My girlfriend and I are not rich people. Not by a longshot. But together we own a mansion–one of the last real mansions in central Florida. It was built by a family of lemon farmers back in 1869, almost one hundred and fifty years ago. We put less than eleven hundred dollars down, hardly anything, but the house has over twenty rooms in all: five bedrooms, a library with a vaulted ceiling, a study, even a garden room that looks out on three full acres of wild backyard.
The morning the realtor first showed us the place, I was sure she’d made some kind of mistake. The other houses she’d taken us to see had been small: one- and two-bedroom apartments mostly. And then, out of nowhere, this.
For a long time, Laura and I stood on the front lawn, just staring up at the house. It had a wraparound porch. There were four stone chimneys rising from the roof. Laura had a good job at the aquarium, and I managed a major wrecking yard, but even so, how could something like this be in our price range?
“I know what you’re thinking!” said the realtor. She had to speak loudly to be heard over the persistent buzzing from insects hidden in the foliage. “But the price is just what I said. I’m tempted to buy this one myself.”
I studied the house, trying to take in the whole giant sprawl. Granted, it would need work. The place looked like it had stood vacant a long time, abandoned for ten, maybe even fifteen years. Ferns had sprouted though the slats of the porch. The columns were covered in a scaly silver mold. There were mushrooms growing in one of the rain gutters, a whole row, white with red spots, like tiny bloodstained umbrellas.
The grounds were in bad shape too: everything wild and overgrown, choked by weeds and bramble. Long tatters of moss hung from the trees.
Still, there was no disguising what lay beneath all the disrepair. With time and effort, this could be a wonderland for us.
Laura must have sensed my excitement. “This house is incredible. But it’ll be way too much work. I mean, look.” She waved a hand over the tall, weedy grass, which came all the way up to our thighs. “The yard alone will take weeks to clear.”
“We wouldn’t tackle the whole thing all at once,” I said. “We could just do a little every day.”
Laura turned to examine the house again. I spotted a tick crawling up the back of her shirt and quickly plucked it off before she could notice.
“I don’t know, Jake,” she said. “If it’s so great, why has it been standing here, empty, year after year? What’s wrong with it?”
“So,” I said to the realtor. “What’s wrong with it?”
The realtor shrugged, mopping the sweat from her face. Her name was Joyce. She was an older lady, a grandmotherly type; she wore her white hair in a bun; her sneakers were brand-new. The house had been hard to find. It lay off the main road, hidden behind the old lemon fields. Walking over from where we’d parked had been a big exertion for Joyce.
“Nothing’s wrong with this place, love,” she said. “People are just afraid of privacy, I suppose.”
I waited for her to go on. “You’re sure? There’s no catch?”
“Fess up, Joyce,” said Laura.
Joyce sighed and wiped her glasses on her shorts. “Look. The only thing I can think of that might have kept people away is the camp. There’s a camp nearby.”
“A camp? Like a camp for kids?” Laura said.
“No. It’s a camp for ladies,” said Joyce. “It’s more like a retreat.”
“Like a spa?” I was intrigued; I’d never been to a real spa before. I pictured myself relaxing in pits of bubbling mud.
“Not exactly a spa,” said Joyce.
“Not exactly how?” Laura asked.
Joyce picked a daisy from the brush and sniffed the petals. “It’s a federal retreat.”
“A federal retreat like a prison?” said Laura, sounding alarmed.
“I suppose it’s sort of like that,” Joyce said. “But it’s strictly a white-collar facility. It’s not like there are any violent offenders in there or anything. This is a place for society ladies.”
“A jail for them,” said Laura.
“Laura, it’s not something to worry about,” said Joyce. “It’s practically
Laura turned to me. “Jacob, I don’t want to live near a prison. What if we were here and there was a jailbreak or something? Those women would make a beeline straight for our house.”
I noticed a glimmer of excitement in Joyce’s expression at hearing Laura refer to the house as “ours.”
“You heard Joyce,” I said. “It’s not that kind of place. It’s for society ladies.” I made a tea-sipping gesture.
“I’ve heard of some very high-profile women spending time there,” Joyce said, swatting at a cloud of mosquitoes. “Remember Shirley Sayles, the famous golfer? She bet all that money on the U.S. Open? The one she was playing in? She’s at the retreat right now.”
“Listen to that,” I said. “Shirley Sayles.”
“Maybe we should look at something else,” Laura said.
“Come on.” I stepped onto the front porch, which groaned loudly.
