~This story was previously published in RE:AL - Regarding Arts & Letters (2011).
Darlene and Eddie know, as soon as the realtor turns onto the tree-lined, brick-paved street, that the house on the corner will be the one. It has to be; it’s the third and final house of the day.
The realtor, Maxine, pulls into the driveway of the renovated Victorian. The house is white, but all the trim and spindles and cornices are painted in a pattern of muted grays, blues, and greens. A large swing hangs on the wrap-around porch, and the yard is perfectly manicured with a Bradford pear just to the side of the house. “I know you’ll love this property; it’s simply perfect,” Maxine says over her shoulder to Darlene and Eddie, searching in her shoulder bag on the passenger seat for the folder with the listing. “It’s got five bedrooms—plenty of room for the kids—three baths and all new amenities. I know it’s on the top end of your budget, but…you’ve just got to see it.”
Darlene leans across Eddie’s lap to look up at the house. This close, Eddie’s cologne is too strong. It smells piney and cheap, much too old-smelling for a man in his mid-twenties. His pants are wrinkled, too; the rest of his clothing, a dark green polo and lightweight brown sport coat, looks fine, but she can’t believe she didn’t notice his pants earlier. She quickly checks her own outfit, charcoal slacks and a white blouse, to see that everything is in place and then looks out the window at the house. It’s big and old and exactly the kind of house Darlene had always dreamed of living in. She and Eddie had worked a few big houses before, but never one so nice. She knows the people who live in these kinds of houses have to have money, so there is a good chance they’ll find what they’re looking for.
Pulling back from the window, Darlene looks at Eddie. His face is pale and his eyes—only a little bloodshot, like maybe he’s tired—dart around in their sockets. He’s fighting it, but she can tell. He rubs the side of his nose with the back of his hand, and then pushes up his sleeve and scratches his forearm, digging his fingernails into his skin, leaving it blotchy and red. This is new. Darlene reaches across and holds Eddie’s arm.
“Maxine, can we have just a moment alone to discuss the last house?” Darlene asks.
“Absolutely! Let me just go unlock the door. Take as much time as you need.”
“Great, thanks,” Darlene says and smiles. She watches Maxine walk away from the car, her wide hips swaying beneath the tight blue business suit, her permed hair stiff in the breeze. When she is far enough away, Darlene turns and glares at Eddie. “What the hell is this?”
“What?” he says and sniffs. “I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get it over with.”
“You don’t look fine. What’s with the scratching?”
“I’m fine—or no worse off than you,” he says and nods down at her hands. “Let’s go in and hope for the best.”
Darlene looks at her hands. They’re shaking. It’s only barely visible, but still. She hadn’t even noticed. She opens and closes her hands, making tight fists and releasing them. When did it get like this?
“You ready?” Eddie asks, looking directly at Darlene.
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks at her hands resting quietly on her lap. “Ready.”
When they get out of the car, there is a light touch of honeysuckle in the warm summer air. As they approach the house, Darlene is even more impressed. Maxine is right; this house is perfect. For a moment, forgetting why they’re there, Darlene sees herself sitting on the porch swing, drinking a tall glass of iced-tea, a book open on her lap, and two children playing in the yard. Her reverie is broken when Eddie whistles softly and says loud enough for the realtor to hear: “Quite a house.”
On the front porch Maxine hands them the listing. “Take a quick look at that, and we’ll head on in.”
“Look honey,” Darlene says and points at the listing. “It’s got a rec room—the kids’ll love that—and a den off the family room that we could turn into an office for you.” They’ve been doing this now off and on for nearly a year, and they’ve gotten good at it, but it still surprises Darlene how easy it is. The small realty companies typically did less checking, so all they have to do is tell the realtor they’re thinking of moving to the area in the next few months, but they want to get a lay of the land and the housing market first. All that’s left is to dress up and invent a story about who they are, and generally the realtors buy it. Her favorite part is making up the stories about who she and Eddie are. They usually go by Kristen and Brent, and sometimes they are newlyweds, just back from honeymooning in Hawaii, looking to put a large down payment on a house with their wedding money, but most of the time she’s a housewife with two children, both boys, and Eddie works as a young, hot-shot investment banker or an architect; it doesn’t really matter as long as she can play the loving stay-at-home mom.
