Motivated Sellers (a prequel to The Awful Mess)

cover for Motivated SellersThis expands on “After That Slap,” which detailed the breakup Mary’s first marriage, and which some of you may have read. This story includes that, but continues on to introduce Winslow and Bert and Arthur, and show us how Mary came to buy a little house in Lawson. If you want to skip to the brand-new parts, scroll about a third of the way down the page.

One night Roger came home from work – late, as had become usual – stood in front of the open refrigerator, and said, “Where’s the beer?”

“We’re out,” she said, and her heart started pounding.

He was still staring into the refrigerator as if it might magically appear. “I told you last night we were out. Why didn’t you get any?”

“Because I didn’t feel like it.” She had told herself at the store that day that she was sick and tired of buying him cases and cases of beer and watching him drink it down. He could damned well buy his own and, yes, she would tell him so.

She’d felt confident, even brave, at the store. Not so much anymore.

He opened his mouth and let it stay open, just blinking at her for a long moment, before he said, “What do you mean, you didn’t feel like it? You got other stuff, didn’t you? It’s at the same grocery store, isn’t it?”

She took a deep breath and turned away, continuing to heat up his dinner. She’d already eaten earlier, during the news on TV, and put his away his portion until he got home. “I figured you could start getting it yourself. I don’t feel like lugging it around anymore. It’s really heavy, you know, the amount you go through in a few days. You could go get it right now. Your dinner will be ready when you get back.”

She tried to quell a nervous tremor in the hand stirring the spaghetti sauce. Her body seemed a lot more worried about this stand she was taking than her head was. Her head told her that Roger would throw a little tantrum at worst. Probably deliver his semi-annual lecture about how hard he worked and how his job at his father’s real estate development company involved longer hours and higher pressure than her low-stress, low-level, poorly-paid editorial job, and why couldn’t he count on her support, goddamn it, she was his wife, wasn’t she? Maybe he’d slam a dish or kick a chair or something.

Unpleasant as this prospect was, it would give her the opportunity to bring up those increasingly long hours, or the stops at the bar on the way home, or the amount of drinking in general, or his growing absence from their marriage.

Which meant, of course, that he would probably bring up her inability to get pregnant, and then she’d probably cry because what the hell was she supposed to do about that that she wasn’t already doing?

But at least then it would be out there. And it needed to get out there. They hadn’t had this particular fight in months. Afterwards, maybe the pall that had fallen over their evenings would be lifted for a while.

But what actually happened is that Roger turned white, let the refrigerator door swing closed, and slapped her across the face. The spoon in her hand went flying, flinging a narrow, orange-red spray of spaghetti sauce across the wall behind the stove.

He looked almost as surprised at what he had done as she was. They both stared at each other for one long, suspended moment. Then his eyes narrowed and he stepped towards her.

Suddenly terrified, she turned and ran. She scrambled up the stairs to their bedroom and locked the door and then barricaded it with a chair – he’d shown her how, in a hotel in Paris on their honeymoon. Then, as her heart pounded in her own ears, she called her father-in-law.

“Oh dear. I’ll be right over,” Mitchell said, predictably soothing and efficient. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”

Roger hadn’t pounded up the stairs and pleaded with her or even just screamed at her. She didn’t hear anything. Eventually she realized that she smelled something burning, and ran downstairs to find the kitchen filling with the acrid fumes of carbonized spaghetti sauce. There was no sign of Roger. When Mitchell arrived she explained that she had no idea where he was, though she supposed that he might have gone out, just as she’d suggested, to get some beer. Mitchell hefted his brick of a cell phone said, “Don’t worry, I’ll track him down. I’ll have him stay with us tonight. You’ve got enough on your hands just cleaning up this kitchen.”

She blinked. And then she cleaned it up. Then she sat on the sofa, not watching the television, thinking of that strange, utterly cold look on Roger’s face after his initial surprise. What had those narrowed eyes signaled? She wondered if he would now follow the classic pattern of the abusive husband: remorse, contrition, claiming he only did it because he loved her so much. It was hard to imagine anything that sentimental ever coming out of Roger’s mouth. And she didn’t really think she could consider herself a “battered woman.” A slapped woman, maybe. Slapped once in eight years of marriage. Hardly that big a deal. Running off to a shelter seemed like an excessive response, and also really inconvenient when it came to getting ready for work the next day.

