I watched the house from the time the sour old owners, the ones with the massive credit card debt, had moved out. For a couple of weeks, through the dappled shadows of the maple tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, I monitored the side-stair colonial as realtors and their client toured it, wondering if the inspector caught the foundation trouble in that one corner.
The paths wove through the vignettes like veins, around the koi pond, the stone retaining walls, the avenue of white pebbled and sandstone pavers, and down to the creek, where an arched bridge linked to a small island with a treehouse encircled by hundreds of daisies. Rebecca and Stephen had no ambitious landscaping plans when she’d inherited the estate. But after close inspection, they’d discovered the bones of the existing garden, uncovered its harsh lines and soft curves, and, after three long years, had opened their botanical paradise to the public.
Rebecca believed gardens created themselves. Where trees had grown over time and brought more shade, the plants struggling to prosper beneath were moved. Where seeds were dropped, self-sown, and thrived, they were left. Advertisement brochures referred to their garden as ‘a living work of art’. To her, the garden was a structure to sustain life and was in some ways more important than her own. And while she and Stephen won awards for their landscape designs, and were featured on gardening shows and in magazines, there was one vignette of their garden that visitors were forbidden to enter.
Gran spreads out her knickers on the baking tray.
I hardly dare peek: my mother says it’s a crime to stare at undies, especially those of old people.
But Gran doesn’t care.
Next, she reaches for the string that loops across the kitchen and tugs my undies off it. Laying them carefully beside her own, she slides the tray into the oven.
Gran is weird – but a good sort of weird. She bakes bread in a flowerpot, and grows mustard and cress on wet facecloth. At Christmas, she sends me home-made fudge in a used can of chick peas, with a dollar coin taped to the bottom. The label is amended with black pen to Chuck Pea, her pet name for me. I’ve kept all the cans she has ever sent.
There’s a pop as the gas ignites; Gran beams. “Friendly flames on a freezing morning; what could be better?” As I watch the flames, she stretches across and ruffles my hair. I duck away, though secretly I love the touch of those soft, wrinkled hands. Continue reading
This is what I know to be true about the New Vernon House in Chepachet, Rhode Island.
In 1835, the Vernon family home burnt to the ground, claiming the lives of Constance Vernon, 38, and Matthew Vernon, 7. Thomas Vernon, 45, and his surviving sons, George, 16, and John, 13, buried their loved ones on the property before rebuilding what is now known as the New Vernon House. Upon his father’s death in 1849, George Vernon sold the property, reportedly saying “it was a fine home . . . but haunted to me.” These facts are not in dispute: the tragedy was covered at length in the New-England Telegraph, and digitized articles are now accessible through the Library of Congress. George never again publicly commented on the home, leaving locals and historians to wonder what he meant by the word “haunted.” Did he experience something supernatural there? Or was the house just a painful reminder of the loss of his beloved mother and brother?
Over the years, the New Vernon House has been the subject of speculation and gossip, as well as the scene of several reported ghost sightings and paranormal occurrences. Some say the house smells faintly of smoke, even today. Others swear they’ve seen a woman in black walking the property at night, clutching her chest and calling for help. Separating fact from fiction, rumor from reality has proven difficult. But I’m trying, and here’s why: there’s something else I know to be true about the New Vernon House. It’s the last place my daughter was reportedly seen alive.
The small graveyard, tucked in, almost hidden, past the hills and meadows is nearly empty. I stop my car in the square of pebbles in front, take the plastic bag lying in the passenger seat and step out into the howling wind.
The gate shuts on its own behind me with a thick thud. I make my way across the tombs that are spaced out seemingly haphazardly, and in a variety of sizes. For a moment, there are dim lights and laughter in the distance, then it’s gone just as quickly. Trick-or-treaters, perhaps, hunting for bounty in the residential are nearby.
