Nothing But A House
by Gary Carter
Even though the tired little house had been her home, Lucinda roamed around it now like a light-footed house creeper, examining each remaining item for its value. In her case, the primary value was as memory, not money. She wanted to file away each room and, within each room — there were only five — the objects populating them that might sometime in her mind’s eye bring her comfort or give her pleasure. This was the last time the place would be just this way, since the passing of her mother a month before — a drawn-out tragedy — meant the house would be emptied, both literally and in terms of fragile recollections. After her mother had become ill and during a couple of visits after the funeral, Lucinda had carted away the little bits and pieces that were special for some reason or other — photos, some carnival glass, figurines, a couple of neglected silver pieces, a little crystal perfume bottle that still smelled faintly of Estée Lauder. Now what remained probably would just be given away.
Lucinda stood in the living room, which once had seemed spacious but now revealed itself as maybe eight by ten and stuffed with a couch, a couple of long-suffering chairs and a console television of ancient vintage that somehow had managed to survive her mother’s relentless parade of soap operas, game shows and sitcoms. It had come to require an occasional sharp slap on its side to right the picture, the best solution after the death of Charlie Dutton, the last repairman known to understand the paranormal hum of the tubes within. Lucinda had on several occasions offered, then begged her mother to let her buy a new television, pointing out the many advances since this particular one had come slowly to life — warmed up, as they used to say — to reveal maybe Ed Sullivan or Marshal Dillon. Lucinda, in fact, thought it was the same one that made her moan out loud when John and Paul wagged their mops, and clap her hands to bring Tinkerbell back to life each year. To each attempt to buy a new one, her mother’s churlish response would be, “There’s no reason to waste good money as long as this one works just fine.”
It was a countrified mantra Lucinda heard all her life, first perceived as a sign of wise austerity, but later as a maddening rebuke to the idea of spending money for anything unless absolutely required. Why have anything new, try anything new, replace anything old and worn, her mother would reason, if it wasn’t really needed. As she grew up, Lucinda had learned slowly about the roots of fear that shaped a generation born into the Great Depression and deepened by the dire stories of hardship told by parents. A dollar wasn’t just a dollar; it was blood and bone.
What Lucinda wanted right then, or at least thought she did, was for the little house, always home to her, to remain just as it was, like a set piece in a museum, to which she could flee any time life came down a little too hard. Which it had over the years — a shouting match with her best friend over a boy whose name she’d now forgotten; her first and maybe only love sucked into the jungle in Vietnam; a fractured marriage that had seemed so perfect in the beginning; her daddy drowning slowly in his own lungs; her mother’s mind slipping away like a thief in the night. For her first nineteen years, the house had been a sanctuary, and sporadically at other times after that. Or a place she longed to visit and feel what home was supposed to be, embraced by walls of memories, familiar scents and open arms. It was a three-hour drive each way, but there were certain days, certain times of year when Lucinda just had to be home.
But that was going to stop now because her mother and daddy had never owned the house, only rented it, paid for it monthly for over forty-odd years to Dwight Sims and then his son, Bernard, now a crotchety old man who rumor had it might be their small town’s only millionaire mainly because he squeezed every penny until it wept. Lucinda wanted to buy the house and had approached Bernard through his sister, an acquaintance from high school, after her mother went into the nursing home. According to Lucy Ann, her brother said he wasn’t interested for any amount of money, expected the rent to be paid even though her mother was in a home, and, if that didn’t suit her, Lucinda could give notice and clean the place out because he had a waiting list of folks looking for a nice little rental.
In a move totally out of character for her, Lucinda had steeled herself and marched up to Bernard’s front door on a steaming July day, punching the bell and then giving the flecked wood a couple of harsh raps to announce her seriousness. He had answered, gray hair standing up on one side implying he’d been napping, and asked in an unpleasant tone who she was and what she wanted. Lucinda said, “I’m Lucinda Hopkins Thomas, and my mama is Delores Hopkins who rents your place on Quarry Street.”
He eyed her hard. “Yeah, I remember you, and, like I told my sister when she asked on your behalf, I ain’t considering selling that house or any of my others.”
“Doesn’t it matter to you that my mama and daddy probably paid for that house twenty times over?” Lucinda said, trying to toughen her tone to match his.
“Don’t mean a damn thing to me. It’s all business,” he said curtly. “My daddy built those houses, and it’s how we make our living.”
“Well, it matters to me. That’s my home.”
“Your home, maybe. But my house, and it’s gonna stay that way, like it or not.” He started to close the door, stopped. “You know, far as I know, wasn’t nothing stopping your mama and daddy from buying a house of their own.” Then he stepped back and shut the door sharply, leaving her standing on the porch, humiliated, eyes burning.