“Shall we?” Maxine asks, and Darlene looks again at Eddie and raises her eyebrows. If he can’t pull off his part, there’s no way she can do what they both need her to do.
“Sure, but I can tell Kristen’s already fallen in love with it,” Eddie says and lightly squeezes Darlene’s elbow the way Brent might.
Darlene lets out a deep breath and smiles. “Okay, I can’t wait any longer. I must see inside this house,” she says in the way she knows Kristen would.
Though she and Eddie are there for one reason, they can’t rush it. They have to wait for just the right moment and be ready when it comes. Lately Eddie has been careless and forcing it, intentionally trying to draw the realtors away, but that’s sloppy and dangerous. Earlier at the first house, Eddie pushed too hard to see the basement while Darlene was checking out the family room. Maxine had called out to Darlene to come with her and Eddie to see the basement. “You’ll love the bonus room,” she’d said. Darlene had no choice but to follow. She was sure Maxine hadn’t suspected anything, but Eddie should’ve known better.
At the front door, just before Eddie steps inside, Darlene holds the sleeve of his sport coat. “Relax,” she mouths when he looks at her. She sees the muscles in his jaw flex as his eyes, shifty before, now pierce directly into her and stop her where she stands. Then Eddie pulls his arm away from Darlene and steps inside as Maxine describes the flooring in the entryway. The cool, conditioned air hits Darlene in the face, filling the void left by Eddie. She stands on the doorstep, frozen by Eddie’s look. They used to have fun doing this. They even had a name for it: home shopping. After a day of home shopping, they’d barely be able to get in their apartment before they were tearing at each other’s clothes. The rush of the day would finally reach a head, and it would boil over into their lovemaking. Sometimes, they wouldn’t even be able to make it home, and they’d pull off somewhere and frantically go at it in the car. Later, they’d lie in bed and build their dream home from the parts they liked of each house, or they’d describe to one another what it would be like to live in one of them. Even then Darlene knew it was just a fantasy, but at least they had that. But now? That look, and the shaking in the car? Things were changing, or had changed, without her even realizing it.
If possible, the inside of the house is even nicer than the outside. The hardwood floors have been redone, the walls have all been painted neutral colors, and the decorating is sparse, yet tasteful and homey: all this without sacrificing the character of the old home. Maxine leads them through the front of the house, the sitting room, the living room, which she points out is wired for surround sound, and the dining room, toward the back and into the kitchen, where the smell of freshly baked cookies lingers in the air. Darlene smiles until she sees an air freshener plugged in an outlet above the counter. While Maxine describes to Eddie the high quality materials used on the kitchen remodel, Darlene watches as he opens some of the cabinets, running his thumb along the mitered joints and lifting up and down slightly to check the strength of the hinges, as if inspecting for himself firsthand the craftsmanship. From where she’s standing she can see what’s inside when Eddie opens each cabinet. Nothing, or at least nothing that concerns the two of them. But it’s impressive to watch how convincing he is, and for a moment Darlene regrets thinking he was getting careless. The shiftiness is gone from his eyes and his movements are fluid; there isn’t a trace of what he was doing in the car only a few minutes before.
While Eddie asks more questions about the kitchen, something about how to maintain the granite countertops, Darlene notices the collage of colorful child drawings and A+ papers, business card magnets and menus, snapshots, announcements, and to-do lists stuck to the front of the stainless steel refrigerator. One of the pictures is of a family, presumably the one living in the house, the parents and two kids, a boy and a girl, standing at the base of a mountain, bundled in their snow suits, holding their skis and poles, red-faced and smiling. The wife, who Darlene thinks can’t be but a few years older than she is, is beautiful, and even in the bulky snow suit, it’s clear she still has her figure, and the husband has the rugged features she always thinks of as fireman-like, yet he looks sophisticated, even after a day of skiing. Both kids appear happy and healthy, poster children for the perfect American family. This is it, Darlene thinks as she looks at the accumulation of a life stuck on the refrigerator, and she feels a slight tightening at the back of her throat. When the realtor asks if they would like to see the sun porch and backyard, Darlene swallows hard and says, “Of course.”
