A Stranger's House, страница 1
“SOME WOUNDERFULLY IMAGINED MOMENTS....CHARACTERS WHOSE FAMILY MYSTERY IS FAULKNERIAN, RIFE WITH HIDDEN INTENSITY.”
—The New York Times
A STRANGER’S HOUSE
For a long time, Claire and Tom Templeton have wished in vain for a child. What they have instead is a house, a charming old Cape that is their consolation. In the gray chill of a Massachusetts autumn, the Templetons and two local handymen, loners and eccentrics, work to rebuild the ramshackle home. As the house takes on a new life, Claire begins to understand its tangled history—and to reconcile her own past and renew her hope for the future.
“A smooth, uncompromising novel about learning to live with both the defeat of old dreams and the obligation to fashion new ones.”
—The Boston Globe
“THERE IS SO MUCH GOOD IN THIS BOOK.
The author is intersted in real life: people who work for a living... and who fumble with some sense of the spirit-life that is brought alive in the murky world of love, marriage, and friendship....Bret Lott creates a character you can care about, one whose life deepens as the book moves forward....REWARDING.”
—The Milwaukee Journal
As in The Man Who Owned Vermont, his widely acclaimed first work of fiction, Bret Lott once again depicts a young couple who struggle with difficulties in their marriage....A STRANGER’S HOUSE LIVES, BREATHES—AND IS INDEED BREATHTAKINGLY REAL.”
—The Los Angeles Times Book Review
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“Bret Lott is a writer with a gift for evoking the small sadnesses of life and for describing action . . . with the luminous precision of a Dutch painter.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“I deeply admire A Stranger’s House. Bret Lott has the rare ability to slip inside the heart and mind of a woman. Claire Templeton is a complex, flawed, sympathetic character, and her frustrations and passions are our own.”
“Lott excels at characters in crisis . . . evoking their moments of truth with wit and passion. . . . CLAIRE IS. . . A MEMORABLE, MOVING CHARACTER.”
“Coupling the small details of time and place with the grand scale of human emotion, Lott has created a moving second novel. .. . He probes, in understated prose, the subtleties of marriage and the parent-child bond. . . . MEMORABLE.”
“In the largest sense, A Stranger’s House is about sheltering and taking care. .. . A SUSPENSEFUL AND POIGNANT BOOK.”
Also by Bret Lott
THE MAN WHO OWNED VERMONT
A DREAM OF OLD LEAVES
HOW TO GET HOME
FATHERS, SONS, AND BROTHERS
THE HUNT CLUB
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint an excerpt from “For the Year of the Insane: A Prayer” from Live or Die by Anne Sexton. Copyright © 1966 by Anne Sexton. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Washington Square Press Publication of
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Copyright © 1988 by Bret Lott
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
ISBN: 978-1-4516-6792-9 (eBook)
First Washington Square Press trade paperback printing January 1990
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
WASHINGTON SQUARE PRESS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster Inc.
FOR MY PARENTS,
Bill and Barbara,
AND FOR MY CHILDREN,
Zeb and Jake
The author would like to thank the Ohio Arts Council, the South Carolina Arts Commission, and the College of Charleston for their assistance in the completion of this book, as well as John Moore, Ph.D., and Marcy Rosenfield for their technical advice. Thanks, too, to Mindy Werner and Marian Young for their continuing support, insight, and encouragement.
Our inheritance has been turned over
to strangers, our homes to aliens.
O mother of the womb,
did I come for blood alone?
“For the Year of the Insane: A Prayer”
A STRANGER’S HOUSE
“Remote,” I said. I was at the window, the glass dirty with rain-spattered dust. Just outside the window the forest began, thick with pine and birch and oak and maple. The first trees began not five feet away.
The realtor, behind me, said, “Remote is what you and your husband asked for.” She giggled, and I pictured her: gold sport coat, brown polyester skirt, black pumps. Her hands would be folded together in front of her, head cocked to one side, a smile across her face that would show as many teeth as possible. I pictured her in the empty room, the room, house, entire barn and parcel empty, she had told us, for fifteen years.
Still I didn’t turn to her, but only looked out the window, the trees heavy with shadow now, the sun already down behind them.
“But not too remote,” she went on. “Not too. Twenty-five minutes from Northampton. That’s not that bad, considering what you’ll be getting: this lovely place with twelve acres and that beautiful barn out there. It’s just what the doctor ordered.” She laughed again. I heard her step back, heard the soft click of her shoes across the linoleum.
