The House on Pienza Road

Robert McKean

 

Even coitus, apparently, was not enough to deter a real estate agent from responding to the summons of a ringing phone. One breast, plump, pendulous, traced with a spider’s web of faint blue veins, went over Charley’s chest. Then the other. With a great effort of flailing limbs, inner thighs spattered with KY, she succeeded in slithering across him, found her footing and disappeared, wobbling, clucking, the entire naked corporation of Ortensia Costello, toward the stairs. He heard her soles slapping the treads. The wood was cold, she cursed the cold. The phone died before she reached it, she cursed that, too, and something else she blasphemed while she was at it, he wasn’t sure what.

“You know,” he had called after her, “since I live here, it might be for me?”

He scrunched deeper in the bed: Spring or no spring, the house was raw. The storm windows, each fragile wooden frame imprinted with a number corresponding to a particular window, sat in the attic, never slid in this year. And then yesterday, the oversized Lenox furnace that his father had installed thirty-some years ago, which had lo these many winters, sounded in the basement like a bull elephant bellowing, had failed to switch on, provoking another family decision: sink money in the house or lower the asking price?

Costello Real Estate. His brother had suggested the agency. The owner, a short, buxom strawberry blond, probably a dozen years Charley’s senior, walked him authoritatively through the house he grew up in, discovering an old leak under the eaves—“Ice dam,” she pointed out—the flood-line along the basement fieldstones, that beast of a furnace, hinges rusting, and the single bathroom whose peeling-up linoleum, even he had to admit, smelled. “But I just adore the claw-foot tub,” Ortensia said, “very farmsy.”

He didn’t like her, not at first. Her humid perfume, her bouncing on a floorboard and wrinkling her lips. He loved the old house, had carried its rooms with him from city to city, continent to continent, had written into his stories the silver maples and contorted peach trees, the sickle pear and the neighbors’ plum that dropped swollen, fermenting fruit into their yard, the lilac fences his mother had planted before her suicide. He obtained estimates from two other agencies—Costello’s was higher. But what sold him on Ortensia was their second meeting. She showed up with sandwiches from Sabin’s. “God, I could eat a horse,” she said, falling on her corned beef. “Closing ran late, sorry,” she continued through her chewing, “buyer’s attorney was late, slept in, can you believe that? Same house I’ve sold three times now. Headless bodies must come walking through the rooms at night, is all I can figure. My stomach was gurgling so loud I couldn’t hear a thing anyone was saying. Got any beer?”

They used his parents’ bedroom, his parents’ bed. It made him uncomfortable, his father dead not two months, his suits from Sydney’s and white shirts still hanging in the closet. But it was the only bed remaining in the house, and the family home, to be sure, was inexorably being hollowed out, bled of its memories. He listened to Ortensia down there now, on the phone with somebody, her voice erupting in staccato bursts. It was, by all accounts, an unlikely affair. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, of her, of them. The windows, buffeted by the wind, rattled, and something metallic clattered. Loose downspout? Section of unsecured flashing? Something else he didn’t want to know. He heard the phone crashing down on its cradle and the upcoming plop-plop-plop of small fat feet gathering speed. “Get up!” Ortensia shrieked, plopping into the room. “We got company coming!”

She had been sucking him off. “Maybe they can come later?”

“Later?” Bending over, broad bum in his direction, she fetched up his shirt and underpants and threw them at him. “Sorry, buster, can’t sell you a car right now, I’m busy fornicating in the backseat? C’mon, c’mon, rise and shine!”

“Who is it?”

“It’s a person, sweetie, a customer!” Motoring here and there, Ortensia managed to collect her clothes. She paused to gaze down at herself, specifically at the lush patch of hair beneath her belly, darker by several degrees than the hair on her head, and glistening. She frowned. As she slapped down the hall, clothes mounded in her arms, she shouted over her shoulder. “I think he’s a developer!”

“What d’you mean, it’s not a—”

“Charley, just get up, would you?” Water splashed in the sink. “I think he’s a developer, but I’m not sure, okay? But what I am sure of is that no one’s gonna buy a house from two people without any clothes on!”

His job, she explained when she came back, blouse tucked into her skirt, conservative sweater buttoned strategically across the cleavage, was to get in his father’s car and go away. He refused. Vexed, she crammed the KY into a drawer and consented to a compromise. All right, she said, then go sit in front of the television and pretend you’re a marble statue.

“I’d like to talk with him. If he’s a developer I want to—”

“Charley, I’m gonna tell him you’re a deaf mute with homicidal tendencies. Maybe there’s a show on about people living in boxes in the forest, you might like that.” She leaned over the bed, suddenly all business, this most improbable of lovers, and said, “Up.”

