Remember the meaning of "friends"
|The angry buzz of hornets by the front door matched my mood. The insects zipped and hummed in frenzy, like stock traders on the exchange floor. I climbed out and slammed the car door behind me. I was no doubt out of my mind looking at a house on a Minnesota lake instead of a flat in New York City. So far, people acted like I already lived here, and they needed to get to know me better. Their friendliness was driving me crazy.
“We’ll go in through the back,” my realtor said, as she pulled her tight skirt straight over plump thighs. “I forgot to give you this.” Mattie flipped a business card at me with a picture taken in one of those glamour studios, all fuzzy to hide the wrinkles. I slid the card in my back pocket and looked behind me.
“What is that?” I asked. The house sat well back from the road and centered in the horseshoe drive sat a piece of round, grey, splintered plywood suspended a foot above the ground. It appeared big enough to hold a Volkswagen Beetle, but not strong enough.
Mattie glanced back. “Oh, that. That was the carousel. You know, for kids?”
“Oh.” My immediate image was of a round, spinning piece of metal with bars on it. One foot on and one foot pushing off the ground to see how fast I could make it go. The world whirled by, changing every second. Back when it was alright for the world to change.
“C’mon,” Mattie urged.
I looked at the front of the house. “It’s pink stucco. In the picture, it looked red. I’m not sure I can do a pink house.” I shielded my eyes from the afternoon glare, and reached for the sunglasses hanging around my neck.
“It used to be deep red.” Mattie started walking around the side. “I suppose it fades over the years. You could make the stucco any color you want,” she went on. “It’s so Art Deco, don’t you think?”
“That it is,” I agreed. The design originally caught my eye. The flat roof sported rounded, extended eaves. The windows lay long and narrow. A garage off to the side was an obvious brick add-on and looked like a leg attached where an arm should be. A picture window off the front door gave me an eye level view into an elegant dining room, the eight chairs set, china on the table, and silver at their side, a large, artificial arrangement of yellow mums at the center. “Anyone expecting us?”
Mattie, twenty feet away now, apparently did not hear me. She picked her way in four inch heels through overgrown grass and weeds around the side of the house. I followed her black skirt, her red Bolero jacket and her glued blonde hair. I wondered how long before a run appeared in her stockings.
My jeans and running shoes could care less. I took off a light jacket covering a red running marathon T-shirt from a decade before, and looked up to rotted window frames and crumbling stucco.
“I did mention I didn’t want to put a lot of work into a house, right? Trying to keep life simple?” I tripped on a beer bottle and looked down. Beer cans, bottles and cigarette butts littered the area along the side wall. “How long has it been empty?”
“Empty? Around two years, I guess.” Mattie stopped at the back door and turned to me as she fumbled in her purse for the lockbox code. “But, the old lady lived by herself for ten, and she didn’t do much. That’s why the price. Plus, the county has a permit to use it for fire fighting practice if it hasn’t sold in the next two weeks. You’re really buying the lakefront property, not the house. See?” She tossed her head to indicate the view. “Which means, of course, you need to get started on buying it pretty quick if you’re interested. Now, don’t tell me I left it that code at the office.”
I raised my eyes and looked twenty yards beyond, over thickets of brush to a lake shimmering in the sun. A motor boat went by, the sound of the small engine fading in the distance. The boat’s wake lapped up to the shore. A hornet whined near my ear and I waved it away.
“Plus,” Mattie went on, her voice reminding me of a kitten learning to meow properly, “you’d be saving something of a landmark.”
“Landmark? A bit different than the picture,” I said.
“Dammit.” Mattie pouted and pulled out a wallet, a water bottle and a notebook and tucked them under one arm. The quilted bag was capable of holding two Chihuahuas, possibly three. She dug deeper. I
gazed up at the two of us in the back door’s paned window and wondered how we could be any different. We were about the same age, but the similarity ended there. Twenty-five years ago, I might have dressed in a skirt and stockings. There were strands of gray in my brown hair, cut short just below my ears. I would never consider the light bulb shade of hers, no matter how gray it got. Hundred watts, minimum.
Being a big-boned woman and five foot eleven, I dwarfed Mattie’s petite frame. I never once worried about a man taking advantage of me physically and soon learned the lesson applied mentally as well. I wore pantsuits the day they came out and my heels lowered almost weekly until my toes announced a truce. As a Wall Street broker when women were as scarce on the trading floor as hair on an old man’s head, I clawed, scraped and broke one glass ceiling after another. It was the only way to feel secure, to know where you were. People weren’t your friends, they were your associates. You did not have to trust them; you just had to know them. Then Rebecca happened.
