By Joe Speaker © 2006
He stood in the open doorway facing the long, empty hallway. Ironically, Marshall couldn't remember doing that before. Maybe the first day. Maybe not. The house looked much the same as when he entered it for the first time nearly two years ago. Back then, it was love at first sight, the adrenaline blitz of a new crush. He remembered the reflections off the impossibly white walls, like perfect porcelain skin, the smell of fresh paint and gloss, the subtle, intoxicating scent of sandalwood drifting from the polished floors. He wandered the house for many minutes in something resembling a stupor that day, not believing he had been so lucky to land the prize. Today, he-and the house-felt different.
The hallway runs the length of the house, a seemingly endless expanse of hardwood floor, interlocking shades of blonde and amber, stretching to the backyard. It gleamed under the sun pouring in from the French doors, set ajar at the hallway's rough mid-point. Those doors, so rarely used, never decorated, opened onto a bare cement slab, the foundation for a supposed courtyard, another plan unfulfilled. The glass itself was spotless, buffed to a high shine by the hired help, the first time anyone had bent to clean them since Marshall and his family had moved in.
He walked tentatively down the hall toward the kitchen, unknowingly avoiding spots where furniture used to be, like dodging phantom memories. He glanced inside the den, which had been Owen's play room. The carpet still showed shadowy spots where his juice had been carelessly dropped. One slat of the wooden blinds had been snapped off in some long forgotten horseplay. Once pristine, the house had picked up its share of nicks, pilot holes drilled in the drywall that remain unfilled, attempts to hang a bookshelf or a curtain rod that fell victim to laziness and Marshall's own failings as a handyman. Owen's artwork, the mad genius of a three-year old, remained visible on some of the walls, though fainter now, blurred by the hours of scrubbing. Absent those signs, it was like nobody had ever lived here at all.
Marshall hated waiting. Always prompt and forever impatient, he glanced again at his watch. The agent and prospective buyers were already minutes late. He muttered a curse under his breath, pausing to lean on the kitchen island. The blinds were all open, afternoon light shining off the white countertop like a blizzard, but the agent said to make sure the house was as bright as possible, while also admonishing Marshall for the dark colors he and his wife Carrie had used to paint the dining and family rooms. The former was a blood red, striking and perfect for their espresso-hued table. She loved that room, he reminded himself with a sigh. It was everything she was: soulful, daring, passionate. Now cleared of its fixtures, it looked sad and conflicted.
The family room was a flat brown, a glazed brunette, the kind you see in every seasonal Pottery Barn catalog that appears with the regularity of a winter’s flu, luring housewives and aspiring craftsmen into the vague idea they can turn their homes into show pieces with these oddly named pigments of some marketer's imagination. Marshall vaguely thought the shade was named "potato skin" or "corduroy fleece" or something similarly insipid. But he was still taken by the lustrous images and his own desire to prove his homeowning mettle. Marshall's father who could scarcely wield a hammer and his own attempts at simple renovation confirmed that he had inherited those traits. They wanted to accent the family room with white ledges and elaborate sconces, built-in shelves and hidden compartments for the stereo and compact discs. He and Carrie never got that far. Not even close, really.
Southern California real estate, the dream of homeownership. They were so happy that day they got the house, lucking into a neglected floor plan, beating the crowds that regularly overwhelmed the new developments during that time of buying frenzy. A hundred people, at least, walked away disappointed that day. The waiting list seemed impossibly long and Marshall's name sat unthreateningly low. He was out of his league. But some on the list didn't show, others had their first, second and third choices claimed and with one lot remaining, the honor fell to him and Carrie. Half an hour later, all their dreams seemed to have come true. Like opportunistic lovers, they had fallen into fantasy.
Before they even moved in seven months later, the price had nearly doubled, giving them unearned cache, like an aspiring starlet fresh off plastic surgery. But they weren't investors, they were a family, a family marking an important milestone: their first house. Not that all was clean and rosy. Even the starlet had scars. The down payment wiped out their savings. The house was three times as far from Michael's job and Carrie was going to have to work outside the home for the first time, meaning daycare for Owen. Changes, always changes, but they had a home to call their own and promised to nurture it, build it into something greater and more meaningful than a simple dwelling.
The house is a classic southwestern style, though spared the pink tile roof for one in a more dignified cocoa. Two stories, four bedrooms plus the den, four baths. Too big for the three of them, but they planned to live there a long while, growing both family, possessions and equity. Of the three, they only managed the last and that was nothing but serendipity.
The real estate agent priced it at over a half million dollars, a laughable sum even in this delirious market. "You're getting out at the right time," she told them and they could both only respond with grim smiles. It didn't seem that way. It seemed all over in too short a time, projects left unfinished or not even begun. The backyard, dirt when they moved in, sits neglected, over-achieving milkweeds the only sustained growth. They paid a professional to design it, fussed over the details for months, but barely broke ground before enthusiasm and commitment waned. Owen's bedroom, where at the end he never slept anyway, remained a blank canvas despite almost feverish drawing of plans.
"We're too tired," they told themselves. The house became a nuisance, a costly albatross that thinned their financial advantage. It was further away, from jobs, from friends, from the bustle of the city center or the laid-back bacchanalia of the beach cities. It was inland, land-locked, desert winds and dust banging against the craggy hills surrounding them. No longer a destination, no longer a long-realized goal, the house became a place where they barely saw each other, passing here and there on the way to another workday, another responsibility. Without time or effort, the house began to decay. Dishes piled up, clothes went unlaundered, floors unpolished. They saw this, recognized it, but couldn't bring themselves to reverse the slide. "Too much effort," they said. "We'll get around to it," they promised. And the problems simply multiplied, some overt, some hidden, but all finally exposed when the house was stripped bare.
Marshall checked his watch again. "Time," he said to himself, to the departed Carrie. "I thought I'd get more time."
Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.