I’d been plagued with nightmares ever since my wife left. Horrible dreams of misshapen creatures, hands reaching for me as I stand frozen, unable to even cry out.
Originally, I thought the source of the problem was occupational. Up until this last semester, I taught two philosophy courses at the state university, and another two at the community college. I made around $37,000 a year, hardly a respectable salary in Fairfield County, not even a third of what my wife brought in. Then there were the students, insolent and uninterested, who sat stoop-shouldered with their jaws hinged open.
Maybe it’s some type of PTSD, I thought after I tendered my resignations and the nightmares continued.
“It’s anxiety,” the family physician told me. “You’re under a good deal of stress right now and your brain is trying to sort through it.”
He gave me a prescription for benzo-something-or-other which I took for 60 days. The bad dreams ended, but I remained awake most nights as nervous as a June bride.
* * *
It was three months ago, mid-May, when our realtor, Judi Katcher, told me the house would sell quickly. “You’re at the lower end of a high-priced area,” she said. “Last house I sold like this went in 15 days.”
My wife, Noelle, had already scampered down to Florida where relocation—enhanced by a job upgrade and a salary bump—was a prerequisite. I stayed behind to “tie up loose ends” and act as the property’s caretaker. I swept the porch, kept the front yard from becoming a meadow, pulled poison ivy with canvas-gloved hands. Inside, the house was kept as clean as a mortuary.
Unfortunately, not many people appreciated my efforts. Showings were infrequent at best, the most notable being a newlywed couple—wife extremely pregnant—in their late 20s.
“We could fence the yard,” the wife said.
The husband ignored her and asked why the bathroom was turquoise.
“Welcome to the 1970s,” Katcher merrily told him. “But considering the house’s low price point, a remodeling should easily fit within your budget.”
“I understand the school system is one of the best in the state,” the wife said.
“Any mice?” the husband asked, and before Katcher could jump in, I said, “Nothing a few snap traps can’t handle.”
“Thank you,” the husband said to me. And to Katcher, he smiled and said, “I think we’re good.”
* * *
It wasn’t the rejection that bothered me so much, it wasn’t the lack of potential buyers. It was the fact that after six years of marriage, I was reintroduced to loneliness. This was the first time that we’d been apart for longer than a few days, and it made me realize what a mess I tend to become when left alone.
“Would you do me one favor?” Noelle asked just before she departed. “Stay clear of the booze?”
She knew that on my own I had a tendency to overdo it, and I promised I’d try to be good.
* * *
In July, after very little action, Judi Katcher changed her story. “It’s an old house,” she said. “Young buyers want new.”
“Armoires and antiques,” she said indicating the living room surroundings. “They want Crate and Barrel.”
“Two-and-a-half acres of land.”
“That need mowing and weeding and cutting back. Millennials find that taxing.”
“What do you suggest?”
She told me we were just going to have to hope for the right buyer.
* * *
Soon after, Noelle called to inform me that—fed up with living in a motel off the highway—she’d put a down payment on a condo. It was in a gated community called Pelican Key, and she explained that she was sorry not to include me in on the decision, but there was another party ready to spring. She had no doubt that I’d love it and had been assured that obtaining a loan wouldn’t be a problem, that all she needed was a lawyer at closing.
“Can we afford two places?” I asked.
“We’ll be fine once the house sells,” Noelle told me.
* * *
We moved here three years ago, a Connecticut cottage built in the 1930s and added on to as time progressed. It was one of the only places we could afford—buyers weren’t interested in the dirt road that had to be maintained by the residents—and it was close to both colleges where I taught. We weren’t exactly in the woods, but a town park backed up to our property, and the house next door—Mrs. Chernenko’s—was almost a football field away.
Noelle and I kept a friendly if somewhat distant relationship to our elderly neighbor; we were able to watch her from our kitchen window as she carried an armload of cut wood into a small shed behind her house. Smoke soon curled from the building’s chimney, but what went on in there—on the hottest summer days and the most bitter of winter nights—we could only guess. We were aware that a creek ran through her property, but whether she used it to bathe, or dispose of garbage, or fish for eels, was pure speculation.
