E
Jan/Feb 2017 Fiction

Property Damage

by Nathan Elias

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman



Ever since I caught Lorraine with another man, there's been a lot of good property on the market, which has kept my mind off the whole thing. I figure a couple more years of remodeling these on-campus houses and I'll be working on those nice, three-story brick jobs out in Perrysburg and Sylvania, sitting by the edge of the Maumee River.

A big part of being a property owner is building a network of clientele. Hell, lately it hasn't even been about the money. I'm happy just doing good in west Toledo, helping out my neighbors with their drywall or putting in new driveways. The way I see it, I'm going to need to know all this stuff if I'm ever going to be successful in this business.

I don't even mind rolling out of bed at eight in the morning to help Ms. Engleson, who lives two blocks over, with the pipes flooding her basement. I throw on an extra button-up shirt and scarf to combat the late-October wind chill, and I'm out the door. On these brisk, sharp mornings, I don't even want to take the car—I'd rather just walk the two blocks and enjoy the air before it's too cold to putz around the neighborhood.

I take my time walking, admiring the houses on my street—mostly all copies of one another with a slight variation in the design of the front porch or a balcony on the second level. I don't have to be to my sister's for her "mock therapy session" for another couple hours, so on my way over to see Ms. Engleson about her basement pipes, I stop at the one interesting house on my street, an old Victorian building that's been up for a hundred years or so, like the ones down in the Old West End. I wish the houses were still like that in this neighborhood instead of dingy replicas meant to be rebuilt after two years of abuse from a new batch of college-partiers. But I can't deny that their need for the cheap housing is what keeps me in business, so I try to take pleasure in nursing a property back to health for the next round.

The Victorian house has been occupied by the Rayners for as long as I can remember, an old Korean couple who I'm pretty sure is filthy rich because Mr. Rayner is always driving around in a new Cadillac and, sure enough, a couple months later he's got a better one. This month it's a fire-red S700 with chrome rims. Last time Mr. Rayner caught me measuring his siding, he talked my ear off about the entire purpose of his investments in the automobile industry.

"Years of hard work led to the luxury of a new vehicle whenever I so desired," he said. "I know a guy I could put you in touch with if you're ever interested in a position at the factory. They offer a great health package."

All of this sounded attractive at the time because at that point I was still getting married to Lorraine and she hadn't fucked Demetrius Ollerton in the bed I bought her our sophomore year of college. Back then I thought maybe finding something a little more steady with insurance benefits would be a better choice for the long-term.

When I get to the Rayners' veranda, I take the tape measurer out of my back pocket and measure the paneling. I write the measurements down in my pocketbook. Lorraine always pointed out the Rayners' veranda and would say things like, "One day, Mark, we'll have a veranda like that and we can just sit out, read, and drink lemonade." Even without Lorraine, I figure I'd be a fool to think that I can't enjoy sitting out, reading, or drinking lemonade, by myself or with anyone else on a veranda I put together with my own two hands.

From the corner of my eye I see Mr. Rayner through the window of his house. He's stark naked, frantically waving for me to leave. I feel bad for embarrassing the poor guy, so I scurry back to the sidewalk and continue to Ms. Engleson's.

I don't even have to knock on Ms. Engleson's door. As soon as I walk up the creaky, wooden steps, she opens it up like she's been watching out the window for me this whole time. For a woman in her mid-40s, I always thought Ms. Engleson was attractive enough, and other men must have thought so, too, because for a stretch of years it seemed like there were always different cars parked in her driveway, none of them her own. Standing there with the door open, she's wearing a long, embroidered bathrobe and her hair is done up in fresh curls, and there's a light shade of blue painted above each eyelid's black stripe.

"Good morning, Ms. Engleson," I say.

"Mark," she says, smiling and tilting one knee inward, "for the thousandth time, you of all people can call me Nell."

"Right," I say. "Nell, how bad are the pipes looking?"

"Oh, god, I almost forgot," she says, leading me inside. "The whole basement floor is damn near underwater." I close the door behind me and follow Ms. Engleson down to the basement where a small layer of water is growing under a fountain erupting from the pipes.

"To tell you the truth, Ms. Engleson—er, Nell—a leak like this is out of my league. It might be a better idea to call a professional plumber."

She puts her hand on my arm. "I can't afford a professional plumber right now. That would run three, four hundred bucks. Plus, didn't you say you were trying to learn everything there was to know about the workings of a house?"

She has me there. I did say that, and have been telling everyone in the neighborhood since the incident. I had to prove to everyone I wasn't a bad guy even though I lit a mattress on fire in the front lawn. That I was still serious about my business endeavors and wanted to be a good neighbor and contribute to my community. After all, I did put out the fire with the hydrant across the street. Everyone saw me put it out—Zoe saw me put it out, Sam saw me put it out, Lorraine and her parents and her little sister saw me put it out, and most of the neighborhood including Ms. Engleson saw me put it out. That's why it is my destiny to fix her pipes. I've become the neighborhood handyman. I can't have my community thinking I'm crazy or something.

