I could smell the shampoo from my wife’s hair as she leaned into me to look out the driver’s side window.
“Honey, look,” she said, pointing at an Open House sign. “It’s perfect. Pull over.”
She shifted away and opened the door.
“Jesus. Wait a second.”
I steered the car towards the curb and hoped this wasn’t a new version of an old game she liked to play. Nikki liked to wander the mall, trying on leather coats we couldn’t afford, marveling at flat screen TV’s, and shaking her head at the prices of cribs, bassinets, and baby clothes.
She was out of the car and heading towards the house before I killed the engine. The autumn wind carried the smell of burning leaves and fireplaces as I climbed out of the Buick and walked to where she stood. I slipped my arm around her waist and pulled her into me; she was shaking.
“Look at it,” she said. “Just look at it.”
The house was a two story English Cape, or so Nikki told me, and stood on the corner of Walnut and Vine, directly across from McCarthy Park. A waist-high hedge encircled the front lawn and was only broken at the walk by a white arbor; rose bushes intertwined through the lattice. The flowers were mostly gone, leaving behind stems and thorns.
“Can we go in?” she asked, but she had already slipped free.
I followed Nikki as far as the arbor. She called over her shoulder that the stucco looked freshly painted.
“We should go, Nikki,” I said, but it was too late.
The door opened and a middle-aged woman dressed in gray stood in the doorway. She introduced herself as Ellen Daly, the listing agent, her gaze flitting past us, taking in my car with a quick glance.
“I’m Nikki and this is my husband, Tim,” Nikki said.
They both looked at me from the steps, their smiles pulling me through that damn arbor and up the walk. Ellen had a strong grip for a woman, as if all the years of standing in doorways and shaking hands of people who didn’t want to be there had strengthened her fingers.
“I didn’t think anyone would stop by today,” she said, moving aside so we could enter the house. “I thought everyone would be home watching football.”
I forced a smile and squeezed past as Nikki sucked in her breath. The hallway floor was slate and the walls wood-lined.
Nikki ran her hand lightly over the wainscoting, her fingers barely brushing the surface. “Is this paneling or tongue and groove?”
“Tongue and groove,” the realtor answered. “It’s an addition, but the owners didn’t scrimp on anything, as you can see.”
Tongue and groove? How did my wife know to ask such a question?
We entered the living room, and Nikki slipped her right hand into my left; her other hand squeezed my upper arm, the happy couple out house hunting on a Sunday afternoon.
“That’s a working fireplace. The chimney was just recently repointed,” Ellen said.
“It’s gorgeous,” Nikki answered, breaking away from me again and heading toward the mantle. She reached out to lightly touch the wood, as if she wouldn’t believe anything in the house was real unless she felt it.
“What’s the square footage?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Seventeen hundred square feet of livable space. It’s small, but I think it’s just darling for a young couple starting out.”
Both Nikki and Ellen turned to me and waited for me to ask a question.
“How old is it?” was the best I could do.
“It’s about sixty years old but very well maintained. I don’t think you’ll find a place with a better location. Did you have a chance to walk through the park? It’ll be right outside your front door.”
“It’s beautiful,” Nikki said.
Ellen nodded. “Especially this time of year when the leaves are changing. Of course it’s pretty in the winter, too, when the evergreens are covered in snow. It’s like a Christmas card. There’s skating on the duck pond when it’s cold enough.”
Nikki smiled at me before wandering into the dining room. “Are the current owners a young couple, too?” she asked.
Photocopies listing recent repairs were stacked on the table. Nikki took one. I raised my wrist and showed Nikki my watch, but she ignored me.
“No. Mrs. Menza is a widow, in her seventies. She just bought a small one story home near her daughter.”
It didn’t surprise me that the owner was older. The furniture was dark and out of style. Framed needlepoints hung on the wall, and the mantle was covered with pictures of smiling children. The house had that grandmother smell to it, a mix of mentholatum, potpourri, and windows that had been shut for too long.
“When does she close on the other house?” my wife asked, folding her arms across her chest as she stood in front of the dining room table.
“I believe she closes in a few weeks.”
“So she’s anxious to sell?” Nikki asked.
“I think she’d like to have this place sold by then, yes,” Ellen answered, and we both followed my wife into the kitchen.
“Is there a basement?” Nikki asked, as she took in the kitchen and small breakfast nook with a sweeping glance.
“Yes, but it’s unfinished. Of course there are washer and dryer hookups and stationary tubs down there.” Ellen opened a door and flipped on the light.
Nikki turned to me. “Honey, why don’t you check the cellar while Ellen shows me the kitchen.”
I glared at her and headed downstairs.