Worse than that, it made her remember what her mother had referred to as “her humiliation,” which apparently had to do with always living in a rented house. Lucinda had heard that term first when she was sitting next to her brother on the back seat of a black 1963 Ford station wagon, the back of her legs under her Sunday dress still stinging from the sun-soaked burn of the vinyl seats. They had just loaded up after driving through a new little neighborhood of brick houses on the outskirts of town, stopping to look around in one left open that afternoon for viewing. Her mother had marveled openly at the shining hardwood floors in the living room, the modern kitchen with a double sink and breakfast nook, the white-tiled bathroom with a shower over the tub, and three bedrooms, each with at least one window. Lucinda recalled the way her mother had said “breakfast nook,” letting the words roll out sinuously as if the concept was something new and exciting.
“And just look at the back yard through these big sliding doors,” she said to her husband, following her silently around the house. “Can’t you just imagine all the kids in the whole neighborhood playing out there? And having folks over for a cook-out?”
Her daddy still didn’t say anything. “And from what I heard, Harold, these places, brand new, are only about eight thousand dollars. That sounds like a real good deal to me.”
Before she had finished, her daddy had stepped back out into the carport where he was lighting a cigarette, fidgeting like he was ready to get moving. Her mother took another slow walk through the house, lingering again in each room, while Lucinda and her brother, Billy, argued about who might get which bedroom. Lucinda wanted the one in the very back with windows meeting in the corner, but Billy, being much older and wiser, claimed that one was for parents because it had the biggest closet.
Before that could be settled, their mother herded them out to the car, where Harold was waiting. He flipped his cigarette into the rutted yard, no grass growing yet, and cranked the Ford. Lucinda watched her mother stare long and hard at her daddy, face in profile. That’s when she heard her say, “You know, honey, it would end my humiliation if we could buy one of these houses. Then we’d be like most other folks, with a place all our own. Don’t you think we should check into it tomorrow, or the next day?”
“We’ll see,” her daddy said dryly, nothing else, and her mother turned her face away. Later that night, Lucinda woke up to hear hushed, sharp voices piercing the little house. She couldn’t make out what the argument was about, but she did hear that word again.
Nothing else was mentioned about the new house for a week or so, but Lucinda heard at least a couple of other “discussions,” as her mother called them, after she and Billy were supposed to be asleep. Lucinda hoped they were working out details, and she imagined how her new room would look. When she finally asked her mother if they were getting a new house, her mother looked at her with an expressionless face, and said, “We’ll see.”
Lucinda envisioned that face again, shocked to realize how young it had been then, but seemingly beaten of hope by invisible fists. Only later, when she was older, did Lucinda understand, at least partially, some of the reasons why her parents never owned a home — lost jobs, a try at a business gone bad and maybe that old lingering fear of what happens if times change.
It was all here still, in the little house. Her brother had been there only briefly on the day after the funeral, and he had not seemed upset at the looming loss. “I got out of this place a long time ago, and gladly,” he had said, his foot propped on the rail of the back porch as he puffed on a cigarette. “You were the baby, seven years younger than me, so there was a lot of stuff you didn’t know about went on between them back then.”
“Like what?” Lucinda had asked, surprised at this revelation from her brother, who now preferred to be called William.
“Nothing that’s gonna do you any good to know now. They’re both gone. Let it rest. I just know I wanted out of here, and that’s why I joined the army as soon as I got out of high school.” He sort of laughed. “You know, I bet I didn’t spend more than three or four more nights in this place after that. Either came by passing through or stayed with Aunt Emma or sometimes with my buddy Chuck until he got killed in that wreck.”
“So this doesn’t feel like home to you?” Lucinda asked.
“Naw, guess not,” he answered, staring out across the yard. “Home is where you are, where you want to be and need to be. Not a house. That’s all this is, a house, a place where you used to live.”
Lucinda shook her head. “Nope, it’s more than that to me. I don’t know what all you’re talking about, but this is where I grew up and where I always knew I could come back any time, where there was always a place for me.”
William turned his head, looked her in the eyes. “And you did come back on a few occasions, didn’t you? Needing something, or looking for something, or maybe hiding from something, or somebody.”
She thought about it, surprised at how harsh it sounded. “I guess maybe that’s sort of true, but mama and daddy never seemed to mind having me here.”
“What were they supposed to do?
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what were they supposed to do when you showed up, either with some problem or needing a place to heal up. Okay, yeah, I know you helped look after things with them later on, and you always were one for the holidays and birthdays and such.”
“Something you weren’t very good at,” she offered.
He eyed her again. “Water under the bridge now, and nothing I’m going to feel too sorry about, all things considered. You were the good child, the one who cared about all this. So take anything you want out of here. Can’t think of anything I want or need, except — ”
He grinned. “Except that damn old green ashtray daddy kept slid under his chair, which she always hated the hell out of. Used to make me laugh how as soon as he left the house, she’d scoop that thing up, fling the ashes and butts in the trash barrel outside, and scrub the living hell out of it.” William winked at her. “But the damn thing would be back under that chair when he got home, and he acted like he never knew how it got clean, like it was magic or something.”