On the other hand, if she believed those forensic shows they’d often watched together, he might just come back and kill her. But aside from that one chilling look, he’d never shown any hint of homicidal tendencies before. Annoyance, frustration, disgust, yes. Little tantrums when things didn’t work out the way he wanted. Not murder. That would require so much effort. That trip to Paris for their honeymoon had never been repeated because Roger didn’t like the hassle of travel. The truth was that she wasn’t really one for big adventures either.

Perhaps it was just a momentary aberration. He really must be under a lot of stress. She wished she knew someone other than her in-laws to discuss this with. Her own mother would probably suggest that Mary go see a priest and ask his help in examining her own shortcomings. Once, when Mary had tried to talk to her about her infertility problems, her mother had noted that this sort of thing could happen when a wife didn’t wholeheartedly fulfill her role as sexual partner and helpmeet. It was Mary’s duty to keep the works well oiled and running smoothly. Perhaps, she whispered darkly, Mary should try not to be too critical. Men needed to feel their wives were impressed by them in order to, you know, function properly.

If this were true, Mary figured it was a miracle she and her own brother and sister had ever been born. Her father had died relatively young, just after retirement, and Mary thought that if she’d had to live in the same house with her mother and grandmother she might have drunk herself to death, too. She had been relieved when her mother moved across the country to Arizona, where she could be near Mary’s older brother and sister, who had each successfully produced grandchildren whose upbringing needed to be continually second-guessed.

Which meant that her sister Patty might be sympathetic, but far away and obviously afflicted with her own problems. As for Mary’s friends… well, in recent years Mary hadn’t really kept up with her friends. Or they hadn’t kept up with her. They didn’t like Roger, she suspected, and this wouldn’t help that any. As for work, she didn’t think it was a good career move to let it get out that her husband had slapped her. She already got handed the most difficult development projects.

When Roger did come home the next evening it was with a stiff “sorry” and eyes that slid away from hers. Not exactly the contrition she’d expected. She felt vaguely cheated that she didn’t receive even an attempt at a little insincere manipulation. But at least he wasn’t conforming to the classic batterer profile.

Saturday passed in the usual whirl of Bellamy family celebrations: two nieces had birthdays. That Sunday Roger’s friend Joey and his current girlfriend were supposed to come over and watch the Patriots game, but at the last minute Joey called and moaned that he’d come down with a stomach bug, which probably just meant he’d scored something more fun to do. In the past she would have been pleased, but today it meant that she and Roger had only each other for company. They sat in their usual spots on the sofa and silently ate the potato chips and onion dip and watched the game. Mary flipped through home and garden magazines and wondered if there was any point to thinking about future projects.

Roger lined up empty Molson bottles in front of him on the coffee table and occasionally yelled at the Patriots to get their shit together. He had developed this system a few months earlier, after he’d gotten a lecture from his dad about showing up for work with an obvious hangover. He had explained it to her this way: work nights, six bottles max. Eight if he had had a really bad day. On the weekend, he could have twelve to fourteen. Technically, Sundays were work nights, but Patriots games got a special exemption and anyway the game started early so he had more time to metabolize. He had also introduced variations based on the quality of the beer – piss-water American beers could be drunk in approximately twenty percent higher quantity than dark European beers. Molson was Canadian so it probably fell somewhere in between. Mary figured Roger hadn’t wanted to spend too much on Joey’s drinking. She had stuck to her refusal to buy any more beer herself.

There were eight empty bottles lined up on the coffee table and it was half-time when Roger said, “Did you really have to call my dad?”

So they were finally going to talk about this? “You slapped me.”

“Yeah, well, you really pissed me off.” He didn’t even look at her.

She stared at his profile. “Who was I supposed to call? The cops?”

He turned to glare at her. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s also my boss. I already get enough fucking grief from him every fucking workday.”

Roger’s language usually deteriorated after the first six beers or so, but he also told more truths. Which meant… What did it mean? “So why are you telling me this? The next time I piss you off, you’re going to slap me again?”

He’d already returned his attention to the television. He scowled and twisted the cap off another beer. “I didn’t say that.”

Silence stretched between them, interrupted only by the manufactured cheer of a beer commercial.

She said, “Do you think maybe we should try some counseling?”