§

The day of his father’s burial, a cyclonic blizzard, as the Citizen Chronicle was to describe it, churned through the Mid-West. Two vast systems–one laden with Gulf of Mexico moisture, the other from the Canadian Rockies, dry and bitterly frigid–collided over the Dakotas, forming an immense counterclockwise maw that swallowed Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania. The night before, four young men had appeared at Butterworth’s Memorial Chapel and reminded the family that Don Rankin had been a Mason and son of a 32nd Degree Mason. They conducted an obscure ceremony. The next morning, Vern Butterworth suggested they move the interment service up. Already, by nine, snow was falling at a rate of several inches an hour. Vern’s three tall sons, each in long black overcoat and black snap-brim cap, stood in the parking lot, wallpapered in snow and nearly blinded in the whipping gales, and directed the huddling line of cars onto the highway. At the cemetery, the final prayers were said for Charley’s father in a frigid stone chapel, and the mourners plunged back into the storm, faces ducked away from the stinging snow.

Haydee, Charley’s estranged wife, had not come. The baby was down with the croup, she said, and the immense winter storm frightened her. Their marriage, so tenuously established, had frayed to the breaking point anyway. She had moved out of where she had been staying—good news, that situation was grim, potentially dangerous—nevertheless, he worried about Haydee’s emotional stability and about Libby, their child. He blamed himself. What was he doing here? He He had volunteered to clear out the house and put it on the market. But selling it didn’t require his presence. As Ortensia pointed out, he was actually in the way.

And why was it taking him so long to clear the house? On a laundry shelf he discovered a vial of mercury. He had no idea what use his father had made of it, and it didn’t matter if he did. But he lost time over it. As he cleared the bedrooms and the walk-in linen closet, as he pushed deeper into the darkness of the attic cupboards that ran far back under the eaves, he uncovered his and his brothers’ things: forsaken Little League uniforms and marble collections and boxes of grade-school valentines, a dog collar with its yearly licenses faithfully riveted on; deeper in, he uncovered his parents’ things, their wartime letters and long dresses and sturdy shoes and childhood scrapbooks; deeper still, he uncovered his grandparents’ things, old eyeglasses and brittle, foxed diplomas and his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s watchmaking equipment. There were even things older than that, things long ownerless, orphans of time, the jumbled repository the house had become for things moldering and macerating into oblivion. Save it—toss it? The decisions, dozens an hour, left him desolate. He drove to the high school to inquire if the chemistry lab wanted the quicksilver, ended up signing on as a substitute teacher. His own actions baffled him: People leaving towns don’t usually begin questionable affairs and sign up for employment.

Ortensia and the developer spoke for a long time in the basement, and later, after he left, Charley and Ortensia quarreled. She was flushed, her voice velvet with what he had come to recognize as Ortensia Costello’s money voice. Her crack about the developer just adoring the old tree trunks used as support beams in the basement irked him. “They’ve held the house up for sixty years,” he snapped.

“And by gosh, haven’t they done just a super job?” Ortensia had retrieved her datebook from her purse and was paging through it. “Look, his offer’s going to be on the low side, I need to prepare you for that.”

“Then we’re not interested.”

“Well, not that low.” She pried her pen from its holster and, writing as she talked, jotted something in her calendar. “Charley, this is the first nibble we’ve had in a month and a half—let’s wait and see what he has to say, okay? I gotta run. Busy tonight?”

“Why do we need to wait?”

“Because it’s money, love.” She made a cash-in-hand gesture. “No bank, no appraiser, no mortgage, no inspector, no lead-paint tests, no radon boxes looking like bat houses in the cellar. Just a big fat wad of old-fashioned cash money—that’s why.”

“Tell him to go to hell.”

Uneasy suddenly, Ortensia looked at him, really looked at him, perhaps for the first time since she had come urgently padding upstairs. “Charley, I’m sorry, I goofed up our little quickie, didn’t I? How about a pizza tonight—one of Aziz’s garbage specials?”

He sensed her discomfort. But the image of the developer—a fellow his age in a tatty herringbone sport jacket and jeans who swung up into his truck like a flying ace into his fighter jet—sneering at the smelly bathroom preyed on him, even if he had no idea what the man thought of the bathroom. He wasn’t sure of his own mood. “What’re his plans?”

“Who cares? All that matters is that he can do the deal.”

There was something in her voice he didn’t like. “I care.”

“You know, maybe you should talk to your brothers?”

“You mean my older brothers? What’s he going to do with the house? He must have told you what his plans are?”