“Feel the walls for dampness and make sure the wiring’s up to code,” Nikki called after me.
I stood in the middle of the basement and listened to the murmur of my wife’s voice and Ellen’s laughter drift to me.
Check the wiring to make sure it’s up to code?
I lit a cigarette, ashing it quickly to the filter. The longer we stayed in the house, the angrier I became. Nikki truly wanted to know about the wiring and the age of the hot water tank, but the only thing I wanted to know was what the hell she was thinking.
Maybe in a few years we could manage a down payment, but not now, not with the bills we have. Each step I took in the basement was a step I couldn’t afford. The hot water tank, the furnace, even the goddamn stationary tubs were all out of reach.
And Nikki knew it.
I didn’t know how long I should stay in the basement or even what to look for, so I smoked another cigarette, taking my time with this one, before climbing the stairs.
I wandered around the first floor looking for them and peeked into a small book-lined den. I heard their voices on the second level and went up and found them in the smallest of the three bedrooms.
“…perfect for a nursery,” I heard Ellen say as I entered the room.
“There you are,” Nikki said, and kissed my cheek. “I thought you got lost. How was the basement?”
“The walls were dry,” I reported.
“The furnace was replaced about eighteen months ago,” Ellen said. “The combined heating and electric bill is around $300 a month, but you have to remember that Mrs. Menza is older and had the thermostat set slightly higher. Of course, she was home all day, too. That makes a difference.”
Nikki nodded in agreement. “A big difference.”
I trailed behind as I was shown the other two bedrooms (with ‘Plenty of closet space. Plenty.’), the full bath, a cedar closet, and other ground they had already covered. This time it was Nikki, not Ellen, who pointed out each room or feature to me, her words rushing together, defying punctuation.
“Now that only leaves the backyard,” Ellen said to us after we took turns sticking our heads through the ceiling to inspect the crawl space and the thickness of the goddamn insulation. She smiled and raised an eyebrow as if she was about to reveal national secrets. We followed her downstairs and through the kitchen. Nikki explained that Mrs. Menza planned on leaving all the appliances, including the refrigerator, as Ellen fiddled with the back door.
Nikki, standing next to me, shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Mrs. Menza,” Ellen said, finally opening the door, “is quite the accomplished gardener.”
We stepped into the backyard. The lawn, although small, was thick and green, but the flowerbeds were a smear of color – yellows, pinks, purples. A sundial, something I hadn’t seen in years, stood in the middle of the grass, and a birdbath was tucked in the corner near the back wall.
“The purple ones are aster,” Ellen said, pointing towards the fence. “That’s sedum right next to them. Goldenrod forms a nice border, I think. And you recognize the mums, I bet. Of course you’re only getting half the effect. Fall flowers are nice, but wait until spring when everything blooms.”
“My God,” were the only words Nikki could say.
We followed Ellen around the side of the house and she pointed out more perennials and annuals and Mrs. Menza’s vegetable garden; she made sure I noticed the new gutters and downspouts. Nikki trailed us, quieter now than she’d been as reality rushed back at her. When we reached the sidewalk, Ellen asked if we had more questions or if we wanted to go back inside for another look. I said no, and she handed me her business card and a sheet of financial information about the asking price, down payments, and fixed-rate mortgages.
“And remember,” Ellen said, looking me in the eye. “Mrs. Menza is asking less than the appraised value, so your taxes will surely go down.”
I nodded slowly, as if I was turning that bit of financial information around in my head, mentally chewing it over, as if it mattered.
Ellen took turns shaking our hands before we climbed into the Buick. Nikki watched Ellen walk back to the house to wait for another couple.
“Well,” I said, turning the ignition. The car rumbled to life; the patch on the muffler had worked free.
“Well,” Nikki repeated in a voice so small and sad I had to turn to her. She smiled then, the same smile I had seen my mother give my father a thousand times while I was growing up. There were never any fights between them, no major ones anyway. There was just that smile containing all the quietly accepted disappointments that he and life had given her. I finally understood why sometimes, when my father thinks he’s alone and drifts deep into his own thoughts, he shakes his head and his shoulders sag, as if burdened by all those things he couldn’t deliver.
“Well,” I said again, unable to think of anything to say or do except jerk the car in gear, smile my father’s smile, and head toward home.
Stephen G. Eoannou earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. In the past year, his work has appeared in several journals, including the Barely South Review, Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program, Pulp Modern, The Young Adult Review Network, The Cleveland Review, Aethlon, and will be forthcoming from Echo Ink Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rosebud, The MacGuffin, and The Saturday Evening Post (online). Eoannou lives and writes in Buffalo, New York. His web site is sgeoannou.com.