THE HOUSE ON THE CORNER

a short story by DARREN DETH

The idea for this short story came from a house I used to go past in Vermont on the way to Lancaster, New Hampshire. When I was a child, our big adventure of the year was to go to the Lancaster Fair. Whenever we passed that house, I knew we were almost to the fair; on the return, it was the last sign that fair season was over. About a year ago, I was driving home from my parents’ house in Vermont and passed the house. I heard a voice. It was James. I listened to his story all the way home. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I had a rough draft in my head.

I often listen to music when I write. The music becomes a soundtrack. For “The House on the Corner,” I listened to the album The Sacred Well, by 2002. While I had the entire album playing over and over as I worked on the story, the track that stood out the most was “Stardust.”

Darren Deth graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. He resides with his wife, Christine, in Lewiston, Maine. Darren’s day gig is assistant program coordinator at New Beginnings Transitional Living Program, devoted to assisting homeless youth.


There sits the house on the corner. Part of its frame is exposed, mainly on the back side where it abuts a corn field. The stalks march in a wide formation for two hundred yards or so before meeting the Connecticut River, and picks back up on the New Hampshire side, proceeding to a series of silos, rusting in the sunlight. The wind
is the sharpest there, especially when it’s winter, and over the years has stripped the house of its cedar shingles, gray from abandonment and
lack of paint.

When I leave for school in the morning and go by it I see not just a house, but an anchor, one that secures my place, my home. It’s like an invisible barrier I cross. Sometimes I think about a time when I will never break through that area again, when I am old and no longer have reason to be in town. For some reason today, I decide to tell one of my two best friends, Conrad Doyan, about my thought. I would let Billy McQuirk in on it, but he is too busy leaning over the bus seat in front of him, looking down Jeanne Marie’s cleavage. “Conrad, do you ever think of a time when you’re not going to see or hear something ever again, like you know it’s the last time?” I ask.

“What the fuck, Jimmy?” Conrad asks, before he corrects himself and calls me James. James Bereft. Even though I am my father’s namesake, he prefers to call me Jimmy rather than James junior. I took on the name without having any say, being only twelve hours old. It stuck with me until one day during Western Civ class a week or so ago I got caught throwing a spitball the size of a quarter at the world map that covered one whole wall. Mr. Twombly said, “James Bereft,” just as the wad made contact with the middle of Brazil. It was real mushy too. Clung right to the map. Time stopped as everyone looked at it, until part of it fell off and splatted on
the carpet. Conrad was sitting next to where it hit and said it sounded like a wet fart.

I don’t like Mr. Twombly. Really have no respect for him. Half the time he comes into class, walking a little off kilter. Rumors around the school are that the reason he disappears from every class for a few minutes isn’t due to prostate issues, but that he is in the teacher lounge taking a little nip. That day he hauled me down to the guidance office, asked the counselor to leave so he could have a conversation with me. I was prepared for a lecture on damaging property, and for being disrespectful to everyone in the class, even though pretty much everyone laughed. More likely on how my “behavior was not of senior caliber,” something he wrote on the first progress note home to my parents. Instead I was told what a good student I am, at least academically, and that I had potential for greatness. “James, life is what you make of it,” he said. “It can be like that spitball you decimated Brazil with. Either you stick with it, or you fall and splat.”

I know I should have taken more from that conversation than I did. But what really struck me was being called James twice in less than an hour, and I liked how it sounded, how it fit.

The bus hits a pothole and I am jostled in my seat. “Don’t you ever think things like that?” I ask Conrad.

“No. I think of how I can get into Jeanne Marie’s pants. Dude, we’re in our last year of high school. One more hurrah before we have to be grown-ups.” he says.

Before I can respond there is a sharp smack, and I turn to see Billy rubbing his face and leaning back in his seat. Everyone bursts out laughing. I look out the window and try to catch another view of the house, but it has slipped past. I don’t know why I thought Conrad would understand.