I knew it was cutthroat competition, but she was my friend. I brought her into the company; I taught her how things were done. Rebecca was like a little sister and she soaked it up, listened to every word. That is, until the promotion I’d waited my entire career for, was hers. Suddenly, I was uninvited to important meetings, not copied on company-wide e-mails. Word went out to my clients I was having “issues.” The last person on the planet I suspected was Rebecca.
She told me herself, over coffee. “Cynthia, I think it’s time you think of retirement. You have tons of money! Go do what you always wanted to do.”
“And what,” I asked, “have I always wanted to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Start a consulting business, write a newsletter, be a talking head on TV. You’d be great at any of that.”
“And what if I don’t want to?”
“Then, I will make your life Hell.”
I watched as she left the table, put a twenty on the order counter and walked out of my life. Lucky me. One friend in thirty years and I chose her. Fortunately or not, my secretary came to my apartment three days and several bottles of gin later and found me passed out with a packet of razor blades, some of which I used to draw the company logo on the inside of my arm. Thus, “retirement” was at hand.
The ad for the house in USA Today caught my eye: “Art Deco mansion on beautiful Minnesota lake. All furnishings included.” The phone number followed. The picture, I now realized, was taken about the last time I wore a skirt.
“Here we are.” Mattie punched a series of numbers into the lockbox, took the key out and opened the back door with a smile, the latter of which reminded me why I should do something about my teeth. A one time heavy smoker they remained a dismal yellow. Mattie’s looked like a commercial for whitening strips. With a sweep of French tips on her well-manicured fingers, she motioned me to step through. As I walked by, she flicked on a light. I faced boxes, lamps, golf carts, golf clubs, canoes, paddles, electric heaters, buckets, bicycles and piles of pots and pans.
Smelling like an antique store locked up for twenty years, the room’s contents suffered under layers of dust, muting whatever color may have been. Single lines of spider web crossed from ceiling beam to ceiling beam and dust floated in the sun coming in a side window. I sneezed. The sound reverberated through the room and I felt I’d violated the “no talking” rule at the library.
My eyes landed on what appeared to be a carousel horse in the far corner. He was black with a gold, luxurious mane, some of which fell over his forehead. His saddle was white, with gold fringes. My mind went back to the platform in the front drive and it occurred to me, it was a real carousel once, with horses and maybe music. The horse’s head was cocked slightly away from me. He appeared focused on a doll standing to his side. I shuffled forward, almost knocking over a floor lamp, to get a better look.
“Good grief! That’s a Betsy McCall doll.” My heart stopped, and then picked up again. There stood my best friend, my ally, my compatriot, my confident, my little girl, my big sister. I last saw her at least forty years ago, but I recognized her instantly. She looked at me from her blue glass eyes and I felt mine water. She stood the same height I did when I was four. Her brown hair was dusty and her pale blue dress with the white pinafore had the bottom ruffle almost torn off. Her cheeks were smudged with dirt and I longed to reach over and wipe them. One arm was raised, almost in greeting, the other part way up as though to caress the horse. I remembered our long conversations, how I would make lots of money so we wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else, we could do whatever we wanted. I steadied the lamp and started across the room.
“A what?” Mattie’s voice jarred me back to reality. “Here are the steps to the living level. Let’s go this way.” Mattie put her hand on my back. I turned away from the horse and my best friend and climbed two creaking steps into a kitchen last updated when Kennedy was President.
“When did you say the house was built?” The kitchen was L-shaped. I gazed at sparkled countertops, nicked and discolored where something sat too long or burned its image in. Painted cabinets faded to a pale blue filled out the walls. The sink was a yellow ceramic reminiscent what came up with my cat’s hairballs. The linoleum floor stretched across the room, white where people had walked. Over the sink, a long low window brooded to the front yard.
“Nineteen fifty-five. Great, isn’t it? Like a step back in time. Not even a dishwasher!” Mattie smiled, then snapped a breath, obviously realizing this may not be a selling feature. She regained her sales person composure. “Most everything works, but you would want to have an inspection, for sure. Now, let me show you the rest of the house….”
I watched Mattie walk away from me, apparently sure I would follow, something I seldom did in life. I opened a cabinet wiping the dust on my jeans, to canned goods, some exploded and long since dried out. The bottom of the shelf above sported the brown drippings of beans, the blood red of tomato sauce and the dried remains of creamed corn. Soups with expiration dates before the fall of the Berlin Wall resided to one side, their tops bulging. I decided to move on.
