What a gorgeous house!
Shelby’s heart soared as she walked up the drive with a bag of groceries cradled in her arm, gravel crunching beneath her boots. Afternoon sun, bright and gleaming as a reflection from polished chrome, warmed the slumping red-brown brick. It raked slantways across ridges of weathered clay and peeling paint, making the flaky texture stand out in thousands of tiny black shadows, like the creases in an old man’s face. It gave character. Darkness on light, crevices and bumps and places where the mortared lines curved slightly to reveal the settlings of the past two centuries. Even so, it was the most beautiful house she’d ever seen. The structure was two stories high not including the attic or basement, and it was all hers. A dream come true.
It was two hundred and seven years old, nearly the oldest building in Hendersonville, but worn and neglected over the past several decades. Black iron studs graced its outer walls in star shapes, where reinforcements had been inserted after a shakeup in the New Madrid fault in 1811. Far more recently, part of the porch had collapsed and a vine dotted with blue morning glories crept here and there across the fallen beams. The porch had been down for a while, it seemed, for the overgrowth was well established. There would be expensive restoration to put it right again, but that was okay.
Restoration was part of the deal. The Historical Landmarks Registry and the citizens’ committee formed to save this house from destruction were willing to let her buy it because she in turn was willing to set it right, and because there had been strenuous public outcry against a previous sale to a land developer who would have torn it down. Nobody in town wanted that. Shelby was an answer to the prayers of many, enabling the town to hang onto a bit of its past without costing them any money. Win/win, all around, everybody happy and smiling.
A shiver skittered up Shelby’s back as she gazed up at the morning glories, and she drew a deep breath. For a moment she thought about letting them grow here again once the porch was rebuilt, and had an image of the front of the house covered with a mass of blue blossoms. It made her smile.
One arm occupied by the bag of groceries, she yanked from the ground the brightly colored for sale/sold sign that stood near the battered black rural mailbox. Both sign and mailbox were faded and pocked by rifle fire, the mailbox also caved in on one side by a teenager’s baseball bat. No matter. As soon as she could, she’d have a brick one built that would discourage such hijinks. Brown brick, to match the house. She leaned the sign against the porch, faced in, so it could no longer be seen from the road. This was her place now. Not for sale. Shelby had come home.
Her smile faltered as she climbed the steps to the porch. The wrought iron rail along the front had long ago fallen to the ground below and was quite rusted into worthlessness. It lay there, grown over with weeds and accompanied by a couple of broken, white ladder-back chairs someone had dumped there. Poor, neglected house. There was a feeling of rescuing a stray pet that was ill and suffering, a sympathetic pain that made her eager to get started on the work. She patted one of the porch columns as she passed. All would be made right soon. It was a shame this had happened to such a beautiful old building.
She turned and looked out over the neighborhood, across the railroad tracks, at the modern houses and one apartment complex dotted among horse pastures, those in turn breaking up the suburban sprawl that stretched from Nashville. This house was much older than the tracks, and faced them nearly like a train station, ignoring the tree-lined road from which Shelby had come. She wondered whether it might even pre-date the road. The house had been built back when there had been little here other than wild animals and Indians, and those man-made features had grown up here with little regard for this one house.
All around, maple trees thickly-laden with fall leaves glowed bright yellow and coral, standing in puddles of their own fallen leaves like light under a lamp. Off a little ways, she could glimpse through the branches of less-leafy trees the onramp to the bypass. Twenty minutes from her office in Nashville, and less than five minutes from the center of Hendersonville, yet with horses, trees, and open fields nearby.
Fumbling with her keys, she found the shiny new brass house key for the lock that had recently been installed. According to her real estate agent, for decades since the last owners had defaulted and departed suddenly, the property had been left unlocked and abandoned. But there had been no vandalism. Not one scribble, not one hole in a wall, not one cracked window.
The agent had made much of his opinion that Hendersonville was a small town sort of place where nobody ever stole, nary a cross word was ever said, and the churches all had one hundred percent attendance every Sunday. That made Shelby stifle a cynical smile, and as soon as she’d bought the place she’d had the lock installed herself.