***

During lunch Billy, Conrad, and I regroup, taking our customary table near the open space of the cafeteria. Billy uses up most his lunch time watching who is coming and going, focusing mainly on the girls. Conrad leers some, but not as much as Billy. By this time of day I am always famished, and wolf down my food, helping myself sometimes to what Billy has left on his tray.

Then she comes in. And I can’t help staring at her. She stands out with her dress that is short in the sleeve, covers her chest and ends at just about her ankles. Her hair is long, a light brown, straight with a slight curl at the end. Looking at her, I am reminded of a woman I saw in a music video, dancing in the desert.

Billy elbows me. “Jimmy, that’s old school. Why are you looking at her?”

“James, Billy. James.” I pick up my tray and walk toward her. On my way over to her, my mouth dries out. I feel like I am shrinking with each step, and that by the time I reach her I imagine that I will be nothing but a dried-up prune on the floor for her to step on when she leaves the cafeteria.

Before I can say anything, which I am not able to do once I reach her table, she pushes a chair out with her left leg.

“I’m Jennifer,” she says. “Please don’t ever call me, Jenny.”

I’m standing as she tells me this, not sure of whether or not I should just return to my table with Billy and Conrad, or just sit. Jennifer makes the decision for me by taking my tray out of my hands, setting it down, and then patting the seat of the chair she pushed out. I slide into the chair and pull my tray closer to me. “I’m James. This your first day?”

“Yeah. We just moved into our new house this past weekend.” She tries to stab a piece of tomato in her salad with a plastic fork, then gives up and uses her fingers to pop the redness into her mouth.

“Wow, you didn’t waste much time coming to school.” I slide a French fry through my pile of ketchup and eat it like someone would a worm, grasping it by the end and dangling it over my open mouth. I put too much ketchup on it and a small glob of it falls off and hits my right cheek.

Jennifer laughs and wipes my face. “No. I didn’t. Thank you, Mom,” she says over her shoulder. “My mom is a little obsessive about making sure things are done in a ‘timely fashion.’ She had the paperwork filled out for me to start as soon as she knew the move in date. “

“Where did you move from?” I ask, dragging the next fry through the ketchup a little more cautiously, though I don’t know why as I didn’t mind her wiping my cheek.

“Upstate New York, just outside of Malone. I’m sure you’ve never heard of the place. It’s nothing but fa… country. We actually have Amish living around there. On route 11 it’s not surprising to see yellow road signs showing a horse and buggy.”

“No. Can’t say I have heard of it. Bet you didn’t know about Lunenburg Center either until you knew you were moving here.”

“No, I did not.” Jennifer laughs. “My father calls it Looneyburg Central.” She covers her mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

I chuckle and reach out to pat her shoulder, but pull back my arm and rub my chin, as if that was my original intent. “Your father is spot on when it comes to this town. We do have some interesting characters, to say the very least.” I eat the last fry and push my tray to the center of the table. “So, any brothers and sisters?”

Jennifer’s face changes from the bright freshness that it was to a darkness that I knew ran deep beneath her skin. Before I can tell her she doesn’t have to answer, she starts talking.

“I had a younger sister. She’s gone now.” She picks at a hangnail on her right thumb and looks away. “She was the only one who could call me Jenny.”

“I’m sorry,” I lay my hands on the table, not sure what to do, or to say.

“It’s okay. It’s been six years.” The look in her eyes says different, that the six years was a minute ago. It is the barrier she will never cross. I look over my shoulder, feeling the eyes of Conrad and Billy on my back. I imagine they are amazed. Here I am, the shy one of the three of us, talking with a girl who is new. I can’t tell why, but it feels as if I have known her for a long time and that we are just catching up.

“You have the eyes of an old soul,” Jennifer says.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“It’s like you know too much, seen too much. But you understand.” She shrugs her shoulders. “And now I’ve probably put you off.  Dead sister. Crazy talk.” She gets up.

I lay my hand near hers, and she grabs its, folding hers into mine. “No, old soul,” I say.  In her eyes I see forever encapsulated in the darkness of her pupils, and the sparkle the exploding now in the pale blue irises. And then I share with her what I shared with Conrad that morning.

