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Portland, Oregon. Late 1980s
The house was too big. James could fill it up, but without him . . . the house was too big for me. His muscular ruggedness echoed the storm-worthy, tested timbers of the house. His broad shoulders were wide beams, barely showing the first signs of weariness from carrying the burden. He filled the first-level rooms with the 12′ ceilings; but, at 6’3″, he had to stoop to take the turn on the main staircase — otherwise his head would smack into the shortened landing ceiling.
Beyond his strength, he had the know-how necessary to handle the house, its crafty ways of jutting out where you’d least expect it, its honed resistance to being tamed. James could handle the animal, but it was beyond me.
Since I had become too frightened to leave the house if I didn’t have to, I aimed to make peace within it. First I must survey the enemy. Venturing into its outer regions was an adventure: I routinely forced myself down the nascent, skeleton steps to the concrete-floor basement. The washer and dryer lived down there, as did an oil tank, a terrifying octopus furnace with a black-kettle body that filled the basement center like an overgrown tarantula, and James’s woodworking shop — lit by windows that James secured for me, first thing, with thick wood slats hammered across them.
But I made it up the attic steps — a mature staircase hidden behind an obscure door (it could have been just another closet door!) on the second floor — I made that trip only once.
My legs wobbled as I pushed myself up, away from the safer center of the house — into the top of its world. Who had any idea another universe, abandoned, was up here? (Even James never went into that space, I later found out.) The full-grown attic had a high ceiling and dormers whose age and filth filtered the sunlight like stained glass. This secret world would have been beautiful but for the haphazardly strewn, stiff bricks of yellow insulation that made a stab at carpeting the floor, and the grit of century-accumulated dust I couldn’t help displacing with each step. The dirt was clinging to the hems of my jeans.
The air lacked oxygen; it smelled of neglect and suffocation. My lungs fought me. I didn’t make it to the top of the stairs. I turned back when I saw beams of sunlight expose air particles so heavy, their gravity clumped them into floating asteroids. Besides, being so far from the house center made me dizzy. My heart pounded.
I never went back to the attic.
Even without the attic, the house was much too big for us.
The children were gone for a while; they were taking unscheduled, rotating years with their respective mothers. To disguise the emptiness, James converted one of their vacated bedrooms into a clothing closet (our own bedroom closet was 1908 size), by fitting and suspending rods, moving in chests of drawers, and hanging mirrors. (I don’t know if he even knew of the secret passageway off that room, a four-foot high passage that led to nowhere. A friendly, secret place; I wasn’t too scared of it.) Another vacated bedroom became my study. Another became our spare sleeping room — for relief from snorers and restless leg syndrome sufferers (and eventually became my own bedroom). Of course, even the study and closet room had spare beds. We could put up a lot of company. If we ever had any.
We were running out of ways to fill the bedrooms, living room, dining room, eat-in kitchen, the enclosed sun porch, the front and side flower beds, the backyard vegetable gardens, the garage, the back porch, the . . .
I grew up in a crammed New York City apartments; this house was way too much for me. I spent weekends vacuuming carpets, dusting, washing windows, washing curtains, oiling wood furniture, washing and drying clothes and bleaching the claw-footed bathtub. Wiping down miles of intricate, carved baseboards and moldings, on my hands and knees. Brushing cobwebs from the ceilings and suspended light fixtures; washing dishes (1908 did not design for dishwashers), defrosting the refrigerator; lining shelves and closets; scrubbing toilets, the bathroom and kitchen floors. . . . I found no end to the household chores that needed urgent attention. I didn’t complain. James tended the gardens and shrubs and trees and lawns. He got groceries and cooked. He hunkered down in his basement workshop and built anything I wanted, anything we needed. Above, all else, he was there.
I didn’t complain: with so much housework, no one could expect me to leave the house on weekends.
But now James was going away for a few days, an out-of-town conference. An academic panel, it seemed. My breathing was shallow and labored; the back of my neck, moist.
“You’ll call me every day?” I asked. “You’ll check on me?”
“Check on you? What?” Did he know? “You’re not afraid of being in the house alone, are you?” He laughed. I looked away.
“Are you?” he asked.
Am I afraid of the giant black-kettle octopus in the basement? Of course not! Though if I go crazy and it comes after me, I just might bolt the basement door and . . .
While he was gone, I found something even scarier in the basement: The first of James’s secrets, hidden behind a box of wood scraps.
. . . to be continued
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.