Summer 2019 - Fiction

Harris Lahti

Sugar Bath

 

Vic Greener—IMDB: actor, writer, playwright, television personality, underwear model, miscellaneous, no film credits to his name—buys the foreclosure at a bank auction, on a whim, with what’s left of his toothpaste commercial money. There are no other bidders.

Driving back along the pinched country highway, he thinks, that’s the universe saying thanks. For agreeing to come out to this cultureless land of pizza shops and roaring pickup trucks. Upstate New York, a kind of vast death trap.

“I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, and on the slitted sheet I sit.”

The toothpaste commercial was over a year ago, and the rest of the money Vic must beg from Mother-in-Law who never misses an opportunity to bait him—from his green breakfast smoothies to his afternoon film studies. The way he tans, laid out in the brittle grass.

After hearing his pitch in the cramped kitchen of her bungalow, she poises pen over check and eyes him skeptically. “What about your instrument, Stanislavski?” she says.

But today, unlike others, Vic fights himself calm. With thoughts of childhood. An apple tree, a skipped rock. A tadpole netted from the murk of a pond. Through this method, he produces a convincing depiction of patience. His idol, Constantin Stanislavski (RIP), would be proud.

At first anyway. Because then, suddenly, Vic breaks character. Discovers himself repeating a tongue twister into Mother-in-Law’s reddening face. “Four furious friends fought for the phone!” he repeats. Until Mother-in-Law starts her own line of frustration. The same old thing: “You’re so self-involved! Irresponsible! And with a baby on the way? You should be preparing for that!”

“That’s what I’m trying to do here!” Vic argues. Louder and louder. Until, finally, the whole noisy structure topples at the weak sound of Heather’s voice from the guest bedroom. Where she’s been laid up for the final trimester of a rough pregnancy with gestational diabetes. Unable to bear television light or radio sound, nothing but a three-foot pile of what-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting books and the swirling ceiling fan to entertain her.

“Leave him be,” she says.

The small intervention proves enough. Mother-in-Law scribbles, signs.

Next morning, Vic receives the keys. Drives over to the foreclosure with Heather who insists she feels okay for a change. Could’ve fooled him, though. As they stare up at the foreclosure from the driveway, her pale skin resembles a wet napkin draped over organs. Her cheeks, a lattice work of worming blue veins.

“This is what you’re so excited about?” she says.

To which, Vic smiles his Crest White smile. Knowing the old house isn’t much to look at. Revolutionary War old as it is. With its greening wrought iron and mottled slate roof. Peeling lead paint and busted out windows with their grimacing shutters. Overgrown lawn and graveyards of flowerbeds choked beneath a fetid layer of decaying leaves and apple blossoms.

However, working with his father all those years—flipping houses—Vic also knows these things can be fixed. That the true value is hidden in the straight rooflines, the plumbing, a sturdy foundation. “Try to see the house behind the house,” he says.

Yet the way Heather looks at him, it’s as if all Mother-in-Law says is true. That he’s just substituting one pipe dream for another. And he jumps quickly to head off these thoughts: “You’ll see,” he says. “A family escaping the bustle of New York will love this old house. Three bedrooms, two baths. Piece of land with a pond, woods. An apple tree. What’s not to love. Just wait. We’ll be back west with money to burn—”

Now a vulture swoops down onto the peak of the roof above, causing his throat to hitch. Its giant wings flare wide in a six-foot cross, then fold inward like a jackknife. A curved black feather lets loose, drifts downward to land audibly on the front porch like a welcome mat.

“What’s wrong?” Heather says.

Vic shields his eyes, points at the purple eclipse in the sun. “You don’t see it?

“See what?”

“The vulture. Staring right at you.”

She presses a damp forehead into his shoulder. “I’m sorry but my vision hasn’t stopped swirling since we left. I’d hate to leave before looking inside.”

So, Vic helps her up the soggy porch stairs. One at a time. To the front door where he inserts each key without success. A dampness surfacing on her taut round belly while she waits, a maple syrup rising into the air.

“Damn it,” he says and at last runs off through the waist-high yellow grass around back. Dodging a chipped bird bath and startling grasshoppers into flight. But none of the keys fit the back door’s lock, either. And he resorts to shouldering open the front.

After the lock gives, a cold blast meets them. Causes their noses to scrunch up against the bottled must. Their eyes adjusting slowly to the junk sloping from every wall, pinching the room into an epicenter of furniture. A tomb of mealy couches, identical hospital beds, a camper stove and refrigerator. A television tray full of prescription bottles.

In the doorway, Heather grips his hand with increasing strength. Until a long, hard shudder reverberates between her knuckles and her sappy hand slips away. Then she turns to him oddly luminous in the dark, and says, “They died here, didn’t they?”