On the way out of the kitchen, Maxine shows Darlene the walk-in pantry. She steps inside and looks at the shelves of cereal, canned foods, boxed pasta dinners, and spices on one side, and seemingly every known cooking contraption on the other. “With two growing boys, I’ll bet it wouldn’t take long to fill this up!” Maxine says, and Darlene smiles and gives her a practiced knowing look, as if to say, “you don’t know the half of it.”
Next to the pantry is a small breakfast nook that opens to the sun porch overlooking the large backyard. Oversized wicker furniture is organized around a glass-topped table and Darlene can see herself with the husband from the picture, sitting out here drinking a cup of coffee on some Sunday morning, or entertaining guests that have migrated outside for drinks or to smoke after a dinner party. It’s easy enough to imagine, and if she tries hard, she can even see herself with Eddie doing those same things. But Darlene knows it’s only make believe and isn’t helping anything. Maybe it’s her that’s slipping, and not Eddie. When they first started, she was nervous and it was all about the take, but now that that part is easier, it’s harder not to get caught up in the fantasy. She needs to clear her head and make the move. “I’m sorry, but I really need to use the bathroom. Would it be okay, or do you think the homeowners would mind?”
Maxine hesitates a moment, then smiles. “I don’t think they’d mind. After all, if you gotta go, you gotta go, right?” she says and forces a realtor laugh. Then she leans in as if to whisper. “We can just tell them you were testing out the facilities.” Maxine steps back and laughs again, and behind her Eddie is smiling and nodding. “There’s a bathroom just off the living room.”
Eddie takes advantage of the situation. “The listing says there’s a workshop out back. Do you think we could check it out while we’re waiting?” Darlene and Eddie had found that for every realtor who wouldn’t let them separate, there were a half dozen who, if they thought they were going to make a sale, would let them do pretty much whatever they wanted.
“You do woodworking?” Maxine asks, and Darlene thinks she seems a bit unsure.
“I like to tinker,” Eddie says. “It helps me clear my head after a long day at the office.”
“Oh,” Maxine says. “Well you’re going to love the shed. It’s wired for electricity, so it’s all ready to go. Darlene, you can join us out back when you’re through.”
Darlene knows Eddie is good at this part and can buy her upwards of ten minutes, so she doesn’t hurry though the house. She takes time to look at the details she missed on the way in. On the mantle in the living room are the two kids’ school pictures and the couple’s wedding picture, and though it has to be close to ten years old based on the kids, the picture doesn’t look dated like most wedding photos. Both the husband and the wife look stylish standing before the ornate altar. Darlene wonders if she and Eddie will ever have a picture like this one. There was a time when she believed they would, but as hard as she tries now, she can’t imagine it.
She runs her hand over the bulky newel post and up the smooth railing, and the oak treads creak slightly under her feet as she climbs the stairs to the second floor. She passes a bathroom at the top of the stairs and only peeks in the two kids’ rooms. There’s something about snooping in a child’s room that Darlene can’t abide; if they were teenagers, maybe, but these kids are too young. The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. The room is large and it’s obvious the couple spent a lot of money remodeling it. There is crown molding on the ceiling, and her feet sink into the new plush carpet. There probably wasn’t a bathroom in there originally, but the couple has added one in the corner of the room.
Darlene walks around the bed and stops at the dresser. The top is cleared off for the showing, but she knows that in one of the drawers she’ll find jewelry. Not the good stuff, she’s sure that’s locked away, but the pieces the woman wears most often. Just to satisfy her curiosity, Darlene opens each drawer until she finds a small box in the bottom one. Inside are a couple pairs of earrings, a watch, and a necklace. Nothing too fancy, but there they are. Though it would be easy, she doesn’t risk taking valuables. People tend to notice when jewelry or cameras turn up missing, and besides, sometimes that stuff is hard to sell. She closes the box and pushes the drawer shut.