A large cupboard in the corner revealed a fully stocked bar. Jim Beam and every label Johnny Walker made gazed back at me. Vodka, from a time when vodka did not come in flavors, joined the rums from Jamaica and Barbados. These were at eye level. I gazed higher and saw the finer brands, the Courvoisier, the B&B. I bent down and met with cherry liquor, peppermint schnapps, apricot brandy and banana liquor. They guarded my gaze to a myriad of bottles behind them.
“Oh, you’ve found the liquor cabinet.” Mattie stood behind me. “The parties were amazing. I remember them. We went swimming in the lake, ate barbecue, played on the carousel. It was wonderful to come to a Zimmerman party. My mom would spend hours trying to decide what to wear.”
“You lived in town then?”
“Oh yes. The place was nothing like it is now. It was the most beautiful house on the lake. We never heard of Art Deco or stuccoed houses. Everyone was aghast. The sort of thing they had in Florida, Mom said, not Minnesota. But, she didn’t say that once we’d been to a party. Come on, look at the view.”
Mattie took my elbow this time and led me through the wide opening to the living room and she was right; the view was all. Up high enough to see past the shrubs, the land rolled in grassy waves down to the lake, disappearing in the water.
“Is that a boat house?” I looked at a small building off to the left, a mismatched reject sided with blood red shingles and algae-covered roof.
“Yes, and it has two boats in it. They’re old and probably don’t run, but a collector might want them. And, there’s a little apartment upstairs.”
I shifted my gaze back to Mattie. “Tell me again about the contents of the house. Everything comes with it?”
“Yep. Shoot, you might find stuff in here worth more than the house. Tell you what, you buy the house, I’ll take the carousel horses off your hands. There’s just the two, you know.”
She flashed those white teeth and shifted her gaze from my eyes. It seemed the horses were worth something. People were so transparent; I could read her like a book.
“Carousel. You mentioned that earlier. Carousel like as in horses on a motorized platform and music?” I felt my brain move slowly in time to a calliope, life floating by in an understandable rhythm.
“Uh-huh. I’ll show you again when we go back out front. Let’s look at the rest of the house.” She turned to make sure I came. The living room furniture, previously overlooked for the view, surrounded me. A long green velvet couch waited for someone with a good book. The winged side chairs matched. The lime shag carpet, which ran in ripples over the floor, confirmed I did smell mold. As my eyes roamed the room, I realized everything was green except the white marble tops of the coffee and end tables. They stood on gold legs with claws, held gold drawers and blended with a gold chandelier overhead. The flocked wallpaper sported a jungle of ferns and I ran my hand over to feel the stiff velvet. Probably elegant in its day, the room struck me as aggressively ugly. My propensity for modern, clean lines made me sniff. I sneezed again.
“What is that rotten egg smell?” I asked. “It wasn’t in the kitchen.”
“Oh, it’s just probably something that needs cleaning up. Come on.”
I wondered if the “something” resided under the floorboards. Mattie led me through the rest of the house with a flow of chatter. She pointed out each of the four bedrooms with baths miniscule by modern standards, sinks on aluminum legs, counter tops capable of holding a toothbrush and toothpaste, possibly a bottle of hand lotion, bathtubs streaked with yellow stains. The furniture, apparently updated in the 1970’s, was Mediterranean, its massiveness dwarfing the master bedroom and two of the other three.
The fourth room looked like an oversight. Obviously for a girl, it sported a white four poster bed with pink canopy and cover. The accompanying dressers were white, trimmed with gold around the edges. “Goodness,” I said to myself, “what I would have given for a room like this.” Although I grew up in relative middle class comfort, this was a little girl’s fantasy
Mattie mouthed on in white noise. I knew she was talking, but could not focus on her words enough to understand what she was saying. “Enormous potential” popped up every few sentences. To me, the potential, no doubt quite enormous, lay in what I could not see - the electrical, plumbing and underlying structure. The close, dank air combined with Mattie’s soliloquy finally got to me.
“I’m going outside.” I headed for the back door, walked out in the humid late summer air and down to the lake, passing an enormous barbecue built into the hill. Rock slab seating surrounded it. The water slapped the shore in gentle admonishment. I turned and gazed back up at the house, imagining the lawn parties of the 1960’s, the women in their big white collars, their tight waisted dresses, their full skirts, children running on the lawn and a drink cart on the back deck. My mother once went to a party in a white cocktail dress with huge red poppies on it. She rarely drank, but I remember her being so happy when she came home, hugging me tight, and telling me what a good girl I was. The last time I heard those words was just before she died. I was ten.