After running back home to get a set of wrenches and running all the way past the Rayners' to Ms. Engleson's again, I spend about two hours on the pipes, hacking away with an old hand saw and trying to connect the ends of the metal and lead until finally the leaking stops with only only three inches of water to bucket out of the basement.

"Well, it's not a perfect fix, but it'll do for now." I look at my watch, a quarter before noon, and realize I'm about to be running late for Zoe's therapy session.

"I knew you could do it," she says, her hand on my arm again. I swear I feel her bare foot graze mine under the small pond of water. "I can't imagine what woman would be foolish to search beyond you. As far as I can tell, you're the perfect man."

"I'm running late, Nell," I say as I start to head for the stairs. "But I think the pipes will hold up for now."

"Maybe you could stay and help me with all this water," she says. "I could really use your help, Mark." The light layer of blue from her eyes drips down her cheekbones from the splash of the pipes' current. She looks like a crying cartoon character as she leans into me. She tries to dry her face on my shirt but I run up the stairs before she gets to me.

"I'll check back tomorrow, Ms. Engleson," I say.

"Don't forget, young man," I hear her yell from all the way outside, "And it would do you to stop being so damn polite all the time."

On the way over to Zoe's, I can't help but drive over the speed limit. The last thing I need is my little sister, who has a chip on her shoulder from the psychology classes she's taking at the University, to tell me how I need to shape up. I can hear her now.

It's been over a month, Mark.

You used to be so different, Mark.

I can't believe you're late—I was counting on you.

I pull up five after and she's already out in front of her dorm, smoking a cigarette, staring at my car and shaking her head.

"Please don't start," I say.

"Who was it this time?"

"Ms. Engleson needed her pipes fixed."

She takes a drag of the cigarette, cracking a smile. "I'll bet she did."

"There's about three feet of water in her basement. I need to get back to help her dry it out before it causes property damage."

"Well, let's get started then." She puts out her cigarette against the stone siding of the stairwell and enters the apartment without holding the door for me.

When I get inside, she has her Lay-Z-Boy sitting perpendicular to the futon, which is folded out, half-covered with pillows, to look like a therapy session and everything.

"You went all out," I say.

"This is the professional way to go about it."

"You know, you never give Sam a hard time about being late."

I'm distracted by a fly buzzing around an old can of soda stuffed with cigarette ashes.

"Sam's the baby," she says, taking notes.

I sit down on the futon. "What's that have to do with anything?"

"You're the eldest."

"So why does the burden of punctuality have to fall on me?"

"Because you're our big brother. You're supposed to set the example."

"I call bullshit."

"Do you want to talk about your sibling relationship? We can, if that's what you'd like. We have one hour, starting one and a half minutes ago. I figured you'd want to talk about Lorraine, but we can talk about—"

"Why do you assume I want to talk about Lorraine?" I interrupt, sitting parallel to her, not looking at her, and swat at the fly that keeps buzzing around my face.

"Because your whole reality is broken due to your fiancé cheating on you."

"Excuse me? My reality is broken?" I look over to the textbook she has opened on the side table and try to find anything about broken realities. All I see are big, complex, and colorful diagrams, a blue and purple one of the human brain, and a red and orange one of the human heart. If I could only crush the fly smack in the middle, I might actually be able to think straight.

"I'm sorry," she says. "Forget I said anything. We can talk about whatever you want."

I stretch my legs out across the futon, putting my back against the pillows with Zoe behind me, jotting away.

"'Broken reality' just sounds like a really harsh phrase. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say that my reality is broken, but yeah, something definitely feels off."

"Off," she says. "What do you mean, 'off'?"

"You know, like one day everything was one way and now it's a different way."

"Would you say that it's better or worse?"

"Worse," I spit out, as if there is any possibility of me enjoying a life where I can't see Lorraine every day. Where there is no five years of courting. Dates. Love making. Studying. Day trips. Dinners. Wedding plans. Graduating college together. Supporting Lorraine while she went back to school for her Master's. Me working hard to expand the business. Establishing a good home for her where we could spend the rest of our lives once she finished school. Where we could raise children and have our friends over for cookouts in the back yard. On the veranda. Where afterward we'd drink wine. Read while the sun went down.

"Much worse." I half want to ask Zoe for a cigarette even though I haven't smoked since the carton I devoured on the night of the incident.

"Do you feel like your mind continues to wander to the past?"

"Yes, of course it wanders to the past. Isn't that natural?"

"What parts of the past specifically?"

"Are you asking me if I think about the incident still?"