“Yes, I get it,” she said.

***

On the bus ride home, Billy and Conrad harass me. “Where does she get her clothes, from the 1940’s Sears and Roebuck catalog?” Billy asks. “You have no idea what she has under there. Could be a forest growing on those thighs.”

“Does she have any sisters?” Conrad asks. “Maybe we could double date.”

I turn from looking out the window, make a fist and shake. “Fuck off, Conrad! Fuck off!”

Our bus driver, Miss Gileon, calls out. “Settle down, boys. Save the frackus for when you get off.”

Feeling the bus curve to the right, I turn my back to them in time for a final glimpse of the house on the corner. I tighten my grip on my backpack strap and grab hold of the seat in front of me, getting ready to get off. Before the bus comes to a complete stop I push past Conrad into the aisle. My backpack shifts, and I know I hit him with it, but I don’t care. Billy waits for the only other kid to get out at our stop before walking down between the seats. We all three wait for the signal to cross the road, and I lead the way, distancing myself from Billy.

***

The sound of something whizzing by my head jars me from thinking of Jennifer. My dad is standing in the doorway of the living room. I look down on the floor beside me and see a quarter lying there. “You missed,” I say to him, picking up the coin.

“I could have hit you with it if I wanted,” dad says, “It’s getting late. I haven’t seen that pencil move in the past fifteen minutes. Just that funny looking grin.” He walks into the living room and puts his hand out. I pass the quarter to him and he slips it back into his work trousers. I hear it clink against the change he is always carrying. Patting me on the shoulder, he smiles himself. “That grin can only mean one thing,” he said, sitting down beside me on the sofa. “Who is she, Jimmy?”

I want to tell him not to call me that, but don’t seem to have the heart to do so. After all, I was his only pride and joy besides mom. And he did own the name first. So I decide to let it go for now and will think of a way to bring it up later on. “Her name’s Jennifer,” I say, twirling the pencil in my hand and not looking directly at him. “She’s new to the school.”

“Is she a good looker, pretty like your mom?”

“Dad, looks aren’t everything. She seems to be smart. Definitely kind.”

“Oh,” Dad says. He slaps his hands onto his knees. “You’re right, looks aren’t everything. Guess that was kind of super…super.”

“Superficial.” I say. “But she is gorgeous, especially her eyes.”

“What does she look like?” Dad asks. So I tell him about her appearance, about talking about stuff in the cafeteria.

“I think I seen her at Aldriches on the way home tonight. She was with her father, picking out some ice cream. Seems real polite and well mannered. Mrs. Beaucage was there putting some apples in a bag and the thing split open on her. Your girl went right over to help her out and make sure she was okay.”

“Dad, she’s not my girl. We just met. Besides, people don’t own
each other.”

“Ok, ok.” He slaps his knees again and stands up. “Get focused on
your schoolwork.”

***

Jennifer and I stand on the corner, looking at the decaying house. The air is crisp and clean, with a sharp wind sweeping through the dead cornstalks. Our feet snap fallen leaves as we approach the building. We get close enough to reach out and touch it, feel its roughness. I stretch out my left arm and clasp my hand on Jennifer’s left hip and pull her close to me. We became official a couple of weeks after we met. “Going steady?” Dad had asked. I told him we don’t call it that anymore. “We’re seeing each other.” He answered back with I’m seeing you, too, before holding his hands up in defeat and walking off.

“What is it about this place that you like?” Jennifer asks.

“It’s old,” I say. “I like old things. They have stories. This place has tons
of them.”

“Have you ever been inside? I bet it was pretty,” Jennifer says.

“Yeah, I have. It’s been a while. Used to play hide and seek in it when
I was younger.”

Jennifer pats me on the shoulder and laughs. “When you were younger, old soul.”