Tilde brushes against my calf, sniffing into the wind at nothing. I can just barely see her tail wagging. I forgot to bring a lantern, so I use the screen of my phone to light my path forwards. The grass in here could use a trim. Long straws, still wet from the rain earlier today, sticks in chunks on my boots, but Tilde doesn’t mind it. Finally, I reach the tombstone I was searching, and pull the bouquet out of my plastic bag and place it in front of the stone.
“There,” I tell Tilde, “now we can play.”
The word ‘play’ seems to instantly switch on something in her mind, and she jumps around my feet as I dig in my jacket-pocket after a stick I picked up earlier before getting in the car. Playing with Tilde I lose all track of time – I exhaust myself physically, but mentally I’m in a pleasant, soothing lull of sorts. Tilde’s a bundle of energy, same as always. A man walks by, just a shadow against the fence and the trees, I don’t know if he even notices Tilde but he says nothing, just nods to me before strolling further into the graveyard.
I lay my plastic bag flat in the grass and sit down, and Tilde comes to rest by my lap. I scratch behind her ears and move my hand along her nape and back, and so we sit in silence until my wrist is tired and it’s time to part.
“Sit,” I say and she winces, knowing it means our time is up, but looks a bit more eager when I put my hand in my pocket. She sits, and I put the bone-shaped little nugget in my hand on top of her tombstone.
“Until next year,” I say and stand up, ready to rush back to my car, because I still can’t stand being left here alone. So when she turns around, I do, too. Much better to say good-bye like this, with a trick and a treat.
Because even his mid-life crisis takes only frugal turns and it would never occur to him to pay extra for shipping, the violin arrives just when he forgets about it. The mailman doesn’t even bother to bring it to the door but leaves it instead with a perfunctory wave just inside the periphery of his front yard.
He has to dig it out from among the ferns and brings it inside while his children and a boy from next door are playing under the canopy of a giant pine tree, which some of his neighbors have been passive-aggressively nudging him to do something about lest it keel over and cause god-knows-what damage. But such are concerns of grown-ups with too much time on their hands. The children are engrossed in their game and don’t even ask him about his strange-shaped parcel.
The last time he touched a violin was when TVs still came with adjustable antennas and telephones had rotary dials. He doesn’t remember what that violin, with which he took lessons with a self-proclaimed maestro named Mr. Kreutzer for five years, cost, but his eBay violin cost just 38 dollars, including shipping. It’s a frightening sum considering that it traveled to his home all the way from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Ever since I was small, I’ve always imagined myself somewhere else when I go to sleep. Someplace outdoors, usually, someplace wild, a rainforest or a mountainside or an island off a rocky coast. I’ll be traveling, escaping something maybe, and I’ll have found or made some kind of shelter. Rain or snow or wind will be battering it, but I’ll be warm and protected.
Of course, I knew when I ran away from home that it wouldn’t be like that, and it wasn’t. I slept in a tent pitched under a leaning redwood stump in a canyon north of Mendocino, less than twenty-five miles from home. It was summer, so there was no snow or rain, but every morning and most afternoons there was cold fog that couldn’t be kept out. My feet felt like blocks of wood. Banana slugs clung to the outside of the tent. Spiders found their way into my sleeping bag. I was living on apple juice, peanut butter, and raisin bread.
