Up ahead of them, the real estate agent’s charcoal-gray Buick slowed, and the right turn signal pulsed, barely visible in the washed out light of the hazy afternoon.
“This must be it, mama,” Faith said as they approached the turn.
Mama Winnie turned her Cadillac from the narrow country highway onto the even narrower country lane. “I’d hate to meet a big truck coming the other way on this road.”
On the right three strands of rusted barbed-wire sagged from an uneven line of grey, lichen-encrusted fence posts around some grown up pastureland that looked past due for haying. On the left there was a row of tidy, nearly identical two-story houses situated between the road and what might pass for either a small lake or a large pond.
“I wonder why all of these houses have two garages,” Mama Winnie said.
“How’s that, mama?”
“Well, they all have built-in garages and then another detached one.”
In the back seat with the baby, Doug wondered silently, as a half grin spread over the left half of his face, if that were where they kept their in-laws. When he chuckled to himself, his wife, Faith, looked up into the vanity mirror on the back of the sun visor so she could direct a reflected frown at him. He reacted by blowing a raspberry at the baby, who giggled and shouted “Yawp!”
“Such a ting to teach a wittle bebe dirl to say,” Mama Winnie said with a lilting, throaty hum, her burgundy-painted lips pursed out toward rearview mirror. “Valerie, tell your daddy to teach oo somefing pwetty, like pwease or tank-oo or mama.”
Doug blew another raspberry, and little Valerie spouted “Yawp! Yawp!”
“I swear…” Faith shook her head and sighed.
The gray Buick slowed again and turned into the driveway of one of the two-story houses. Even before getting out of the car, they could see that the house’s yellow aluminum siding was oxidized and coming loose in several places. An ancient oak shaded the west side of the house, and that shaded area was discolored with the greenish hue of some kind of algae. The Bermuda grass in the yard was a foot deep and gone to seed, and bent mini-blinds sagged in the front windows. A covered porch with a dingy white railing circled from the front around the left side of the house, and a weathered wooden sign with “The Joneses” carved into it dangled unevenly from the overhang.
“Ohhh,” Mama Winnie said with a falling tone as she put the Caddie into park.
Doug was already unfastening the elaborate system of belts that kept Valerie secured in her child safety seat.
“Well, I guess we should look, since we’re here,” Faith said, opening her door.
Becky Jo, the real estate agent, was fiddling with the “lock box” that hung from the doorknob of the front door. She punched a code number into a keypad and the box opened to reveal the key to the door, an efficient means of ensuring that all of the agents in the area could access the house for potential buyers.
Mama Winnie stood in front of her car, clipboard in hand. As Faith joined her, she clicked her ballpoint pen and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Doug, carrying the baby, followed them at a few yards distance, alternately tickling the giggling baby’s chin with the end of his tie and looking up at the house. He could see several red wasps around one of the corners of the house, circling in the air like fighter aircraft, and he half smiled again. He remembered, as a child, the thrill of arming himself with a badminton racket, stirring up a nest of wasps, and then swatting the swarming defenders out of the air as they swooped in to try to sting him. The open mesh of the racket face produced no disturbance of air to push the light insects out of the way of the deadly force of the swat, and the criss-crossed strings effectively diced them in mid flight, leaving dismembered parts of their bodies to drift, spinning, to the ground. After killing all of the adult wasps on a nest, he would knock the nest down and put it in a jar with holes in the lid. When the pupated larvae hatched from their paper cells, he would let the young wasps crawl around on his hands, imprinting on him as their exoskeletons hardened. After their wings were dry enough, they would fly away, returning occasionally to alight on their “parent,” stroking his arm hairs with their antennae, never stinging him.
Becky Jo finally got the key to work, and let the door creak open. The stairs to the second story were situated so near to the entry that the front door had just enough room to swing completely open without striking the bottom step.
“Oh my gosh,” Mama Winnie moaned. “Where are you supposed to stand when you open the door?”
“On the stairs?” Doug said.