He shook his head. “It’s not going to happen again.”

x x x

Another week passed. Mary slept poorly, often lying awake at night and wondering what she should do. On Friday night, mostly to break the tension, she kissed him. He was receptive, and they made love on the living room sofa. Afterwards he smiled and patted her on the head while she lay in his lap and he watched the rest of a game.

The next morning he was up first. She could hear him downstairs brewing coffee.

“You’re up early,” she said.

“Yeah. You want a cup?”

“Sure,” she said, pleased. It was the nicest thing he’d said to her in days. Maybe she really did just need to keep the works well-oiled and running smoothly.

They sat at the counter. She sipped her coffee and read the paper.

“I have something to tell you,” he said.

She put her coffee down and looked at him.

“You know things haven’t been going too well between us lately.”

“Yes. That’s why I suggested counseling.”

“The thing is, there’s someone else.”

She just stared at him, uncomprehending. Someone else. Someone else. “What?” she said.

“No one you know. A girl I met down at Laredo’s. After you stopped going.”

Was he implying that this was her fault because she had tired of the bar scene and the things he would say to his buddies right in front of her?

Why hadn’t she suspected this? Because somehow she couldn’t imagine Roger ever being enough in love with anyone to want to suffer any inconvenience from it? “Who is it?”

Roger leaned forward. “The thing is, Mary, she’s going to have a baby.” The corner of his mouth twitched.

Oh God. He was proud. He’d fathered a child at last. She felt a cold sweat break out.

“Admit it, Mary, we’re just not good for each other anymore. We’re just beating a dead horse here.”

Maybe so, but his half of this dead horse still had some uses. She knew because she’d been tallying them for two weeks now: his half of the mortgage. His hanging of dry wall and fixing of plumbing. His killing of spiders. The simple fact that he was someone to watch a movie with. The social life he provided, whether she really enjoyed plodding through all those Bellamy family events and football games or not. The fact that he was someone to have sex with – but how long had he been fooling around? How could he let her make love to him last night?

God, she was going to have to get tested. More doctors, more blood work. More examinations. Like she hadn’t gone through enough of those already trying to get pregnant. Just how many women had he slept with, anyway? And how far back?

How could he do this to her?

His grimace was perhaps meant to be compassionate. “I’m really sorry about this, Mary. But you know we can’t control what our heart feels. I only want what’s best for both of us. I’m sure we can work something out. I’d really like it if we could stay friends.”

“Get out,” she said.

“What?” He looked stunned.

“Get out. I want you to leave. Now.”

He stood up. “But…”

“But what?” She stood up, too. She couldn’t match his height, but she could at least prevent him from towering over her.

“Jesus, you hardly need this whole house just for one person!”

“Do you expect me to commute to work from Arizona? I don’t have any place to go. You’re going to have to go live with your girlfriend. Or your parents, or one of your brothers. If and when I find another place, maybe you can buy out my half in the divorce.”

He put his hands on his hips. “You’ve been thinking about this, haven’t you? You probably already have an attorney!”

“Not yet,” she said, suddenly wondering about the status of their joint checking account. She was willing to bet he’d already lined up his own lawyer. “But I’ll certainly look for a good one.” She was a little surprised that she wasn’t fumbling or hesitating, panicking, running, giving all her rights away. Perhaps it was all the hard thinking she’d had to do after that slap. He’d done her a favor, really, giving her that heads up. “I’ll call your dad so he can help you move.” She got up and grabbed the receiver off the phone on the kitchen wall.

He grabbed it out of her hand so abruptly that for a moment she thought he might hit her with it. “I can’t believe you’re being so selfish about this!”

“Me, being selfish? Get the hell out!” He might have been trying to intimidate her by grabbing the phone, but now she was fighting mad. Her eyes darted around the kitchen. She thought: frying pan. Smash it into his skull. And then she thought knife. But that was too awful a thought, actually slicing into another human being, even if it was Roger. Her desire to attack evaporated.

He was still holding the phone. It started to make that loud noise that phones left off the hook make. He stared at it for a moment and then put it back into its cradle. “Jesus, at least let me pack a bag.”

It was a reasonable request, but she suspected that caving in then would be exactly the wrong thing to do. Roger knew how to eke out a sale step by step. “You can come back for your things later. I’ll call your Dad and let him know when you can come.”

“I don’t see why you have to make this so difficult. It’s not my fault you can’t get pregnant,” he said. “God knows I tried.”