Last winter, just before a predicted blizzard, I saw her coming out of Stop & Shop, her cart filled with bottled water. I helped her load the trunk of her old Pontiac and asked if she was ready for the snow.
“Always ready,” the woman said.
“Let’s hope we don’t lose electricity.”
“Prepared for everything,” she said.
“Maybe we should exchange phone numbers. Be on the safe side.”
“No phone,” Chernenko told me, and that ended that.
* * *
The morning following Noelle’s news, after maybe three fitful hours of sleep, I got out of bed feeling dizzy and disoriented. I immediately blamed it on the sedative I’d been taking, the side effects which I’d been informed about.
When I finally got my physician on the phone, he recommended I see a specialist. He referred me to a Dr. Kelly, a man “highly qualified in treating seizures and panic attacks.”
“Whatever you do,” he warned, “don’t stop taking your medication without clearance from a medical professional.”
I called Dr. Kelly’s office, was told he was booked solid for the remaining week of July and that he’d be unavailable—camping in Canada some-damn-place—for the entire month of August.
The receptionist started pitching her own recommendations, but I simply thanked her for her time and decided my days of taking mood-altering drugs were over.
* * *
A week went by and the nightmares returned. Dreams in which I vividly witnessed my own suicide. I decided I was better off with no sleep at all and called the pharmacy to renew my prescription which I was told could be picked up the following day.
That afternoon Katcher stopped by, not with hopeful news, but with the suggestion that I not be present during any future showings. She claimed the buyers were more comfortable, but I suspect it had more to do with my tendency to say the wrong thing, and the fact that I was beginning to resemble some addlebrained ghoul seeking a still-warm corpse.
“I also think we need to lower the price,” she said.
“That’ll be up to you,” she told me. “I can make a suggestion, but it might be better if you go online and see what equivalent homes are going for.”
* * *
I staggered through the next day—at times unsure whether I was asleep or awake—trying to get the place in shape. After four days of rain, the grass had grown like bamboo, the kitchen floor was tracked with shoe prints I didn’t remember making, and some type of green algae was forming clumps on the roof.
A little before 6, I left CVS—renewed prescription in hand—and walked over to Spiro’s Deli where I ordered a meatball sub and a soft drink large enough to wash it down with. I took my sandwich to one of the two tables, opened my laptop, and Googled my zip code followed by “houses for sale.”
No surprise, an endless list of realty offerings, but scanning through, I saw this:
I am not normally a religious man. But on a site called “Catholic Discount House,” I found the “St. Joseph House Selling Kit,” for $6.95.
What can it hurt? I said to myself.
I was digging out my credit card and considering the extra charge for expedited shipping when I heard the voice.
I looked up, almost expecting to see the patron saint himself, but it was only Mrs. Chernenko. She was carrying a brown paper bag—herring, judging from an odor I could pick up from five feet away—with oil already blotting the outside.
“I see For Sale sign at end of road,” she said with a pronounced Slavic accent. She was a small woman—a former Ukrainian, if I remembered correctly—a widow. She could have been anywhere between 70 and 80, steel-colored eyes, straight platinum hair which may or may not have been colored, a short-sleeved white dress that stopped at mid-calf and was drawn at the waist by a maroon sash.
“That would be us,” I said.
“Too bad,” Chernenko said. “Good neighbor.”
It’s a title I thought was hardly deserved. Other than helping her with that bottled water, I may have taken over a misdelivered UPS package, and for three days I let her park in our driveway after hers had been blacktopped.
She pointed to the white CVS bag. “What for is that?”
“I have some sleeping issues.”
“Where is wife?”
“Florida,” I told her, but before I could explain further, Chernenko gave a curt nod and said, “You’re better off.”
“It’s only temporary.”
“Nothing against wife,” she said, “but Florida horrible place to live.”
I know, I almost said. I’d spent more than a few childhood vacations in my parents’ timeshare in Fort Lauderdale anguishing through blistering sunburns and jellyfish stings.
“You always eat supper this time?” she asked.
“Around this time.”
“OK,” Chernenko said, “but forget that.”
She was indicating my laptop screen which still held the image of the St. Joseph House Selling Kit.
“Is crazy superstition.”
