Fiction by Jim McDermott
My wife and I had just moved back to the States from Ireland then. I was about to turn forty-one. Our longest try at living somewhere other than home had brought us to another dead end.
I was looking for work as a programmer, and Jane, though very pregnant, was temping long days at a nonprofit that worked to reform land use in the American West (the mission interested her). We’d been together since the tenth grade—much longer, if you counted our friendship as kids. And yet, in just the last few months of our Ireland stay, as we lived quietly in a pretty river town, we had begun to lose faith in the idea we would ever surprise each other again. The feeling was no less painful for having stolen in on us during some moment we couldn’t quite place.
The rambler we’d bought after we got back was in a run-down area of a very old suburb on the Virginia side of DC. We couldn’t afford better; what was left, after our years away, of Jane’s small inheritance (from her mother, who’d died of pancreatic cancer fairly young) barely covered the down payment. The foundation of our new home was of wood, not concrete, and the basement floor was dirt. Upstairs were two bump-out additions, and virtually every wall had been taken out. The elderly woman who’d sold to us, a diabetic, had been thorough in ridding the place of obstacles and sharp turns for two wheelchairs: hers and her twin sister’s. The small master bedroom had four walls. But with the exception of weight-bearing metal posts, the rest of the first floor was as open as a car dealer’s showroom, and our table, chairs, and sofa did nothing to make the space feel less out of scale.
We’d moved in during those sad weeks at the end of February and the beginning of March: stormy and cold, the trees stark, and mud everywhere. Following the sisters’ lead, we tried to plug with beach towels the cracked wallboard under the windows and to smother the drafts that poured in as if the front door wasn’t there. But the wind found its way to us regardless, and the heat coming from the old furnace wasn’t enough to keep us that warm.
Soon after the house was ours, we began looking for reasons to be just about anywhere else. Many nights we bundled up in parkas to go for epic walks during which we held gloved hands but said little, even by way of small talk. Once we drove an hour roundtrip to have dinner at a restaurant close to where we’d lived before leaving the country. We’d
already seen three movies that week (art-house stuff), and on this night Jane was at first excited about, and then a bit unhappy with, some Ozu we happened to catch, and particularly with the way the movie’s title, Late Spring, seemed to tell us something, about the chilly weather, or the way we sometimes felt we had fallen behind other people our age in how we were living our lives. When we finally got home that night, she rushed through the
dimness of the undefined space and into the bedroom, where she quickly changed into a pair of long johns—that quaint old-fashioned red kind with buttons at the back. While she watched TV and talked with her grandmother by phone, her swollen feet propped on pillows, I tried to frame walls for two smaller bedrooms next to ours. As I worked, I listened in on the gossip—it was about the troubles of people Jane had some connection to, however
slight, in Southwest Virginia, where her grandmother still lived—but it’s hard to stay interested when you barely know who anyone is and can’t take much pleasure in their bad luck.
Despite the clatter of boards and ladder and tools (I didn’t know what I was doing, had never been handy in the least), Jane fell asleep once she’d hung up the phone, tiredness overwhelming her. That, and being so far along with our daughter. Soon I slipped in beside her and hoped to be overwhelmed, too. But, as often happened, I couldn’t fall asleep. I wanted to hear Jane talk about the day she’d had, or start an argument involving something really pointless, or have sex. I wanted to despite the certainty—never spoken about—that nothing real was going to happen between us until the house was right. As I lay there, I wondered if our daughter would be vulnerable or was already sick without our knowing because of what we’d put ourselves through to live in this hostel or that, in Dublin or Omagh or Kinsale. Like a lot of people from our generation, we’d had this idea that staying in America would mean wasting the one chance we had. It wasn’t that the country we’d been born in was lacking, but that we were: we just understood, from very early on, that we didn’t have it in us to really thrive in the States the way our parents had. All the ways of actually becoming what we dreamed of becoming were just too far beyond us. I know Jane felt the same; she may have felt it more strongly than I did. We stuck to that way of looking at things well into our thirties, and though it eventually wore thin, I’m not sure we ever recovered from it.