Vic starts stuffing garbage bags that day. After returning Heather to the bungalow. To the twin-bed and what-to-expect books. The ceiling fan and Mother-in-Law who seems to blame him for his wife’s worsened condition. He opens blinds, spills light into the cluttered rooms. Thinking how once he fixes the place up, everything will improve—Heather’s health, the baby born, Mother-in-Law almost an entire continent away. With enough time to tune his instrument up for pilot season.

With a karate chop, he swipes prescription pill bottles into a garbage bag. Lifts a tower of medical books and dumps them in also. “Larry sent the latter a letter later,” he repeats. Then, double-knotting the bag, lugs it to the curb. Plunges back inside to parachute another.

In coming days, he disposes of furry yogurt, spoiled milk from the refrigerator. From the living room: a stiff tower of QVC magazines fused together by humidity and time. The bathroom closet: an extensive array of spent beauty creams, wrinkle removers. Anything of value he consolidates in the living room. For the estate sale.

Now there’s enough room to get at the burst pipes. To fiddle with the electric. The plumbing. Estimate the damage and investment required, get an idea of profits. Things are better than he could’ve hoped. Like his father used to say, the old house has “Good bones.” Good septic. Good pipes. A clean bill of health, really. All it needs is a little clearing out, some paint. To replace the porch steps. Landscaping, gardening. A couple months at max.

In fact, the investment appears so sound he decides to call his agent about lining up auditions in a few months. “Peter piper picked a pickled patch of pickled peppers,” he says into his answering machine. “It’s Vic. Call me back.”

 

The universe really seems to be realigning. Until Vic finds gravestones in the basement. Two of them. Jutting up like mossy teeth behind the boiler.

He could’ve sworn nothing was there at first. Then his flashlight quivers and they surface from beneath the black, packed dirt. Like moonlit fish breaching the dark of a pond. One big, one small. His flashlight moves across their mottled stone as he sips nosefuls of kerosene, squinting to read the names. But they’re too rounded down. Just little bowls of dancing shadow.

The dates, however, he can make out fine. Mother and child, he calculates from the gothic scrawl. Dead by childbirth probably. Laid out right beneath his feet.

At first, Vic doesn’t know what to do. He’s never seen this before. Fucking gravestones!? Could this prevent him from selling the house? Should he call the cops? The town historian?

His father would know, he knows. The bastard. Would know everything and more. And despite any misgivings, he soon discovers himself wresting the cell phone from his pocket. Rushing up the basement stairs in search of a bar of service and making the call. Then, skipping pleasantries, blurting out everything—about taking time off from his career, like his father suggested. Moving back east into Mother-in-law’s. Only a few hours north of where he grew up. Where his father still lived. And, oh yeah, did he mention the gravestones!?

To which, his father only laughs. That same laugh he laughed when Vic told him he wanted to act for a living. “Listen,” he says. “If you come across a mysterious bone or exotic-looking beetle or even a pair of wooden teeth inscribed George Washington, you don’t say a word, to anyone. You just heap the dirt back over and get that house sold. A police force or a county government will tie up all forward progress on a renovation just for something to do. They’re that bored. You hear me? Think about your baby. Your wife.”

That night, Vic doesn’t mention the gravestones to Heather. Instead he lies down next to her, stares at the ceiling fan while Mother-in-Law’s chainsaw snores radiate through the wall. And tells her about the time he fucked that famous actress back in Hollywood.

“Remember? She was on that soap,” he says. “Anyway, she was a dead fish.” Because sometimes he tells Heather stuff like that. About his wild life before her. And usually she’ll listen. Get sexually aroused even. Except tonight she just strokes her massive belly, thoughts clearly someplace else. “Feeling alright?” he asks her.

“It’s just that poor couple,” she says. “To think of them. Alone in that old home. What kind of life were they living? To end up like that.”

Vic stares at the ceiling fan, thinks he detects a small wobble in its rotation while debating if he should tell her that, from his experience, people generally died in this fashion. In their homes. Surrounded by the accumulation of their lives. That those were the lucky ones.

Instead, he says, “Well, what do you want to know?”

“Anything, really.”

So, next night, Vic brings her home a bowling trophy (Third Place). The next, a box of bank statements. A piece of costume jewelry: a string of plastic pearls Heather immediately drapes around her neck and pulls into her mouth, starts sucking on like a lozenge.

The artifacts seem to make her feel better. Propped up on pillows, plastic pearls still in her mouth, she turns a new item in her hands nightly. Before adding it to her growing collection, atop the what-to-expect books that comprised her nightstand. Every night, making him promise to bring more: “Raise your right hand,” she says.

