FOR SALE BY OWNER, INQUIRE WITHIN

 

Bennett fumbled with his seat buckle as he appraised the woman at the door. She’d emerged from the house as he pulled up to the curb, as if she’d been waiting for him. She was hot to sell, maybe even desperate, and the thought sent heat through his veins. Maybe he and this contemporary Cape were meant to be, seeing as how fate—in the guise of severely flawed Mapquest directions—had brought them together. He’d gotten lost on his way to the office picnic—a chore if there ever was one—driving through a labyrinth of identical streets until his last wrong turn led him here. He still didn’t know where here was, but he might want to call it home.

“I saw the sign...” he called to the woman, trying to contain the excitement in his voice as he locked the Passat with a remote ping. As he walked up the brick path he tried to establish eye contact with her. He was in sales—insurance annuities—so he knew the value of a solid visual connection with a potential client, yet his eyes kept wandering over the structural details of the house: the multi-paned windows, the storybook chimney, and a rear sloping roofline creating the classic saltbox shape. He judged it to be just under his mandatory cut-off of thirty, refusing to consider an older home, what with the high maintenance that went with age. The last thing he wanted was to spend his weekends taking care of the place. He was going to own his home, not the other way around.

“Sign?” the woman whispered to herself. They both looked at the makeshift cross on the lawn, which held the For Sale sign, one of those hardware store jobbies. When he turned back to her, he realized that she’d been crying. She was, in fact, very agitated. Her eyes were set deep in their sockets, creating two dark hollows on a face shadowed by a tangle of yellow hair. But she was trim and basically good-looking for the mileage. She strained her neck to look up the street, then down, then at his car, then, finally, at him, with an unpleasant curl of the lip.

Bennett wondered if maybe this wasn’t a good time to view the house. His mother, a real estate agent, had warned him about FOSBOs—for sale by owners. Not only were they usually an odd lot, they were often fickle and not really committed to selling.

Well, Bennett would not let this one jerk him around. Good time or not, she’d made herself available. “My name is Bennett Stone.” He pointed at the sign. “Are you the owner?”

She continued to stare at him, down to his flip-flops. He straightened up, wishing he were wearing a suit and not beach clothes. But surely she would be able to see the real him underneath.

“Excuse me,” she said, and before he could speak she’d gone back inside, closing the door with force. Why did it require such an effort to close properly? Was it a sticky door resulting from an ancient shift in the foundation, or did it merely reflect her emotional state? He looked around. He tapped neatly on the door (solid wood, attractive teal paint) and called out a half-whispered “Hello?” The woman might simply be leery about letting a strange man in her house. Understandably so. He had to convince her he was no threat. He could offer to come back with Gretchen if it came to that. The door opened sooner than he expected, and there she was. Her hand gripped the latch (colonial faux-forged) like a sword. He stood very still and they looked squarely at one another.  

“Are you coming in or not?” she asked, in a tone that, while not especially polite, was at least civil. He must look trustworthy, a man any woman would allow into her home.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’d love to have a look.” Before he entered, he cast about for an opportunity to ingratiate himself to her. It was too soon to say something flattering about the house—he had to maintain an aloof stance there—and as far as her own appearance, the least said about that the better. Her outfit consisted of denim shorts and a wrinkled, purple T-shirt, and, if he was not mistaken, no bra. Her feet were naked except for bits of chipped pink polish. But as he stared at her toes, his eyes were drawn to something reflective by the stoop (brick, matching the path). Acting the responsible landowner, he picked it up. A Bob Dylan CD. As he presented it to her, the disc caught the sun, and he felt himself bathed in its special light, pleased to be given this chance to win her over, to return to her something that she’d lost.

 “Give me that,” the woman said as she snatched it from him, almost removing his thumb. “It’s Dickhead’s.” In one swift motion she flung it away from her like a Frisbee, and it landed with a plastic tink in a raised plot of earth, where a garden had been dug up but never planted.

Bennett pondered the situation. The existence of Dickhead, the music enthusiast, explained a great deal. Only love could have such devastating consequences. If this was, as it appeared, a divorce sale, Bennett would have to handle himself—and her—with tact and persuasion. He pointed to the fleshy-leaved bushes meant to camouflage the foundation (cinderblock, no obvious cracks or settling) of the house. A few red petals still clung on, although their season seemed long past. “Rhododendron?”

She swung around and held him with a stare. “They were here when I got here. And I loathe them.” She retreated to the door and he thought he was going to lose her again, when she stopped with a jerk. “Come in,” she said sharply, as if giving orders to a dog.