Furious, Ortensia climbed into her coat. “Charley, this house is a wreck! It’s falling down around your ears! Anything Barry Morganthal’s gonna do to it is gonna improve it!” Immediately, she looked stricken. “I’m sorry.” She came up to him, pretending a playfulness neither felt. “Hey, if you don’t wanna work with him, that’s fine. We’ll do whatever you want. We’ll look at his offer and tell him no. No big deal.”

He avoided her kiss. She knew, she knew. “Tell me: What are his plans?”

“All right,” she said, pulling away, hurt, angry, worried. “You want radon boxes dangling from your mother’s old laundry ropes, so be it. He’ll either divide it into two apartments or put a medical or dental office on the first floor and an apartment on the second.”

“And cut down every tree in the yard.”

“And maybe you need another realtor!”

She left crying: It was, he realized, their first lovers’ quarrel.

§

That afternoon the school department called. Because he was a sub who taught, that is, was willing to follow any lesson plans left him rather than giving the students a study period, they were happy to use him as often as they could. The compensation was lower than Chicago’s, but, as Ortensia liked to point out, cash was king. Small-town kids, he discovered, were not that different than Southside Chicago kids. He didn’t fear guns, someone pulling a knife on him in a stairwell, no, but Anderson Township had its binge drinking, its amphetamines and its pot, its young thugs and bitchy girl cliques, and, just as dispiriting, perhaps even worse, a sludgelike mediocrity as entombing as any he had encountered in inner-city schools.

“Who can tell me the names of the continents?”

Today he taught geography, landmass formation. He passed out worksheets he recalled filling in himself, speculating if Mr. Pomerantz still used the same mimeo masters. He gave the kids time to draw their continents, then reviewed their answers. His mind, largely unengaged, drifted from subject to subject, returning, inevitably, to Ortensia Costello. It had been an error in judgment becoming involved with her, mixing business with the personal. Apart from that, the affair was simply a mistake: her sloppy kisses, her cozy domesticity, her comfortable wallow in the life of small-town business owner. Ortensia, at the drop of a hat, would speak at any function to anybody; she carried her business cards in her bag to the beach; she pored over the MLA listings the way some people pored over the society pages.

Yet, he liked her. Ortensia was comfortable, uncomplicated, a soul blessed—or cursed—without the least self-doubt. She appeared to have but one direction: forward. She babysat for her daughter, chaired the Chamber of Commerce, still auditioned for bit parts with the Lake Biddleford Players, where once she had starred. Showing up at his house at ten or eleven at night, they ate and drank too much and screwed through the wee hours. Mornings, he found her in the kitchen on the phone, mouth full of scrambled eggs, cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table, sometimes a second burning on the counter. As he slunk away to nurse his hangover, she caked her face in makeup, drenched herself in perfume, charged out the door to her Seville.

She was, most mornings, at her desk by six.

His last period, free for him, he spent in the school library. He sat at a particular table, in a particular chair. Below, the track team in their blue sweats practiced in the playing fields. He heard the coach’s whistle, and two boys, gazelle-like, took a hurtle simultaneously. The library hadn’t changed, same furniture, same pattern of tables. In the chair beside him—in his memory—sat the girl who unfashionably wore her light brown hair swept up from her forehead, the girl whose eyes and mouth and hands he’d memorized, the girl he secretly called his Tallulah. It was the colossal cast Dr. Vossburg encased his left leg from hip to ankle in that broke the ice, that made them pals. After weeks of deliberation, she’d scrawled on the filthy, crumbling plaster, To thine own self be true. And she had, he wagered, followed her own advice, wherever life had led her.

And he: Had he?

He drove to Costello’s. Ortensia’s office, wedged between Aziz’s Pizza and a plumbing and heating contractor, was in a drab shopping plaza. He avoiding looking at the postings in the window, but knew one was theirs. A square house, Ortensia had called it, marooned in Siberian snowdrifts, fringe of leafless maples extending over the shingles like an artist’s pencil strokes. His brothers, married, in stable careers and busy with growing families, had assured him they would accept the most agreeable terms for his buying them out—essentially, he could, if he wished, live here in Ganaego rent-free and write.

And it was tempting. A roof, however porous, over your head; a kitchen table, however wobbly, to sit at and just write, just write it all out of you. But no, not his childhood home filled with its ghosts and memories: It was too immediate, too present. How would you think clearly here? How would you answer all those cries from the past? He spoke to one of Ortensia’s agents, a small woman, very pregnant. Coming out from behind her desk to meet him, she carried her pregnancy before her like a bowling ball she wasn’t certain what to do with. She wore red mittens and was bundled in a sweater and scarf. She introduced herself as Ellen Stahrenberger and told him that Ortensia was out. “She took a hammer so she could pound a sign into the frozen ground. I’ll have her call you.”