I laugh along with her. “Old soul. Yup. Anyway, it was fun until one time we discovered an old man had squatted there, way up in the attic. No idea how long he had been there. Could have been up in there the whole time we had been playing that summer. So many places to hide none of us had tried the attic yet. Conrad had just found me, and we were jawing about where Billy might be, when we heard a lot of thumping and banging above us and then someone coming down the stairs mighty quick. Next thing we see Billy fly by us, followed by an old man, waving his cane and yelling something. Couldn’t understand him. He, the old guy, was almost at the other end of the hall when he stopped, turned around, and saw Conrad and I standing there, jaws open. And I remember thinking, oh shit, this ain’t good. Luckily, we were on the first floor so we were able to dive out one of the broken windows and scurry the hell out of there. Oh, I know what he was saying now. ‘Get off my property, you filthy kids!’” I laugh and rub Jennifer’s lower back. “I don’t know why he was calling us filthy. He didn’t look good himself.”

Jennifer rests her head on my shoulder. I tilt mine and kiss her on the forehead. “Is it that time?” I ask her.

“Afraid so,” she replies, picking her head up and taking my hand in hers. “Walk me home, old man?”

“I think I can hobble along.” We reach out and touch the walls of the house again, like we’re saying good-bye to it, and turn to walk up the street. We don’t talk on the way, just look at each other every few seconds. I find myself focusing on the sounds of fall. The flock of geese flying south, bare branches rubbing against each other in the maple trees in people’s yards, the crackling of the leaves. At her front door, I let go of Jennifer’s hand and turn to leave.

“James, do you like what I wear?” she asks.

“I do. Do you?”

“Yes, silly. I do. Why else would I be wearing it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, reaching out for her hand and stroking her fingers. “I thought maybe it was something your mother or father made you
put on.”

“Nope. It’s my choosing. My grandmother would be proud though. She used to say girls who dressed like this left more to the imagination. I…why, James, you are blushing.”

I felt the heat in my face before she said anything. “I, uh, yeah. Yes.
Yes I am.”

“Uh-huh. I see. Goodnight.”

***

At home that late afternoon, Dad and I are out raking leaves in our backyard. We use a tarp to drag the piles to an embankment at the edge of our property and dump them over the edge. “You’re quiet today, Jimmy,” dad says. “Got something, or someone, on your mind?”

“No,” I say, spreading out the tarp for the next batch of leaves. “Well, actually, yeah. Who lived in the house on the corner? The big grey one.” I stop raking and rest my chin on top of the rake handle.

“You can work and talk at the same time.” He clears his throat, “Let’s see. Well, the last family that owned it was Hackett. Christ, that was over twenty years ago. The place was falling apart then even. I don’t think they even tried to sell it. Just abandoned it to let nature run its course. Shame, really. It was a nice house when I was about your age.”

“Have you ever been in there?” I ask, resuming clearing the yard.

“Oh yeah. It’s been thirty years or so. Before Hackett owned it there were the McVees. Every year on Christmas Eve they invited everyone in town to their home for a holiday meal. God, they were loaded. I never saw so much food at one time. After dinner we would sing Christmas carols and play board games. That’s about all I remember of it. Except for the black tin ceiling in what they called the parlor. I had never seen such a thing.” He stops. “Why are you asking?”

“Just wondering. Was the old guy who lived in the attic a relative of the Hacketts?”

“Don’t know. There wasn’t an ID on him when they found him in the corn field behind the house. Could have been I suppose.” He picks up his rake and shakes it at me. “Don’t you dare go in there. One false step and that place will come right down around you.”

“Ok, I won’t”“I mean it. It’s an eyesore now, and damn thing should be torn down before someone does get hurt.” He checks his watch. “Quitting time I ‘spose. Your mom must have dinner ready just about now.”

***

At lunch the next day in school, Jennifer is more excited than usual. There is an extra gleam in her eye and an energy comes off her that is both a little scary and exciting. I can feel it like ripples in a pond, at first pushing away and then pulling back. “Do you have any plans after school today?” she asks.

