly into the street gutter. I could not blame her for avoiding the crumbling driveway, whose variously sized pits had been filled to capacity by the morning's downpour. She glanced over my shoulder at the dilapidated bungalow whose virtues she had been extolling for the last twenty minutes, then fixed me with a polite stare. "Is something wrong?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but shut it again. The last thing I needed on returning to my humble origins was to acquire a reputation for living in the past. Of all the places I didn't want to live, the past was at the top of the list.
This accursed town was second. "No," I answered finally, struggling to keep my voice even. "I'm sorry. It's fine. Better than the others. Let's take a look." I grabbed the door handle and stepped out onto the curb with one fluid motion, theorizing that if I moved quickly, I might feel less..It was a clammy spring morning, and the chill in the soggy ground seemed to seep straight into my bones. I pulled my jacket tighter around my shoulders and set off toward the house in double time.
"I'm afraid this is the last of what we have listed in your price range," the realtor called, her voice wavering as she jogged around the car to catch up with me. I felt a little guilty as she struggled to find a dry route over the fractured walk, taking care not to muss her linen suit and two-inch heels. But I couldn't make myself walk any slower. If I did, I might notice how much the sugar maple had grown, and wonder if the intertwined J's were still carved expertly in its trunk, ten feet up. I might see the wide, smooth concrete porch wall, and remember how it was the perfect height for swinging legs and watching the cars go by. I might see the bush that had concealed the secret fort, or the window box where the kittens had been born.
I couldn't bear to see any of it. "If you want to bump up a bit, we have a nice three-bedroom over by the high school," the woman offered as she reached my side at the porch steps. She was breathing a bit heavy, and tiny beads of sweat had begun to ooze through her top layer of makeup.
"No," I answered, trying hard to smile. "I'm afraid that's not possible. I'll just have to make do." The smile that met mine was equally strained. We both knew that every other house we had seen so far had required an ability to coexist with rodents, a quality which, as a veterinarian, I suppose I should have possessed. And to my credit, I had no issue with furry creatures who lived in cages and spun on wheels. Those that defecated on kitchen counters, however, were on their own.
The realtor fitted her keys into the lock and began to chatter, her western Kentucky accent intensifying the faster she spoke. The light, distinctive twang and cadence would have charmed my neighbors in Philly, but each extra syllable seemed only to batter my brain. I had sounded just like her. Once.
"The house is over seventy years old," she advised, flipping on the lights and ushering me inside. "But until very recently it's been treated with care, and there are some updates. Now, there's only the one bedroom on the first floor. The second floor is really more of a loft, but it has loads of possibilities-"
I raised my eyes slowly from the floor, tensing my every muscle with the effort. This is not Jenny's living room anymore, I told myself firmly. It is just a house.
I didn't need the realtor to tell me what was where; I could tell her. I knew every nook and cranny, from the mismatched brick on the right side of the hearth to the little round window over the tub. But I didn't want to remember any of those things. And as I forced my eyes slowly over the tiny living/dining room, I was able to succeed, at least partly. Because eighteen years had taken their toll.
The walls I remembered as papered with hunters and bleeding pheasants were now a generic beige, and where warm brown carpet had once lain, there remained only naked hardwood. Plywood covered a cracked window. There was no squeaky kitchen table, no black vinyl recliner. The African violets were gone from the windowsills, the Hummel figurines from the mantel. The realtor's voice echoed with a stillness like that in any empty room.
I let out a slow, relieved breath. I was standing in a shell. A shell of wood and plaster.
"It can use a loving touch," the young woman admitted. "But structurally, my boss says it's in much better shape than you might expect. In fact, at this price, it's really a very good bargain." She walked toward the staircase, which I knew to be hidden on the other side of the kitchen. "Would you like to see the loft?"
My pulse quickened, but only for a moment. Yes, I would see the loft. If it was as empty and sterile as this living room, perhaps it would do me good. The realtor ascended the narrow wooden staircase ahead of me, and it creaked loudly under her negligible weight. "We can have the inspector check out these boards," she chirped a bit nervously. "If there's a problem, we can always negotiate with the seller."
I mounted the steps without concern, not remembering a time when they hadn't protested. The realtor walked slowly, and I found to my surprise that I was impatient to move along, anxious to finish this thing. Barely able to restrain myself from pushing her, I sidled around her at the top step and turned toward the back of the house.
The low archway in front of me had once been framed by yellow curtains dotted with orange butterflies. Now it was bare. I ducked under it and stepped into the tiny alcove.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears as I took in the dormer window, the odd angular bookcase, the low, slanted ceilings. Jenny's furniture was gone, the walls stripped bare. But this place, still, was the same. My best friend had slept here for seventeen years. She didn't sleep anywhere anymore.
"Dr. Hudson?" The realtor stood somewhere behind me, her voice uneasy. I realized with a start that she must have been talking to me for a while. "Joy? Are you all right? Can I...get you something?"
I drew in a long breath, but felt it shudder in my chest. Hot tears burned my cheeks-tears I didn't remember producing. My voice was gone. My legs were shaking. I closed my eyes to stop it all.
A thin arm wrapped itself around my shoulders, squeezing them tight. It was a comforting gesture, sweet and empathetic, and it flooded me with an unexpected warmth. Despite myself, I smiled. "Thank you," I said weakly, turning to the young woman.
From her position on the other side of the archway, the realtor blinked questioningly. "What was it you wanted?" I stared back at her for a moment, not breathing. She was a full six feet away, and looking a tad impatient.
I wheeled away from her, my eyes wide. "Joy?" the realtor repeated.
I scanned the tiny bedroom again, but knew it was empty.
"Maybe we should go back downstairs?" the woman suggested eagerly. "It's a bit chilly up here."
And yet I felt wonderfully warm. My head was spinning, but my heart was oddly light. I brushed the wetness from my cheeks with my jacket sleeve and faced my escort.
Not being an impulsive person, the words that tumbled from my mouth surprised me. "This house," I said evenly, moving past her toward the staircase. "I'll take it."
Excerpted from Long Time Coming , by Edie Claire . Copyright (c) 2003 by Edie Claire . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top