My mind shifted to thoughts of the drink cart. I once participated in consuming vast quantities of alcohol, preferably gin. It was difficult to take the pressure of Wall Street without some help and mine was booze. I still drank, but compared to those days, a martini in the evening was the equivalent of an eye drop. All my friends, as I loosely called them, were men. Some I took to bed, but none were marriage material. They were usable and disposable.
I turned back to the lake’s edge and the boathouse. I wiped the dust off a pane, cupped my hands around my eyes and looked in the windows of what appeared to be a garage door. Sure enough, two Gulfstreams, one just like my dad’s, were up on racks, out of the water. One pane was broken and I smelled some combination of mildew, algae and gasoline. I walked around the corner of the building and climbed the stairs on the side, careful to step on the edges as some were cracked. The door at the top creaked on rusty hinges, and then stuck, too swollen to move. I finally kicked it open enough to squeeze in and found myself in an efficiency apartment.
The one-piece metal kitchenette contained a sink, a refrigerator and a stove, rust stains running in stripes down them. Beer cans littered the floor. I walked to the window and put my hands on my hips. From this perch, the view was all lake. I gazed from one side to the other and heard only lapping water. The nearest neighbors were an acre away. The house would take a lot of work, no question. I was handy and could afford to pay for what was beyond me. I walked out, kicked the door shut, climbed back down the steps, noting Mattie waiting for me by the house.
“Tell me the story, again.” I said when I reached her.
She looked at her watch. “Could I do it on the way back? Would you mind?”
We had not seen the garage or the front drive area that included the barn. “You have to go? You have another appointment?” I asked.
“No. Well, yes.” She looked at me with that “I’m just so busy” look. I felt a dark thing move inside. Once, this was my cue to regretfully inform her I just flew 1000 miles, rented a car and a hotel to look at this house, and I would sincerely appreciate her undivided attention. Evidently, some of this conveyed in my face, as her eyes started to water. I relented.
“I would like to look around more. Maybe I’ll come out by myself later.”
“Oh, that’s fine. I’m sure no one will mind if I give you the code.”
“Okay. Let’s go. I want the story again, however.”
“Of course, let's just get to the car.” She started back around the house and I smiled. There was a run in each stocking.
“The Zimmerman’s had five children, four boys and one girl,” Mattie began as she turned over the engine and the air conditioner blew icy air. “The husband died about 1990 and Old Lady Zimmerman, she became a recluse. No one ever saw her, even her kids. The daughter tried, but ended up having to hire someone to come in.” Mattie paused and reached for a cigarette. “You mind?” She glanced at me.
“Oh.” The cigarette returned to the purse. “Anyway, that daughter, Connie, tried to get some maintenance done, but the old lady wouldn’t have it. Went half batty screaming ‘Don’t touch a thing!’ when our local handy guy showed up at Connie’s request. Something of a joke around town for awhile, you know. Like when a wife wants a husband to fix something, he’d yell out “Don’t touch a thing!” Mattie chuckled at herself. I had trouble seeing the humor.
“Did this old lady have a name?” I could not help the sarcasm in my voice, resenting her attitude toward an aging, obviously sick woman.
Mattie looked over at me as she turned on the highway. “Juliet.”
“Juliet. That’s pretty. So what happened when Juliet died?”
“The Will left everything to the kids, who were all off leading lives of their own all over the country, except for Connie and her husband. I guess everything got sorted out but the house. Three wanted to sell for the money; the other two wanted to keep it. It didn’t seem all that complicated to me, but I guess it was to them. The locks were changed so none of them could get in.”
I sat back in the leather of Mattie’s Mercedes and wondered how families managed to be so nasty. Then I thought of my older brother and stepsister, deciding there were simply gradations of nasty. Gary, a veterinarian in Montana, last spoke to me years ago. He informed me he got on much better with animals than people and I should respect that. My much younger stepsister, Marcy, born when I was eighteen, resided on another planet. She took after my stepmother with frills and senseless chatter. When my dad died shortly after she was born, I got out of their way with college and my career.
I folded my arms and relaxed in the leather seat. Maybe I had it the best; no one bothered me. On the other hand, maybe it was me that did not bother them. Either way, it worked. At least, it worked until some nights at three o’clock in the morning when loneliness lay under my bed like a dragon waiting to attack.