“Jacob,” said Laura.
But I was already opening the front door.
The inside of the house was dark and cavernous, with a fog of dust rolling across the floor. Trees stood crowded against the windows, their green-and-yellow leaves pressed to the glass like children’s hands.
As I stepped into the parlor, I could feel the temperature dropping around me. The room was empty except for a burned-out chandelier reaching down from the high ceiling. I glanced around, examining the peeling wallpaper, the molding sculpted along the ceiling’s edge. I already knew that this was the house for us. It had stood for over a hundred years, like a fortress hidden in the woods. Nothing about it was cheap or makeshift. The beams supporting the ceiling looked like they were carved from stone.
It didn’t take long for the house to win Laura over, either. The touches were what got her, all the charming details: the claw-foot tub in the master bathroom, cracked but still usable. The carved lemons at the ends of the banisters. The small stained glass window in the parlor door, round as a coin.
What really brought her around, though, was the garden room. It lay at the south end of the first floor and extended out from the rest of the house, overlooking the sloping backyard. The curtains were drawn when we entered, and the room was especially dark, except for a trickle of light seeping in through the far end of the ceiling. I figured there was a crack in the roof, but when we walked over, we saw that in fact, in a certain spot, the ceiling rose and gave way to a small crystal dome. Laura’s face lit up when she saw it, the gentle swell of glass, the elegant iron webbing. The dome was filthy with soot, but when she reached up and wiped off one of the panels, a spear of sunlight pierced the room.
“Romantic,” said Joyce, and then coughed from the dust.
Of course, even now, six months after we moved in, we still have lots to do. If you came over to our house today, you’d find some rooms fully furnished and others completely bare. If you chose to open the sliding door to the library, you’d find it thoroughly decorated–a sofa by the fireplace, a glass coffee table, the towering bookshelves lined with books. But, on the other hand, if you picked the door at the end of the second-floor hallway to open instead, you’d find a room with nothing in it but an old electric picture of a beach hanging on the wall. When the picture is plugged in, the palm trees sway gently in the breeze, the waves sparkle and roll across the white sand. A flying fish even jumps out of the water, then slaps back down.
There are a few rooms Laura and I haven’t even begun yet, storage closets mostly, little side rooms with shelves built into the walls. We leave the doors to them closed for days at a time, weeks. Sometimes we’ll forget one exists altogether, until one day when we happen to notice a doorknob sticking out of the wall. Just the other morning I opened the door to a storeroom near the basement and found a dead snake lying on the floor. It must have been there for months; all that was left of the corpse was a skeleton. A winding comb of bones coiled in the dust.
All the space used to make Laura nervous, the empty rooms, the dark door frames. Now and then she’d panic and call to me from wherever she was in the house and I’d have to come up from the cellar, or down from the study, and stay with her for a while.
Recently, though, I bought a pair of walkie-talkies from a toy store, so that whenever we’re working on different rooms we can stay in contact. We’ve started making up tag names for each other, like truckers.
“Kitty Cat, this is Hunka Luv. What is your twenty? Over,” I say, the plastic receiver to my mouth.
“Well, hey there, Hunka Luv,” says Laura. “I am currently en route to the shower, over.”
We sand, and we paint, and we drill, and every day the house progresses. The old layers of wallpaper are scraped off. Little by little the floors brighten, revealing rich swirls and knots in the wood grain. The chimneys are flushed out, and suddenly a cool, sweet draft flows through every room.
Our bedroom is my favorite place in the house. It sits at the top of a wide central tower, and it’s round, with shuttered windows that look out over the treetops. The ceiling is high and cone-shaped, pointy as a witch’s hat. If we forget to shut the windows at night, fruit bats fly in and hang from the rafters like little leather change purses.
Laura’s almost finished with the garden room. She removed the heavy curtains. She cleaned the dome so that the glass sparkles in the sunlight. I told her I’d cut down some of the vines lashed across the windows if she wanted me to, as they obscured the view, but she said to just leave them.
“They make the room feel like a tree house,” she said. “I like it this way.”
She keeps a bunch of pillows scattered around, big satin pillows with tassels on the corners, and I often wake up on weekend mornings to find her already downstairs, lying beneath the bright dome, reading the newspaper in her nightgown and sunglasses.
I chase Laura up the creaking spiral staircase, laughing, both of us naked. I carry her to the windowsill, her arms around my neck, and I make love to her with the whole blue sky behind us.