He left before she had time to pick up that frying pan after all.

x x x

Winslow pounded again. “Mrs. Lacey!” A flake of faded red paint floated down and was lost in the pile of autumn leaves that had accumulated against the base of the old front door. He’d already tried ringing the doorbell and knocking, and had also done a circuit of the exterior, swishing through more leaves, looking for other ways to get in, or see in. The house was locked up tight, without even a window cracked open on a sunny and pleasant October day. He’d had to wrestle his way through badly overgrown bushes just to get close enough to rap on the windows. All the curtains were closed.

He noticed that the lawn had been kept mowed, at least, a project Father Arthur had once told him was shared by various neighbors. Presumably they’d be along to help collect these leaves sooner or later.

Her nearest neighbor would have played no part in that, of course. Cici had scurried out of the house as soon as he’d pulled up, a dated pink wool coat thrown over her screaming-yellow-floral house coat. She stood on her driveway and watched him, hands on her hips.

“About time you showed up!” she said. “I haven’t seen any movement over there since Wednesday!”

“Then why didn’t you call us?”

“Because you never listen to me!”

It was true, they generally ignored her. If she wasn’t calling to complain about a neighbor, she’d be trying to get services she wasn’t entitled to. But they would have checked on Agnes Lacey.

Knocking clearly wasn’t going to get him in. He could call the fire department and get them to break the door down with an axe, or he could just shoot the lock out. But not firing his service revolver outside of target practice had become a point of pride, and it had also saved him a hell of a lot of paperwork. The door looked flimsy. He picked out a weak spot, backed up, and gave it a hard kick. It gave way with a loud crack and swung open.

That was when the smell hit him.

He pivoted and headed back to the car, swallowing convulsively.

“The town had better replace that door!” Cici yelled.

Why was this happening? He’d known what he was heading into. He had prepared himself. After all the things he’d seen, this should be nothing.

“Aren’t you going in?” Cici demanded.

Back at the car, he sat a moment, taking deep, even breaths, feeling a chill from the sweat that had risen out of every pore. After one last fortifying breath, he called Eunice to notify the town’s various official ministers of death to get over to Mrs. Lacey’s house. Then he snapped on some gloves and took some more deep breaths.

He could do this.

It was his job to do this.

He walked back up the little walk, refusing to so much as look at Cici, took one last deep breath, and dove in.

He found her almost immediately, a small, bony heap on the worn wooden floor in the narrow little hall. Agnes Lacey had been tiny and frail ever since he’d known her, but she had maintained a sharp eye and a merry cackle until the end. There was no hint of that now. This was just—

Don’t go there.

He looked around, assessing the scene. There was no sign of a struggle, or of anyone else having been in the house. Her bed was unmade. Her bedside light was on in the middle of the day. Her hair was a wispy white mess. It was all consistent with getting up from bed during the night. She kept a phone next to her bed, so she must have had some other reason to get up, assuming she had been even the least bit lucid at that point.

He hoped she hadn’t lain there helpless and scared and alone for very long.

The last time he had smelled this particular odor, it had been coming from his own mother. Her body had eked out day after day of stubborn existence even as her tumors ulcerated and rotted the flesh around them.

Winslow had sworn to himself that he would never, ever put anyone else through that on his behalf. Once all hope was gone, he’d finish it off quickly with a bullet in the mouth. He just hoped he’d have the opportunity.

Though perhaps there would be a sort of justice if he didn’t.

“Suppose you were cleaning your gun and you had an accident?” she’d said to him, one day when he was the only one in the house, sitting with her so she would have company, even though they were both silent a good part of the time. They were not the talkers in the family.

“What?” he’d said, confused.

“Here,” she’d said, tapping the side of her head that faced him. “Suppose you had an accident? With the gun?”

He’d just stared at her.

“Too much to ask,” she’d said, reading it in his face.

“Yeah, Mom, too much.” He’d thought of telling her that if it got really bad, that if the morphine pump stopped keeping the worst pain at bay, he’d reconsider. It might be good to give her that hope.

But he could never, ever do that. Not to his own mother. At least not yet, not when the hospice appeared to have her set up pretty well. There hadn’t been any screaming or begging or calling for her mama. “I’m sorry,” he’d said.

“I know you are, sweetheart,” she’d said, patting his hand. “Forget I said it.”