Mattie pulled up in front of the real estate office next to my rented Toyota and handed me a scrap of paper with the lock box code. “Here you go. I’m free tomorrow afternoon if you want me to go with you. Now don’t you tell anyone I gave you that, okay?”
I took the paper and glanced at her. Mattie’s green eyes darted past me to a car pulling in, no doubt another client. The resentment ball started up again in my gut, and then I thought of Ms. Juliet, alone in a deteriorating house, unable to save herself.
I heard myself say, “Order a house inspection. Talk to you tomorrow.” Mattie looked back at me and I wondered if something alien took over my mouth. I climbed out of her car, got in my Toyota and sat for a moment. Well, house inspections were not all that expensive. I drove back to the Marriott Courtyard. I needed to think. A martini sounded good.
“Old Zimmerman place?” Hank, my bartender for two days called over his shoulder in response to my question. He served a beer down the bar and returned. His white handlebar moustache, white shirt, black pants and red striped vest suited the 1920’s atmosphere. I placed him at about sixty and my height. His age and relaxed demeanor told me he was not a bartender all his life, but enjoyed it in retirement. “The parties were incredible. If they arrested for drunk driving back then, most people would have been in jail for days.” He smiled and wiped the counter in front of me. “Drink okay?”
I sipped the dry martini. “Perfect. Did you go to the parties, Hank?”
He chuckled. “No. I was a teenager from Loughton. We’d sneak onto the adjacent property and spy on the girls. Maybe catch them on the carousel after the little ones went in. Had some good times on that carousel.” He grinned and looked away.
“Hank!” I smiled up at him as I took another sip.
“Long time ago, but you always remember, don’t you?”
Now it was my turn to study an olive and fight down a heated rush. I nodded. “True. What else?”
“Well, I went to Denver and just came back about eight years ago. Ms. Juliet was all holed up out there after her husband died. Never saw her again.” He paused, wiping the bar, as though there was more, but he wasn’t sure how to say it.
“You call her Ms. Juliet?”
“If you’d seen her when she was young, you’d know why. Could stop a boy like me in my tracks. Bagged groceries for her once.” Hank smiled, hanging up the bar towel. “Filled one bag, then started putting stuff in another, except I forgot to open the bag. Staring at her so bad, I just piled things on top of one another.” He folded his arms and leaned on the back bar. “You thinking about buying the place?”
“It’s a mess. I did order an inspection. God knows what they’ll find. Probably be better to burn it down and start over. Probably cheaper too.”
“Hate to see that.” He went down the bar to a new customer, a man in a suit. With a few quick moves of his experienced hands, Hank served him a Manhatten and returned. “I’m off tomorrow morning. How about we go look at it together? I was in construction, you know. Had my own company. Maybe I could help.”
I hesitated. Since when did I need a second opinion? “Okay, meet here at 9:30? I’ll drive.” There it was again, the mouth that didn’t belong to me.
I looked in the mirror over the bar at myself. The image bore a strong resemblance to the one I’d seen in the back window of the house. I shook my head and she shook hers.
“Sounds good,” Hank replied, oblivious to my self-inspection.
“I need some dinner. I’ll see you in the morning.” I swallowed the last of the drink and made my way to the restaurant across the street. It looked like the kind where a woman could eat alone and not be hassled. Years of traveling schooled me in such places. The fast food restaurant explosion was the best thing ever to happen to traveling women, especially the better ones, like Chilis, Fridays, Red Robin and Ruby Tuesday. “A booth in the back, please,” was my opening line. One time, plopped down in the middle of a Chili’s bar with the afternoon sport hogs cured me of letting the hostess decide my seat. My height made me conspicuous as a woman. I was used to it, but saw no need to foster it. And now, I’d agreed to have someone join me on my quest for a new home. I shook my head in disgust and ordered another martini.
Hank stood in the lobby when I came down the next day, his long legs encased in jeans with a crease, like the working cowboys out west. The boots were “pointy-toed” and he sported a grey cowboy hat, a couple of shades lighter than his plaid shirt.
“Goodness, you look like the real thing!” I smiled what I hoped was an admiring smile and thought again of whitening my teeth.
“I am the real thing, Cynthia. My family left when I was fifteen and moved to a ranch in Colorado, where my dad was from originally. We retired back here because this is where my wife’s folks lived. You ready?”
Whatever I was going to ask about his wife, died on my lips and I nodded. He held the door for me. I tried to remember when a man held a door for me, or, maybe the last time I allowed it to happen.
A comfortable quiet filled the car as we drove to the house. After five minutes, I asked “You sold your business?”