Darlene peeks out one of the bedroom windows down into the back yard and sees that Maxine is just now opening the shed for Eddie. In the large, open bathroom, Darlene looks at herself in the double glass doors of the medicine cabinet. She’s come to learn that you never can tell which houses will have the good stuff and which ones won’t, so it’s always a mystery just before she opens the doors. It’s a rush, not unlike swallowing a couple of the pills she finds. But this house, or her reaction to it, is different. She wonders if it’s what she saw on the refrigerator or the house itself, but she knows better. She’s seen pictures like that in houses all over, and she thinks, too, that the picture probably wouldn’t have affected her if she’d had something in her system; and the house is perfect, everything she’s ever wanted and more, but it’s not as if they haven’t been in nice houses before, she tells herself, and she tries hard to believe it. No, she thinks, it’s the shaky hands in the car and Eddie’s scratching and digging at his arms and the look he gave her. All of it. Everything.
She knows what she needs to do, what Eddie expects, but now, here, she doesn’t want to look because she’s afraid of what’s likely behind the doors. Instead, she opens each drawer in the vanity first, knowing she won’t find any prescriptions. The last drawer she opens has the woman’s makeup in it. Darlene digs out a tube of lipstick, takes off the cap, and turns the bottom, the dark burgundy—called merlot—rises out of the tube, and she can see where the woman’s lips last touched it. Looking in the mirror, she applies it. The color is too dark or her skin is too fair; it clashes with the freckles across her nose, but it feels nice on her lips.
She sets the lipstick on the counter, and she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before opening the cabinet. Though she and Eddie need something, anything, she hopes all she’ll find is Advil, cold medicine, and birth control pills.
Darlene places her purse on the vanity top and opens the cabinet, her reflection sliding off the mirror. Directly in the center of the cabinet, label facing out, sits a bottle of Xanax. “Goddamn it,” Darlene says aloud and shakes her head and begins to cry softly. For a second she considers closing the cabinet and later, when Eddie asks, telling him they were clean. But she takes the bottle and opens it. It’s about half full, so she can risk taking a small handful. Perfect. She puts the bottle back exactly the way it was and drops the pills in her purse. She scavenges the rest of the cabinet. Behind the Xanax is a full bottle of Valium, prescribed from a different doctor, of which she takes five or six pills, and stacked on the middle shelf are twelve or fifteen sample packs of Ambien CR. Darlene takes four, and then goes back for two more. She has to put one of her knees up on the counter to get to the top shelf, and when she does she’s rewarded for her hard work. In the left hand corner, behind two extra toothbrushes, some alcohol swabs, and a box of Band-Aids, are two bottles: one of Oxycotin and the other of Percocet. “Jesus Christ,” she says, both ashamed of the homeowners and surprised at her find. Both the Oxycotin and the Percocet are dated from three years ago, and upon shaking the bottles, she guesses they are both more than half-full. Since they were far back in the corner, she breaks their rule of taking whole bottles and drops them both in her purse. Closing the cabinet, she avoids looking at herself in the mirror. When she and Eddie first started doing this, it had been fun and sexy, something she was doing before it was time for her to be a grown up, but now here she is almost twenty-five, crying in a stranger’s bathroom with more pills in her purse than she’d ever taken before, and she isn’t sure how or when it got this way.
When Darlene hears footsteps on the deck below, she grabs her purse and runs as lightly as she can through the bedroom and down the hall. She takes the stairs by twos and the bottles of Oxycotin and Percocet rattle in purse. She makes it to the bottom just as she hears the back door closing and Eddie and Maxine’s voices in the kitchen. She does her best to look calm, but she’s breathing heavily and her heart is pounding so hard she’s afraid they’ll see it through her blouse.
“How’s the workshop?” she asks as Maxine and Eddie enter the room, hoping to steer the conversation.
“Actually, it’s really great,” Eddie says, and Darlene notices his tone is different. “I’d finally have a space for all the projects I’d like to do.” Darlene looks at Eddie and can tell by the way he’s looking at her that something is wrong.
