The Empty House

The house was too big even when Lucas was alive, and he was a man who took up a lot of space. Unless there were guests, we never entered the three extra bedrooms. The living room bore the name ironically. The furniture sat around like third cousins at a wake, never warmed by a body. Mary Bridget, my sister, urged me to sell and move to a smaller place and live on the proceeds, near the center of town. She said I could walk to stores. I couldn’t argue. It was something I wanted to do but I couldn’t lift a finger to do it. Mary Bridget didn’t give up easily but her pushing went for nothing. Grief is a big soggy sack that hangs on your back. You stagger along, more or less vertical, and it is an accomplishment.

It was Lucas’s idea, his compulsion really, to buy this house. It was another thing I never understood, what having a large house meant to him. He wasn’t raised in a shack so he wasn’t overcompensating. He grew up in Tulsa on a leafy street where the houses were modest and sturdy. Nearby there used a neighborhood called Greenwood, a black enclave that in its prosperity and self-containment aroused the envy and hatred of white neighbors who burned the place down. Thirty-five blocks, wiped out. They dropped gasoline bombs from planes.

Maybe Lucas wanting this fortress of a house had something to do with that history polluting his childhood. For the record, the house is not one of those monstrosities you see in rich suburbs like Cherry Creek. It was built big not to accommodate an inflated ego but instead a big family. I did research. The family was Lithuanian. He was a builder. His wife was sickly. They had six children; the firstborn, coincidentally named Lucas, died of the flu at the age of three.

My Lucas and I have no children. I don’t know what to say, have or had. None, though we went along as though we expected they would come. They did not, it was that simple. Neither of us felt, if I can speak for Lucas too, deep regret that we were, are, childless.

After Lucas died I would go into the unused bedrooms and sit on the bed and imagine the lives of the surviving children. I imagined the brothers in two bedrooms, the sisters, Eugenia and Martina, in the other. I had seen photos of the girls in their high-necked dresses so it was easy to conjure them, their blond curls and screechy laughter.

Over time I entered a different phase. “Renovation” makes it sound planned. First I painted the kitchen cream with green trim. It was something I’d been wanting to do a long time but when someone is ill in your house much else falls away. Still, the decision was spontaneous. One afternoon I came home and the pressure had condensed inside me into an insistence: I could not endure those brown cabinets one second more. I drove to the paint store and without much deliberation chose the paint. I worked all afternoon and through the night until the sun came up and I collapsed on the couch in living room. That is where Mary Bridget found me at noon, in my house dress speckled with cream and green paint. She thought I had a stroke.

You always hope you have the right color and when it gets on the wall you often see you have made a big mistake which, unless you start over from scratch, you will regret for years. This was not that way. I was gratified in a way I had forgotten I had the capacity to be.

The surge of whatever it was, joy perhaps, propelled me to take on the funereal living room. I washed the windows, hung new curtains. I rented a machine and cleaned the couch and the carpet. I could have had it done by professionals but I had time. What else but?

Throughout the house on shelves was the effluvia of Lucas’s boyish enthusiasms, geodes, feathers, skulls, hummingbird nests. I arranged as many as I could on two tables by constructing a little hill, a shrine I festooned with a dozen candles. I put the rest of his stuff, two boxes full, in the trash, withstanding the self-criticism the act aroused.

Mary Bridget shook her head sadly seeing the shrines. “Get a roommate,” she said, “before you turn into a complete madwoman and burn the place down.”

This struck home. I was finding out that having a beautiful house with a cream and green kitchen and sheer curtains billowing from crystal-clear windows created another intolerable vacancy in me. I wanted someone to see what I saw with the same pleasure.

Because of my former job, City College was the first place I put up an ad, the old-fashioned method of pinning a card to the board in the union. Instantly I had ten messages from students interested. Vita was the first person I called back. The only. I picked her for her name. Vita. Life. Bring life into the house. Magical thinking, whatever. She described herself as Asian, though she had no trace of an accent. She said she was studying engineering but thinking about being a writer.

I tried not to appear surprised when I met her. I expected a bright, polite thin Chinese girl but here was this person. The word pugilistic came to mind. She seemed coiled. If I had had my wits about me, I would have made up something about other candidates, etc. But this was not an interview, not in her eyes. She had brought her three suitcases and she moved in.

Vita, I think, tried to be mysterious, and she succeeded. One of the minor mysteries was how from those three suitcases so much spilled out. Her room was like the drop-off at a thrift store. Sometimes I resented the disarray but why should I have cared, as long as she kept her door shut here and there were no suspicious smells emanating.

There were only good smells. Lavender. Coconut. I found a bottle of her shampoo in my shower. I don’t know how it got there, another mystery which might seem like nothing at all. I used the shampoo before I returned it to her bathroom. I bought the identical brand and scent, lemon verbena. I spend my day in a gossamer net of that smell.

I wanted her to talk more, so I talked too much. Her face was immobile, unmarked by the small fluctuations that indicate empathy. Her eyes blinked with metronomic regularity, infrequently. Her blankness was liberating. It allowed me to talk and to show her how raw, how scoured I felt inside. She listened. She blinked. That was all.

She came and went at irregular hours, far from the kind of schedule that creates expectation but still I found myself anticipating her being home, and being disappointed when she wasn’t. I presumed she’d dropped out of school but I didn’t ask. Nor did I ask what she did when she went out. She had a right to her mysteries.

Mary Bridget said I should find out what she was up to, make sure she wasn’t doing something illegal. She was suspicious of Vita from the start.

One day Vita approached me with her hand upturned, rubbing the tips of her fingers together. “See this dust? It’s sawdust. You got a badass infestation of termites.”

This terrified me, but Vita said, “I know what to do. Non-toxic. Give me some money. I’ll rout these buggers.”

By the following week my entire house smelled like overripe peaches. I didn’t inquire about the treatment nor its efficacy, merely thanked her for her good work, costly as it was. If the house fell down around me I would remain unruffled. I asked if her work entailed house repair. “My calling is reflexology,” she said. “Have you had it? A foot massage?”

“At the nail salon,” I said. “And once in Hawaii administered by a Seventh Day Adventist named Una. It was torture.”

“This is different,” Vita said. “This will bring your husband back.”

I assumed that was a joke, but with my foot in her lap, her fingers investigating its intricate machinery, Lucas spoke to me, loud and clear. He said, “I’m only here.”

Through my right foot he spoke; I remain convinced of it, though I ponder what “only” means.

Vita has moved out of the house. She has gone to London. Now she wants to be a dancer.

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2 responses to “The Empty House

  1. Richard, this is a beautiful story! I’m so glad I dropped in to see what you were writing. What a treat. I hope you are well. Miss you. -Kristy

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