“Uh-huh.” Hank gazed out the passenger window as though looking for something, obviously not seeking conversation.
I shrugged and turned my mind to thoughts of moving. I took in the location of the grocery store, the drug store, the hardware store and the all-important bookstore. When we pulled up in the horseshoe drive to the house, Hank said, “She died last year.”
I looked at him and took a second to realize he was talking about his wife. “I’m sorry.” I forever lacked in offering sincere condolences. When my mother died, people offered the same hollow words. “We’re so sorry for your loss, if there is anything we can do….” “I’m sure you will miss her.” Then, my personal favorite offered by the minister, “God wanted her with him.” I looked at the man in his black frock and decided if God was that greedy, I need never set foot in church again.
While I racked my brain for some appropriate response, Hank got out of the car. “Let’s go,” he said.
I parked further from the front door with the hornet’s nest in mind, and now we had a good view of the front of the house. It looked, if possible, worse than the day before. Vines draped over the pink stucco, cracks and fissures trailed like extended spider webs. The eaves giving it the “deco” look, separated from the roof in spots, bowed down. Gutters blocked with years of leaves hung in various stages of deterioration. An early morning rain left the air steamy and thick.
“Pretty bad, huh?” I looked to where I thought Hank was, and then turned around. He was walking to the carousel. I trotted to catch up.
“The carousel?” I stopped beside him.
“Wow.” Hank reached down and pulled on the outside edge of wood. It turned with a creak, weaving up and down on the way around. “Yes, this is it. Used to be all white. I wonder where the horses are.”
“I think I saw a black one in the storage room yesterday.”
“Really? Let’s go look,” Hank headed to the buzzing front door.
“No! The hornets!”
He shook his head and smiled. “Thanks, lost there for a moment.” I led him around to the back door and we entered the storage room. I flipped on the light and Hank spotted the horse on the far side. The two of us moved boxes and junk to form a path. Hank picked up the horse and passed it to me over a lawn chair. “Let’s take it outside.”
I hefted the piece and noted the grain of wood where paint had chipped away. Although not a traditional size, it was appropriate for children, maybe equivalent to a Labrador. The legs curved under in a perpetual leap and the golden hooves matched the mane. The whole affair weighed about twenty-five pounds and my back noted the awkward angle as I reached to take it from Hank. “I’ve got it,” I reported as he let go. “Can you grab the doll too? The big one, right there, with the white pinafore.”
“Sure.” I saw him turn to retrieve the Betsy McCall doll and found my way back outside with the horse. Hank joined me on the back deck. We traded our prizes, and sat on the wide steps leading down to the lake.
I brushed dust off Betsy’s face and pulled cobwebs from her hair. The time when I wanted to be like Betsy was from a parallel universe. She was a little girl with a mommy and a daddy. The girl would meet a wonderful man when she grew up and have a little girl too. They would live in a lovely house like her parents and she would raise flowers in the garden like her mother. I blinked. Then there was my mother’s death, the stepmother who waltzed in and practically drove my brother and me out the door with her sarcastic remarks and innuendos. How she bewitched my father was one of the few discussions Gary and I had without a fight. Even when I was older and bigger by far than Betsy, she was my friend, the one I cried to at night, the only one in the universe who understood.
I glanced over to see Hank had the horse standing on the step below where he could look into its face, which was bent to one side, the eyes looking across. He ran his hand on the mane as if the face of a woman he loved. His fingers trailed down to the mouth. The eyes seemed to hold his attention and I felt I was invading a private moment.
I returned to Betsy. Her eyes looked at me as if to say she was my doll’s sister and now she was here to help. I smiled back to the smile her red lips formed. What was it like to have a friend like that? Someone you could trust. I could not remember.
I shook my head and looked at Hank, who now gazed at the lake. “You want a tour?”
“Sure.” Hank leaned the horse against the railing. I put Betsy next to her four legged friend, and we humans went in the house.
“Goodness. I had no idea.” Hank stood in the living room, turning, taking in the view, the furnishings, the dining room, the kitchen.
“You were never in the house?”
“Oh, no. The parties I came to were all outside and remember, I was not invited. Okay if I look around?”
Hank walked as if he treaded on sacred ground, unsure of where to go next, peering around corners. I followed him to the pink bedroom. Hank touched the bedposts, and then ran his hand on the dresser. I opened a drawer. Inside sat framed portraits, the kind with a kick out stand.
“Look. Do you recognize any of these people?” I picked up one. The woman reminded me of Marilyn Monroe. She had a gracious smile.