Maxine’s overly-sculpted eyebrows bunch together. “Are you alright, Kristen?”
“Sure,” Darlene says, trying to act nonchalant. “Why?”
“Your eyes are puffy,” Maxine says.
Darlene looks at Maxine, then at Eddie. “I think they must have a cat or something. I’m allergic. To cats.” She sniffs and squints and rubs her eyes.
Maxine flips through several sheets of paper on her small clipboard. “I don’t have anything here in my notes about any pets,” she pauses, and Darlene and Eddie share another look. Darlene can see his eyes go to her lips. She’d forgotten about the lipstick. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any, just that there aren’t any in the house right now. You poor thing. My son, bless his little heart, gets just like you do if he gets anywhere near a cat.”
“Isn’t it just awful? And I just love cats.” Darlene makes her voice as eager as she can.
“So does Henry,” Maxine says and laughs, shaking her head sympathetically. Then she reaches into her purse, pulls out her cell phone and opens her pictures. “Henry,” she says and points at what looks to be a recent family photo.
“Good lookin’ kid,” Eddie says over Maxine’s shoulder.
“Oh, he’s going to be a heartbreaker. Handsome, just like his father,” Darlene says, leaning over Maxine’s phone.
“Too handsome for his own good, if you ask me,” Maxine says and shuts down her phone. For just a moment, Darlene sees the real Maxine, or at least a different Maxine, and she feels sorry for what she and Eddie are doing. Then Maxine shrugs her shoulders back and says, “How about we take a quick look at the upstairs and get you outside for some fresh air?”
“That sounds wonderful.”
Maxine starts up the stairs, but before following her, Eddie pauses and raises his eyebrows and Darlene nods her head slightly. Now is not the time. “I love the woodwork here on the stairs,” Eddie says as he climbs, Darlene behind him squeezing her purse under her arm to keep the pill bottles quiet.
Maxine quickly shows them the upstairs, pausing in the hallway only to tell them about the newly remodeled hall bath, and the closet space in both kids’ rooms. In the master bedroom she takes a little more time to point out the details: the crown molding, the carpet, and the walk-in closet. Maxine then leads them into the master bathroom, and while she doesn’t seem to notice that the light is on, Darlene sees her spot the lipstick standing near the edge of the counter. Maxine pauses before turning to Darlene. They share a look and Darlene knows Maxine knows she used the lipstick, but Maxine doesn’t say anything. With that, Darlene is sure she and Eddie won’t have any problems.
Outside, Darlene and Eddie walk around the house, asking all the questions serious home-buyers ask about the roof and the gutters, the siding, and the air conditioning unit. In the car, Maxine gives each of them a copy of the listing, and Darlene watches Eddie look once more at the house before he tells Maxine how much he liked it, how it really was perfect, and his tone, like before when he was talking about the woodshop, is different. It’s different, Darlene thinks, because he isn’t acting; he really does seem to like the house, and it surprises her. She reaches across the backseat and takes Eddie’s hand in hers. He smiles at her in a way she hasn’t seen in a while, and she wonders if he’s feeling the same as she is.
“So,” Maxine says as they pull into the parking lot of the realty office, “you guys let me know when you’re planning to come back in town, and I’ll make sure I have some more houses lined up for you. Maybe a few more like the last one; minus the cat, of course.” Maxine laughs and looks in her rearview mirror, and Darlene can see the hope of a sale in her eyes. “Any idea when you might be ready to move?” Really, Darlene thinks, Maxine is no different than she is. She’s doing what she can, seeing what she wants to see, to get what she needs.
“Soon, we hope.”
Darlene tells Maxine they’ll be in touch, and then gives her a phone number to a voicemail box she and Eddie have set up just for this. They all shake hands and Maxine gives them her card and a folder containing the three listings and other home buying information.
Before he even puts the key in the ignition of the car—a brown, mid-80s Cutlass Supreme, parked around the corner—Eddie asks, “How’d we do?”