Mama Winnie looked over the top of her glasses at him as she clicked her pen, and she looked down to start writing.
“Yawp!” went the baby.
Mama Winnie looked up at her, then at Doug. “Did you…?”
Doug shrugged and shook his head, and the baby gurgled. Mama Winnie glanced over at Faith, who rolled her eyes.
“She sure likes to yell in these empty houses,” Becky Jo said, slipping her broad, red-lipstick grin into the tension.
“It’s the echo, I think,” Doug replied. Becky Jo crinkled the tip of her nose up at the baby, who responded by inserting her tiny index finger into one of the presented nostrils. Becky Jo pulled back and snorted.
“You’ve got to watch her,” Doug said. “She’s quick.”
Becky Jo continued to rub her nose as the group threaded through the cramped foyer into the vacant living room. In the center of the longest wall was a fireplace. Soot lapped around its once-white edges, as though the previous occupants had made a habit of building fires without opening the damper, and ashes spilled out onto the carpet. Bright white geometric shapes of the former furniture stood out on the floor in contrast from the grayed portions of the carpet that had been exposed to traffic and the soot and ashes from the fireplace. Mama Winnie continued to scribble on her clipboard. Doug started to put the baby down on the floor.
“Nuh-uh,” Faith objected. “Don’t you put my baby down on that filthy carpet.”
“You let her run around in the dirt outside.”
“That’s nature. This,” she said, casting a frown about the room, “is not.”
He put Valerie down anyway, and followed as she toddled into the kitchen, not turning to look at his wife’s reaction, though he could hear her sharply expelled sigh, and further behind him he heard the click of a ballpoint pen.
They had looked at a number of houses in the preceding week, several of them pre-owned like this one. There was one house they had wanted to see because of its reasonable price, but when they saw the house, they saw the reason behind the reasonable. The shingles on the roof were nearing the end of their useful life. The kitchen had been repainted right over years of built-up grease that had already begun to soak through the new paint. One of the bathtubs had been spray painted in an attempt to make it look new. These attempts to disguise flaws in the house did not surprise him. But the house they were currently exploring showed no evidence that any such hasty repairs had been attempted. It had not even been cleaned.
In the kitchen, Doug found a pile of plaster in the center of the floor and looked up to see a corresponding hole in the ceiling, just below a plumbing junction from the upstairs bathroom. It had apparently leaked onto the sheetrock of the ceiling until a section of it had dissolved and fallen.
“Nice,” Faith said.
“Hey, easy access to work on the plumbing,” Doug said.
Faith stepped around the chalky mess and opened what appeared to be the pantry. Inside were shelves, on which was a well-chewed box of macaroni and cheese, a sprinkling of rodent droppings, a mouse-sized hole gnawed through the wall at the back of the pantry, and assorted junk like old jar lids, rusty flatware, and what looked like a coiled belt. Faith eyed the contents of the shelves with a look of mild disgust until the belt moved. As Faith shrieked, the narrow fellow wrinkled and was gone through the hole at the back of the shelves.
“Yawp!” said Valerie.
Faith’s reaction made Doug wonder how that infamous Garden of Eden fruit peddler had ever managed to approach Eve in the first place. A laugh escaped Doug in spite of himself, though he stifled it in an instant, and Mama Winnie looked up from her clip board.
“What? What is it, Faith?”
Faith was still catching her breath, so Doug replied. “There was a snake in the pantry.”
“A fucking snake!” Faith said, finally regaining her breath.
“Language!” Mama Winnie said.
“A live one?” Becky Jo asked.
“I sure hope so, because it slithered away.”
Doug glanced around, not wanting to acknowledge the look he knew his wife was giving him, and he noticed that Valerie had left the room. Glad for the excuse, he went back out into the living room to see if she had wandered in there. Not finding her he looked around to see where else she might have gone. There was only the stair to the second story. The sounds of the women still going on about the snake in the kitchen faded behind him as he climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor landing. To the left was a small bedroom and to the right was what appeared to be the master suite. He stuck his head in the doorway of the smaller room. All four walls and even the ceiling were painted hot pink, and the floor was covered in dark brown shag carpet.