Hank took the picture from my hand. “It’s her. That’s Ms Juliet.” He gazed at it for a moment and I could almost see the boy struck dumb by love. Suddenly, his eyes focused on mine. “We need to find the other horse.”
“Probably in the garage. C’mon.”
I followed him back through the house. We found the inside door to the garage off a small study. When the door opened, the sulfur, rotten egg smell greeted us. I sneezed three times.
“Hank,” I tapped his back as he flipped on the light. “What is that smell?”
“Natural gas,” he said as if I’d asked him what time it was.
“Gas?! You think there is a gas leak?”
“Probably. I need to find the other horse. Hit the garage door opener.”
I ran my hand down the wall by the door through at least one cobweb, while Hank entered a maze containing two black Cadillacs (vintage 1970) lawn chairs, garden equipment, boxes stacked at suspicious angles and piles of clothes. I found the garage door button at the same time I spotted the hair dryer - a pink chair, with the drying unit suspended overheard like something from a sci-fi movie to cook brains. I chuckled, pushed the button and sneezed again.
One of two garage doors rumbled and I wondered if the entire apparatus might fall from the ceiling. Even Hank looked up as he worked his way around the first car. The door clanged to a stop and fresh air poured in.
“Hank,” I called over to where he made a path through the boxes. “I think we need to get out of here. I still smell the gas.”
“Here it is! Oh my God, I’ve found it!” Hanks long legs climbed over boxes and he sidled around the far Cadillac. He pulled a white carousel horse from a pile of garden hoses and held it up like the Olympic Torch. She was indeed white and shared the black horse’s golden mane and hooves. Her head perked up, as if in anticipation. Her saddle, a deep blue, was rimmed in gold. Blue and pink flowers adorned her neck and chest. She, too, sprang into action, leaping a small obstacle only she could see.
“Okay, good.” I felt happy for him, but the smell of gas distracted me. “Go out the garage door,” I ordered. “I’ll meet you in front.”
I ran through the house and out the back door. Betsy McCall and the black horse sat on the deck. I picked them both up in a clumsy embrace and ran around to see Hank, white horse under an arm, walking up to a red van. The yellow sign on the van’s door announced “Stan’s Superior House Inspections.”
Stan, presumably, climbed out. “Oh. I didn’t think anyone was here.” He looked at Hank. “Whatcha got there?”
Hank held up the horse as he walked. “It was my wife’s favorite.” There was a silence while the two men shook hands, studied each other and I studied them. Stan was short for a man, maybe came to my chin. He looked in his late forties with sandy hair and a mass of freckles on his face and arms. He wore a white T-shirt with jeans so deep blue, they had to be new from Wal-Mart.
I came up and deposited the doll and black horse gently on the grass. “I’m Cynthia Anderson, the prospective buyer.” I started to offer my hand, but the look on Stan’s face told me he would not know what to do with it. “Before you start, Hank and I smelled gas in the garage. I think we should call the gas company.”
“Right. I have a radio in the van.” Stan turned to his vehicle. Hank and I walked over to the carousel platform.
“You think we can sit on it?” I touched the edge with my shoe, producing a wobble.
“Maybe.” Hank put his white horse on the platform and gently let himself down to the plywood. It creaked, but held. I picked up the black horse, walked around to the other side for balance, placed the horse on top and sat. We smiled at each other over the diameter. I could discern no ulterior motive in the man, which struck me as odd.
“Why so important? The horse, I mean.” I looked in his hazel eyes and he glanced away.
“My Connie, she was the Zimmerman’s only daughter. I kissed her on that horse at a party. They forbade her to see me. I was a tough kid from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ So, of course, we snuck off together.” He sniffed once, looked at me then back into the distance. “When my family moved out West, we wrote for three years, my letters always going through a friend of hers.”
“You married her?”
“She came to Denver after high school. Yes, we married. Her parents were furious, but there was nothing they could do. I sold the company and we moved back here when her dad died. Connie wanted to take care of Ms Juliet. The lady developed some mental thing. Planned parties and pretended people came. Neighbors once found her grilling eight steaks on the barbecue for her make-believe guests.
I thought of the dining room table all set for a meal.
“Connie was never sure which Ms. Juliet she had on her hands. I was forbidden on the property.” Hank pulled a splinter from the platform. “So, we hired a caretaker.”
“What about her brothers? The realtor said there were several.”
“Did not want a thing to do with their ‘crazy’ Mom. Pretty sad.”
I focused on the grass thinking how much I missed my mom and they had theirs right here.
