1 Borrowed Houses
It was after her father’s death Flora returned to Darwin. Returning—with all the criminal associations—to the scene of her growing up had been a task she’d put off, rebufﬁng her father’s invitations. “You don’t go home much, do you?” friends would ask. Home—that fuzzy image of innocence, that haven of recognition. The place you long for when adrift.
Her father’s voice in her mind’s ear paused her: So all I had to do, Flo, to get you to Darwin was die?
But it did not stop her. She caught a taxi to the bus station, and took the bus to its terminus, a desolate former mill town thirty minutes from Darwin, and then she loaded herself and her body bag of a suitcase into a country cab—more properly called a car, a crumby minivan, with nothing marking it as professional in any way—now bringing her to her father’s house.
She did not sublet her apartment in the city; there wasn’t time, and the thought of someone else sleeping in her bed and ﬁlling her closets made her anxious— an only child, she’d never liked to share. She knew what people did in other people’s houses, and did not want it done to her. And who knew how long she’d be gone. But she had taken the time to pack all the things she liked best, leaving the B garments behind. She packed her three favorite pairs of jeans of varying degrees of tightness and wear, a pair of black corduroys, two A-line skirts, one high- slitted denim pencil skirt, and a black silk dress she’d bought several years back upon receiving her ﬁrst reasonable paycheck, imagining a life of cocktail parties and cigarette holders, and worn once. She packed socks and tights, three delicate wool cardigans, one milky white cable- knit cashmere turtleneck, ﬁve long- sleeved cotton shirts of assorted saturated colors, clogs, her turquoise old- lady slippers, sweatpants and two concert T-shirts she’d had since high school, boots (one pair heeled, one ﬂat), her six sexy pairs of underwear and her four unsexy, old, comforting pairs of underwear, and various scarves and hats. She packed a short, beaded 1920s- style ﬂapper dress—a prime example of her favorite category of clothing: inappropriate for every occasion (and thus equally appropriate for all occasions)—and a pair of pewter-colored four-inch heels of the same category. She packed soap, shampoo, and other ablutions (as if she were traveling to the tundra, where such items could not be procured, and not to New England, where they could, but then they might be inferior), and, in the midst of the vanities, she buried the folder of her father’s poems. If I lose this bag, she thought, forcing the zipper across its length, I’ll be very sad.
Darwin was three hours from everywhere: Flora was unready to arrive. It was dusk, and quiet, her country cab passing the odd station wagon loping home. Darwin—the one place in America SUVs had not yet colonized. Perhaps they were against the law. Here the indigenous station wagon still reigned supreme over his niche. Here talk of carbon footprint was as routine as talk of gas prices elsewhere. The town of Darwin knew unhappiness—the Darwinians self- satisﬁed but not content. Thick with academics and their broods—idlers, ruminators, moseyers. Thoughtful people, thinking thoughts. No one hurrying down the few placid streets. Hadn’t the Darwinians anything urgent to attend to? Yes, they had not. Poets and the world romanticize being idle—the boon of free time praised, guarded, envied—but anyone who has idled for a living knows the damaging effects it can have on the moods.
The minivan was overheated, stiﬂing. The window wouldn’t budge. Flora’s hair itched with sweat. She was being cooked alive. She took off her hat, uncoiled her scarf, unbuttoned her coat. She was a child. Her clothes, hidden all day beneath layers— why did one prefer to keep one’s coat on in public transit?—announced a complete regression. The faded black sweatshirt, the army green pants with the patched knees and safety-pinned waist, the red sneakers that she dearly loved. “Not a day over sixteen,” her father had said of her face. At what age did the compliment of youth expire?
The driver tried talk: “What brings you to Darwin?” He had the overeager voice of one stranger requiring something of another.
“You know,” Flora said. “Family.” But once she’d said the words, they sounded unkind. The man’s face ravaged, ungroomed. It was possible he did not know much of family. A woman in his life would have suggested a haircut weeks ago.
Still, the unkindness hanging in the close air was preferable to chat. She glanced at her cell phone to check the time. It was now “rejecting” text messages—an apt technological gesture—its tiny brain at capacity, and Flora thought with pleasure of her friends agonizing over compassionate abbreviated condolences, only to have them bounce right back to their machines as though repellent.