She shoved the door inward and it opened on raspy, dusty hinges onto the front hallway. The room was musty and dim, silent like a storage locker filled with forgotten belongings. She took a deep breath and sighed. It smelled like…history. The past was all around. Everywhere. She had a vibrant sense of all the people who had lived here, who had come and gone, laughed and cried, were born and had died in this house.
To the left was a plain, wooden door that led beneath the stairs and down to the basement. The foyer, a wealth of mostly wasted space, ran the width of the house. Opposite the front door were two wide doorways to the dining and living rooms, each room dominated by identical hearths. At the end of the foyer was the door to the kitchen, two steps down and unlike any other part of the house for it had been added during the mid-twentieth-century along with the plumbing. She didn’t mind the house had been altered to accommodate certain technologies alien to its builders; history was one thing, but even Shelby didn’t care to live in a house without indoor plumbing.
The light switch on the wall to her right had buttons instead of a toggle, the wires ran to it inside a small, square conduit, painted to match the wall, that went to the floor and along the molding. She pushed the button with a white dot on it, and a sconce to her right lit up. The weak, yellow light poked at the corners of the foyer, struggling from its dirty glass shade filled with dead flies.
The walls were plaster and lathe, hard as rock and built long, long before the house had been wired for electricity. But the place was solid, at least. Brick exterior walls were two feet thick, and no sheet rock. There was molding everywhere. Moldy molding, painted pale green, ten inches wide at the floor and four at the ceiling. Some of it was damaged and would need to be replaced, but the cost would be worth it.
“Hello,” she addressed the house. A giggle rose. She had no idea who she imagined might hear, but it just seemed the thing to do. Greet the house. “Hello, I’m here.” No answer. She sighed, at once glad yet sorry to not have received a reply.
After setting her bag down on the chipped tile counter in the kitchen, she went into the living room and looked around. The place echoed with tiny noises of her footsteps and her breathing. The carpet was wall-to-wall, cheap, threadbare shag left over from the seventies. And it was orange. Orange shag carpet. She shuddered to think what the furniture had looked like belonging to the folks who had installed this. Poor house. Poor, abused house. Polished hardwood beneath would have been nice, but the uncarpeted parts of the house showed the flooring was ordinary planking, painted mud-brown. This had not been a house for the wealthy, like the old houses with distinguished names that dotted the county. Hazel Path was a mansion and had once dominated the Hendersonville landscape the way the Methodist Church did nowadays. Rock Castle in the nearby Indian Lake district had belonged to a relative of Andrew Jackson. Certainly this house had never been as grand as either of them. But it was large enough, and quite expensive enough at his late date, for an underpaid and overworked editor of books.
The casement windows were charming, and when she’d first seen the house she’d been ecstatic over the sills deep enough to sit on comfortably. But, being so deep, they let in very little light in spite of the morning sun slanting from the east and a lack of any sort of treatment. Not even a cheap pull-down shade covered them. Idly, she wondered whether she would dress them with blinds or go with a more traditional look. Gingham? Nah. Not chintz, either. Blinds-maybe wooden ones-were beginning to seem the thing to do.
White baseboard heaters lay along the interior walls, and she bent to turn their stiff dials to high. As they warmed, they creaked and snapped and filled the room with the smell of burnt dust. Shelby went from the living room to the stairs and up. The second story was identical to the lower floor, and each room had a fireplace identical to the ones downstairs. The bathroom was at the east end of the upper hallway, its fixtures all from the fifties. Not terribly modern-porcelain and tile rather than molded plastic-but not much different from what she was used to.
Air brakes hissed on the road below, and Shelby went to a window to look out at a semi tractor and trailer making a careful, lumbering turn into her driveway. Now she wished she’d come yesterday to clean some of the dust and dirt from the place before bringing her stuff in here-especially she wished to have pulled up all that nasty old carpeting. But there was nothing for it. Her things had arrived. Shelby ran to greet the movers.
A crew of shaggy, tattooed men began with the large pieces, their skinny, sinewy arms straining as they struggled to lift and angle her sofa, then her bed pieces, through the front door, across the foyer, and through to the dining room. They brought with them the sharp, sour smell of old sweat, that wafted as they went past. The crew leader, who seemed the leader because he was the one with a clipboard, revealed an array of bad teeth when he smiled, and a string of three tears tattooed under his right eye. How wonderful to have an ex-con handling her things.