He obeyed, practically leaping over the threshold, and found himself directly in the living area. Normally, he was not a big fan of formal entryways on the theory that it was just so much wasted space, but for the first time he saw what the tradeoff was. An open layout gave precious little attention to transitions. Even the smell was too intimate, too soon. Artichoke? Melon? Some sandalwood. She probably burned incense, being of that generation. His mother instructed sellers to pop an apple in the oven to infuse a house with domestic tones before a showing, but this woman had no one to guide her.

 “Sorry if I was short,” she said, almost trying on a smile. “It’s been a bad day, is all. It’s been a bad lot of days.”

He nodded sympathetically. “That’s quite alright.” He gestured at the room. “Do you mind if I just poke around?”

She flipped her hand in agreement, then stood at the picture window gazing out over the marsh as if it were some bleak scene, and not one full of sunshine and cattails and white leggy birds. He contemplated the arrangement by the fireplace (pale yellow tile), a deep-cushioned sofa covered in floral turquoise and rose, and two overstuffed chairs in matching fabric. He squinted, trying to imagine his leather couch and La-Z-Boy in the same spot. On the opposite wall, a sturdy shelf ran the length of the room, where the woman had arranged shells, photos, bits of pottery, driftwood, and books. He envisioned setting up the computer in that corner, and using the shelf for manuals and files. He allowed himself to imagine being right at home, but knew enough not to fall in love. Emotions would only hamper his negotiating power. 

He bent to touch the sea-green carpeting and had a frightening thought. Maybe the house belonged to Dickhead. Nothing had made it conclusive that she owned the place. But it was getting embarrassingly late in the game to set straight such a basic understanding.

He inched his way back into her line of vision. “Excuse me.” He paused to rid his throat of a squeak. “But, before, outside, I didn’t catch if you were the owner or not.”

She put a hand to her tear-stained face. “What? You think I’m here to pump the septic or something?”

 “No, no,” Bennett reassured her, not wanting to lose the modicum of good will he had built up, but also curious about this septic system she spoke of. “So you’re not on city sewer?”

She was gone before he finished his sentence, and he quickly followed her trail to a door under the stairs. She switched on the light and glared in the mirror over the sink (white, he was glad to see, as was the toilet). “Oh, God,” she muttered, then slammed the door shut before running off again.

He could now assume she was, in fact, the owner, but she still seemed to have no intention of actually “showing” him the house. Maybe it had to do with Dickhead, maybe not. Bennett hesitated to read too much into anyone’s behavior. He believed that the best answer was always the simplest: She’d probably experienced one too many real estate disappointments lately. His job, he could see, was to convince her of his seriousness.

He found her in the living area, with her head tilted back on the sofa and her arms limp by her side. This was not a happy camper. He wished he’d brought Gretchen along to deal with her, but he hadn’t known he’d be looking today. Besides, it was awkward touring houses with her. Sometimes she acted as though it was going to be her house too, and they had hardly been together long enough for that sort of thinking. Slow and steady he’d told her right from the start. He hadn’t even asked her to the office picnic this year because that would be two years in a row and he didn’t want to give her, or his coworkers, the wrong signal.

 “I’m very interested,” he told the woman. “I’d like to know a little more.” The first thing he wanted to know was the price, but a subtle approach was called for there. He would ask about her first, then lead the conversation on its natural course to money. “How long have you been here?”

She lifted her head with a groan. “Since last winter.”

Bennett considered this. She must be desperate to sell so soon. He was in the catbird seat. He was about to pop the question when she spoke again.

 “Seven months ago.” Her voice was beginning to rise. “I thought it was a safe thing. I’d been seeing Dickhead for over a year and a half. I moved here to be closer to him, but why do I want to be here now?”

Bennett was tempted to point to the view and say “for that” but of course, she should be selling him the house, not vice versa. The woman suddenly sat up straight and stared at him, waiting for an answer. She must have been very pretty once, because even now, with a few crows feet and teary eyes, she was not half bad. Dickhead really was a dickhead. On the other hand, he and Gretchen had been “seeing” each other for that long, but he’d consider it downright foolhardy if either of them uprooted for the other.

 “Yes, sounds like it’s time to move on.” He hesitated. “Tell me, what are you asking for the place?”

“There’s an appraisal here somewhere.” She briefly surveyed the room with no interest, then she turned back to him. “It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Sell the house?”

“Absolutely.” Bennett sat next to her on the sofa, happy to be drawn in as a confident. “Do you remember at all, what the appraisal said?”