“That’s not necessary. Just tell her we’ll take the developer’s offer as long as it’s half-way reasonable.” He frowned at her mittens. “Why is it so cold in here?”

She maneuvered herself into a chair. “Pipe exploded.” She pointed at the wall. “Mr. Gromeka, he could fix it in a New York minute. But he doesn’t own the building. He was so numb he went home to sit in the tub. But that’s great about the offer. I could tell Ortensia was worried. I’ll definitely have her call you.”

“No,” he said. “Just tell her we’ll take the Barry guy’s offer. I don’t need to talk to her.”

He assumed that Ortensia’s staff knew of their affair. Would have been hard to conceal. And reading this woman’s face, he knew that certainly she knew. “Sure,” she said, spooked by his tone. She linked her arms beneath her belly. “Sure, sure, I’ll tell her.”

§

Thundering down the stairs to answer the door, the next day, he found the same woman, Ellen Stahrenberger, standing on his porch. “I’m not here as an agent,” she explained. She seemed lost in her heavy coat. “But as a potential buyer. Could I look through the house? Would you mind?”

He let her in. “I’m afraid it’s no warmer than your office.”

“Spring has been indefinitely postponed, didn’t you hear? My fingers looked like blueberry popsicles this morning. I heard about the fritzy furnace, I’ll keep my coat on.”

“It needs a new roof and the wiring is—”

“Don’t tell me everything that’s wrong with it,” she laughed. “You’re not supposed to do that. D’you mind if I walk myself through?”

He sat in the living room, listening to her as she systematically went through the house.  The old floors betrayed all secrets, they always had. She spent time in the kitchen, in the basement, then upstairs, the light thump of her path weaving from room to room. She tested the lights, the plumbing, the windows with their balky cords. A peculiar thing to do, permitting strangers to poke through your closets. Ortensia was right about that: Better you go away while someone runs your faucets and flushes your toilet. He worried about the pregnant woman’s balance on the stairs and grew concerned when the house fell too silent. He discovered her sitting on the attic steps.

“Sorry,” she said, coming to her feet in an awkward roll.

She looked tired, drawn. “Why don’t I make some coffee?”

“No, no, heavens, I’m fine.” She pointed at a bedroom. “Who lived there?”

“My grandmother. Her name was May. She pretty much raised me after my mother died.”

“But she didn’t choose those colors?”

The agent supported herself through her coat, her red mittens meeting beneath her belly. She hardly came up to his shoulder. Her intuition intrigued him. “No, you’re right. My father painted the rooms after she died. Stahrenberger. Are you related to the chocolate shop people?”

“My husband. He still helps his mother out. I work there sometimes, but I’m not allowed to set foot in the kitchen. I know you, too—the old faded sign on the bricks, on Max Fischman’s building? That you? Your grandfather?”

This would happen in Ganaego, the extravagant conversations that traced the convoluted lineages of the town’s social order. He had lived in Europe and Chicago and other places, but only as a visitor, and so these conversations never occurred for him there. “Great-grandfather. He had a jewelry store in that building before Max did. He gambled it away.”

“My grandfather was a butcher at Milton’s. He lost the tip of a finger to a veal roast.”

“Milton’s,” Charley said, delighted. “I remember the chickens hanging by their feet in the window. I’m still unearthing stuff from my great-grandfather’s store. Sure you don’t want some coffee?”

She waved a red mitten. “Thanks, but I’m pooped, I’m pooped for two people. What d’you think is wrong with the furnace—and you don’t have to tell me, you know?”

“Old age,” he said, liking this quirky woman. “Rickets, the great sleeping sickness, I don’t know. Maybe your Mr. Gromeka could fix it?”

“Mr. Gromeka talks to his pipes. If Mr. Gromeka can’t fix it, you know it’s a goner.”

He had to ask. “Has Ortensia heard from the developer?”

Her face darkened. “I think so. But since I’m an interested party, I’m not supposed to know what his offer is.”

That afternoon Ortensia knocked on his door. Ortensia always knocked, of course, but today she made no effort to come inside. Her face was stolid, resolutely blanked of emotion. She handed him an envelope. “You have two offers. Barry’s is low, as I warned you, and Ellen and Franz’s is exactly what you’re asking. I called Barry, to give him a second chance? I hope you don’t mind?”

Perhaps it was only the strong sunlight on her face, but Ortensia looked old—old and vulnerable. The spread in their ages didn’t bother him, ten years, after all, isn’t that much. But they came from different generations and had lived different lives, he in many places and she only here, and that, he sometimes would think, intimidated her, made her uncertain around him. He wanted to ask her in. She shouldn’t have been made to go through this in public. But even if he did, he didn’t think she would agree to come inside anyway. “Only fair,” he said. “What’d he say?”