We looked up to see Stan drive by to the main road. He parked, then walked back. “Gas company’s on their way.” He looked out toward the barn. “Said to get at least fifty yards from the house.”
Hank stood and picked up the white horse. As I reached for the black horse, Stan beat me to it.
“I’ll take that guy for you.” He held it so it faced him. “How you doing, Bobby?”
“The horse has a name?” I looked at Stan.
“It’s my name for him. My mom and dad used to cater the parties here, and I got to play on the carousel when they were cleaning up. Bobby and I had great adventures. Something you can only do when you are five years old, I suppose.” He smiled, obviously wrapped up in the nostalgia. “Come on. Let’s catch up with Hank.”
I walked over to get Betsy and the six of us sat against the barn, judging it a safe distance from the house.
“So,” I looked at Hank, “you and Connie came back and Ms. Juliet wouldn’t see you?”
“Yes, basically,” Hank sighed. “Then she died and all the kids started fighting over the estate. As if things weren’t bad enough, Connie got cancer. So, she told them to leave her out of it. All she wanted was the white carousel horse.”
“And they didn’t get it for her?”
“Hell, no. Bunch of bastards.” His flash of anger surprised me. There was a pause as the three of us looked at the house, the open garage a gaping mouth in a brick face.
“I like the property,” I finally said to break the silence, “but the house….might be better to tear it down.”
Stan looked at me. “No fair. I could really help you with this house!” At first I thought it a cheap ploy for business, but then I realized he was making a joke. “Hank and I together, maybe?” He looked at Hank, but Hank never had a chance to respond.
A loud crack brought our attention back to the garage. Our gaze shifted to the area of the kitchen window at the sound of second sizzling crack.
“Sounds electrical. Something’s shorting out.” Stan remarked as though noting it might be hot today.
At the explosion, the three of us first gaped, then fell together with our various companions and covered our heads. Hank threw an arm over my shoulder. I started to roll out from under, then thought better of it. It felt secure and solid. Small debris fell and I waited for a garage door to fly over and flatten us.
“The cars,” I heard Stan say. “God, what a shame we couldn’t get those old Caddies out.” I peeked over my elbow and knew there was no chance. We were far enough away to miss the brunt of falling material, but chunks of stucco and wood rained on the carousel. In a split second pause, a fire roared to life. The hornets buzzed into a tornado shape and headed toward us. I’m sure no one’s eyes were wider than mine, when the buzzing spiral took a sharp right and disappeared to the next property.
“Shit,” Hank said, watching them disappear.
We stood up against the barn and watched the conflagration. No need to concern myself with rotted eaves, outdated plumbing, electrical, furniture and décor. Too bad about the liquor cabinet, though.
“Guess you don’t have to think about fixing the place up now, huh?” Hank smiled, echoing my thoughts, and stood the white horse up.
“No kidding,” Stan said. He positioned the black horse so the two horses looked at each other. “Lot of memories going up in flames.”
Memories were not something I cared to spend much time on, although they seemed to haunt me. For these people it might be different. I looked at Betsy still lying on the ground and picked her up to eye level. “What do you think, Betsy?”
Sirens wailed in response. I gathered the doll in my arms and sniffed her dusty, plastic hair. It smelled familiar, like childhood, like simplicity.
“I’ll buy it,” I said to Betsy. “You and me. What do you say, girl?” One of Betsy’s eyes blinked shut making a wink. Hank and Stan both looked at me then back at the fire. “Enormous potential,” I added. We all burst out laughing.
The house blazed and black smoke rose into a thick mass above. The smell of burning wood and gas filled the air. Fire engines arrived and firefighters scrambled to save a lost cause. Thirty minutes later, I could see the top of the boathouse through the smoking ruins.
“We’ll live there,” I said to no one in particular. Betsy and I started to the lake. I heard Hank and Stan catching up. I looked at Hank, whose long strides now matched mine. Stan trotted behind us.
“You’ll need some help,” Hank said.
We walked down the backyard and I stopped at the steps attached to the boathouse. “You think?”
“Sure.” Hank cocked his head at me. “What are friends for?”
“Friends?” I looked at him.
“Well, of course. You know FRIENDS.” He pronounced it as though introducing a new word in the English language and I was to repeat after him.
“Friends,” I muttered, rolling the word around as if this was the first time I said it.
“Now, watch your step here.” Hank’s voice interrupted my thought. “Some of these stairs don’t look so good. You could fall through. I’ll go first.”
He swung in front of me so fast, there was nothing to do but follow him up. I placed my feet where his had safely stepped.