And so Vic does. Every day, something new. A poorly taxidermized woodpecker. A lock of hair. An ancient scrap of pornography unearthed from beneath a scratchy wool sweater. The wool sweater itself. A tattered book full of God knows what.

Recipes, Heather quickly informs him. For apple pecan pie and flourless cake. Peach cobbler. And next to the recipes: notes. Incomprehensible and scrawling in the margins. Vic can’t read a word, but somehow Heather can. “It’s like my handwriting,” she says. Substitute heavy cream for whole milk. Crush instead of mince. Made for Walter’s forty-fourth birthday. Big success. Her usually glassy eyes now buzzing with focus.

“These all look so delicious. I’ll eat them as soon as my sugars level out.”

What’s so exciting about this, Vic hasn’t a clue. Heather having never expressed an interest in baking before. Yet burying her nose all night. While he stares up at the ceiling fan, trying to blink away its wobble, having to listen about milk of almonds at Christmas, homemade ice cream on the Fourth of July. Becoming more and more convinced the ceiling fan’s slight misalignment would eventually bring it crashing down.

Just as he’s drifting off, Heather waves a photograph across his vision. A bookmark fallen from between two pages. “You awake?” she says, holding the photograph an inch from his eyes. Of a young man blowing out a field of birthday candles in the kitchen of the old house, only cleaner and filled with light.

“For a second. I thought this was you.”

However, Vic doesn’t see himself in the man. This Walter person. Not young but not old, either. Not handsome or interesting looking. Not a Crest White smile at all. He shuts his eyes, fighting himself calm. Because Heather hasn’t appeared this alive in months, he doesn’t have the heart to kill her spirit.

“Would you look at that kitchen?” she says. “I almost didn’t recognize it.”

Vic drags a folding table into the driveway, so the pickers can see the estate sale from the road. Lays out some silverware. A set of China. A box of VHS tapes with peeling labels. A table full of ancient coffee rings. Not much. The rest, inside.

He sits on the porch steps and waits for customers. Glad to get rid of the artifacts once and for all. And decides to call his agent again in the meantime. Repeating, “What can a clan cram in a clean clam can,” into his answering machine until his tongue ties. “Shit, sorry,” he says. “It’s Vic. Wondering if I missed your call back.” And hangs up.

Already, a picker is approaching. And about a half hour later, the old house is mobbed. Cars lining the otherwise desolate street. Despite the early hour. Crowds in the living room, the yard. Old folks mostly. Some couples. Lots of change purses. Lots of haggling. Lots of God damn stupid questions: “Moving in?” they ask him. “Relative of the deceased?” Or they try the basement door—clearly deadbolted—and ask, “Why is this locked?”

“What’s down there?” they want to know, rattling the doorknob.

For the first time in weeks, Vic must employ Stanislavski’s method. Must draw on his memories to feign politeness. To be a salesman. Make them believe the scraps they bring him are worth purchasing.

It comes more naturally for Heather, however. Who arrives at noon with Mother-in-Law. Posts up in the living room, not seeming so sick at all anymore. “Seriously, I feel fine,” she says. While the pickers gather around her. To gush. Touch her belly. Marvel at her and pose questions about not only prices but the old house itself. Many of which she can answer, having somehow gleaned them from the recipe book.

“If you can believe it, these flowerbeds used to bloom,” she says. “Imagine rows and rows of lilacs, hydrangeas, foxgloves. Japanese apricots…”

And what else can Vic do but stand there and wonder how in the hell she’d learned any of this? Like that ceiling fan, he thinks, she has come loose. Off her axis. Is spinning away. When just a couple of weeks ago she was on death’s door, the sad state of the old house: a disturbance.

At the end of the weekend, Vic drags the few remaining scraps to the curb, stakes a “FREE” sign in the grass. For a long time just stands there, contemplating the sign’s violent black marker.

Driving back to the bungalow, he sees a sign for the thruway and contemplates turning off. For a moment, the breeze from the rolled-down window ruffles his arm-hairs, ceasing to be humid upstate New York air. Instead turning refreshing and briny. An ocean breeze from that other world that sways palm trees. Skitters sand across golden beaches peppered with tan bodies. Of California. Of Hollywood.

Remember landing your first gig? he thinks. That shampoo commercial. What that felt like? Remember practicing washing your hair until it turned brittle? How the director said you crushed it. And how you were convinced that after that came something better. Something you could sink your teeth into. Nothing better in the world. That hope.

Then it’s just a matter of taking the exit. Taking seventeen to six. Jumping on two-eighty-seven. Then ripping that all the way back west. At least until the guilt swoops down to convince him everything Mother-in-Law ever said was true. That he really is self-involved. Irresponsible. Already a bad father, even without the baby.