"Do you think about the incident still?"

I'm starting to wonder if Zoe even needs to do this for a class or if she's just trying to get me to talk about things, like always. It's no secret she gets a high from figuring out every little microscopic thing about people and trying to understand how things like falling off the swings when you're three is related to a motion sickness on a sailboat when you're twenty-two.

"You know I do."

"Have you ever heard of retroactive thinking?"

"You know I haven't."

"Retroactive thinking is when you let your mind tread over traumatic incidents or events in your life. It is common to get caught in retroactive thinking, especially right after an incident like the one you went through, Mark. But if you are able to realize early that your mind is caught in a web of venomous thoughts, then you may have a chance of escaping further trauma. You don't want your episodic memory to deteriorate."

"I get it. You're saying that I have to stop thinking about the incident. And anything else that ever caused me pain."

"That's not what I'm saying. I don't think you're quite seeing the point. I'm going to ask you to do something for me, and doing what I ask will help alleviate any retroactive thinking and put the painful memories of the incident at rest. It's kind of like the theory that if you write down your painful feelings or memories and burn the paper, then those feelings and memories burn away with it."

"You know I'm the one who taught you how to burn away emotions," I say.

"No you didn't. I read it in Nabokov. Maybe Bukowski."

"I was seven and you were four. It was right after we lost Muffy."

"Mark, you're not making much sense right now."

"Heaven forbid I ever say anything that makes sense."

She exhales, takes a cigarette from her pack, places it in her mouth and takes it back out, only to sheath it back in the pack.

"I'm trying to ask you to do something very specific for me here, Mark."

"What are you going to ask me to do?"

"I would like you to very carefully, very idiosyncratically, give me a moment by moment, detail by detail account of the incident.

I swallow hard. I should have known this was coming. "Zoe, I think maybe we should refocus to childhood or something, like Muffy—"

"If you ignore it, it's only going to grow and fester and, one day, it's going to swallow you whole," she says. Without looking at her I can tell her eyes are glued to the back of my head like this is the most dire request she's ever had in her life.

"What do you want me to say, Zoe? You know what happened. One morning I have an appointment with some potential buyers on the Delaney Street property, and you know how hard I've been trying to sell that one, so it's a big deal. I tell Lorraine I'm not going to be able to get her lunch today because it's a Tuesday so she has a break between noon and one thirty. I always get her lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but not this Tuesday because of the appointment for the Delaney Street property. But I get all the way out to the property and find a note from the buyers saying they have to cancel until next week, and I'm really bummed because that property goes for 40 thousand, but at the same time, I'm excited because I still get to get lunch for Lorraine—"

All of a sudden my throat gets dry and I cough, trying to hack some phlegm out of my throat, praying it's not the fly, and before I know it, I swallow the phlegm down again, which I know Zoe hates, but I know she'd also hate it if I got up to spit it out.

"Do you realize what you're doing?" she says, handing me a packet of tissues.

"I'm giving you a step by step account of what happened," I say.

"No, you are giving me a step by step account of what is happening. You are telling the story in the present tense. You always tell the story in the present tense."

I laugh. "What the hell has that got to do with anything?"

"It has to do with the fact that, in your head, you think of the incident and you replay it in live action. You still attain the memory as if it's in the present, as if the consequences haven't even happened yet. What you need to do is release the story by telling it in the past tense, which will put it all behind you once and for all."

I turn to look back at her, and as I knew would happen, she's tearing up just like when we were kids and I refused to talk about my feelings after our cat, Muffy, was crushed by one of Mr. Rayner's Cadillacs. It's the same look she wore when we stood in the backyard saying our last words to the casket. The same look as when I cried and told her, Sam, mom, dad, and Muffy's ghost that Muffy was my first and closest friend.

I had said, "Never in my whole seven years of life did I know a person could be this sad." And just as I broke down in tears then, I close my eyes and break down again now.

 

It was the hottest day of August, and I woke up early to see Lorraine before her first class, and as always, I took her a peppermint latte because that's how she liked to start her day before all that studying. It was an iced peppermint latte due to the heat. She wore her short pink cottons. Her legs weren't exactly hairy, but they weren't exactly smooth, either. I still thought she was the sexiest woman I'd ever see in my life. The water dripped from the plastic cup onto her thighs and then ran down her ankles. She dabbed her fingertip in the water and spread it around her leg.

"I can put an air conditioner in here," I said. I had been telling her all summer that the heat wouldn't let off anytime soon, that it was no trouble to put in a small window unit. Anything for her.

"They always distract me when they're running. Besides," she laughed, sipping the last of the latte, "I think I study better when I'm all sweaty."