That made Lucinda chuckle. “Well, you can damn well have that ugly, stinky thing, if I can figure out where it is,” she said. “Maybe you don’t know it, but mama threw out a lot of daddy’s stuff after he died, and I mean right after. I never could figure out why and she never did let on, except to tell me I had no idea what it was like sitting here and watching him waste away. I could never tell if she was sad or mad.”
“Probably a good bit of both,” William said, arcing his cigarette out into the yard. “Like I said, there was a lot more to them than we know or can know. It’s like, wouldn’t you like to go back in time and see them like they were when they were maybe twenty, just getting married and starting out, probably all full of hopes and ideas and stuff? When you think about it, we don’t really know all that much about our parents, except what they let us know or some story somebody told.”
Lucinda considered it, remembered those old photos she’d dug out of the closet and from under her mother’s bed, fading images of faces and places known vaguely or unknown. She’d taken some to the nursing home one time, sat with her mother and held them in front of her. Her mother had studied each one, asked who, and told, seemed puzzled, maybe the scattered memories in her head unable to coalesce around the images. It had made Lucinda sad. A week or so later, her mother died, apparently in her sleep, and her daughter wondered if she was dreaming of anything, or if that was lost to her as well.
“Guess I wish I’d asked more questions along the way,” Lucinda said. “It might be nice to know some of those things.”
“Yeah, maybe,” William said. “But I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
“The only thing I’m losing sleep over is the fact Bernard Sims doesn’t want to sell me this house, that it’s going to have to be emptied out, that somebody else is going to come and live in it. This is my house, my home.”
William took his foot down, turned around and leaned against the porch railing. “No, this is his house, always has been. You and me and mama and daddy, we just used it as a place to be. He doesn’t have to sell it, doesn’t want to. You need to get over it and move on. Besides, you don’t even live around here any more. You’ve got your place with Tom. That’s your home, that’s where your girls come visit, where your life is. Not this broken-down old place.”
She shook her head. “I know you’re probably right. But I just can’t get used to the notion of it not being like this, of not being here when I need it.”
“Get over it,” William had said, coming over to give her a little hug before going down the steps. Lucinda waited to see if he’d look back, take one lingering gaze at the place to file it away. But he didn’t.
He really didn’t care, Lucinda thought now, moving to stand in the doorway of what had been, was still, her bedroom. In fact, it always would be, because she couldn’t bear the thought of it changing in any way, or some stranger moving into it, painting over walls still blue as a robin’s egg, sleeping there and stealing her dreams, which she knew lingered here forever.
Lucinda went back to the kitchen and dug around in the cabinet under the sink. Somewhere in the back corner, right where it always had been, her fingers found the cool metal of the can, slightly slick as always. She carried it into her bedroom, flicked the red top open and squirted a long stream across the bedspread and onto the floor, and then up on the white lace curtains she and her mother had picked out at Woolworth’s in what seemed now a hundred years ago. The oily odor reminded her of something else, maybe lost, and she went into her mother’s bedroom, holding the can at her side and letting the liquid drip onto the rugs and scarred wood floor. There was a drawer in her mother’s banged-up dressing table in which she had allowed her husband to stow some of his things — pens, a little pocketknife, cuff links, tie clasps. And a lighter etched with his initials. In a way, she was surprised to find it in the back of the drawer, the only thing still there, thinking it might have disappeared with the rest of his belongings.
But Lucinda recalled a day when she sprawled in her daddy’s lap, maybe eight or nine, and he flicked the lighter for her, let her watch the flame and then snuffed it out with his fingers like a magic trick. He let her hold it, still warm, and told her,
“That’s something that’s real special to me because your mama gave it to me the day after she finally agreed to marry me. Made me the happiest man alive, and this’ll always help me remember that feeling.”
That feeling must have been love. There had to have been some of that always there, even in the end when the two of them sat most often in stony silence except for his wheezing and barking cough. Lucinda stroked the old lighter with her finger, shook it hard like she’d seen her daddy do a thousand times, held it up, flicked open the top and, after just an instant of hesitation, snapped the rough-edged wheel with her thumb — once, twice. On the third try, the ancient wick glowed vaguely blue on its unraveled ends, then a tiny yellow dart of flame tiptoed across the fibers, and grew steady.
Lucinda stared at it, wondered if she could pinch it out like her daddy. Instead, she bent and sat the lighter on the floor next to wetness spreading slowly across the wood. She stood up and watched it flicker, then with her toe tipped it over. She didn’t wait to see what happened, but walked lightly back through the house, this time paying no attention, already having seen all that needed to be seen, all that would remain the same. She picked up her pocketbook off the kitchen table, turned off the light, closed the door after checking to make sure it was locked, got in her car and drove down the street for what she knew now was the very last time, glancing just once into her mirror to repossess the welcoming glow of home.
Gary Carter calls his novel, Eliot’s Tale, a reverse coming of age road trip and love story. His short fiction and poetry have appeared recently in the Nashville Review, Real South Magazine, Dead Mule, Steel Toe Review, Burnt Bridge, Dew on the Kudzu, Fried Chicken & Coffee and Read Short Fiction. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes on a range of topics for magazines and online pubs.