She shook her head. “He can’t make the numbers work, I didn’t think he could. You’ll want to go with Ellen and Franz, it’ll just take a little longer.”

“Bat boxes in the cellar?”

Ortensia didn’t smile. “Lemme know,” she said, turning to leave.

He laid the white business envelope with its two offers on the kitchen table and did not look at it that day. He thought he would examine the offers in the evening, then call his brothers. But he made dinner and pushed the envelope aside to eat, then carried a glass of wine upstairs and sat in bed and read. Deep in the attic he had come across some pages written by his mother, small sketches of her growing up in Plan Five, of her father, whom she had revered, of their Sunday evening walks down through the woods on their way to their prayer meetings.

The next day he declared the attic finished. And now, with the house nearly done, he appropriated May’s old bedroom and began to stage his decisions: piles of things he thought his brothers might want, piles for extended family, pile for himself. Late in the afternoon he emptied his father’s closet. This closet seemed the most intimate space in the house, the most painfully violated. To box up his father’s suits and shirts and hand them over to the mission was to not only drain the remaining life from the house but to draw a close to a man’s life. At Butterworth’s, the mortuary’s parlors had filled with men and even some women from the steelworks, supervisors, foremen, tradesmen, laborers. Their haircuts were rough, their shoes big and scuffed. You could smell the tobacco on them. The mill was threatened—by imported steel, by the economy, by the age and inefficiency of the nine-mile-long works itself. Unable to bring themselves to leave, the men stood outside on Vern Butterworth’s porch and talked in the cold. He had never reconciled with his father. He didn’t believe, based on family stories, that his father had reconciled with his own father, nor that man with his. Maybe fathers and sons never reconcile? Charley held out one of Don Rankin’s suits on a wooden hanger. His father was vain about his clothes. Even if he could not afford expensive suits, he would take the off-the-shelf suits he bought to a tailor to have them carefully fitted. Dubious but curious, Charley shimmied down his jeans and pulled the trousers on and hunched his shoulders into the coat.

The suit fit perfectly.

As he stood there in a suit borrowed from his deceased father, he realized he couldn’t take the things he had set aside for himself. Where did he intend to take them? He had no home, no garage, no attic to store them in. You lived your transitory life in a transitory universe, not stored it in boxes. He had come home on the bus to Ganaego with a single suitcase—it was all he owned in the world—to help his brothers bury their father. He would leave Ganaego the same way.

§

He called Ortensia Costello at her office. “Of course, we’ll take Ellen’s offer,” he said, then rushed on to spare her any awkwardness. “I haven’t spoken with my brothers, but I know we’ll all be happy to think of rug rats charging up and down the stairs and screaming in the backyard again. This their first baby?”

“Charley,” Ortensia said, struggling to retain her composure, “Ellen miscarried—last night. It was their second miscarriage. They’re devastated.”

He thought of the small woman sitting on the attic steps, her tiny face, her red mittens supporting her modest potbelly. “I’m sorry.” It seemed a totally inadequate thing to say. “Obviously, they’re not held to their offer. We can go with the developer.”

“If you can wait, they may want to go through with the deal? She was charmed by the house. But if you—”

“No, no,” he said. “I can wait.” Then, despite his efforts, the same unease that overtook them when she was standing on the porch settled over them again. And he realized, not only could he not take much with him because he had nowhere to take it to, he had nowhere to take himself to. Where was he going to go with his single suitcase? Not wanting to deal with that, the anguish of that awful, existential loneliness he had carried with him all his life, he blurted out, “Hey, you hungry?”

Ortensia laughed, pleased. But it was the wrong Ortensia Costello laugh. It was the Chamber of Commerce laugh. “Charley, Charley, did you have fun? I had a lot of fun.”

And with that he found a deeper respect for her. It had been a fiction, their affair, as precarious and foolish as a cruise-ship romance. Their first lovers’ quarrel would be their last, and that was all right. Ortensia may have never left Ganaego, nonetheless, she knew more about life than he did. “Yes,” he said, reaching for her easy tone, that acceptance of the world as it was, for what it was. “It was fun. It was a helluva good time, Ortensia.”

 


photo by Michael Bebabib
photo by Michael Bebabib

Recipient of a Mass. Artist’s Grant, Robert McKean has been published in The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Dublin Quarterly, Armchair/Shotgun, The MacGuffin, 34th Parallel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere. His story collection was a Finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize. He is currently working on a novel set during the Little Steel Strike, 1937.