As she bit at her straw, I told her all about the appointment with the buyers for the Delaney Street property, and that if it sold I could finally afford to build the walk-in closet I designed for her. I bought the house the summer after we finished our undergraduate programs, but Lorraine only had the summer before she'd have to be back to get the Masters. She had two more years, but the plan was to have the house finished and perfected so when she was all graduated and we were married, we could finally relax and enjoy our time together.

"I hope it goes through," she said. She took her shirt off and sat there in her bra with the sweat building between her breasts. "But I'd really better get to work."

I kissed her on the forehead and rushed out the door, realizing I was already running late to meet the buyers. I cruised down River Road as fast as I could, and with the windows down I couldn't help but gaze at the river and the way the sun beamed off its calm surface. I managed to get to the property right on time, only to find the entire trip was worth nothing because the buyers had already been to the property, a note taped to the door saying how something came up, a family emergency, and they'd still look at the property the following week. I didn't get too bent up about it because I'd still have 45 minutes with Lorraine if I could get to her in time. On the way back I stopped at Zingo's to pick up a vegan gyro—Lorraine's favorite—so she'd be well fed for her night classes.

By the time I got back to the apartment, I still had 15 minutes before Lorraine had to leave. However, as I pulled around the corner, I was alarmed at first to see a car in my usual spot. I figured it was no problem, that I'd just pull to the side, put my hazards on, and walk the vegan gyro up to Lorraine, kiss her on the cheek, tell her to have a good night, and I'd be waiting for her to get out.

But after I unlocked the top latch, I turned the handle, and it was locked.

She never locks the handle, I thought. Maybe she's taking a shower.

That had to be it. She was just paranoid to be alone in the shower. She wanted to make sure the door was extra safe. The vehicle in my spot had Georgia plates. I didn't know anyone in the area from Georgia.

The key to the door handle was different than the key to the deadbolt. This fact, I've discerned, is what gave Demitrius enough time to get off Lorraine before I got to the bed. I stared at them for a good 15 seconds before I fully comprehended that it was Demetrius' car in my spot. It took a full 15 seconds of viewing Demitrius' sweat-soaked, naked body shielding Lorraine's sweat-soaked, naked body for me to restrain myself from killing him.

"What the fuck is going on, Lorraine?" I asked, the keys clenched in my fist.

"I—I thought you would be gone," she stuttered.

Demitrius tried to guard himself and Lorraine from me by putting his hand up, firm and steady.

"Look, Mark," he said, "if you can just give me one minute, I'll get my clothes on and be out of here. There's no need to—"

I plowed through Demitrius, shoving him aside so I wouldn't have to touch or look at Lorraine.

In that lava-hot room, I believed our collision would cause spontaneous combustion.

From there everything gets a little hazy. I remember someone's hands were clawing at me. And that I ripped the sheets off the mattress before dragging it through the bedroom doorframe and into the living room. That's when I knocked over the TV and the coatrack. Before I took the mattress out onto the front lawn of the apartment complex, I remember feeling baffled by the silence of the room—no lungs breathing. No clocks ticking. No fans blowing. Just Lorraine, her eyes fixed on me, mouth agape. Demitrius lay on the floor, holding his swollen face. The apartment breathed this hot, foul air. It had a pulse, like some ancient quag regurgitating the mattress and me from its acidic bowels.

Once I had the mattress out the front door, it was no trouble getting it down the stairs, even with Lorraine running after me in her big teeshirt that went down to above her kneecaps.

"Give back Demitrius' car keys," she wailed. "Please just come back inside."

Sometime between dropping the keys in the sewer's mouth at the curb and getting the gas can from my trunk, the neighbors started to see something was happening outside and, go figure, they all crowded around like it was a community cookout. It must have been the fact that I was yelling, but since Lorraine kept telling me to "stop yelling, come back inside, don't do this, please, I'm begging you, it was a mistake," I just kept saying louder and louder, "I have to light this mattress on fire. Don't you see? Don't you see, Lorraine? This mattress is no good anymore. It must be burned." I must have been screaming because, to be honest, I believed Lorraine couldn't hear me.

As I poured the gasoline over the mattress, I didn't think anything of the neighbors, creating a perimeter around me, hands over their mouths, some with their phones out, hesitant to call the cops. I knew they wouldn't, though. I knew they would just stand there and watch, because they knew me, every one of them. Mr. Abernath, who told me stories about the war when I helped with the hardwood floors in his kitchen. Little Bobby and Trina Fischer, who played everyday on the swing set I helped their father install in their backyard. Ray-Ray Stevens, who taught me how to single-handedly wire an entire heating system in a two-floor unit. Margot Lundgren, whose porch I fixed to accommodate a ramp when she broke her leg.