I spent too much time thinking. About my mother’s suicide, about who should or shouldn’t have done or said what, about how it played out in parallel universes. We’d all seen it coming, my father and my brother and I. She’d been depressed, delusional, obsessive for years. But (as I saw it that summer, anyhow) I was the only one who felt guilty about it, who thought there was something more we could have done. My father seemed fatalistic about it, my brother downright nonchalant. That was what had driven me out of the house, that one last feeble protest I felt I had to make. Continue reading
Matt pushes open the rear door to the office and creeps across the floor in torn jeans and a flannel shirt. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and peers through the square hole separating the front office from editorial. He clenches his teeth against the bitter air, but can’t discern any sounds except the light tapping of a keyboard and the radiator clicking. Then a woman’s voice and then another buzzes like a radio going in and out of tune. Leaning closer, he attempts to translate the sounds into language, but can only make out hard k’s and soft s’s. One of them is Jean, his editor, and the other is Mary Ellen, the 25-year old receptionist. His girlfriend. Maybe they’re talking about the weather or the details for an important delivery, but Mary Ellen’s face, when he saw her a moment earlier through the front glass window, had the look of someone sharing important secrets. A chair scrapes against wood and Matt abruptly steps backwards, careens over Jean’s desk, and crashes into her chair, spilling it on its side. He rushes to his own desk and turns on his computer. It’s just coming to life when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“When’d you get in?” Jean comes around to the front of his desk.
“A few minutes ago.” Continue reading
Dear Parent or Guardian,
SKYLAR RICHARDS has been suspended from Southport High
School for FIVE DAYS , commencing on IMMEDIATELY .
The grounds for suspension are MISCONDUCT .
An administrative conference to determine the above was conducted
before SCHOOL FACULTY on ____TODAY . The student will be
expected to return to school on IN FIVE DAYS .
Personally, I thought suspension was a bit over the top. I mean, all I did was stick out my middle finger during the junior class portrait. Not exactly a high crime. I thought I had gotten away with it. I placed the finger on my thigh and hooked my thumb into a belt loop so the photographer wouldn’t notice. He was shooting a group portrait for the yearbook. It was the picture we’d all look back fondly on when we were old geezers. I imagined people pointing to me and saying, Look at that Skylar Richards, flipping the bird. What a card.
But the photographer caught it the next day. Submitted the evidence to the principal who, in turn, awarded me with a one-week suspension. Effective immediately. I didn’t care. I figured I would catch up on some TV. Maybe dust off my bong pipe. But this was not to be. Mom and Dad went ballistic. Placed me under house arrest. Assigned a litany of chores so onerous it would have horrified the Council on Human Rights. Scrub the floors. Polish the furniture. Mow the lawn. I’ll spare you the rest.
There weren’t many ways to ratchet up the punishment, with the exception of death or dismemberment. So, I figured I’d better comply while I still could walk. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you should always show remorse. The system is set up to reward the sad sack who regrets his actions. It pays to be a good actor. And let me say, I could give Tom Hanks a run for his money.
Unfortunately, the sad-sack routine did nothing for me. You see, it wasn’t the first time I’d been in trouble. Not even the first time that week. Just a few days before, I made a fart noise in study hall that nearly rattled the windows. I didn’t mean for it to be so loud. It’s amazing how sound will travel in a big room like the cafeteria, where they held study hall. BWARF! went the noise when I flapped my upper arm against the back of my other hand, which was lodged in my pit. The kids thought it was hysterical. They all knew it was me. So did the teacher. She sent me straight to the principal, who, in turn, called my parents. Just for making a stupid fart noise. God, what is this world coming to?
I’ve pulled about every stunt on Earth. And I’ve been caught just about every time. I’d make a terrible thief. Would probably land in jail for trying to steal a peanut. And I’ll admit, my antics are none too original. The fart noise was not original. Neither is mimicking teachers behind their backs, which I do a lot. I exaggerate their movements while crossing my eyes and pushing out my front row of choppers like they’re buck teeth. Drives the kids crazy. A real crowd pleaser. Skylar Richards, at your service.
And now I was about to pay for my sins with a week of hard labor. My parents sat me down. My father clasped his hands so tight, he could have cracked a walnut between them. My mother’s brows were knitted in anger. She did most of the talking. Most of the screaming, that is. Hysterical, would be a good word. Told me she was “gravely disappointed,” like I was a kitchen appliance that stopped working. Said she was “putting a list together.” Some sort of regimen fit for a Gulag laborer. All work, no play for five days. No video games. No TV. No internet.
“No internet?” I said. “How can I keep up with my schoolwork?”