As if he ever could.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lacey,” he said now to the corpse. She hadn’t deserved the indignity of rotting here on her hallway floor, unnoticed for days.

But she was also long past caring about that now.

He left her to step through the other rooms, checking again for any evidence of anything other than a natural death. But there was nothing.

He heard the approaching siren and its urgency struck him as ridiculous and self-important.

On the other hand, it wasn’t as if the ambulance volunteers in sleepy little Lawson got much practice. Which meant they would probably be just as pole-axed by the smell as he had been. He started opening windows.

x x x

“Poor old Agnes,” his dad said, over a dinner of pork chops, apple sauce, and mashed potatoes. “We should have stopped in to see her more often. Of course, she told us we were welcome to visit, but she didn’t want our prayers.”

“Imagine that,” Winslow said. His father often prayed out loud – quite loud, for he was a little deaf – that Winslow would return to the sanctified fold that was God’s Chapel on the Hill, even though Bert knew Winslow attended St. Andrews instead – and there only after years of skeptical distance from any church.

Of course, being Episcopalian didn’t count as fully Christian in Bert’s eyes, though he’d granted that it might be a shade better than being Catholic … at least until he’d heard that an openly gay man was allowed to function as a priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire.

Bert said, “I have to tell you, son, and I take no pleasure in saying this: This wicked world and your church in particular is overdue for the Revelation of the Lord!”

Winslow just ate. Bert would run out of righteous indignation sooner or later and suggest they move on to dessert. Winslow considered speeding the process up by distracting him with the story of the awful smell in Agnes Lacey’s house, and decided against it. Bert didn’t need any reminders of his wife’s last days.

Winslow fully intended to be here for his father when the time came, but who would be here for him? At 39, he had never married, never had a child. Someday he himself might be some bent over, fragile old man who slipped out of life on his way to the toilet and lay there on the floor decomposing until somebody finally checked. This was assuming he didn’t just get taken out by a truck someday while he was working on the side of the highway.

In the military, he’d had a better shot at dying young than most people, but at least he’d known his fellow Marines would look out for him, even in death. The police were supposed to be like that, too, but coverage in Lawson was so thin he doubted it would actually work that way.

He’d thought about going back to the military, after his mother died, especially after 9/11. But he hadn’t. After Somalia he had become suspicious of grand enterprises in foreign lands among people who would happily accept the help of Americans and then turn around and kill them without remorse.

And his dad wasn’t getting any younger.

“You’d be more responsible if you had a family of your own to protect from the devices of this wicked world,” his father said.

“You don’t think I’m responsible?” Winslow said.

Bert scowled. “I’m talking about spiritual matters. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Of course, what you really need is a wife. And a kid or two or three. That would put these things into proper perspective for you.”

Winslow heard this advice to get a wife from his father regularly, and usually ignored it. He’d had enough misadventures with women to make him cautious, and it wasn’t as if Lawson was crawling with good matrimonial material. But for once he looked at his father and really considered the idea.

Not that marriage and family was really any guarantee of anything. Bert certainly hadn’t expected to survive his wife.

Still, it would be kind of nice to have someone other than just a cranky old Bible thumper and a dog to share his life with.

Having some hot sex with a woman would be awfully welcome about now, too, if she could avoid being so damned calculating about it. Please God, save him from any more women like Cheryl.

He didn’t say one word to indicate that he was thinking any of this, of course. He didn’t need anyone in this town looking for a wife for him any harder than they already did.

x x x

At the station later that week, he got a call from Lisa Hunt, an old classmate of his. She’d been hired by Mrs. Lacey’s heirs, none of whom lived nearby, to sell their aunt’s house, contents included.

“There’s an odor,” she said.


There was a long pause. He had nothing to add.

Lisa said, “I’ve got your cousin Dave coming to refinish that floor in the hallway. Is there anything else I need to know about in there? Was any of the furniture involved?”

“Not that I know of.”

“So she hadn’t left anything in the bed or anything?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. It struck him as an impertinent thing to ask, though really Lisa was just doing her job. “At least not that I noticed.”

“I don’t see any stains myself. I just needed to know whether I should get a hazardous waste company involved. Thanks, Winslow. You’ve been a great help.”