“Dad asked me to rake leaves when I get home today. He’s picking up an extra shift at the plant tonight so he can’t finish the lawn. First snow is due in a couple of days.”

“Doesn’t feel like it today,” she says, her smile wide. “Crazy that it’s near 70 already.”

“Yup, good raking weather.”

She slides her half empty tray across the table. “How about you skip out on the leaves and meet me, say, five o’clock, at the house on the corner?”

“What’s going on with you today. You’re acting like you’ve got ants in your pants.”

The bell rings and Jennifer jumps right up, grabbing her tray. “Just wait.” She leans over and kisses me on the mouth, something she never does in public. “I love you, James.”

***

I am at the house at five, and pace in front of it, keeping my flashlight trained on the ground in front of my feet. At ten past the hour I begin to worry. It isn’t like Jennifer to be late. I turn to walk up the street to her house when I hear a creaking behind me. Glancing over my shoulder I see Jennifer standing inside the house, the front door open. “Are you coming in or what?” she asks, the same wide smile as she had at lunch.

“Jennifer! You shouldn’t be in there. The place could fall down anytime now.” I walk up to her and take her hand, trying to coax her out.

“It’s ok.” She pulls me into the house and closes the door. “Come with me.” She leads me down a hallway, slightly illuminated by the light coming from a nearby room. The scent of old wood is thick in the air and I am reminded of how my grandmother’s woodshed used to smell. I can’t make out anything on the walls until we get to the room. The wallpaper is an emerald green, crisscrossed with gold lines, making little diamonds. Over the two windows in the room are thick blankets, and in the center of the room is a blanket laid out, with a kerosene lantern burning in the middle of it. Around the light are plates of food, grapes, cold chicken, sliced French bread, and an ice bucket with a bottle of sparkling apple cider sitting in it. Behind the blanket is an old sofa, draped in blankets like the windows.

“How did you do this all in one day after school?” I ask.

“This is more than one day’s work, James. I’ve been at this for three days. I just brought the food in tonight.” She sits on the blanket, tucks her feet under her, and pats the area right next to her. I take the seat in marvel at what she has put together. “So, what do you think?”

“I think I love you,” I say, stroking her cheek.

Jennifer pulls back, “Think?”

I laugh and slide closer to her. “No. I know. I love you, Jennifer. Not because of this,” I say, waving my hand out over the spread in front in front of us. “I love you.”

She kisses me on the cheek and then grabs a couple of paper plates and napkins, handing me one of each. We sit in silence, eating our food, looking at each other and smiling, letting the energy of our feelings push and pull us. When we finish eating Jennifer stands up and motions to the couch. She lowers the wick on the lamp, dimming the light. Sitting down on the sofa, sinking into the aged cushions, we hug and kiss. I can feel the stirring in my jeans and try to ignore it, not wanting to scare her away. Jennifer grabs the bottom of my sweater and I let her pull it up and off of me. She starts to unbutton my shirt and then stops. “Is this ok?” I nod my head yes and lean in to kiss her again. She takes my hands and brings them to the pearl shaped buttons on her dress. My hands are shaking, and I can’t undo her dress. She puts her hands on mine and together we unbutton down to her waist. She stands up and slides her dress off her shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. I slip off my shirt and then remove my undershirt. Pulling me to my feet she reaches for my belt buckle, before undoing the clasp of her bra. There is a part of me that says I should look away, but I cannot help myself and my heart rate speeds up even more at the sight of her breasts. Jennifer raises my head with her finger under my chin until we are eye to eye.  Her eyes consume me, and I am frightened of hurting her, and of not being enough for her. We finish undressing and she lays on the sofa. As I move over her, a blanket covering one of the windows becomes unattached from a top corner and hangs askew. The moon is full tonight and spreads its light over us. I look down at Jennifer, and gasp at the milky glow of her skin. It’s as if she is absorbing the moonlight and radiating it back out. I position myself above her and she places her hand on my chest. “Careful.”

“Promise,” I say, kissing her on the forehead.