Sounds came from upstairs, footsteps cracking across the floors up there, then slow steps on the stairs behind me. I turned to the sound.
Tom said, “The floors up there seem sturdy enough.” He had one hand on the banister and was moving down at an angle, almost sideways. “These stairs’ll take some getting used to, though.”
He came to a small landing where another set led to the other upstairs room; below the landing were no banisters, and I watched as my husband took each step carefully, his hands out to either side to keep his balance.
The realtor had turned to Tom, too. “A good-morning staircase,” she said, her hands clasped at her chest. “The original. The le
She turned to me, her smile just as I had imagined it would be: all teeth, cinnamon lipstick to match her outfit.
I said, “But remote, I guess, is what we want.” I looked from the realtor to Tom. “I guess it’s not that far out.”
He shrugged, went to the fireplace, squatted to look up the chimney.
“And it’s a Cape, a three-quarter Cape,” she said. “Just what you wanted, and it needs plenty of work.” She moved across the room to the staircase. “You know, we like to call these a Handyman’s Dream. That’s what we call them.” She looked around the room, that smile still there.
I looked around then, too. Cheap plastic paneling had been nailed to the walls, pieces of it cracked and broken back at the corners to show pale, flowered wallpaper. The linoleum, light peach, was dull and worn, gouged down to the black resin where furniture had been scraped along the floor. Banister ribs were missing here and there on the upper half of the staircase.
“And it’s a clean place,” she said, now moving toward Tom still squatting, still peering up into the flue. “The owner has made sure of that. He’s had somebody come up here three times a year since 1973 just to clean the place, clear leaves and what-have-you from the gutters, sweep the place out, clean the windows.” She laughed again. “Stuff I probably only do once or twice a year in my own home, if I’m lucky.” She stopped in the middle of the room, her hands still clasped, and looked out the window as if she had just seen the world outside. “And the country”, she said, and went to the window. “This is the real thing. A Cape. Everyone wants one. There’s a waiting list for good ones, not that this isn’t a good one. It’s just that this is a Handyman’s Dream, and it’s out here away from everything. And I’ve been working with you so long. It’s just what you wanted.”
She was right It was what we wanted: a three-quarter Cape. There was this room, the largest; on the other side of the staircase was another, smaller room that would be Tom’s office if we took the place; leading off that room and in the opposite corner of the house was a small, windowless pantry leading into the kitchen and dining area, which led back into this room. One room led into the next and the next, a circle of rooms, a chain.
Tom had smiled when the realtor had shown us the room that might be his. It was a smile I had not seen before, one that showed nothing beyond simple pleasure, I imagined, at his own room, with a fireplace and windows looking out into trees.
He said, “But why are they selling now? After that many years?”
The realtor was quiet a moment, still looking out the window. She looked down, her face hidden from us. Then she quickly turned, and here was the smile again. “I’m not sure, actually, but I can talk to someone back at the office. I’m sure it’s not anything structural. That I can practically guarantee you. This place isn’t going to fall down tomorrow.”
“Tom,” I said. “What’s upstairs?”
The room was turning dark now, the brown paneling giving over to black, the worn floor soaking up, it seemed, any failing light that came in through western windows.
He stood up and opened his mouth, and in the premature twilight caused by trees outside and the walls around us, his face began to disappear. I saw his lips move, saw his eyes, his hair, but slowly, slowly I began to lose him.
“A big bedroom,” he had said, “with a fireplace. And another room a little smaller. Your room, for whatever you want.”
“Unfortunately,” the realtor said, “I’m afraid it’s getting a little dark now. I’m not sure I want any of us going up and down those stairs. Not now.”
I said, “I want to take a look, though. To see what condition it’s in.”
“Claire,” Tom said from somewhere across the room, “it’s the same as down here. Needs plenty of work, but nothing we can’t handle.” He paused. “We can come back Saturday. Just you and me.” He stopped, and I thought I could see his head turn, maybe the faint reflection in his glasses of whatever light made it into the room. He said, “If that’s all right with you.”
“Me?” the realtor said, and she, too, had begun to disappear, disintegrate. “That’s fine, so long as I’m positive you’re interested. Why, the three of us, we’ve been looking for the right place for you for so long I feel as if we’re family.” She laughed again, a hollow, tin laugh that quickly echoed through the empty house. Then the sound disappeared, and there were no voices here, none that would stay. Ours were only dead air in this house.