“Read your books,” my mother said.
At that moment, I realized my parents were capable of anything. No matter how sinister. I used to think they were just odd people. Difficult to get along with. My father, with his trim gray hair and thick brows, always reminded me of Mr. Rogers—if Mr. Rogers had lockjaw and never smiled. My mother wore her hair in a short bob. She was rail thin. Looked like she’d been on a hunger strike for the past ten years. Against what, I don’t know. Maybe my father. He complained a lot, especially about his job. I don’t know what he did at his investment firm. Only that he had a bone to pick with a guy named Osley, who had screwed up the budget. Brought the wrong reports to the board meeting. Filled the water cooler with hand soap. I don’t know why he just didn’t fire the guy. After all, Osley didn’t seem to know his ass from a laser printer. My mother’s job, on the other hand, was easy to understand. Real estate agent. No mystery there.
Now here they were, my captors, taking away my internet. For all I knew, they had already changed the WiFi password. Or shut off the router completely. Their hearts were as black as coal. In all my sixteen years, I had never faced a more dire situation. The future looked bleak.
As the days passed, I tried to do the chores as prescribed by Mom. Things did not go well. Mowing the lawn wasn’t bad. But the housework was killing me. I don’t know if you’ve ever vacuumed, but it’s not pleasant. You drag the thing around, this cumbersome piece of plastic—it gets caught on every table leg you pass. And it doesn’t suck up every last bit of dirt. Dog hairs are particularly stubborn. Meanwhile, our black Lab, Barkley, is a virtual shedding machine. His sole purpose in life is to excrete fur. You can hold the nozzle over his hair for hours without drawing up a single strand. You’d think they would have invented a better device by now. I mean, the vacuum has been around for how long? The cavemen had them, right? I believe I read about them in the Bible. In fact, if you look closely at a picture of the Last Supper, I think you’ll see a guy vacuuming in the back of the room.
By day three, I was exhausted. Housecleaning was a thankless task. Labor intensive and unrewarding. Mom even had me changing the bed sheets. Talk about misguided inventions. It’s like trying to put a girdle on an elephant. The mattresses weigh a ton. Then there was dusting, mopping, sweeping. All straight from hell. It’s amazing that men got women to do this shit for the past two thousand years. What a racket us dudes had. No wonder we didn’t want it to end.
It didn’t help that my family lived in a big house. A colonial style job with a pointed entrance. Gabled, I think you’d call it. About nine windows out front. Rectangular. Double-hung, Mom would say. Dining room, living room with a fireplace, and a library filled with books last read when the Mayflower sailed over. Four bedrooms upstairs. A perfect dwelling for a dysfunctional family like ours. Even my brother Collin had his own room. He’s ten. A little blond bundle of joy. Kid’s always happy. I don’t think he even cried when he popped out of Mom’s womb. Although, I wasn’t there. Couldn’t really tell you. Anyway, Collin smiles through everything. Even Dad’s tirades. Just sits there grinning like my father is Big Bird, or Oscar the Grouch. Who wouldn’t love a kid like that?
Which brings me to day four, when a call came in from Collin’s elementary school, on that vintage ornament known as the landline. I picked it up. You use it just like a regular phone. It was the head teacher, Mr. Portman. He asked to speak to one of my parents. I guess he figured they didn’t work, and would just be sitting around the house knocking down a few suds. I clicked into prankster mode. Said to hold on. Stomped my feet like I was walking away. Then I stomped back. I imitated my father.
“Good afternoon, sir. How are you today?”
“Goddamn busy. Busy as a bee. You must know how that is, running that school of yours. Probably not getting any younger trying to keep that nuthouse in order. What time is it anyway? One o’clock already? Where the hell does the day go? How can I help you?”