* * *
I saw her again the following day. It’d been a hot afternoon, so I waited until early evening, grabbed a kneeling pad, and began pulling crabgrass from the edges of the gravel walkway. I observed her shadow first, moving along the ground like water. When I glanced up, the waning sun made her appear almost iridescent.
“Is suppertime,” she said.
Mrs. Chernenko walked through my front door, and although I thought it appropriate to protest, I simply followed her inside. She was carrying an old-fashioned wicker picnic basket and seemed to instinctively know where the kitchen was.
“You take pills yet?”
I told her I hadn’t, that I always waited until I had dinner.
She placed her basket on the kitchen table and took out a thermos. “No pills tonight,” she said as she passed it over to me.
“What is this?”
The plastic top of the thermos was a cup, and I cautiously poured in a few ounces. Whatever it was, it had a pleasant fragrance, like lavender.
“Fill cup and finish,” she said. “Then wash hands, set table.”
She placed several covered dishes onto the table, identifying them as she went.
“Stuffed cabbage rolls. Potato pancakes. Borscht.”
She was wearing the same spotless dress she’d worn the day before, but her hair was pulled back and tied, and I noticed her skin, how lustrous and unwrinkled it was.
She took out a bottle of vodka, a lemon cut in wedges, and what looked like two heavy-bottomed shot glasses.
“Sit,” she said after I’d done what I was told. She uncapped the vodka, poured, then took her own seat.
“Na zdorov'ya!” she said, raising her glass.
We toasted and I told her she needn’t have gone to all this trouble.
“What trouble?” she said, and following her example, I threw back my vodka in a single, undisturbed motion.
I started to comment—perhaps on the fact that I hadn’t tasted alcohol in a while—but before I could get a sentence out, Chernenko hushed me.
“What is hissing noise?” she asked.
She rose from her chair and slowly paced the kitchen like a bloodhound tracking a scent. “Is down here,” she said stopping in front of the basement door.
Halfway down the stairs, with Chernenko a couple of steps behind, I saw it. The flow, constant but no more intense than a child’s water pistol, sprayed from one of the corner pipes.
“I better call a plumber,” I said as I turned to go back upstairs.
“Turn off water,” Chernenko ordered, and when I didn’t respond fast enough, she passed around me. As if she was familiar with the inner working of the house, Chernenko went directly to the shut-off valve and pushed the yellow-handled level into the horizontal position.
“You have tools?” she asked.
“A hammer. Maybe some pliers.”
“Wait here,” she said.
Chernenko passed me on the stairs a second time, and I heard the front door open and close. I moved down to the basement floor where the sound of the leak was already subsiding. This was not a place I frequented. The washer and dryer, the furnace and hot-water heater, old cans of paint left by the previous owners. A perfect place for a murder, a man hidden behind the well pump, a body disposed inside the oil tank.
Ten minutes later, Chernenko reappeared, lugging a metal tool kit that she used both hands to carry. She placed it beneath the pipe, opened it, took out a flashlight that she handed me. She squatted, rummaged through, found what looked like a flat rubber gasket and an open metal band.
While I provided the light, Mrs. C closed the toolbox, stepped up on it, positioned the gasket, and used a screwdriver to tighten the band around the pipe. She instructed me to turn the water on, and when I did, the leak was gone.
“Now problem of new owner,” she said, getting down.
“Where’d you learn that?” I asked.
“Not important,” she told me. “Supper. Supper is important.”
* * *
I woke up the next day after my best night’s sleep in what seemed like a lifetime. I showered and dressed, then texted Katcher and suggested a $10,000 drop in our asking price. After I put on coffee, I noticed that my prescription bottle, which I was sure I’d left on the kitchen counter, was gone. I figured I’d probably stored it someplace in my vodka-induced haze, but I hardly gave it a second thought.
On my way out to find some breakfast, my foot went through one of the wooden steps on the front porch. I was able to pull myself free and—unhurt at least—made a mental note to find a handyman as soon as I got back. It turned out that there was no need. Around 10:30, bacon and egg sandwich in a brown paper bag, I got out of my car and saw Mrs. Chernenko setting up two sawhorses in front of the porch. Her toolbox was on the ground next to a plank and a circular saw which was already plugged into the house’s exterior outlet.
“What are you doing?”