It was now full dark in the place we’d come back to. I moved away from Jane’s side with the exaggerated care people who have been beaten up in car accidents must take in trying not to cause themselves more pain. She might have fallen asleep easily on such nights, but the slightest thing, I understood, could’ve woken her. When I stepped out into the big room, I felt myself relax. I felt my mind clear. Entering that openness was like going outside, like walking into a field I couldn’t see the end of. Reaching into the dark, I found an edge of one of the half-finished walls, and ran my hands over it, trying to decide whether it needed more sanding. I felt around on the floor and picked up a small square of sandpaper and applied it gently to a spot where the plaster had split. But there was only so much I could do without waking Jane, and when I’d accepted that I wasn’t going to accomplish much, and to keep warm, I started walking: making a circuit that took me past the outer wall of our bedroom and then along the unused stove and dishwasher at the big room’s far end. Weak light from a streetlamp up the block let me see just enough to know where I was going.
Once, as I made my way past the kitchen window, I sensed some change—some decisive movement—in one of the houses that was more or less behind our own, not directly to the back but about four or five lots down, toward an elementary school that was no longer in use. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen, if anything, so I continued watching, and soon my eyes were drawn to one house in particular. Its windows weren’t covered by any shades or curtains at all. And the windows seemed both too large and too many. From one of our walks I remembered that someone had built the house recently (maybe just before we’d come to the neighborhood), stacking two squat boxes, then nailing up the cheapest vinyl siding. It wasn’t the kind of building that was constructed according to blueprints, and even I could tell the windows had been misjudged.
I stood with my hands resting on the counter edge and looked for a long time into the house. And what was not really strange—but what must have caught my attention in the first place—was that you could tell by the way lights were going on and off in there that someone was awake and moving around. So that a light in a corner of the basement would blink out, and then a few moments later, after about as long as it would take for a person to climb a flight of stairs, a light would go on in what I thought of as the kitchen. And then a long while after that, brightness burst from a window upstairs. And it did that so suddenly I shrank back into the darkness of the large room to avoid being seen, though there was little chance of that, given how dim the inside of my house was.
As I watched, I thought I saw the person who lived there—probably a woman, though I couldn’t be sure—walk into and out of a second-floor room. Then she was gone. This happened again twenty minutes later: the same figure, the same room. Every night that week I hoped she would stand near the window so I could see what she looked like, if her face was harsh or forgiving. I don’t remember imagining what it would have been like to sleep with her, though I must have.
About six months before we left Ireland, we had to sell our car. One day we wanted to get from Sligo, where we’d been staying in a rented cottage with another American couple, to a forested park near Roscommon, so we hitch-hiked down. In the park was a massive lake our friends said was like an inland sea, so large you couldn’t see across it, the water always gray and rough. On our walk from the park gates to the lake, we managed to acquire a dog: a brown- and black-flecked spaniel had trotted out of the woods and begun walking down the muddy road with us. We thought the dog was charming—Jane was smitten—and we said silly things to him and laughed with each other as we left the road and hiked across a long field. By the time we reached the lake, though, it was late and the skies were black with storm clouds. We seemed to be the only people there. The concession that rented boats had closed for the day, but we found a battered rowboat that hadn’t been locked down, dragged it to the water’s edge, and set out through the waves with the dog, which we were now calling “Fergus.” We wanted to explore a small island that wasn’t far from shore. Our Sligo friends, whom we’d met in a pub, had said there were castle ruins there, and that the castle had been built by people with the same last name as ours.
I didn’t have much luck fighting the swells with the oars but eventually we were able to beach the boat and go inside the ruin. All that remained of the castle was a collection of broken walls, though some were very high and had stonework at the top. Jane tilted back her head to look straight up a wall.
“Five hundred years ago your family lived here and did remarkable things,” she said.
“They picked a good place to hide,” I said. “I bet they really didn’t like it when mercenaries tried to get over the walls. I bet they slaughtered a hundred people right where we’re standing.”
“No one died here. I’m sure of that.”
We sat down and got drunk on whiskey I’d brought in my backpack. I think Jane killed a quarter of the bottle herself. Later we had a difficult time getting the dog secured so we could make love in the castle without him seeing. Still later Fergus curled up for the night in my sleeping bag and Jane and I shared hers. The rain fell at an angle and couldn’t get to us at the base of one of the higher walls, and we were warm and comfortable.