She looked at her hands and shook her head. “But what if he changes his mind? How would he find me?”

Bennett’s heart thumped sharply against his rib cage, then he pulled himself together. Reconciliation seemed unlikely. He himself had always been firm and irrevocable when ending a relationship. It was kinder that way, no matter how harsh it might seem at the time. He only hoped Dickhead was as principled as he was. “Don’t go down that road,” he said, with more ardor than he intended. He softened his voice. “I know that if I lived here, I’d make sure he could find you. Do you remember, by any chance, what you paid for the house? That might give us some idea.”

 “Too much,” she said, with utter desolation in her voice. “I paid far too much.”  

Without warning, she dropped to her knees and began tossing books off the coffee table and onto the floor--Yoga for DepressionHe’s Just Not That Into You —until she uncovered a binder and held it to her chest. “Would you like to see the album I made of the two of us?” 

Looking at pictures was, by far, the last thing he’d like to do, but in the spirit of building trust, he agreed. “Sure, let’s have a look.”

He joined her on the floor, and felt the nub of the carpet on his knees. He tried to determine if it was wool or nylon (a blend?) as he watched her turn page after page of the album, lovingly and slowly, as if caressing her beloved’s arm. Who, surprisingly, had Loser written all over him.

She thrust the album in his face. “Don’t we look happy?” It was open to a picture of her, looking healthy and tan, and Dickhead, looking pasty and stupid, squatting in front of a tent in Maine, with pine trees all around. She was cooking over an open fire and Dickhead had his arms wrapped around her waist, and they both looked up at the camera with delight. “Am I wrong?” she asked. “Am I crazy? These are two happy people. How can you be happy with someone one minute and not happy the next?”  

Again, he felt it was too dangerous to state the obvious truth. Yes, they looked happy in the pictures, but that was then, and this is now, and feelings change. “It doesn’t sound like he was worth all this,” he said.

She looked down at the picture. “Do you think there’s someone else?”

Bennett was quite sure there was someone else—there always had been for him— but he wasn’t going to say it. “You know,” he ventured. “It sounds like he had a lot of problems and you’re really better off. You’ll be happier with someone else, and,” he coughed slightly, “somewhere else.”

She sputtered her lips with disgust. “Have you seen what’s out there for women my age? Nothing! That’s why everyone has to poach from everyone else.”

She was well on her way to tears again and that was not going to get him this house. They had important things to discuss, like money. He tried to remember what Gretchen always said to console her heartbroken friends, of which there always seemed to be so many.

 “Don’t beat yourself up,” he said, reciting from memory. “He’s obviously one of those guys with commitment issues. He probably loved you so much he had to leave before he got hurt. It had more to do with him than you.”

The tears that had been threatening to come, came. “Just once, I want it to be about me! Why can’t it ever be about me?”

That hadn’t worked out as planned, Bennett thought, as he clenched and unclenched his hands. Maybe he should just go and come back at another time with his mother. She was trained to deal with such contingencies, not a regular guy like him. He looked around for an escape and he noticed some papers and vitamins on the counter that divided the living space from the kitchen. Maybe in that clutter was the appraisal, and if he found that, he would know where he stood. “I’m going to have a look at the kitchen.”

Halfway to his destination, he was surprised to hear her bare feet pounding up behind him. The floor vibrated with each step. It made him wonder about the floor studs and if he’d ever get a chance to see the basement.

“We used to cook together,” she said, passing him by altogether. “Every Thursday night and every other weekend, when his girls were at their mother’s. First at my old place in the city, then here. I was looking to buy anyway, so I thought, why not here? And then a couple of weeks ago, out of nowhere, he leaves a message while he knows I’m at the office, telling me it’s not going to work and won’t even return my calls. Won’t even return my calls.”

Tears ran down her cheeks and Bennett looked down at the floor (checkerboard linoleum tile) in embarrassment. He was not equipped for all this. He walked around the kitchen, stopping nonchalantly at the counter, trying to peruse the papers without obviously rifling through them. On the top of the pile was an insurance letter, denying coverage for therapy. He turned away.

 “Is this a gas range?” he asked, even though he knew it was. He wanted to remind her of her duties. Not only that, he wasn’t absolutely sure how he felt about gas versus electric. It was something he wouldn’t mind talking about.

She blinked through her tears then grabbed one of the knobs and wrenched it off. “Dickhead broke this. He was clumsy but I never cared. I never got it fixed because I liked to think of him every time I turned it on and it came off in my hand.” She jabbed it back on its spoke and Bennett heard the ominous “click” of cracking plastic.