The entire block, I'd say, all crowded around me. Not one of them said a word when I struck the match and tossed it onto the mattress, or when the flames shot up in one barbarous leap, followed by the blanket of smoke that danced up to the sky. Not even Lorraine, or Demetrius—standing there in one of Lorraine's bath-towels—muttered a single word as I fed the fire with more gasoline until the can was empty. I threw the can to the ground and turned around, making a rush to the car. The neighbors cleared a path like the old image of Moses separating water, for me to get the wrench from my car, stomp over to the sidewalk and apply the wrench to the fire hydrant. For a second I felt like King Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone—clutching the wrench with all my might—until finally, like a torrent bursting through the fractured walls of a dam, the hydrant released its power, as if by magic, directly onto the flaming mattress. The steam devoured the air like fog, with only the silhouettes of people visible. Apparitions in a dense haze.

 

At this point I'm pacing around the apartment, and I've even smoked one or two of Zoe's cigarettes down to the filter. She's telling me to calm down, that I shouldn't be ashamed of crying, and all the stuff I'm sure they teach her to say in her psychology classes. The fact of the matter is, all this retroactive thinking has me wondering for the first time since the incident why the hell I never went back to her after that day. By this point Demitrius probably has his grubby Georgia furniture littering the apartment, having to pick up all Lorraine's panties from hanging over it just to watch them pile in a corner. I can't get the thought out of my head—their sweaty bodies touching, their minds indulging. All I can think about is driving over to the apartment to see Lorraine and figure out once and for all what happened and why.

Zoe tries to stop me going to the car. "You shouldn't drive if you're having an anxiety attack," she says. "I have to go to class soon. You can just hang out here for a while."

"I have to see Lorraine," I say.

"No, that's the last thing you should do," she says.

But I'm already in the car speeding away from Zoe's dorm and toward Lorraine's apartment.

There's some pop song on the radio, the one about the guy telling the girl that all he wants is for her to say how she wants him, and that she'll always be there forever, and I know all the words, so I crank up the volume, roll the windows down, and belt it out for the world to hear.

By the time I get to the apartment, I see from across the lot that the door is open and there's a big For Rent sign out front. It has barely been a month, and Lorraine's gone and moved in with Demetrius. And after all that crap about not wanting to stay in the house with me because there always seemed like there was so much to do. Her excuse was she could think by herself now that we weren't both in college together. She promised she would live in the house once she graduated.

I park the car and don't even bother turning it off or putting the hazards on or closing the door. I just step out and sprint across the grass and leap over the giant yellow spot where the mattress burned. Once I'm inside, I play it cool like a cop in one of those movies where they got to search the place—I point my hand out like a gun and everything, checking each corner twice, until I'm certain the place is empty, and then I drop to my knees and chew the collar of my shirt and cry until all the snot drains out of my face.

It feels weird leaving the door open with the place all empty like this, so I lock the door, close it, and take the For Rent sign out of the ground. I throw the sign in my trunk and drive off. I can't imagine where Lorraine managed to run off to, but I do know if there's anyone who could tell me her whereabouts, it's her family.

I head a few miles east across the High Level Bridge to her parents' place because I have to assume her mom, her dad, or her sister will have the decency to fill me in on the situation. I circle their block three times, triple-checking for Lorraine's car, or Demitrius' car, or Lorraine's sister, Claire, walking around the block with her friends. After the third time, I figure it starts to look pretty sketchy, me driving around and around, and I can't even possess myself to stop the car, go up to her parents' house, and ask about her because, truth be told, I don't know what I'll do if I see her. The whole spontaneous combustion thing.

Now, things normally don't go sour for me, but when they do, I always feel better when I go back to campus. I guess something about the big limestone buildings and, this season, the dead leaves on the ground remind me of a time when everything was more simple. Back then, everything was so fresh with Lorraine and every day felt so new. First it was kissing. Then sex. Then picking a college. Then prom. Then high school graduation. Going to college. Moving in together. Proposing. Keeping it steady until college graduation. Buying the house. Fixing it up. And marriage. We were still looking forward to marriage. At least I was. I even sat her father down and asked for Lorraine's hand.

"I can't imagine my life without her," I told him. "No matter what, I'll protect her until the day I die."

He clasped my hand in his. "Mark," he said, "I always knew you'd be a fine man for my daughter." We hugged each other. The next day I proposed to Lorraine at the giant angel fountain by the Student Union.

Of course she said yes, and of course I picked her up and kissed her and we spun around. We skipped our classes and made love all that day and all that night. When we came together, we talked about children. In the moonlight, Lorraine's naked body atop mine, she did in fact look into my eyes and confess she believed in eternity. That I was her soul mate. That nothing on this earth could take her away from me. And goddamnit, I believed her.

Campus is empty because it's a Sunday and bitter cold at this point. I leave my car in the parking lot, the only car there, as I stroll around for an hour or two. I pass the library and Union Fountain and the Annex and the Geology building. When I get back to the car, I sit inside with the seat back and scan the radio for the song about the guy wanting the girl to say she loves him.