Nearly everything went into the dining room, except for the boxes marked “kitchen” which contained things she would need to find right away. Shelby hovered and advised, but her old apartment had been small, so her furniture and boxes of belongings would take up little space here. The move would go quickly.
In the midst of this, there was the crunch of gravel on the driveway as a car approached behind the moving van, and she ran outside to greet Susan and Neil.
“Hey!” A big grin lit her up as she gestured them in with a big, wide wave of her arm. “Come in! Come see the house!” Her friends gawked up at it much the same way Shelby had, as they approached it and climbed to the porch. They were both dressed in jeans and T-shirts, ready to help with the move. One of the moving guys stood sideways to let them by as he was on his way out with his hand truck for more boxes. But the three of them didn’t go inside and rather blocked the door as Neil looked around at the fallen porch. His eyes were wide at the caved-in end where a heavy beam and a scattering of decayed boards and rusted wrought iron lay piled on the rickety porch flooring. His hands stuffed into his pockets and his head tilted to the side. The moving men walked around without comment.
“That’s gonna be a bastard to fix,” said Neil. The wheels in his head were clanking away behind his eyes, calculating the time, effort and expense. It was what he did for a living in his construction company.
“Yeah.” Shelby shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt it myself.”
His gaze returned to her, plainly relieved, and a wry smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Good. I’ll give you a rate, and my guys will do it right.” He blew out his cheeks as he looked around. “‘Cause this is going to be a job and a half. This place doesn’t look like it’s been kept up at all.” He and Susan entered the foyer as Shelby gestured them in.
Neil’s wife gawked without shame. “My god. It’s so old!” Even in excitement, Susan had a quality of stillness and barely moved as she scoped out the foyer. “I love it!” Her voice was low and soft as she looked around. Shelby’s closest friend, and a fellow book editor, Susan had often talked long with Shelby on the subject of living in a genuine antebellum house. “I want.”
“No,” said Neil.
“I want.” Her voice was still low and soft and she continued to gaze about.
“It’s a money pit.”
“But I want.”
“We’ve been married fourteen years, hon, and I love you, but there’s no way I’m going to live in a fixer-upper-from-hell like this.”
Susan sighed, clasped her hands, and pressed them to her stomach. “It’s incredible.” Through the stillness came a tone of intense longing.
“Incredibly dirty,” Shelby added cheerfully and shrugged. Her own joy bubbled into her voice. “But it’s so cool! I hope you guys don’t mind if we scrub down the bedroom upstairs before we start carrying furniture parts up there.” Her weight shifted from side to side, she was so excited to get started.
Neil shuffled around the foyer, poking floorboards with his toe and running his hand across the plaster walls. “Nice work.” His father had made him learn the business from the ground up before letting him run their company. There were few aspects of house construction Neil wasn’t at least conversant with, and that made him a valuable friend, for most of Shelby’s acquaintances were among the literary and corporate, and were for the most part worthless with hammer and saw. Neil looked the part of a construction workman, stocky and muscular, his hips most comfortable carrying a tool belt and his wide hands capable with nearly any tool.
“This house is, what…a couple hundred years old? Are you planning on hauling water and going to the privy out back?” he asked.
Shelby laughed. “No privy. Hot and cold running water. Flush toilets, and everything.”
“And everything? The water heater work?” He stuck his head into the kitchen to look around.
“Works just fine. I’d love to find a place for it other than the kitchen, smack in the middle of everything, but I guess I shouldn’t complain.”
He turned and frowned. “The plumbing okay?”
Shelby shrugged. “Yeah, after running the water for about half an hour to get the rust out of it, it’ll be fine.”
Neil laughed. “Good news and bad news. The bad news is you probably will have to replace your pipes. The good news is that in a house like this there probably aren’t a lot of them.”