“No problem.” It occurred to him to ask her if she knew any single women who might be interested in going out with him. Like most successful real estate agents, Lisa networked all the time. And she sold real estate well beyond the borders of Lawson – she’d have to, to make a decent living at it. But he also suspected the whole town would know almost as soon he’d asked. “Bye now.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to look for your own place!” she said quickly, almost as if she’d heard him hesitate. “Or if your dad ever decides he’s ready to move on to something more comfortable.”

“I’ll let you know,” he said. She’d been asking about the farm ever since she’d gotten her license. He and his father had no intention of selling, assuming they could keep the taxes paid and the house standing. As of now, Winslow’s salary was what made that possible. That and his ability to talk his dad out of whatever his latest nutty idea to make the farm profitable again might be.

“Oh, now here’s the ticket: Llamas!” Bert had announced over a magazine just recently. “This says that people are just crazy about llamas!”

“Let’s not leap into anything,” Winslow had said.

That applied to finding a wife, too, surely.

x x x

Cozy Lawson cottage in desirable uptown location with country views. Just a little TLC will make it the starter or retirement home of your dreams. 2 BR 1 BA LR EIK full basement. Motivated sellers!

The real estate agent turned off the ignition and handed her the Multiple Listing Service sheet that corresponded to the little house in front of them. “This is one you can easily afford, and it’s empty and available immediately. It even comes furnished.” Her smile looked just a little tight.

Perhaps, Mary guessed, she knew she couldn’t expect to make much money on this deal. Lisa was a new realtor. The last one, in Nashua, had asked her to follow him in her own car to the next place and then zoomed off. Apparently that had been his subtle way of letting her know she wasn’t worth his time.

Lawson was much further into New Hampshire than Mary had looked before. A sharp rise in the price of houses during the boom was the problem, especially since she didn’t want one of the many condos that had begun to dominate the market.

She’d probably settled for too little from Roger for her half of their house, but she had wanted out of their marriage more than she had wanted to dicker. Unfortunately, this meant that even neighborhoods a full hour out of Boston had proven mostly out-of-reach. At least one friend had advised her to wait, noting that economy and house prices were both softening. But while Mary was willing to accept being single again, she absolutely refused to become an apartment dweller again.

Lawson, she had discovered, was both quaint and affordable. It was also far enough away – possibly even closer to Vermont than it was to work – that Mary wouldn’t have considered it without the permission she’d just received to work from home.

She stood on the cracked asphalt driveway and stared critically at the house. Yes, it could be described as cozy if someone was feeling charitable. Others might just say it looked tiny and abandoned. But Mary had picked up a few things over the years from her soon-to-be ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-father-in-law, like the importance of ignoring overgrown foundation plantings and focusing on a house’s structure and flow.

That, and the big-ticket items. “That roof is going to need some work,” she said.

“It’s been priced to account for the need to put on a new one,” Lisa said brightly. “They’ll even work it into the closing if they have to. Shall we go in?”

“Sure,” Mary said. She enjoyed looking at even the most awful houses; there was a certain voyeuristic pleasure in seeing just how bad they could get. On this one the roof line looked straight and true, at least, and the eaves appeared to be in good shape.

While Lisa fussed with the lock box hanging off a bright red front door that looked much more freshly painted than the rest of the exterior, Mary assessed the neighborhood. The houses on either side were slightly larger and better-kept. Across the street, there was nothing but a field enclosed by an old stone wall. Pasture interrupted by the occasional shrub sloped down to a line of woods that must sooner or later meet up with the state highway. While she waited, a single car passed on the road in front of the house. It slowed noticeably before it continued on its way.

“Someone you know?” she asked Lisa.

Lisa didn’t even look up from her struggles with the lock box. “Probably.”

The grade looked fine, with the front yard sloping down to the street. The house was painted rather than vinyl-sided, which would mean more ongoing maintenance, but the paint looked fairly sound, and it was an unobjectionable white.

“Here we go!” Lisa said, pushing the door open, but she stood in doorway so long that Mary began to wonder what she was waiting for. Finally, the agent stepped all the way in, flipped on a light and started turning on every lamp in the room.

When Mary followed her in she immediately guessed why Lisa had hesitated. “What’s that smell?” Had something died behind a wall? There was clearly an attempt being made to mask it, too, with dishes of potpourri and a strong pine cleanser scent about the place.

“These old houses have so much history,” Lisa said.

Mary stared at her. Was she trying to suggest that a bad smell counted as history?