Pulling into the bungalow, he can’t even go inside. Must sit there in the driveway and draw on childhood memories to beat back the tears.

Two days overdue now. Three, four. Vic’s taped and painted the interior of the old house. Has moved outside. To blast away the brittle paint with the power washer, then climb ladders with a paint brush and bucket. Slopping it on, doing all he can to finish before the cold arrives and the paint won’t stick. Before the baby comes. Before pilot season. Before condo prices in Santa Monica spike.

“Did I mention that?” he says to Heather one night. “After this, I don’t think we’ll have to move back into the Oakwood Apartments. We’ll be able to afford a condo. Maybe even rent a house.”

“Makes no difference to me,” she says, still nose-deep in the recipe book. “I liked the pool there, anyway.”

Staring at the ceiling fan, her response strikes him selfish. That she shouldn’t desire more space for their child. If not an apple tree, an orange tree perhaps. A pond. More comfort than the Oakwood, anyway. Something you could call a home. After obsessing about that recipe book for weeks, neglecting her what-to-expect books. In order to have a love affair with the old house.

Heather’s stopping by every few days, it seems. Vic doesn’t think she should be driving. But she insists the doctors say she can if she feels up to it. Mother-in-Law had just taken her to an appointment that morning. “They say my sugars are balancing back out,” she says.

Sometimes Mother-in-Law comes along with her. On these days, they walk the old house together, conspiring. “A breakfast nook would go great here,” they say. “Do you really think white is the right color for the bathroom?” Or: “Those cabinets need to go.”

Vic hears them through the open windows. He’s perched on the ladder. “I’m just trying to get this place fixed up and sold,” he shouts in at them. Rarely do they respond.

Fourteen days overdue now. Fifteen. Sixteen. The baby still not arriving. Heather’s health still somehow improving. Her: still insisting the doctors say everything’s alright.

Despite her size, she comes by daily now. To clean up the garden while Vic mows the unkempt lawn into submission. “You really don’t have to do that,” he says. “Take a load off.”

He figures it’d be a relief to have her nearby. In case the baby comes. Or some emergency happens. But watching her in the garden is almost as stressful as her absence. Her bulk is that insane. Strangest is the ease with which she bends. Moves. Dirt smeared across her belly like she just clawed her way out of one of the graves.

With a smile taut as that belly, she looks up at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Can’t they just induce?” he says.

To which, Heather—still down on her knees in the dirt—tells him that if the doctors aren’t worried, why should he be? With gestational diabetes, she says, it’s not uncommon. “Too sweet in there. Sometimes, the baby doesn’t want to leave.”

Then the lawn is done, and they’re staring up at the old house from the driveway. The house not so old-looking anymore. The lush grass and hedges, the lovely walkway. The budding apple tree that Heather points out probably produced the very apples used in those recipes.

“Do you think we’ll leave before they ripen?”

But how’s Vic supposed to know? Could take weeks, months. Might refuse to ripen until pilot season came and went, for all he knew. And what did she mean by asking that anyway? Did she want to wait it out, did she want to bake pies? Was not leaving an option? If she really wanted to stay so bad, he wishes she’d just ask. Make him justify himself for wanting to give his acting career one last go.

So, Vic grabs her hand and leads her through the old house to show her. Why they couldn’t make this place their home. Past the freshly painted walls and refinished cabinetry. Over the freshly lacquered hardwood floors. Past the house behind the house and into the basement. Stair by stair, he pulls her into the subterranean dark.

“Do you see?” he says, aiming the flashlight.

“See what?” she says.

“Behind the boiler. The gravestones. Now do you want to live here so bad?”

To which, Heather only laughs. “Is that what those are? What’s so wild about that? People used to die at home in those days. It was probably cheaper than a church burial.”

“Don’t think I can’t hear you and your mother talking!”

“Just put the house up for sale already. Please,” she says. “Put your mind at ease.”

Yet each day after, Vic returns to tinker. Still not calling a realtor. Or his agent. Hasn’t done a tongue twister since getting tongue tied while leaving that message. Farmer’s tan on both arms now. Heather still in the garden. Still expecting. Growing inside. The apples growing too. While she bends to pull the last of the weeds. And Vic stops up drafts for winter. Baby-proofs the stairs, secures a ceiling fan in the master bedroom. Then carefully extracts the gravestones and plants them in a spot she clears in the garden.

 


Harris Lahti’s work is forthcoming or appeared in Post Road, Epiphany, New York Tyrant, Hobart, Columbia Journal, Fanzine, and elsewhere. He edits fiction for FENCE. Read more: harrislahti.com


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.