“Nah. Not a lot. They just go straight into the kitchen, then straight up to the bathroom, and back to the sewer. Here, I’ll show you.” Shelby turned to take him upstairs, but was stopped by the crew leader, who required her signature. She signed, then hurried to the incredibly narrow stairwell as the movers withdrew to their truck and left. “You know, you guys, I’m really grateful to you both for coming to help me with this.”
Susan smiled. “Hey, what are friends for?”
But Neil’s reply was, “Ha! I’m going to make a bundle off of you.” Susan elbowed him, and he just chuckled.
Once the movers had finished their job and left in their truck, Shelby’s friends followed her upstairs to gawk some more at the old place, shuffling across the filthy carpeting and running fingers over dusty window sills. Then they all got down to work tearing up ratty, old carpet, rolling it, and carting it downstairs to the street for pickup by the waste disposal folks.
Once the floors were bare, the three of them set to sweeping and scrubbing the bedroom on the western side. That would be Shelby’s bedroom, and the other would be used for an office. Buckets of warm water turned gray immediately, then quickly went muddy with the filth scrubbed from walls and floors. Again and again the water was emptied and replaced with fresh, and gradually the place began to seem less dark and less musty. The wet wood now smelled sharp. Almost alive.
“Dang, I’m getting hungry.” Neil dumped a sponge into his bucket, dried his hands on his t-shirt, and reached for the cell phone at his waist. “Hey, what do you want on your pizza?”
Shelby grimaced, for pizza was not good for her waistline. “How about we go search down something in the kitchen? I did bring food from the apartment.”
“You wouldn’t rather have someone just bring you food? Chinese? This town’s got five-count ’em, five-Chinese restaurants.”
Susan said, “No, hon, it’s down to four now. One got shut down ’cause they were trapping the ducks on the lake and serving them to their customers.”
Ew. “I think we can pass on the Chinese food after that story, I think,” said Shelby. “I have bread and cheese downstairs, and some canned fruit. It’ll be good.”
“Get Neil to go to the convenience store for some beer and he’ll be fine. There’s one just up the bypass.” Susan’s fingertips lightly brushed back stray bits of hair from her face and she shook the locks back to keep from touching them too much with her wet hands.
Neil emitted a growl of enthusiasm and pulled out his car keys to set about doing just that while Shelby and Susan went downstairs to the kitchen. The stove was electric, and Shelby wished it were gas. Actually, on some deep, imaginative level, she wished it were wood-burning though she knew real life made cooking with wood nearly impossible. As she set to work with a wet rag to clean a spot on the filthy, chipped tile counter, she imagined a big, black wood-burning stove in the spot where now sat an avocado-green electric stove. The thing looked as if it hadn’t been turned on in decades, so there was hope. Maybe this monstrosity wouldn’t work, and she’d have an excuse to buy a gas one to replace it. Even if she wasn’t brave enough to try wood, gas would be better than this. Once the counter was clean, she set out the cans of sardines, cheese, half a loaf of bread, and a bottle of orange-pineapple juice.
When Neil returned with his beer, they took the food out to the porch to sit on the steps in the fresh air outside. Neil persisted in eyeing the collapsed end.
Susan said, “You’re so lucky to have gotten this place.”
Shelby nodded, but her shoulders sagged a little as she thought of how she’d received the money for it. “I could have waited a few more years, though.”
A small hum of agreement, and Susan added, “Your parents weren’t young people though.”
“Nope. They were old enough to be my grandparents. And when Dad died, Mom just couldn’t hold it together after that. They’d been together too long, I guess.”
Susan heaved a wistful sigh. “Could you imagine loving someone that much? To not be able to live without them?”
That caught Neil’s attention and he turned to give her a meaningful stare.
Susan chuckled and laid a hand on her husband’s knee. “Sorry, hon, but the deal is ’till death.’ After that, you’re on your own.”
He grunted, and with a wry smile returned to his construction reverie, staring at the collapsed end of the porch.
Shelby poked a piece of cheese back inside the bread and said, “There sure isn’t anyone I know I’d die for.” But at the same time there was a dim longing to know what it might be like to have loved the way her parents had.