Lisa gestured briskly. “This is your living room, obviously.” She walked across it and through a doorway. “And here’s your eat-in kitchen, which is not a bad size – along with the door to your driveway.” She opened that, and left it open.

Eat-in kitchen with no dining room, Mary noted. But who was she going to invite to dinner? It wasn’t ideal from a resale point of view, but neither was the fact that it only had two bedrooms. But it was certainly enough space for a childless divorcee content with solitude.

The cabinets were ancient but solid. The plumbing under the sink did not leak, and the drain drained. The kitchen and its appliances were so old they almost qualified as retro.

She pulled her coat closed. The house had been chilly inside to begin with and was chilling even faster with two doors open. “Shall I close this?” Mary asked, stepping to the kitchen door and peering out.

A curtain fell in a window of the house next door. Someone had been watching them. Of course, that made for a safer neighborhood, didn’t it?

“Better leave it open. The house needs some air.”

That much was true.

They made fast work of the two bedrooms with their tiny closets, and the little bathroom.

On the whole, the house struck Mary as solidly-built, well-situated, and not too afflicted by the awful mid-century updates she’d found in almost all the houses in her price range – pink toilets, avocado green bathtubs, fiberglass sinks shaped like scallop shells, gold-flecked kitchen counters. With a little paint and a new roof, it would do. Even the basement, with its low ceiling, uneven floor, and ancient boiler, didn’t strike her as a deal-breaker. It wasn’t dirt, at least, which hopefully meant there wasn’t some body not-very-well buried down there. It also appeared to be dry.

It was not as if she would ever need to carve out a man cave for anyone.

In the narrow little hallway, she pulled down the folding stairs to the attic and poked her head up. It didn’t smell damp. Judging from the cold draft, there was sufficient ventilation. Maybe an animal had gotten trapped and died up there? Not sure where the light was and in no mood to find either a carcass or any grieving animal relatives, she decided to leave any further investigation for an actual home inspection.

As she came back down, the odor hit her again. Probably not originating from the attic, then. But she could get rid of an odor, surely? She could try vinegar. And fans. Baking soda. Other chemicals. She could hire a restoration firm. Someone had to know how to do it.

At this point the mistake that was her first marriage was hanging over her worse than any odor ever could. This house was far away from Roger and anything they’d ever done together.

She went back and stood in the doorway of the kitchen and looked at the little wooden table sitting in the middle of it. There were two chairs tucked underneath it. One for her, one for a guest. She could put a little vase of flowers there, make it look like home.

“What do you think?” Lisa asked. “This one is mine, and the owners don’t mind me telling you that they are highly motivated to get this sold before the holidays.”

“Let’s see the others on your list,” Mary said cagily, although she was already considering what the offer for this one should be. Lisa might be willing to give up half her commission if she didn’t have to share it with another realtor.

But Mary wasn’t going to let herself fall in love with this house, even if she did end up making an offer. Who knew what the home inspection would show? Falling in love was a real sucker’s move. If the last year had taught her anything, it was that.

On the other hand, she couldn’t help feeling interested.

x x x

Arthur Tennant, Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, stood in the door to the parking lot, assessing the spitting snow outside. It seemed unlikely to require salt or other preparation. He could just shut the door and walk across the parking lot to the parish house and he would be done with his workday, at least until someone called with some pastoral emergency of some kind. There wasn’t even a meeting scheduled.

He had yet another of Bertha’s infernal pies with him. And he would probably, over a period of days, actually eat it, if only because there was nothing sweeter to nibble on.

Story of my life, he thought darkly, and immediately felt guilty for it. As someone privy to the sufferings of many, he knew that his life could be much worse. And as someone who had counseled many of those people, he knew that how he defined his life could affect how well he lived it.

Thank you for all I have, Lord, he thought, as he tramped across the asphalt. Teach me to have a grateful heart. Thank you for Bertha and her generosity, if not her skill. Thank you for a patient and reasonable parish. Thank you for giving me work that is good to do. Thank you for this short walk on a cold day.

In the mud room he put the pie on the bench, and divested himself of shoes and scarf. He’d need to polish those shoes up before Sunday.

Once upon a time Sharon had actually done that for him. Once upon a time she’d even bought him these shoes, much more expensive shoes than he would ever have bought himself. Thank you for these fine shoes, Lord. The shoes had outlasted his wife’s affection for him by many years. But there was no point in dwelling on that. Thank you for these cozy slippers, he thought, as he put them on. Thank you for helping me to not purposely-accidentally drop this pie in the parking lot.