Her father’s house sat at the edge of the town proper, a ten-minute walk from the Darwin College campus. An old farmhouse, it had recently been repainted an excellent taupe. When, exactly? Even through the fouled window of the car, it had never looked prettier, or she hadn’t remembered it that way. A pretty house, certainly, but she’d thought of it as resigned and downtrodden in that way peculiar to academics and their surroundings. But her father, it seemed, had even taken up gardening, or else hired someone to work on the historically neglected ﬂower beds circling the house like a moat, the odd stem standing its ground as though it didn’t know it was November. The house was a relic from a happier time. The house was showing off. The house was oblivious; it hadn’t been informed of recent developments.
She overtipped the driver as an apology for her curtness and he hauled her morbid duffel to the door—newly painted, slate blue. Flora hesitated, as at the door of an acquaintance, where she might not be welcome, or know anyone inside. The house of a sixty-eightyear-old retiree bachelor, a reclusive reader, an academic with no more classes or committees to order his life around. Would it be pathologically unkempt, like the foul apartments of boys she’d dated post-college, the disordered universe of men living alone?
Would it feel as though he’d dashed out for a haircut, or for dish soap, and could return at any moment? Or would the house have the aura of the abandoned, like a woman whose husband runs out to gas up the car and forgets to come home?
The house was hers, on paper.
Funny how death did that—made things yours.
It was a few years after Flora and her mother moved out, after they who had needed only one house suddenly needed two, after all that had gone wrong, that her father had ﬁnally left the President’s House and come here to this house he owned, giving up one of his worlds, the world of industrial stoves, and Betsy coming to work every day, a world where you had to dial 9 to get an outside line, as though it were an ofﬁce, which of course it also was, a world of life-size paintings of dead men and grand chandeliers and ﬁre escapes, to return to the life of the full-time academic—the word full-time
in this case meaning you had to show up four times a week for approximately two hours a pop. He’d loved it right away, his old farmhouse. “I like a house that tells you how it feels,” he said of its creaks and moans. In winter there was a ﬁre always burning, in summer the windows thrown open. “I’m embowered,” he said in spring, the yellow green of leaves and buds ﬁlling every view. In high school, Flora had stayed there with him Tuesday nights, that old habit outlasting its necessity, her mother completely analyzed, for better or worse, and no longer ﬂeeing Darwin weekly for the city. Her father’s house. A place she visited—if she visited—with a packed bag.
Inside, all appeared tidy. She dropped her bag in the kitchen, waiting.
“Hello?” she called, to disturb the silence. There you are,
her father would say if he were there. “Here I am.”
She started with his study, surveying—no need to linger now. Off the kitchen, browns and grays, a blend of woods, snug. Books on shelves like rows of crooked teeth. On the desk, tall piles of papers. But no reading glasses lying, arms crossed in wait, on the table by the Shaker chair. No forgotten encrusted cereal bowl. She skimmed her ﬁngers across the old Smith Corona portable with its round green keys. Nothing. Entering the homes of other people was something Flora did for a living—or had done. She was adept at moving through other people’s spaces, taking inventory. A professional snoop.
Back through the kitchen. No cottony coating of dust on the banister. Upstairs, the bed made, the duvet new and crisp and hotel- like. Not a single sock on the wide- planked ﬂoor. No bath mat on the terracotta tiles of the bathroom ﬂoor, but folded and hung neatly on the side of the tub like a coat hung over an arm. No unearthly blue toothpaste smudges on the sink, only gleaming porcelain. Had her father even lived there? Had anyone? In her job, she’d had to orchestrate the removal of the personal for photo shoots: She’d scoured living rooms for family snapshots, reclaimed refrigerators from the collage of a child’s artwork. Here, her work had been done for her.
The fridge, she thought. Back downstairs. She opened it and stared into cavernous whiteness—still more nothing. Had he stopped eating? He had looked a little thinner, maybe, when she saw him last. The neatness was disappointing—to have nothing to scrub, to ﬁx, to set right. Then she saw the note, ﬁxed to the refrigerator door with a magnetic college mascot, the Darwin Dodo: “Dear Flora, Stopped by and straightened up a bit. I have Larks. I’m so sorry. Mrs. J.”
Larks, her father’s dog, short for Larkin, named for the poet. Flora had completely forgotten him. Were it not for Mrs. J., the dog, too, would be dead. Of course Mrs. J. would have thought to clean out the fridge and straighten up the house and feed and care for the dog, and the cloying neatness surrounding Flora was not a sign of her father’s life, just more proof of his death. Evidence kept piling up. For a moment, she resented Mrs. J.’s thoughtfulness, her thoroughness. What if in her cleaning she had erased some sign her father left behind, some communiqué from the beyond he’d intended just for her?