After lunch, with Neil’s brawn handy for the heavy bedroom pieces, the work went quickly. Her bed was a heavy, bulky oak four-poster, and each piece of it was a struggle to haul upstairs. They manhandled the box spring up the stairs and onto the assembled bed frame, an awkward job for the three of them, and Shelby was deeply grateful for the help of her friends. She gave a shove to the mattress as Neil pulled, and Susan guided it as it thudded onto the frame. Then Shelby fluffed the sweaty hair at the back of her head, and slapped black dust from her hands and jeans. It was going to be weeks before this place would be anything but a dust storm.
By the end of the day, all the bedroom furniture was upstairs, the living room on the west side of the downstairs had been cleaned, and the heavy living room pieces had been placed. Huge rolls of dirty orange shag carpet and rotten padding lay out by the street, leaving the floors bare. Her house now smelled of an odd mixture of detergent and dust and its large spaces echoed still, having swallowed her scant apartment furnishings without any effort. Her sofa was backed up to the living room windows, across from the television that, at thirteen inches, was too far away to see well any more. Even the huge bed upstairs was dwarfed by the enormous room. Only the modern additions seemed normal size. Much like her old apartment, the bathroom was barely large enough to turn around in and the kitchen was a narrow strip of space tacked onto the outside of the building.
As the sun began to turn orange in the west, Susan and Neil departed for home after Susan extracted a promise from Shelby to accompany her to church the next morning. “It’ll be a good introduction to the community for you. Welcome to Hendersonville.”
Shelby liked the idea and promised to meet Susan there. She waved goodbye to her friends, then went inside to change into her running togs. If she could find them. Though she was fairly tuckered out by the strenuous lifting and carrying all day, Shelby still had to make her habitual run before supper. If she put off doing it once, she might stop doing it entirely and that would be a bad thing. She was tall, and not a thin woman, and tended to overweight if she didn’t exercise constantly and watch what she ate. Running every day had become a habit in recent years, and regardless of what other exercise she might get during the day she never felt quite right if she couldn’t get out and jog around the neighborhood just before dark.
Tonight she scoped out a route through the apartment complex on the other side of the tracks, for it was a nice, level area with streets that wound this way and that before dumping her back out onto the road by her house. Halfway through, though, she had to stop to gawk, panting and leaning on her knees. Arrayed on a tiny patch of lawn in front of one of the dozens of identical bay windows in the complex was a family of skunks. Lawn ornaments, obviously, for they were ceramic and the largest one was about half life-size. The others were the babies, apparently, and they were enjoying a dip in a toy pool. Mama skunk stood guard, one baby stood on the diving board, and two others were waiting their turn. The scene tickled Shelby into a fit of giggles as she heaved herself erect and lurched into a run again. Already she was liking this town.
After supper, her evening was spent cleaning the kitchen, scrubbing black crud from between mismatched ceramic counter tiles, and wearing even more porcelain from the sink already scratched and scrubbed to bare metal. Then she unpacked utensils, dishes and small appliances. There wasn’t nearly enough counter space for all the machines. Toaster, microwave, bread machine, blender, crock pot, coffee maker…she’d have to select the most important ones then store the rest in cabinets until she would need them. There was no television cable, for it wasn’t yet connected, but she had a boom-box plugged in and listened to music as she worked. In the darkness, the house around her settled in for the night. A word slipped into her mind and stuck. Home. She smiled. She could spend the rest of her life here and be happy.
It was quite late when exhaustion caught up with her and she finally turned off the music to retire. The silence invaded in force, as if the music had been sucked into another dimension and the void filled with a medium thicker than air. Shelby turned off the downstairs lights, then by the stray light of an upstairs sconce that dribbled rays into the stairwell, she made her way up the dusty steps.
This was now her home, and she sighed at the warmth that thought brought. She went to the bedroom door and reached for the light button, but she froze, dumbfounded by what she saw inside the room.
A lit candle sat on the mantel at the far side of the room. She hadn’t left one in there-all her emergency candles were tucked away in a kitchen drawer now-and this didn’t even look like one of hers. It was yellowish and stood in a short pewter holder with a curved handle. She’d never seen it before, but it was there now. Its flame threw a small circle of light around the cold fireplace.
A movement startled her. Near the candle, in the dimness, stood a tall, dark-haired man, scratching himself.
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