She’d changed clothes, now wearing denim overalls and chukka boots, and when she turned to face me, I noticed a pencil tucked in the bun she’d arranged on top of her head.
“Ah,” she said. “Good you’re here.” She unclipped a tape measure fastened to her right hip pocket. “Measure step for me.”
“How did you know?”
“I keep eyes open,” she said.
“Where’d the board come from?”
Mrs. C nodded toward what would soon be the new wooden step. “This,” she said, “is why you never throw anything out.”
We finished quickly, taking a break only to divide the breakfast sandwich, and Mrs. C mentioned that all we needed now was some matching paint.
“I’ll pick something up at the hardware store,” I said.
“No need,” Chernenko told me. “You already have in basement.”
* * *
She brought dinner over again, chicken Kiev and mushroom-stuffed dumplings, honey cake, and another thermos of tea. Everything was delicious, but I forced myself to be more careful with the vodka.
I asked about her family—all of whom had either passed on or remained in Europe—and about her past which she assured me was not worth discussing. Eventually, she brought our conversation back to the house which she called “a solid structure” with “a strong heart.”
“I’ve always liked it here,” I said. “Until recently.”
“Why different now?”
“It’s weird,” I told her. “Three years and hardly a ripple. Now it’s as if my own house is turning on me.”
“It doesn’t want you to leave.”
Chernenko refilled her shot glass, drank it down, grabbed a wedge of lemon, put it to her lips and sucked. Something in that simple gesture seemed to almost transform her for a moment, and I recognized the handsome woman she undoubtedly once was.
“In my country,” she said, “we believe house has spirit called domovoi. Is helpful spirit as long as master gives credit.”
“How does he do that?”
“He pays respect,” she said.
* * *
At Stop & Shop the next afternoon, I picked up the week’s groceries and a half-dozen red roses. I even felt lighthearted enough to walk across the mall and go into Bobbi’s Mane Concern for a haircut.
Back home, after the things I bought had been put away, I shaved, slapped on some cologne, and took the flowers next door.
I’d never been inside Mrs. C’s house. It was a small cottage built—I estimated—around the same time as ours. Not much modernization was evident from the outside, but it was perfectly preserved, with cedar siding looking as fresh as the day it was built. I knocked at the front door, but the voice I heard came from a different structure—a freestanding metal garage—a few feet away.
The pulldown door was closed, but I noticed an open pedestrian door on the side. I walked inside and looked around at what could have passed as a Hollywood set. A 10-foot long mahogany workbench with shelves above, each one neatly arranged with glass jars of screws, nails, bolts, and other fasteners. Below the table, clear plastic tubs, each one labeled: BRACKETS. CHISELS. ADHESIVES. CLAMPS. On one entire wall, a pegboard with every hand tool imaginable. Lumber in various lengths and widths was stored in wooden bins, extension cords were rolled and hung from ceiling beams, a table saw, a wood lathe, a drill press, and any number of tools and implements I couldn’t name. I finally spotted Chernenko, dressed in work clothes and heavy gloves, a welder’s helmet tucked under her arm.
“Wow,” I said. “Did all this stuff belong to your husband?”
“What you have there?” she asked, pointing to the roses.
“A little thank-you.”
I extended the bouquet, but Mrs. C’s hands remained by her sides.
“One less,” she said.
“Should be odd number,” she told me, putting the helmet on the workbench and removing the gloves. “Even number is for funeral.”
I removed one of the flowers, set it on the workbench, and tried again. This time she accepted. She held the roses under her nose and inhaled, and I saw her smile—really smile—for the first time.
* * *
What might have been a sound sleep was continuously disturbed that night due to the bathroom toilet randomly flushing every hour or so. When I got up around 6, I noticed a crack that had formed in the corner of the bedroom doorway and extended to the ceiling. Additionally, when I looked out my front window, I was greeted by the sight of a rain gutter that had pulled free from the corner of the house and now hung unsupported.
My initial thought was Chernenko, but I worried that I might be overreaching, that perhaps she’d interpret this as taking advantage of her kindness. Instead, I found the number of a local handyman, called a couple of hours later, and set up an appointment for later that day. After coffee and a toaster waffle, I phoned Katcher’s office to check on any progress, but learned she was out with a client. I was informed she’d return my call the second she got in, but when I tried again around noon, I learned she wasn’t feeling well and had gone home early.