Then, when we’re done, I’ll sit with her while she takes a bath in the giant cauldron of our marble tub, her knees poking up through the water like tiny islands of pink sand. Sometimes I’ll read her part of a book or a magazine. Other times, while Laura soaks, I’ll amuse her by spying on the women in the prison near our home, the federal work camp. I bought a telescope from an antique store in town and set it up by the window. When I look into the eyepiece, it’s like I’ve been transported right inside the camp among the residents.
Joyce was telling the truth, too. The camp’s grounds are beautiful, with shaded walking paths and picnic tables set up beneath the many trees. There’s a pond populated by giant goldfish, a vegetable garden that the women tend in the afternoons. The facility is entirely open, too. There aren’t any barbed wire fences or guard towers, just a bright green sprawl of grass and trees around which the ladies are allowed to wander freely for most of the day. The only thing bounding the property at all is a bright yellow line painted in the grass along the prison perimeter. The paint contains fluorescent chemicals, and at night the line glows an eerie, spaceship green.
“What are they doing now?” Laura said to me the other day. She was lying in the tub.
I used the telescope to scan the grounds for any of Laura’s favorites. The women she most liked to hear about were the high profile inmates, the society wives and politicians and celebrities who’d lived all sorts of glamorous lives before ending up at the camp. One resident was the owner of a baseball team, another was a restaurateur.
There was a famous jazz drummer, the CEO of a baby food company, even a world-renowned eye surgeon. I don’t know about Laura, but sometimes I actually felt a strange surge of pride knowing that such a cluster of accomplished women was gathered so close to our home.
I tried to find something interesting to report, but most of the women had headed inside the canteen for supper. A couple of them were jogging along the gravel exercise path. One, the baseball team owner, was reading the newspaper beneath a tree. It was nearly sunset and the line painted around the prison had just started to glow.
“The chef, the really fat lady? She and your favorite girl, Shirley the golf pro–they’re fighting it out in the yard.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Laura. She knew I was lying. Nothing like that ever happened at the camp.
“It’s ugly,” I said, turning back to Laura. “Shirley just pulled out a shank. Things are looking bad for the chef.”
“Her ass is grass,” Laura said, smiling.
She yawned and let her head fall to the side and I studied her face for a moment–studied the soft shells of her eyelids; her lips; a tendril of wet, brown hair curled against her cheek. I felt a pull in my chest so hard it frightened me.
“I’m going to marry you in this house,” I said. “We can have the wedding in the yard after I clear it out.”
Laura wrung the water from her hair. “Is that a proposal?”
“I guess I can do better than that,” I said.
She laughed. “I should hope so.” Then she closed her eyes and let her body slide down into the water.
“Did you know,” she said, “that in exactly one hundred days from tomorrow, you and I will have been together for five years? I was doing the math in the car the other day. Isn’t that crazy? Five years.”
I leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. “I’ll tell you what. If in a hundred days from tomorrow I haven’t proposed to you, you can leave me forever.”
“Jacob, that’s not what I was getting at.”
“No, I mean it,” I said. “One hundred days.”
“This is silly.”
“It’s not silly,” I said, suddenly feeling agitated. “It’s not silly at all.”
“Are you okay?” she said, sitting up, her skin raw and tender from the hot water.
“I’m fine,” I said, but I was angry now. “You deserve someone who’ll stick around and commit. Someone who’ll love and take care of you. I mean for life.”
“Jake . . . you’re talking about yourself, right? You’re scaring me.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “Of course I’m talking about myself.
Who the hell do you think I’m talking about? I mean myself. Jake. Me.”
My grandfather was a traveling salesman. He met my grandmother in the winter of 1920, while passing through her hometown of Barclay, Virginia. He was twenty-two at the time. She was seventeen.
The way my grandmother remembers it, she was upstairs in her room, doing her homework, when she overheard yelling down on the street. As she came to the window, she spied a young man outside, standing on top of a parked car. He was shouting and gesturing at people, making some kind of sales pitch. A crowd had already gathered around him. In one of his hands he held a little star, which was emitting a cold and piercing light.
My grandmother opened the window to get a better look at the star. She’d never seen light so concentrated before. The little star was shining brighter than all the town’s electrical streetlamps put together.
The star, she soon learned, contained something called neon gas. My grandfather was working for a company called Star Neon, the country’s first manufacturer of neon lighting tubes. The owners of Star paid my grandfather to drive around the South in a new Ford and do promotional demonstrations about the wonders of neon lighting. Neon tubes were still brand-new in 1920. They were delicate and expensive to construct. Only a few businesses in the whole world had neon signs hanging in their windows, and all of them were located in Western Europe. Hardly anyone in the United States had seen a neon light before.