“Well, sir, I wish I were calling on a better note. But I’m sorry to say I have some rather unsettling news. It’s about your son, Collin. We’re having a bit of a problem with the young man. I’m afraid he’s been disruptive in class. We tried to work the matter out internally but—”
“Disruptive? Collin? You sure?” I said, going out of character. It was such a shock. Collin never disrupted anything. Occasionally, he’d get a little bratty, just to let us know he wasn’t actually a wind-up doll. But that was rare.
I resumed my impersonation of my father. “Goddamn kid. Misbehaving. What did he do?”
“Well, we’re drafting a letter to that effect, this afternoon. It should be finalized by the end of day. Unfortunately, we don’t have an email address for you on file. Nor a cell phone number, for that matter. Regardless, we’ll be giving Collin a hard copy to present to you when he arrives home. We just wanted to apprise you of the situation, to ensure that he delivers the letter as expected.”
I felt my face flush. I wanted to tell Mr. Portman to take his letter and deliver it to his rear end. Do what you want to me. Suspend me. Expel me. Jail me in a maximum-security prison in Bangkok. I don’t care. But lay off my brother. He never hurt a fly. I needed to get off the line before I blew it. I tried to say goodbye but Portman seemed to have taken a shine to me.
“I’m sorry to have made your acquaintance on such a trying note, Mr. Richards. Perhaps someday, we can meet under more auspicious circumstances. I would like to extend an open invitation for you and Ms. Richards to join me for a meeting, at a time of your choosing, to discuss—”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll pencil you in,” I said. “Gotta go. Goddamn paperwork is piling up.”
I just about hung up on him. Then I sat on the living room couch. The thing was in vibrate mode. Who knew it could do that? Barkley trotted up. Nuzzled his head on my leg. I noticed a trail of dog hairs in his wake. I gave him a little pat. “Do you believe this shit? Our little Collin causing problems at school.” Barkley groaned in sympathy. It didn’t hurt that I was massaging the underside of his neck. He liked that. After about twelve seconds of deep thought, I decided I would get Mr. Portman’s note from Collin and destroy it immediately. Burn it in that nice fireplace of ours. Keep it out of my parents’ hands.
My brother arrived home a few hours later, looking snappy in a plaid shirt and corduroy pants. I was in the kitchen, scraping dirt from between the tiles with a toothpick. He nearly walked past without so much as a hello. Offered a quick wave of his hand as he hurried by.
“Hey, skippy, what’s up?” I said. “Where you off to in such a rush?” I got up and pulled a chair from the kitchen table. “Here, buddy, have a seat. Take a load off.”
Collin plopped himself down and set his book bag on the table.
“Had a rough day, champ?” I asked.
“Wanna talk about it?”
He shook his head.
“I see. Listen, you hungry? Would you like something to eat? Ice cream? Candy? There’s a cake in the fridge. You want a slice?”
“It’ll spoil my appetite,” Collin answered, sounding all grown up.
“It certainly will,” I said, already removing the chocolate layer cake from the refrigerator. I hacked off a slice. Poured him a glass of milk. “Listen, I spoke to this guy from your school. Mr. Dorfman.”
“Portman,” Collin said, shoveling in a forkful of cake. Half of it made it to his mouth. Barkley attended to the rest. “He talked to Dad. Did he talk to you, too?”
“He did not talk to Dad. He spoke to me, while I was making believe I was Dad. It’s between you and me, buddy. Dad knows nothing.”
Collin frowned. His little brain seemed to be working overtime. He drank some milk. Only a little bit dribbled down his chin. Barkley looked disappointed. I asked to see the letter. Collin pulled it from his bag. It was on Southport Elementary School stationary. The wording was formal. I imagined Portman himself had written it. Had that tight ass’s signature phrases all over it. Dear parents, We regret to inform you, blah, blah, blah. In a nutshell, it said Collin had misbehaved. Scrunched up a piece of paper and threw it at another kid. Fortunately, the other kid survived. Unfortunately, when reprimanded, Collin stuck out his tongue. Things escalated. Collin called the teacher a name. The one that starts with “ass” and ends with “hole.” You get the picture. As I went through the note, my eyes flipped back and forth from the paper to Collin’s face. I poked at the sheet.