Her father hadn’t died in the house—a small relief. He’d gone to his old ofﬁce to say hello and pick up some mail. While there, he’d cut short a conversation with Pat Jenkins, the English Department secretary, and gone into the bathroom abruptly. It was so uncharacteristic of him, cutting short a good chat like that, and when he didn’t reemerge after ﬁfteen minutes, Pat sent Jed Schwartz, an associate professor, in after him. Jed found him lying on the ﬂoor, bleeding from a gash on his forehead. It looked as though he’d passed out and hit his head on the sink. A horrible place to die, a bathroom—an embarrassing venue for such an important moment. He wouldn’t have liked that, wouldn’t have written it that way. When Flora heard the details, she had tried to clarify, tried to undo: “You’re absolutely certain it was in the bathroom?” She’d gotten stuck on it for days, until her mother said, “Jesus, Flora, of all things to worry about.” But where mattered, just like when mattered, and how mattered.
The how he would have liked better. No humiliating, protracted illness. No slow, relentless degeneration. A colossal bang, a candle snuff. Sudden death
—an expression from the world of sports. One day life being life and the next day it being something else. Flora would not have admitted it to herself before, but she’d long expected that if her father died, he would die in a car crash. He had loved driving and made long, senseless drives—to the shore for a great lobster roll, to a neighboring state for a book he couldn’t ﬁnd in town, to the city to take her to lunch—back and forth all in a day, speeding like a bandit. Plenty of trafﬁc tickets, even a course for delinquent drivers, but no ﬁery crash, only an internal inferno; Flora wrong again, her ability to know the future as inadequate as her understanding of the past.
When Pat Jenkins called Flora from the hospital pay phone and said the words heart attack,
words that had always sounded not physical but emotional—like a particularly acute heartbreak or an overabundance of fellow feeling, an attack of heart
—she’d ﬁrst been confused: car attack? Such things happened now, but on the news, not near home. But then Pat said it again, heart attack,
and stressed how unexpected it was, how sudden, and the complete physicality struck Flora, the seizing, the constricting, the gasping, the collapsing. It struck her the way the ground struck her when, at age nine, she fell from the high branch on the apple tree in her backyard, “the break-your-nose branch,” as she and her best friend Georgia had called it.
Had Pat tried to reach her ﬁrst at work? How did she have the number? In another life, with a different family, her mother would have been the one to break the news to Flora—to smash it, really, to cream the news. In this world, though, it was loyal Pat, the only person in the English Department her father could abide, the only one he went to talk to.
“He must have known something was wrong but didn’t want to upset anyone, so he went off to be by himself,” Pat said. “He was a gentleman till the end.”
What was he, an animal going off to die alone? A gentlemanly heart attack. A courteous coronary. How civilized. Gentlemanly. That was one word for it, Flora thought, standing in the immaculate kitchen in her childlike costume. Gentlemanly, proud, stupid, selﬁsh—suicidal even. It bothered her that she hadn’t known at the precise moment of his death, hadn’t felt it. She liked to think of herself as someone who really knew people, a watcher, a noticer of others—particularly her parents. She knew them better than they knew themselves (better, maybe, than she knew herself ). In her fantasy of herself, she would have felt his absence. She would have experienced the sudden seizing just then, been gripped by a stabbing pain in her head. She would have tripped at least, fallen and scraped a knee.
Instead, if you worked out the times, you’d ﬁnd her in her apartment, inert before afternoon TV, watching an inspirational story about a woman who’d forgiven the man who viciously attacked her and left her for dead, claimed now even to love him, just as her father’s heart attacked him. The woman called the whole disaster “a real learning experience,” and whenever anyone called a disaster a learning experience, Flora wanted to stick her ﬁnger in her mouth and pretend to shoot her brains out. What did one learn from di saster? What worth learning anyway? Perhaps at the very moment of his attack Flora made her life- mocking gesture, or lifted her mug of lukewarm coffee to her lips, debating whether it was worth another sip. She’d called in sick to the magazine again that day, the second time in three weeks. But Flora wasn’t sick, just tired, rising from her bed at eleven-thirty, sleep-drunk. “If it’s not done by noon,” her father, who woke at dawn, had always said, “then to hell with it.”