After about 20 minutes of searching, I find it and crank it up again and cry it out until my voice is hoarse. I used to come here every Wednesday night because Lorraine had a late Societal Issues class. I'd wait for her here, listen to some music, walk around, grab a bite from the Union, and sit on the hood of the car watching the sun go down and the sky change colors.

Right around sunset, across the parking lot outside this small, brick chapel building, people would stand outside and walk around on their tip-toes, arms and hands outstretched as if feeling for some imaginary fishing wire descended from the sky. Their patterns seemed random. Sometimes they would walk in long lines outside the small chapel, other times they would gravitate about aimlessly and, somehow, miraculously, never bumped into each other. The sign on the door said Campus Diamond Sangha, and after a couple of weeks of watching them orbit the lawn outside the chapel, I decided to do some research and figure out what they were doing.

As it turned out, it was called walking meditation, and Wednesday night was the only night they did it. Most of the other days it was regular meditation, I guess, or group meditation. Sometimes when I sat out in my car on Wednesdays waiting for Lorraine to get out of Social Issues, I'd think about joining them. The most courage I ever gathered was only enough to walk up to the door and grab a small pamphlet with what the Sangha was all about.

Of course, the first time I ever think I've got enough gusto to get out there and meditate-walk with the rest of them, there's not a soul in sight. It doesn't stop me from walking over there to see if anyone's inside the chapel. I press my face against the window, and even though the lights are off, I wonder if maybe there's a clerk volunteering at the front desk just in case someone calls the Sangha for information. You never know. I notice there are no more pamphlets out front, and I go for the door handle. Oddly enough, it opens and I find myself inside. There's nobody at the desk, but I see one pair of sandals on a little bamboo matt.

"Hello?" I say. "Is anyone around?"

"Turner?" a soft, scratchy voice says. "Is that you?"

"Uh—No, sorry," I say. "I just kind of wandered in." I look around for where the voice is coming from, but I'm convinced the room is empty until I see someone rounding the corner in a red motorcycle helmet and denim jacket. I almost jump at the sight.

He takes off the shiny helmet to reveal a balding head and grey-blue eyes like crystal. His face is calm yet wrinkled. I imagine an aged baby.

"Didn't mean to frighten you," he says. "I'm Zen Master Seight." He extends his hand to shake, and I take it because I recognize the name from the pamphlet as the owner of the Sangha. "How may I help you?"

I tighten my grip and say, "I was just walking by. Admiring the property. Thought I'd stop in to see what goes into a building like this. I'm in the business, you see."

"Are you an architect?" he asks. "Or are you a monk?"

"Neither," I say, even though I consider telling him about my designs for the house. "I'm in the property business. I purchase property, make it livable, beautiful, and ready for people to be happy in."

"That sounds like a tough business," he says.

"Not that tough at all, actually. I love it. I was wondering, in a place like this where there's a lot of—er—meditation going on, the rooms probably require a certain design. I wasn't sure if the windows need to face a certain direction to align with the sun, or—"

"You can meditate anywhere," the Zen master said, "as long as your mind is in the right place." He stuck his bare big toe into the carpet and rotated his leg as if trying to drill a hole into the ground.

"Right. Of course." And for some reason—it must have been my oblong reflection staring back at me off his motorcycle helmet—I think of Lorraine in ten years with someone else's children, and shivers run up my back, through my throat. I start to choke.

"Thank you for your time," I say, scrambling for a business card to give him. All I find is an old, beat up one that's half torn, but I hand it to him anyway and say, "Give me a call. I'd love to talk prices." I'm not sure what I mean by 'talk prices,' but I try to sound convincing because I want him to know I'm serious about all this. As I walk out the door, he sort of bows to me with his palms pressed together and mutters something in another language. I don't need to know what he's saying to understand it means something peaceful.

Parked on Lorraine's parents street, I rehearse everything I'm going to say once I get to the door. Hello Mr. or Mrs. Wagner. I don't want to take up too much of your time, but I was just wondering if you know the best way I could get in touch with Lorraine so we can sort everything out. I go over it about a hundred times until finally I get out of the car, walk up to the door, and ring the bell. Go figure, it's Claire, who's gotten taller since the last time I saw her, unusually tall for a 12-year-old. She's looking at me like I'm on some Wanted poster all over town.

"Uh, hi, Claire. Is your sister around?"

"You shouldn't be here, Mark," she says, blowing a fat, blue bubble. "Please just go. You don't want to see her."

I try to peer in through the screen door. "What do you mean? Why not? Is she in there right now?"

She says, "I'm sorry, Mark," and closes the door softly in my face. I don't know whether to go back to the car or try again, but before I can make a decision, the door opens and I expect to see Claire again. It's Lorraine looking at me, and even through the screen, I can see the tears welling in her eyes.