She tenses and arches her neck back, biting her lower lip and clenching her fists. I move to get up, that sick feeling of guilt rolling around with the meal we just ate. “No, no,” she says. “It’s okay. It’s supposed to be like that I think.”

I finish fast. “What’s wrong?” Jennifer asks. I can feel the grimace on
my face.

“I didn’t want it to end so quick. I’m sorry.”

She shakes her head no. “No need for sorry. First time.” She laughs. “Boys will be boys.”

We sit up, push the food aside and cover up with the blanket.  We gaze into each other’s eyes, kiss slowly, delicately, I cannot help but feeling amazed by the beauty of her being. We have only known of one another for just shy of six weeks and I feel as if I have known her my whole life. I can feel myself exploding in pure joy. The warmth of her skin against mine is almost too much. She nuzzles her head in my neck and moans. “I could see us living here,” she said.

“Me, too.” I tip my head up, and above the window I see a black tin ceiling, and I wonder if this is where dad sat playing board games. The room comes to life. There are children laughing, the sound of wooden pieces being moved around game boards, the tinkling of china cups on saucers, the lingering smells of turkey and gravy, Christmas carols being sung. The house is alive. “You know. I’m graduating this spring. I’ve got a job lined up at the sawmill next town over. I could buy this place, fix it up. Make it our home.”

She lifts her head. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I say, smile, and kiss her on her forehead, before tipping her head up and kissing her on the lips. “Yeah.”

Jennifer places her hand on the back of my neck. “I’ve known you for a lifetime and then some. I’m glad we found each other.”“Old souls,” I say. “We are old souls.”

***

I barely sleep that night. My mind keeps replaying every moment of the evening. As I finally doze off around two in the morning I still feel her touch. I wonder if it is the same for her.

When I wake up in the morning, I discover the weather man was wrong. The ground is covered in six to seven inches of heavy, wet snow. I know dad will be mad at me for not getting the leaves raked, but I can live with that. Nothing can alter last night. I am lying in bed, feeling the smile on my face, when he knocks on the door frame to my room. “You got a two-hour delay, Jimmy,” he says. “If you shovel the steps, I’ll take care of the rest.” He pauses. “You didn’t get those leaves raked up, did you?”

“No, dad. Sorry.”

Dad sighs. “No worries. They’ll be there in the Spring. Just a little messier to take care of.” He starts off down the hallway.

“Hey, dad.”

“Yeah?” he says, poking his head back in.“I’d like to be James now.”

He smiles and pats the doorframe. “That time has come, has it?”

I sit up in bed. “Is that okay?”

He nods that it is. “But what’s not okay is leaves under the snow. So, I will do the steps and you will do the rest”

***

I stand outside and watch the bus pull up. I’m itching to get to school to see Jennifer. On the bus Conrad slides over to give me room to sit next to him. I look at him for a moment, before moving down the aisle and taking a seat further back by myself. I stretch across the seat so no one can join me. Gazing out the window I feel anxious about seeing the house, as if it will blab the activities it witnessed last night in its parlor.  Had it been Conrad or Billy in my place last night, everyone on the bus would have known about it by now. A conquest for the good old boys. I know to speak of it would diminish what Jennifer and I shared.

We near the corner and I feel bile rise up in my throat. I can’t register what I am seeing. It’s gone. No, not gone, but where there was a house
on the corner is now only a pile of snow-covered debris. I can’t see much else, my eyes are getting blurry. I turn away from the window and see
the kid in front of me looking back. “Fuck off,” I say, wiping my eyes on
my sleeve.

Jennifer and I eat lunch in silence. I don’t dare look at her out of fear that I will cry again. I know she has seen it, too, without her speaking. The grasp and squeeze of my hand as she sat down said it all. The bell rings and Jennifer touches my hand one more time before rising out of her chair. I follow suit. We empty our trays and enter the hallway, where we part and go separate ways.

“James?”

I stop and turn to her. “Yeah?”

“We’re still standing.”

-END-


Favorite Maine restaurant?
Nezinscot Farm in Turner.

 

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