The kitchen, of course, was dark. He put the pie on the counter, noting that a new bowl sat in the sink. She hadn’t put any water in it, so it would take scrubbing or soaking to dislodge the gluey remains of her breakfast. There was a trace of coffee caramelizing on the bottom of the carafe in the coffeemaker. Nothing new there. He switched it off.

He’d warned her it could start a fire. She just kept leaving it on. It sometimes made him think about the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre.

That lucky bastard Rochester. Sure, his weaknesses had cost him a great deal, but he’d gotten what he wanted in the end. Who needed a mansion, or even his eyesight, if he could be set free from the awful wife and win the love of a good woman?

God’s love is all we can count on in the end.

He believed that. He really did. It was the only thing that made his life, anyone’s life, make sense.

Sometimes, though, he just really didn’t feel particularly loved, even by God.

If you really loved me, he thought, you’d get me out of this miserable marriage. It was not a very mature or theologically sound prayer. He knew he should add but thy will, not mine, be done, or something. But he didn’t.

He filled the dirty bowl with water to soak and threw the coffee grounds in the compost bin. “I actually meant that exactly the way I said it,” he said out loud.

Silence greeted his announcement.

Silence was almost all he ever got.

x x x

Winslow drove down Pine Street on patrol, slowing to a crawl as he noticed a car at the Lacey house. He saw Lisa Hunt, who had a woman with her – a woman who was slender but sturdy-looking, youngish, with long brown hair. She turned and looked when Lisa waved at him. He waved back, but from his own experience he doubted either woman could really see inside to where he sat.

The woman flashed him, or the car, that nervous civilian smile he was so used to seeing: Hello, officer. Nothing to see here! I’m totally law-abiding! Then she turned back to Lisa and pointed at something on the roof.

He thought about stopping the car, getting out, saying hello. It would be the friendly thing to do. He could mention Dave’s contracting business, in case she would soon be looking for someone. He could see whether she was really as attractive as she seemed to be from a distance. He could check for a ring. He could change that nervous smile into a more genuine one the next time they met.

But by the time he’d thought all this, he was already past the Lacey house and in front of Cici’s. And Cici would notice if he backed up or turned around or so much as smiled at that woman in Mrs. Lacey’s front yard.

That woman who was probably married and had three kids anyway. Well, not three. Nobody with three kids would want such a tiny house.

He’d know it all soon enough, if she did buy it. Very little news got around Lawson faster than a newcomer and a real estate transaction, unless it had even the slightest whiff of sex, in which case it spread even faster.

He shook his head. It was stupid even to think about any of that at this point. Especially the sex. So he drove on in his canvass of the town’s various neighborhoods. He’d do his job.

Still, he was conscious of feeling just a touch more alert. A touch more interested. Expectant. Maybe even hopeful.

Thank you, he thought, not pausing to consider whether he was aiming his gratitude at God, or the universe, or a woman he hadn’t even met yet and might never meet. All he knew was that it was a pleasant way to feel again, no matter how little might come of it.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsTHE END (except, of course, that it continues in The Awful Mess.)

Recent Posts

Things you get to do as a novelist

Recently I responded to a Twitter question from Jeffrey Perry (don’t ask me who he is) that asked people to describe what they do for a living but make it sound scary.

I responded, “I’ve thrown a pregnant woman down the stairs, crashed TWO planes, assaulted a number of people, caused a jail lockdown, shot a kid who was just hanging out on his front porch, and given four people fatal overdoses.”

I added, “It’s not really much of a living, though.” (It really isn’t, right now. I need to get my marketing self together or decide this is just a hobby.)

Anyway, it nicely freaked some folks out. An author I know from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association responded, “Hahaha, you shocked me for a minute.”

And a pretty good number of folks appreciated my explanation: “(Novelist, dude.)”

It is a pretty shocking list put together like that. It made me stop and think. For one thing, I wondered if I was really writing romantic women’s fiction. For another, why am I obsessed with crashing planes?

But it’s plot. I believe my books are character-driven, but no one can say nothing happens in them.

Anyway, you might find it amusing to try something similar with your own profession or your own art, whatever it might be. Make it sound as scary as you can.

I’m eager to see what you come up with. It IS Halloween, after all. Boo!


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