Before I can catch myself my hand extends out, reaching for her face, but my fingers touch the screen and get a black residue on the tips.

"Lorraine," I say. "I just needed to see you."

"I told you not to come around, Mark," she says.

I laugh because she knows damn well she never said that to me.

"Are you still wearing the ring?" I ask, half-expecting her to raise her hand up for me to see through the screen with the ring right there on her and, as if to say, What do you think, silly?

But I know better. I know the ring may as well be at the bottom of the ocean.

"Now's not a good time," she says.

"You were supposed to be my wife. How could you, Lorraine?"

"I don't know what to say. I just can't do this. It's too much right now."

I go for the screen door handle, but she jumps rabbit-quick to the latch, and I'm left looking crazy as the metal door bangs from my failed attempt at opening it. "Just come talk to me. We can go anywhere. I can't think. I can't breathe. I can't eat."

"Yes, you can, Mark. Just go home." And then she, too, closes the door in my face.

But I know her.

I'm willing to bet this is some kind of test.

I plop down on the steps in front of the screen door, biting my nails until the door opens again.

I jump up, but this time it's Mr. Wagner.

"Hey, Mr. Wagner, I'm sorry about the misunderstanding."

"There is no misunderstanding, Mark," he says. "I need you to get off my property, or I'll have no choice but to call the cops."

I'm as speechless as the time he caught me and Lorraine senior year fooling around on top of their basement billiards table.

"Mr. Wagner, I—"

"Please, Mark. Don't make this harder than it has to be," he says, and I think I catch a look of regret on his face, maybe even an apology, before he closes the door. I can see Mrs. Wagner and Claire watching me from behind the curtain of the front room window. Next thing I know, I catch glimpses from a few of the neighbors behind their curtains. I guarantee they're all expecting a show.

They heard all about the last one.

And I'd love to give it to them, too.

I'd love to spell her name out in gasoline right in the street and strike a match so she can see my love for her blazing bright.

I've never so much as set off a firecracker on the Fourth of July, but ever since the incident, if I'm thinking of Lorraine, chances are I'm also thinking of fire, because that's what she feels like inside my head. Inside my heart. My blood. But despite the flame coursing through my veins, I stop myself from giving them something to watch. I refuse to be something they talk about until Christmas.

Instead I make the only rational decision: go back to my car, drive to the Cash N' Save for a fifth of whiskey, and return to the house. I crack open the bottle, take a big swig, and play back the messages from the day.

"Hey, Mark, it's me, Nell. I just had a quick question for you—should I wait for you to drain the water from the basement? Give me a call, hon'."

"Hi, Mark, this is Mr. Rayner from down the street. Yeah, I'd really appreciate it if you'd please stay out my yard. I'd be happy to discuss any dimensions or measurements you may need over the phone, at a reasonable hour. Don't forget about the opening I told you about at the factory. Give my buddy Jed a call."

The last message is from Lorraine. When I hear her voice, I hit the bottle again and listen close as she says, "Mark. This is it. If I ever see you again, I'll have no choice but to get a restraining order. This is for your own good." She hangs up, and I yank the cord from the machine and drag it behind me as I go from room to room, gathering every last trace of Lorraine into a black garbage bag.

I must be going through her stuff for a couple hours because it's already dark by the time Sam's headlights beam through the windows. I meet him at the door because I know he'll want to hear about everything that happened with Lorraine and how crazy she is for threatening to put a restraining order on me, but he starts with, "Why are you walking around the house in the dark again?"

I point to the empty bottle of whiskey where the answering machine once sat, then I point to the broken machine on the floor. He just nods and gives me a hug, patting my back.

I look him in the eye and say, "Hey, Sam, what do you say we go get a drink? Just us two, brothers, roommates, bros—"

"I can't tonight, Mark," he says. "I actually need to talk to you. I decided to move in with Sylvia."

I laugh because it was only a few months ago he was begging to come live with me since he couldn't stand living with our parents anymore. I told him he could stay as long as he wanted, rent free, until Lorraine was done with school and all moved in. I guess none of that matters now.

"I was going to take some things over there tonight and stay," he says. "If that's all right."

"Sure, sure, sure," I say. "You can keep your stuff, or whatever, here as long as you need." I nod what feels like 200 times.

"We can grab a drink later this week, though, okay?" He puts his hand on my shoulder. Sometimes, looking at my little brother is like looking in a mirror showing a reflection of the past me. We look similar enough, same hair color and style, same stature, same scruff. We both have dad's grey eyes and mom's firm chin. I see a familiar sparkle in his eyes. Mine used to shine like that, too. I know he loves Sylvia. He's been with her for years, and he thinks in his heart this is the right thing to do, but I want Sam's eyes to never lose that sparkle.