“Valarie?” Hearing no reply, he blew a raspberry, but again got no reaction. He turned back to go into the master bedroom.
As he crossed into the room, he caught a brief hint of decay in the air, as though something dead were nearby. Having seen the wildlife habitat in the pantry, it did not surprise him, and he hardly gave it a thought as he scanned the room for his daughter.
“Valarie?” He blew another raspberry. Nothing.
The carpet in the room was nearly as filthy as that in the living room, which it managed without the benefit of a fireplace nearby. The wear patterns and dirt on the floor made it easy to see where the bed had been, and there was a dark stain the size of a trash can lid near one side of the bed where something had been spilled and only partially cleaned up. He walked around the clean spot where the bed had been to the closed door of the master bath. As he approached the door, the previous whiff of decay grew to a distinct stench. He could hear the women downstairs begin calling Valarie’s name and his name as he reached for the door knob. It was locked. He took one of his otherwise useless credit cards out of his wallet and slid it between the door and the jamb, pushing the plunger back and opening the door almost as quickly as he could have done with a key. As the door opened, the stench from within the bathroom snapped his head back the way smelling salts will do, and he closed the door a moment to take a breath and hold it before re-entering the room. “Valarie?” He was answered by the buzzing of flies. The toilet was blackened with them, and as he stepped closer, he could see why. Someone had used the toilet, apparently several times, without flushing it, and however many summer days or weeks had passed since then, nature had taken its course and left the toilet filled with a viscous, brown muck squirming with the undulating bodies of tiny white maggots feeding. He looked as long as he could hold his breath, and then turned to leave. On his way out, he spotted an envelope on a shelf below the broken mirror over the crusted sink. He grabbed the envelope, went out, and closed the door behind him. After a slow, deep breath, he looked into the open envelope. It was a flyer.
“Stop the Foreclosure and Resale of Your Home! Proven methods!
Cheap and easy! For more info visit www.no_repo.com.”
The left side of his mouth spread slowly into a half grin, but before he could read further he heard his wife shriek from downstairs. He stuffed the envelope in the inside pocket of his jacket and went out the bedroom door. Valarie was standing right at the edge of the top step of the stairs. Doug froze; he thought if he ran toward her, she might think he was playing and try to run down the stairs. Faith was at the bottom of the stairs, her shaking hands held up, motioning the baby to stay where she was. When she saw Doug emerge from the master bedroom, she said, “G-g-go to daddy, baby. Go to d-daddy.” Doug had heard her stutter only once before, as she tried to say “richer or p-p-poorer” when they were standing at the front of a cavernous church packed with her friends and extended family and the one pew holding his.
Valarie looked at her mother and then at her father, who slowly crouched and held his arms open in the universal invitation to a hug. “Come to daddy, sweetheart.”
Valarie wavered, looking back and forth several times, wobbling as toddlers do as she stood. Then Doug blew a raspberry.
“Yawp!” Valerie giggled as she toddled over to Doug, who folded her into his arms. “Good girl. Good girl.” Looking over Valarie’s shoulder, Doug could see Faith ascending slowly, like she was still unsure if it were safe. Then her face looked for a moment just as it had in the delivery room when Valerie had finally taken a breath after several attempts to stimulate a response from her blue little body. Doug met her look with much the same smirk that had slithered onto his face when he had read the flyer he’d found. He could hear the paper crinkle in his pocket as he hugged Valerie, imagining he could still discern a faint odor that had permeated the paper. He blew a soft raspberry into Valarie’s ear as he looked directly into his wife’s eyes.
“Yawp! Yawp! Yawp!” the baby said, and her mother’s face melted and she sank to the steps, as though robbed of the very strength to stand.
Dennis Humphrey is Chair of the English and Fine Arts Division at Arkansas State University—Beebe. He has a PhD in English with Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His recent fiction publications include stories in storySouth, Southern Hum, and Prick of the Spindle.