My grandmother watched, fascinated, as my grandfather continued with his demonstration, making his case as to why neon was the
light source of the future. Neon was beautiful, he said, holding the star up high. It was enduring. Soon enough, everyone would be using neon to light their homes.
It was at about this point in his speech, according to my grandmother, that he noticed her up in the window and winked at her, making her blush.
Later that night, she snuck out to meet the neon salesman. Less than a week after that, she ran off with him, hopping into his car in the middle of the night and driving off.
The two of them ended up traveling all across the South together. My grandmother learned to help with the demonstrations: she passed out pamphlets about the science of neon, she gathered names and addresses. They were a team: two kids in love, living in a shiny black Ford, the whole country spread out before them. They kept blankets and tins of food on the backseat, along with a loaded revolver. At night they slept in the car, huddled together. Sometimes, when they ended up parked out in the middle of nowhere, my grandfather would hang the neon star from the rearview mirror and leave it turned on, glowing through the night.
They traveled together for three months before my grandmother became pregnant. They were in Bristol, Tennessee, when she told my grandfather, who seemed thrilled at the news. He took her out to dinner to celebrate, bought them both fried steaks and wine, and then took her dancing afterward. He even rented a hotel room.
The next morning my grandmother woke to find the car gone. No trace of my grandfather anywhere. She waited at the hotel for three days before giving up on him.
The wrecking yard I manage is down on Orange Blossom Road. There’s a neon sign in the front window of the office: a big, flashing dollar sign that goes from green to yellow to orange. cash for wrecks!!! And so on.
Wrecking is a lucrative business in our part of Florida. There are more trade-ins per year here than almost anywhere else in the country. During the week, our yard is always busy with acquisitions and parts cataloging. Still, I understand that managing a wrecking yard, even a huge one like ours–a yard that pays a real salary–wouldn’t be enough for some people. I enjoy the work, though. Putting vehicles to rest: rolling them into the lot, dismantling them piece by piece, loading the empty husks into the crusher. I’ve been at the yard in one capacity or another since I was a teenager, when I spent a summer helping the owner, Liam, with the books. By now Liam and I are close friends. He relies on me.
More than the work, though, I enjoy the yard itself. For all the business that goes on–for all the sawing and loading and jacking, for all the squealing metal and busting glass–the property is generally a quiet and restful place. The lot covers two acres; the maze of wrecks stretches back from the office almost to the interstate. You can spend hours walking its deep alleyways, getting lost, listening to the towers of flattened cars creaking in the wind.
The lot is especially beautiful when it’s stormy out. The rain drums and pings off the crumpled metal, making everything glisten for a brief moment. On rainy days I usually give my assistants, Jesus and Marco, the afternoon off and just man the shop by myself. No one seems to want to bring in a car on a rainy day–to drop off their ride and then have to wait in the bad weather for the bus or a cab to take them home. The time drags by. I read or listen to the radio, to the old country station I like. Once in a while a car will glide past on I-35 in a cloud of water. The songs keep coming through the radio: songs full of yodels and whining slide guitar and all the otherworldly sounds I love about that music. Here’s a song about a woman who murdered her husband by dipping the mouthpiece of his horn in poison. Here’s another, about a man whose wife flew away in a huge silver blimp.
And while the songs come, one after another, I’ll examine the neon dollar sign flashing in the shop window, and I’ll think of my grandfather; I’ll picture him speeding across an open landscape in his Ford Model T, alone behind the wheel.
He came back into my grandmother’s life periodically, through the years, haunting her. Out of nowhere the doorbell would ring and she’d answer it and there he’d be, standing on the porch, holding his hat by his side. He’d tell her how sorry he was, how badly he wanted to work things out. If she’d only give him another chance. He’d be selling something else by now, ladies’ shoes, or typewriters, or parlor furniture for Beaulieu and Sons. And of course my grandmother would be dating someone new, someone kind and reliable–the type of man her own daughter, my mother, would eventually marry–and even though she knew better, even though she understood exactly how things would unfold, my grandmother would come outside to meet him.
He kept hurting her, over and over. He’d come back and stay with my grandmother just long enough for her to become attached, even hopeful, and then he’d vanish. Poof. Gone.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder. Copyright © 2006 by Scott Snyder. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.