In the morning we understood that the boat had been nudged loose by waves and had floated away, and that, for the moment, we were stranded on the island.
“When the rental place opens, we can call for help,” I said.
I had my arm around Jane as we stood on the beach. Fergus was dashing to and from the water, barking and demanding that she throw a stick for him.
“Let’s not,” she said.
“I like it here, too,” I said.
“This is where I’ve always wanted us to be,” she said. “There’s no way I’m ever going back.”
But that was what we had to do.
On a Thursday evening of that cold March after our return to America, Jane decided we should take one of our walks. She’d heard at work that babies born to women who exercise have finer minds. We headed down the hill from our house and, as usual, went to cross Cottage Street, though at first the cars didn’t stop as we stood waiting by the neon-green crosswalk signs. It was colder than it had been a week ago. The dogwoods in the muddy yards were bare, and the wind began whipping hard and rattling the branches.
Once we’d reached a neighborhood called Stonewall Manor, Jane began walking so fast I couldn’t keep up. I hadn’t said a word, and maybe she’d forgotten I was there. I let her get a long way ahead of me. Looking up now and then, I would see her pass quickly through the light that sometimes shined from a house’s bay window and out onto the street.
At one point some other people passed Jane and then me. A young woman was returning from the Metro station (or so I guessed) with her father or grandfather, a powerfully built man wearing a white robe, the ends of the robe’s belt hanging almost to the ground. Our neighborhood was like that, with bohemian types like Jane and me living next
to families of immigrants from India or Egypt or El Salvador or other places, and with old women among us who had, long ago, been the first to buy the newly built houses together with their new husbands. I sensed that the young woman’s eyes were visible above the scarf she was wearing, but I knew it would be rude to look.
When the sidewalk tilted up, Jane finally slowed. I gained on her. As she waited to cross Cottage again, I came up from behind and pulled off one of her gloves and grasped her hand. She looked up and down the street, and I did, too. The cars were a river of light. When the break finally came, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t really safe. But we ran across, together, and leapt the curb as the headlights rippled along behind us.
“I missed you back there,” I said.
But all she said was: “Did you?”
When we reached our house, she didn’t stop. She walked past the driveway where her old Civic was parked and kept going.
“Let’s do the other loop once before bed,” she said.
Five minutes later we were walking up the heart of Cedar Street. Now I knew what was going to happen, and I started to sense something stronger than I’d gotten used to. The house I’d been looking into was now beside us, a bright light burning inside what had to be the living room. As we walked past I turned my head so I could find out who was in there: so that I could see the face of the woman whose house it was. Outside, the front-porch light was also on, and in that light I could see the pile of bricks in the driveway and the shine from water that had pooled on the tarp half-covering them. I could see a low dumpster that sat in the side yard, the house itself having hidden it before. Wood and trash had been heaped into the dumpster, and the grass around it was a foot high. I saw too that there was no siding on the front of the house, just that Tyvek stuff open to the weather. Maybe the money had run out, or there had been a divorce. Whatever had happened, no one lived there now. No one had lived there for a long time. The storm door was broken and hung open, and there was a padlock, a good one, fastened to the front door itself.
A car came up the street, throwing its headlights into our faces, forcing us to stop and shield our eyes with our hands. We must have looked defenseless. The car passed; the street was again empty. As we paused before beginning the walk home, I saw the way the timer being used by the house’s owner had made the light in the living room go out and another light go on upstairs, so that it looked like someone was home. It was a precaution a lot of people in our neighborhood took against the thieves we all know are out there.
A few years later, Jane and I thought about buying a nicer house in a better part of town. By that time, we had three children, all girls. We hadn’t expected America to become a kind of home for us, and, perhaps as a result of our pessimism about that, I wouldn’t say it ever did. After Jane’s grandmother passed away, there was really nothing keeping us in that part of the world. Prague beckoned, so we left again—this time for good. But even after all of that, Jane will still sometimes talk about how cold it was that spring. I think we’d always dreaded summer in Virginia, the way it seemed that nothing could stop the sun from burning things right to the core. But not that year. The longer spring took, the hungrier we felt for any change at all.
Jim McDermott lives with his family in Virginia. He is the author of a creative nonfiction book and is a recipient of the Bevel Summers Prize from Shenandoah.