Other than the knob, it was a perfect kitchen. The cabinets (simple, raised paneling) looked easy to clean, and the sink (stainless steel) was deep. The room was not too big or complicated. He wouldn’t be paying for a lot of fancy appliances he wouldn’t be using. It was time to work back to that question of money. She had to look for the appraisal, or there was no point in him even being there.

“I wonder,” he said, pausing to get his phrasing right.

“You wonder where we met?” she looked at him. The darkness under her eyes seemed to be spreading.

He shook his head to ward her off, but it was too late.

“We’re both in public relations, and we met at a launch party for some silly snack food. Flaming Corn Sticks. I didn’t think too much of them, or him. I mean, you saw the pictures. But he pursued me. He worked at it. He worked at me, selling himself. And I bought it.”

She put both hands on the counter (butcher block) and seemed very involved in trying to steady herself. He wanted to offer some comfort, but he couldn’t—wouldn’t—try to assure her that Dickhead would return. He snuck a peek at his watch. He’d already invested so much time, he might as well hang in there and try to see the upstairs before leaving. Then he’d have his mother call her about the price. She could pry an appraisal from a piece of wood, and he made a mental note to get this woman's phone number. “It’s a big world,” he said, soothingly. “There are plenty of men who’ll appreciate you. Have you ever thought of California?” 

She grabbed a towel from over the sink and wiped her face. “No.” She talked into the terry cloth. “I’m... going ... to ... be ... alone ... for-e-ver. No one wants a woman my age.”

 “Of course they do,” he said, but he knew they didn’t really. The dating pool for this woman was, unfortunately for her, men with walkers and Depends. Never mind California, she should be thinking Florida.   

She twisted the towel with both hands. “What would you know?” she asked. “Look at you. You’re shaped like an egg and you’re already losing your hair. You smell like Cheese Doodles, and your shorts have cuffs for Christ’s sake. But I’ll bet you have a cute girlfriend. You can get married any time you want, when and if it’s convenient for you. If not her, then someone else. What do you even want this place for? An investment? Or a life?”

Bennett looked around. How had they gotten here? One minute he was admiring a refrigerator, the next she’s yelling at him. She didn’t even know him! And yet ... he looked down at his hands. Orange dust ringed his fingernails. She had a good nose, he had to give her that. After he’d given up all hopes of ever finding the picnic, he’d started eating his contribution to it, a bag of Cheese Doodles. He wiped his hands on his blue, cuffed shorts.

“I have a girlfriend, yes,” he said, in a wounded voice. “I suppose we’ll get married someday.” But as soon as he said the words, he knew he would never marry Gretchen. He liked her well enough, but the truth was their relationship had been more of a convenience than anything else. When his father had hit a bad stretch of unemployment, Bennett had invited him to stay on the couch. But it was only a one-room apartment, so Bennett started spending more and more time at Gretchen’s. Had he ever been in love with her? He’d told her so. Maybe he even believed it at the time. He couldn’t remember. He blinked, as if that might improve his powers of recall. Over the woman’s shoulder, outside the kitchen sink window, he could see a child in the next yard. Alone on a tire swing, going around and around. It made him dizzy just to watch.

“Someday?” The woman wiped her eyes with the towel before throwing it in the sink. “And when might that someday be?”

He forced himself to look at her. It seemed suddenly important to prove to her that he was not a Dickhead. He could commit. Just not now. “When I’m settled.” He looked pointedly around the kitchen. “When I have a house.”

“So,” she said, with a smile that was half a frown. “If I sell you this house, you’ll get married, is that it? Why not first get engaged, then you and your fiancée can shop together, get the house you both want? Doesn’t she get a say?”

“There’s no point dragging someone else along until I know what the price is. I don’t even know how many bedrooms there are!”

“There are two,” she said, holding up a couple of fingers as if she might poke his eyes out with them. “And we fucked like rabbits in both of them if you want to know. We fucked right here in the kitchen while waiting for the chicken to roast. We fucked on the stairs. We fucked out on the front lawn. And here.”  With both arms she swept everything off the counter, then she pounded a fist on the empty space. Bennett eyed the upset papers on the floor, still hoping to find the appraisal.

“He wasn’t the most creative lover,” the woman continued, her voice splintered. “Or the most considerate, but we were at it all the time. Before we ate, after we ate. I’d give him blowjobs on the way home from dropping the twins off at gymnastics. He can’t have left me for sex. He can’t. Follow me. I’ll show you bedrooms.”