Darlene thought he might say something about the moment they had in the car, but he doesn’t, so she runs through the inventory in her purse: “About ten Xanax, half dozen Valium, and a bottle of Oxy.” She doesn’t tell him about the Ambien and the Percocet. “But Eddie, listen―”
“They were in the very back of the cabinet and the prescription is three years old. They won’t miss ‘em. But Eddie, I’m―”
Eddie lets out a whistle as he starts the car. “Holy shit.”
“I’m done, Eddie.”
“A bottle of Oxy? Fuckin-A-right we’re done. That’s rent for several months, plus some fun for us.”
“No, I mean I’m done. With all of this.” Darlene takes the bottle of Oxy out of her purse and digs around until she finds all the stray Valium and Xanax and puts them all in the console cup holder.
Eddie looks at Darlene as they pull out on to the street. “Serious?”
“It’s not fun anymore. I don’t—”
“Is this about earlier?”
“No. Yes. It’s all of it. Everything.” She looks down into her purse. “You can be done with me,” she says and looks into Eddie’s eyes.
“We can do this together,” she says and wants it to be true. She starts to cry again, only this time she can’t control it.
For several blocks Darlene Eddie says nothing, only looks out the windshield at the road. The pills rattle in the cup holder every time they hit a bump, and for a moment Darlene sees how easy it would be to scoop them up and throw them out the window, and she imagines each pill bouncing and tumbling down the street behind them. As they come to a stop light at an intersection, Darlene thinks about opening the door and, without saying anything, walking away. With all the pills in the cup holder, she wonders if Eddie would try to stop her or if he’d just drive off when the light turned green. “That woodshop was great,” Eddie says, interrupting Darlene’s fantasy.
Eddie takes two Valium from the cup holder and holds them out to Darlene. She looks at the pills in his hand and then at Eddie. Past him she sees a couple holding hands, walking their dog down the sidewalk. “Okay, tomorrow,” he says, and suddenly the people walking are the two of them. They’re smiling and laughing, Darlene sees, and she thinks tomorrow. When the light turns green Eddie leaves his foot on the brake. Darlene takes the two pills out of Eddie’s hand and puts them in her mouth, the bitter coating instantly absorbing into her tongue. This is the last time, she thinks, and she believes it. Her throat contracts and the pills go down. A horn honks behind them and Eddie accelerates through the intersection.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story came out of the experience of looking at houses with my wife before we moved to Wichita, Kansas in the late summer of 2008. I noticed how, in nearly all the houses the realtor showed us, there were small, yet valuable items – digital cameras, mp3 players, rings - in places where, if I’d swiped them, the home owner likely wouldn’t have noticed they were missing right away. I also noticed how, after telling our realtor who we were and why we were moving (my wife was an elementary school teacher and I’d gotten into the MFA program at Wichita State University), it was fairly easy for us to separate and move about the houses freely. After, we’d often compare notes: “Did you see that digital camera next to the flower arrangement on the cluttered mantle?” “Can you believe they left a diamond ring on the top of their dresser?” If we were criminally inclined, we could’ve had a field day.
I drafted a version of this story fairly quickly (and if memory serves, it was the first story I wrote in Wichita), but like most stories, it went through many rounds of revision. If I remember correctly, my revisions focused on raising the stakes of the story and I believe that’s where the idea for the couple in the story looking for prescription drugs. But I didn’t want to simply make them “junkies,” so I worked to make them as real and complex as I could. That led me to focusing on the woman in the story, Darlene, and how her thoughts about what she and Eddie were doing were changing—or had already changed—without her fully realizing it. She was the key to the story for me, and once I discovered that, the story took off for me and eventually became what it is.
ABOUT CASEY PYCIOR
Casey Pycior was born and raised in Kansas City, and he earned his MFA in fiction writing at Wichita State University, and his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was awarded Charles Johnson Fiction Prize at Crab Orchard Review, and his stories have also appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Harpur Palate, BULL, Wisconsin Review, and Yalobusha Review among many other places. His short story collection is forthcoming from Switchgrass Books in late 2016. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and son.