She’d read about the parents of marines who died at war waiting to receive their son’s or daughter’s luggage, and when it ﬁnally arrived, rushing to unzip it, yearning for the scent of him or her, only to meet with the oily perfume of clean laundry, the heartbreak of erasure. It was marine policy to wash all clothes before returning them. Was that what she had done— returned to Darwin to smell her father’s smell? If so, Mrs. J. had, marine- like, washed the man right out of his house. Or had she? Flora remembered clasping her arms around his neck, long ago, in that other house in Darwin; he had just returned from playing tennis, and smelled sweetly of sweat, and of orange juice. But the only trace of citrus in the house today came from the toxic lemon of cleaning solvents, a faint note of tea leaves sneaking out from underneath. Or maybe the smell of tea was a hallucination, a wish gone haywire in the brain.
It was teatime, wasn’t it? Had she come up to Darwin to visit her father, he would have put the kettle on in anticipation of her arrival. A manic, cheerful, boiling whistle might have welcomed her as she walked through the door. There would be milk in the fridge, and he would have prepared the mugs with a thin layer of it, two teaspoons of sugar for him and three- quarters of one for her. He’d liked his tea sweet, the way she had as a child, but outgrew. He’d had a boyish love of sweets, his excitement at the prospect of a slice of cake uncommon in an adult. Had she come when he was alive, he would have made a plate of cookies—dark chocolate on shortbread biscuits, his favorites. Why had she not come to see him? Would he have lived longer if she had come?
The answering machine on the counter blinked the number 3 at her. Calls to her father; calls to the dead. I’m sorry, he can’t come to the phone right now—could he get back to you never? Actually, he’s deceased at the moment—would you like to leave a message?
Flora picked up the small white box and held it in the bowl of her hands. About the size of her father’s heart—this thought accosted her. When she allowed herself to consider what had happened to him, she felt like fainting—a dissonant ring in her ears, a clouding overcrowding her eyes, a sickening yanking of the crown of her head toward the ground. She yanked the cord out of the wall and threw the machine in the trash. She would regret that later. But then, she was in the regret business these days.
She had bought the machine for him years ago as a Christmas present. Exactly the wrong gift for him, but he had made himself a message, reluctantly asking callers he’d been lucky enough to miss to tell him who they were and what they wanted.
“You don’t have to use it,” she’d told him, seeing his good manners dueling it out with his lust for solitude, the two impulses equal and extreme.
“No, no,” he’d said. “It’ll be good for me. Important to keep oneself gently tethered to the outside world.”
But was that true? Maybe it was time to untether. To hell with good manners and the outside world.
Flora stood in the shadow- darkening kitchen, still in her coat, her hands against the smooth butcher block of her father’s counter. She felt winded, and brittle. Her ﬁngers were twigs; they could be snapped off. Her nails were as thin as paper. If only they could have been left behind, too. She could have scattered a trail of ﬁngers and toes and other breakable bits and pieces out the window of the cab, like Hansel and Gretel hoping against hope to ﬁnd their way back home.
As a child, Flora hated to be told to go to bed; to be expected to sleep while others sucked more life from the day was the height of unfairness. Now she longed for someone to send her to sleep. Sleep, she would sleep. But where? She couldn’t sleep in the master bedroom, her father’s bed. There was a double bed in the little guest room on the ground ﬂoor, off the living room, but she couldn’t sleep in the guest room. She’d stay where she always stayed—if she stayed—in the room called “hers,” sleep in the narrow twin bed under the yellowing blanket that had once been new, and near perfect.
She left the body bag where it lay, and took herself up the narrow back stairs, her fatigue the fatigue of the old, stepping, leaning, pausing, up to the small, neat room of dresser, desk, and bed, all the surfaces bare and buffed and signless. The lone ornamental object, a palm-size silver clock, read ﬁve-twenty-ﬁve. She opened the closet. It, too, was bare but for one small box she’d left behind years before. Flora was not a keeper of notes exchanged in long-ago classrooms. Her childhood bedrooms—there were multiple—had not been preserved shrine-like, like those of some of her friends, friends with families like time capsules; you checked on them ten years later and nothing had changed.
She pulled her feet out of her sneakers and let her coat slip to the ground, and she climbed into the tightly tucked sheets of the bed with her fraying clothing still on. She pushed her fragile hands between the safety of her knees. It was a canopy bed, the bed she’d dreamt of as a little girl and one day gotten. The canopy had long since disappeared, and now it was just a large boxy metal frame, the blueprint of a tomb. She closed her eyes. The sharp, shrill blare of the telephone (ring
wasn’t the right word, was it?) startled her. Flora did not like to answer its assault. She never had, but now even less. The phone rang, with no machine to interrupt it, on and on, and then stopped—almost violently, the sound vanishing, leaving behind the ghost of noise. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey. Copyright © 2010 by Maggie Pouncey. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.