Bennett hesitated. His first impulse was to run far and fast. But then he’d lose his chance at the house, and he wanted it now, badly. He wanted it all the more because she was trying to keep it from him, taunting him with his shortcomings. He must be professional about this, even as she was getting more and more unhinged. All this talk about sex! She would certainly regret that later.

“Yes,” he said, bracing himself. “Lead the way.”

She turned and he followed. He would take a quick look at the upstairs, and then he could tell his mother he’d seen it all, so she could make an educated bid. The staircase was a little narrow and he had to ask himself if he minded, and he didn’t. They hurried down the hall and he caught a glimpse of the bathroom, and he was pleased to see that, as in the downstairs john, the fixtures were all white.

“I hate to keep asking,” he said, behind her. “But any chance the appraisal is upstairs somewhere?”

She stopped at a closed door and turned to look directly at him. Her mouth was twisted in terrible pain and he thought she might start crying again. “I opened myself up,” she said, her voice barely holding on. “We even had anal sex. I hate anal sex, but I let him in. I trusted him! And now he’s gone.”

Then she pushed open a door, and with a slap of her hand against the wall, turned on the light. He entered with considerable misgivings, but he felt himself being drawn in against his will.

She sat down on the edge of the bed, and stared listlessly in front of her. He looked around, afraid of what he might find. Downstairs had been well designed and neatly ordered, but this room was a complex world unto itself. After months of house hunting, his first impulse was to open the closet door—the main “talking point” of a bedroom—and have a look inside, but he couldn’t possibly do that now. Not after she’d just made herself so—what was that word Gretchen used when she was angry with him? Vulnerable. Besides, what did closets matter to him? He never kept enough of anything to need that much space.

He didn’t know what to do with his eyes, so he looked down. The floor (pine) was covered in small hooked rugs, primitive floral and animal designs in rustic colors that matched the bedspread. It was quilted with bright triangles of satin and velvet that added up to a colorful, ever-expanding star.

The woman let herself fall backwards onto it. “What happened?” she mumbled to herself, like a street person.

Bennett moved to the window. Sheer scarves in shades of red and purple were draped around it, serving as curtains, and they moved in the breeze off the marsh as if made of wind. Bits of crystal and stained glass hung by fishing line in the panes, breaking the sunlight up into individual elements like the CD had, only clearer, and more real. It was piercing.

Only wooden window dividers could support that sort of weight, which meant that the house was older than he thought. They hadn’t made houses this well in a long time. But then he considered how hard it was to maintain windows like this, how difficult they were to clean and patch with glazing compound. He wondered if it was worth the trade-off; he wondered if he was up to all the work. A family of birds lit upon the marsh in a great flapping of wings, and he put his fingertips on the glass.

“I was so careful,” she continued in a soft voice, as she stared at the ceiling, where prisms of rainbows appeared and reappeared. “I didn’t let myself fall too deep, too soon. But I made the fatal error of trust. I never learn.”

Bennett turned away from the window. No, she didn’t learn. Here she was alone with a stranger in her bedroom. Either she trusted him or he was such an obvious nerd he posed no threat. But he was a threat. He had lust in his heart. Not for her body, but her house, which he’d snatch from her in a nanosecond while her defenses were down. He was just another Dickhead.

He walked over to the stenciled bureau and saw himself in the mirror. He was, as she said, shaped like an egg. An egg with a chin and protruding eyes. His pores were large, and what little hair he had wasn’t even combed. He was no bargain.

After a moment, he sat down on the edge of the bed. He folded his hands in his lap and looked around at the dozens of paintings on the walls. Some were portraits, some were abstracts, others were landscapes. Every picture was a discovery. He thought of his studio apartment, with its empty stretches of badly taped drywall, him on a sofa bed, his father on the couch, both of them staring at the TV set between them. She’d told him everything except for the one thing he wanted to know, and he was too lame to find the answer on his own.

“Don’t let Dickhead force you out of here,” he said.

She looked at him and her eyes were a brilliant blue, fringed with wet lashes stuck together in starry points. She smiled. “Thank you. I knew you were the right person to ask.”

He felt enormously tired, as if his head might snap off from the weight if he didn’t rest it. When he stretched out on the bed, the woman did not object. In fact, she made a little room for him. They lay side by side, staring at the ceiling, neither talking nor touching. An overhead light (frosted glass) was centered above them, and he realized that one of the bulbs was burned out. He wondered if that had been a natural result of age, or was something wrong with the fixture itself. 


JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have been widely published, and she is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. You can contact her at www.joeannhart.com.