I woke up, cold. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Two twenty-seven.
The cold air had thrown me off, and for a moment I did not know where I was. I thought that perhaps we had already moved into the house, the three-quarter Cape, that there had been some long period of time I had missed between our having seen the place for the first time in that spreading darkness and now—maybe months later—waking up already settled in the old house.
I sat up and turned to Tom. He had the sheet and blanket pulled up to his chin. He was snoring lightly, then stopped and rolled away from me.
I closed my eyes, swallowed, turned to put my feet on the floor.
I knew where I was. In the apartment, where we had lived for eight years. I stood, the floor cold beneath me. I held myself against the cold, and went around the foot of the bed and out into the hall.
I turned on the hall light, shaded my eyes from the fixture above me, and looked at the thermostat. I turned on the heat, set the dial for 72, and turned off the light.
I thought of going back to bed, but I couldn’t. For some reason I felt as if I didn’t live here anymore, as if that weren’t my bed in there, my dresser, my armoire, my closet full of clothes, and so I went into the kitchen.
The apartment was the second floor of a Victorian some 100 years old. One bedroom, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kitchen, I imagined, had been someone’s master bedroom at one time, before houses here had been broken into apartments. It was a story a realtor had told us once when we had first begun looking for a house: how during the Depression people needed places to live, and homeowners needed money. Now most all the houses in this part of town had separate entrances for each floor, had stoves and sinks and toilets and tubs rigged up in what had otherwise been bedrooms. Our bathroom, in fact, was the same size as the bedroom, the toilet and clawfoot tub off to one side, the rest of the room only linoleum and paneling.
Realtors, I thought. I leaned against the counter, listened for the radiators to start up. Realtors had shown us homes for over a year now, Tom and I having started looking some nine months after my mother died, when finally the problems accompanying her death seemed almost over—her house near being sold, the outstanding mortgage ready to be paid off. The cost of the burial itself took a large piece of that home with her, but we saw we would be getting some money, and knew, somehow, that buying a home would be best. By this time we knew we would not have children, or at least had effectively buried our hopes deep enough to where we no longer spoke of children. We needed to move away from town, to start our own lives away from here.
And so, though we thought we made ourselves clear, realtors showed us places that in no way resembled what we wanted and had asked to be shown. Realtors had brought us to ramshackle buildings with ell upon ell, roofs falling in, floors broken out, chimneys crumbling, the realtors always saying all these homes needed was a little TLC. Tom had worked his way through college as a carpenter, putting up barns, taking them down, refurbishing some homes here and there, but nothing as large and detailed as what we were shown. Or we were brought to immaculate homes far beyond what we could afford, homes that needed maybe only a paint job, some wallpaper.
We had been shown Saltboxes, Greek Revivals, log homes, even a tri-level ranch. But we had wanted a Cape. There was something both Tom and I had seen in the design that had satisfied us. We had talked about the shape, the size, and then decided it was the simplicity, the
Our apartment had none of that simplicity. It was just a jumble of rooms never meant to house a family other than the one that had built both floors a century ago. The only door into and out of the apartment was in the back, at the far end of the kitchen. One had to go through the kitchen to get to the living room, through the bathroom to get to the bedroom, a chaos of rooms we had wandered through long enough, saving money, believing for eight years that we knew where we were going, but never really knowing. Only waiting.
And I thought then of my mother’s house, the house that had been mine when I was growing up, and how it had remained what realtors liked to call a “single family unit,” when it was only a house, one that had survived, somehow miraculously, being divided into apartments, and for a moment I wondered if she wouldn’t have been less lonely, less turned in to herself if perhaps that old house had been split up, as though her dying as coldly and silently as she had might have been changed somehow by the layout of a house. Of our house, and I thought of how she had lived there for so long—my father dead these twenty-one years, me, her only child, as good as dead to her, visiting her only twice a week, Sunday afternoons for cookies and coffee, Thursday nights for grocery shopping, our time together each visit more forced, more trying.
I swallowed, and I bowed my head and closed my eyes, and made myself think of something else, move somewhere else, away from my mother’s house.
The radiators started up, first the slow whistle of air, then the building rattle of water through pipes for the first time since late April. It was September already, and the weather had finally broken: last night the temperature had been in the high seventies, the air so thick that even the sheet on the bed had felt like heavy wool.