"Sam, you've got to think about what you're doing," I warn him. "There is no pain greater than what the woman you love can bring you."

"I know, I know. I'll keep that in mind." I follow him up to his room. He packs clothes, bathroom supplies, and a stack of notebooks into his book bag.

"No, I'm not drunk. I'm telling you the truth." I have both my palms pressed together, sort of bowing to him like I'm Zen Master Seight.

"Look, Mark, I know you had your heart broken," he goes back down the stairs. I try to slide down the railing but fall on my ass. "But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to get my heart broken, too."

"You might think moving in with Sylvia is the right decision," I look up at him from the floor. "But what I'm trying to tell you, is that if you love this girl, maybe you should wait. Maybe you should get married first."

"I appreciate you looking out for me. But Sylvia's not Lorraine, Mark."

I stretch out on the floor and try to keep from ripping my hair out. In the shards of the answering machine I see the little cassette tape lying there in perfect condition. I reach out for it and hold it an inch or so from my face. I open my mouth and bite down hard on it but before I hurt my gums I see Sam looking at me, his eyebrows smashed together and his hands held up like I'm a feral dog.

"Sorry," I spit out the tape. "Look at me. This is what I've become. How do you do, it, Sam? You have it all figured out. You're happy. You're living the dream."

He sits down on the floor across from me.

"I just do what I do, and I follow my heart, and everything just feels right."

"That doesn't make any sense. I follow my heart, I do what feels right, and I don't even know who I am anymore."

"You're Mark Woodward. You're my big brother. You were born in Toledo, Ohio. Your sister is Zoe Woodward. She's a headache. Our parents are crazy, but they're impossible not to love. You went to the University of Toledo and studied business, and you turned out to be a hell of a businessman and you've got big dreams to expand your company. You were in love for six long years and you got dealt a bad card because the girl you love fell out of love and broke your heart to pieces, and even though you've been ripped apart, you're smart enough to know how to put yourself back together again."

Sometimes I wish my siblings and I all shared the same knowledge, but the fact is we all got a bunch of different pieces of the puzzle. In this instance, my little brother already has his corner of the puzzle all assembled, and I can't help but admire him for it.

"I don't know," I say. "Sometimes I don't know if I ever even wanted any of that, or if I just invented it all because I knew I was supposed to want something."

"The way I see it, you have to focus on the little things. You're always thinking about the big picture. Buying houses. Remodeling houses. What if you just try to think microscopically?"

I try to wind the tape back into the cassette. "Like what?"

"Like, when I'm not writing or with Sylvia, sometimes I like to reupholster furniture. I like to take the old, worn fabric and put a brand new skin on it. Every time you just have to pay attention and you just kind of get lost in it."

I ask him how I would go about reupholstering furniture, and he says he's got some leftover materials I could use. He starts in on this grim rust-orange chair he picked up off the street. He goes about cutting the old fabric and shedding its skin like a snake. He takes the skeleton in his hands as if cradling a child. As he glues new padding I imagine it to be the muscles of the chair. I watch him wrapping the fresh hunter green fabric around the padding and the frame. The last step is for him to sew it all together. He only sews one side of the fabric, which is perfectly aligned and perpendicular with the precision of a master craftsman. The rest of the chair he leaves exposed, in need of surgery.

"I've got to get going," he says. "Go ahead and finish it if you're feeling inspired."

I'm too tired to get him to stay or to try to make him see the whole moving in with Sylvia thing my way, and even though I know it's going to end badly with him in tears and breaking down, I know he'll just have to make those choices and figure everything out on his own, and all I can estimate is that some people are just meant to feel pain and others aren't. It's probably just as true that there's no point in thinking I have any say in Sam's destiny, or my own for that matter, so I wait a while after listening to his car pull out of the driveway before getting back up and turning all the lights on in the house and opening all the windows. The wind is piercing, fierce—but its howl is more comforting than the silence of this empty shell of a house.

I go to the garbage bag full of Lorraine's stuff and rifle through it one more time, caressing each item, saying goodbye to the memories, goodbye to Lorraine, and even though I want to douse the entirety of the contents in gasoline and turn it into a bonfire out in the back yard, I walk it out to the garbage bin, lug it inside, and close the lid over it. When I get back to the house, there's nothing. No Sam, no Zoe, no Claire or Ms. Engleson or Mr. Rayner, or veranda, or Muffy, or mattress, or Demetrius, or fire, or Lorraine, or retroactive thinking, or red motorcycle helmet with a distorted Mark Woodward trapped on it with no escape. I sit cross-legged on the ground across from the quarter-reupholstered chair. I see the clock strike three. I put a needle in my left hand, a thread in the right. I aim to meet them both at the eye, and make a promise to myself I'll have something new by daylight.

 

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