Around 2, a guy with a bushy black moustache showed up in a van that read “Odd Jobs Contracting” on the side. He filled the crack with joint compound and while it dried, set up a ladder and rehung the gutter. He replaced the flapper in the toilet tank. He told me he could come back the following day to match the wall paint over the bedroom door, but I assured him it looked fine. I wrote a check, and as I accompanied him out to the van to get a business card, I observed Mrs. Chernenko standing in the driveway.
“What?!” she yelled as the van pulled away. “My work not good enough?!”
“Your work is fine,” I said walking toward her. “I just didn’t want to inconvenience you.”
“I am old woman with nothing to do!”
“Come inside. We’ll have some tea.”
“Have tea with moustache man,” she said, and the next thing I saw was her shoulders churning, her back turned.
* * *
The kitchen phone was ringing when I went back inside. It was Katcher, and when I asked how she was feeling, she said better, much better.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “Remember that couple? The husband all concerned about mice?”
“The people who hated the place.”
“He hated the place. Apparently she’s the one with the money. She’s offering full asking price.”
“Are you serious?”
“As serious as a pimple on prom night,” Katcher said.
* * *
I dug out an ancient bottle of bourbon and poured it over ice. Then I called Noelle. I got her voicemail and left a message: Good news. Call me.
I thought about Mrs. Chernenko and how I might make amends for my unintentional yet obvious insult. Online I located the closest Ukrainian restaurant, a place called The Odessa Café, and made a 7:30 reservation for two.
* * *
There was no answer at her front door, and when I checked, the garage was unlit and sealed tight.
I smelled it, then saw it. The acrid scent of wood burning, the white plume billowing from the smokehouse chimney. I walked around to the shed, called her name, looked around, and a second or two later spotted her as she emerged naked from the creek. Steam rose from her wet skin like a lace curtain drawn upward, but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. It was her body, as good as that of a woman a fraction her age, as good as my wife’s.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t …”
But Chernenko said nothing. Just stood there emotionless. And then I saw it, that sixth rose. She’d placed it behind her ear and it stood out, like a red cherry superimposed over a black-and-white photograph.
* * *
Ten, maybe 15 minutes later, I was halfway through my second drink when the phone rang.
“Hey, babe,” my wife said. “So tell me the good news.”
“I’m taking the house off the market,” I said. “I’ve decided to stay put.”
Noelle laughed, but I told her I wasn’t trying to be funny.
“I don’t like Florida,” I said. “It’s too hot. I don’t like bugs, I don’t like snakes, and I despise traffic.”
“Have you been drinking?” she asked.
I held my glass up to the phone’s mouthpiece and rattled the ice cubes.
“All right,” Noelle said. “I’ll play along. So you’ll stay in Connecticut and do what? Visit me every so often?”
“It’s the 21st century,” I reminded her. “Couples do that.”
“And the money for supporting two houses is coming from where?”
I told her truthfully that I hadn’t thought about that yet.
There was a pause and a sigh and finally Noelle said, “Okey-doke. Listen. I’m going to let you go sleep it off. Because tomorrow, if you even remember this conversation, I think you’ll see things in a different way.”
I doubt it, I started to say, but Noelle had already hung up.
* * *
I am not a destructive man. Certainly not the type to purposely clog a sink or pour red wine on a light-colored carpet. But I needed something, some excuse that would allow me to get Chernenko back into my house, something I was powerless to repair on my own. The closest thing at hand was a cast-iron skillet that I found stored underneath with the aluminum pots. I took it by its wooden handle, aimed at a spot on the kitchen wall next to the phone, and swung like I was a tennis player returning a serve. My second attempt was less tentative than my first, and I was rewarded with a hole in the wall the size of a saucer.
I concocted a story about a mouse running up the wall and my foolish attempt to kill it. I dropped the skillet in the sink, splashed some water on my face, toweled dry, and started next door to alert my domovoi.
I needn’t have bothered.
Chernenko, looking like one of those young working women from the old Soviet propaganda posters, was already coming up my walkway, carrying a gallon bucket of spackle in one hand, an 18-inch square of drywall in the other.