“You do all this?”
He didn’t answer. Took the Fifth. Smart kid.
“Well, you’re lucky Mom and Dad will never find out. That’s all I have to say.”
“I don’t care.”
“Don’t care? Are you crazy? They’ll take your toys away. Your video games. Your Lego Star Wars Set. Your Nerf Dart Blaster. You’ll be stripped of your guns. Every last one of them.”
His eyes opened wide. So did his little mouth. “They wouldn’t …” he said.
“Oh, but they would. Their cruelty has no bounds. But don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” I jammed the letter in my pocket. “You are hereby absolved of your sins.”
“But, listen,” I said, “I have to ask you, why’d you do all this stuff? I mean, you’ve always been such a good little kid.”
“That’s it? You don’t know? But you’re a straight-A student, Colly. I’ve seen your report card. Why go crazy on us all of a sudden? This kind of stuff will get you nowhere.”
“You do it.”
“You do crazy stuff. You’re always in trouble.”
I leaned forward. “Listen, little man. You don’t want to follow in my footsteps. I’m the wrong guy to choose for a role model. Look at me. Sitting home. Cleaning the kitchen. Scraping dirt from cracks in the tiles.”
Collin gazed around the room. “Place looks clean.”
“Look, Colly. If I destroy this note, will you do me a favor and cut the shit? Go back to being the good little kid you always were.”
“How about you?”
“What about me?”
“Will you cut the shit, too?”
“Don’t say that word. Don’t curse, buddy.”
“You just did. Even Steven.”
I took a breath. “Listen, why do you care what I do? It’s beside the point.”
Collin crossed his arms. “Fair and square.”
“Fair and … huh? What does that mean?”
Collin shrugged. I tapped my finger on the table. I realized my father did this when he was thinking, which creeped me out. I shook out my arms like they do in aerobics videos, then placed my hands on my thighs. “Listen, Colly, what if I told you I was never gonna get into trouble again? That I would turn a new leaf. Mend my ways. Become a model citizen. Student of the century.”
Of course, I could never deliver on that promise. It wasn’t in my DNA. In fact, my words rang so high on the bullshit meter, I thought I heard bells. I was a hypocrite. A crooked politician. I should have run for office right then. Collin didn’t respond. What did I expect? My words were hollow. Not fit for the discerning ears of a ten year old.
“Can I go to my room now?” Collin asked.
“Sure, buddy. Go ahead. I’ll clean up here.”
Collin thumped upstairs to his bedroom. I cleared the table. Scrubbed his plate and held it to the light. I thought maybe I’d see my reflection. Make sure I was still a gangly kid with spiky black hair, and not a middle-aged guy that looked like Mr. Rogers. But there was nothing in the dish’s dull finish. I guess it was old and worn out. Like me. At sixteen, no less. Go figure.
I tore up the note and sent it down the toilet. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I went to bed that night with plenty to think about. Talk about little brains working overtime. I considered reciting the Gettysburg Address just to slow down my thoughts. Mostly, I wondered why I even cared. After all, I had spent my life perfecting the art of not giving a crap. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, Barkley jumped into bed with me. There would be dog hairs all over the place, come morning. I didn’t care. I’d clean it up tomorrow. There would be plenty of time. I had another full day before my debt to society was paid. I would take the vacuum to the hairs. I’d get that damn machine working if it killed me.
You can learn more about Stu Newman at his website, http://stunewman.com/author/
Has anyone actually died of boredom playing trains with their toddler? Marty pushed Thomas around the track, followed by too many cars. He took a tight turn and the last five cars slipped from the grooves, flopping limply to the side. Being a master engineer, Marty was no stranger to this, and calmly filed the trains back where they belonged. Continue reading