The House Hunters

I sat surveying the yard from the glider swing on the back porch. We had paid too much for the swing, but we figured it was worth it. What good was a porch without a swing? we thought.

"Scott!" Holly called from inside the house.

When I answered her, she said, "Where are you?"

"Out here." Beyond the chain link fence at the back of the property was an inexplicably vacant lot, a plot of land gone wild in the middle of our neighborhood in Crystal Springs. The husk of a dead tree towered above the tall grass.

"What are you doing?" Holly asked as came outside.

"Sitting," I said.

"You've been out here for hours."

"I can't help it," I said. "I can't stand to be inside. I can't breathe in there."

She came down the steps and sat next to me on the swing. "Well . . . we bought it," she said.

"The walls are closing in on me. I don't like the town." Unwilling to look at her, I focused on the dead tree.

Holly gave my knee a reassurance pat. "Maybe this is normal. Maybe this is what everybody who buys a house goes through. Like post-partem depression or something," she said as she continued patting.

"Maybe," I said. It certainly didn't seem logical, with so many opportunities for divine intervention, that God or Fate would have allowed us to make it through the whole mortgage process if we were making the wrong decision.

- - -

The raccoon stood on its hind legs on our small porch, its front paws latched onto the screen. Holly had screamed when she saw it, causing it to fling itself at the screen door threateningly. When the screen didn' t give, thank God, it began tearing at it with its little claws. Now it waited.

"Close the goddamn door, Holly," I said from behind her. Clad only in red boxers, I held a white T-shirt, and my hair was still wet from the shower

"Don't yell at me," she said without closing it. "I've got to leave for work."

I pulled the T-shirt over my head, then stepped around her and slammed the door. The scratching started again; I guess having the door closed in its face pissed the little bastard off. Holly and I stood in the small living room staring at each other.

"Just use the back door. Run through the garage to your car. It's not fucking Cujo."

"I'm not going outside while that thing is out there. . . . You don't have to yell at me like that," she said and crossed her arms. She wore a baby blue sweater set. Her big book satchel laid on the floor with files and papers spilling out of it. She looked perfect for her role as the elementary teacher all the little boys have a crush on, sweet and pretty, but now she was scared.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I think something's wrong with it."

"What do you mean?" I asked. She often had these weird nuggets of information, factoids she picked up as she tried to educate Catholic third graders.

"It should have run off when you slammed the door. It should have run off when I screamed. I think it might be rabid." She glanced at her watch, then stared at me silently, waiting for me to come up with a plan. The snuffling and scratching outside continued.

"Well, what are you going to do?" she finally said.

"I guess I'll have to shoot it."

Holly looked worried, but didn' t try to stop me. I hurried into our bedroom and found some khaki cargo pants. I struggled to put them on quickly and hung my foot up. When I lost my balance, my head cracked into the chest of drawers. Red sparks of pain blotted out my vision and I staggered around the bedroom, both hands clasped to my forehead. When I could see again, Holly was standing in the hallway trying not to laugh.

I ignored her and pulled up my pants, slipped into some shoes, then headed for the junk closet in the guest room. Stacks of books and games (board and video) teetered inside. My old Sega, a rectangle of black plastic, sat atop one of the shorter towers, a tangle of wires streaming out of it like feelers. I had recently upgraded to Playstation, and this confrontation with evidence of my own Peter Pan issues made me feel completely inadequate to deal with this situation. My dad could handle a rabid animal threatening his home and family.

The shotgun, a single shot .410 with a chipped black stock, almost forgotten since the move, stood propped in the back left corner of the closet.

I grabbed the black gun and began looking for the shells. I had kept them in the gray box they came in, could see it in my mind, but it wasn't in the closet. Not buried under the books I had overturned, not on the top shelf.

"Where are the shells?" I called.

"What?" from the living room.

"The shells! The fucking shotgun shells!" I answered.

"I think they're in the dressing table," she shouted.

I ran back into the bedroom and banged the gun against the doorframe on the way. The drawers of the little piece of furniture, an art deco thing we had inherited from my grandmother, had become Holly's favorite hidey-hole. They were full of pictures and outdated phone books and junk that she didn't have the heart to throw away. I finally found the shells in the last drawer, the one I had asked her not to use until I fixed the handle.

I took a shell out of the box and used the small lever just under the hammer to open the breech. The barrel swung down and I slid one of the red shells in. It closed with a satisfying click, but the gun seemed much smaller than it had the last time I had fired it, fifteen or twenty years before.

On the short walk back to the living room, I carried the gun in my right hand, the muzzle pointed at the ground. I tried desperately to remember all of the advice my father had given me prior to our squirrel hunting trip when I was eleven, but I drew a complete blank. I knew only that I wasn't supposed to point it at Holly.

As I entered the room, I yelled, "Move!" as if the gun could go off without warning like a hand grenade. Holly ran down to the dining area and into the kitchen.

I took a deep breath and listened. Still scratching. I cocked the hammer back and opened the door with my left hand. On the other side of the screen, the raccoon spread its little arms wide and hissed like a cat. It didn' t look healthy, I noticed as I aimed. Dirty with flecks of foam at the corners of its black mouth. Brown fur patchy, missing chunks. I aimed for its chest and pulled the trigger.

The blast blew the raccoon off the porch, and he landed on the sidewalk, legs twitching. I just stood and stared. Smoke drifted out of the muzzle of the gun and filled the room with the odor of cordite. "Goddamn that was loud," I said under my breath, amazed that the pictures were still on the wall, that the big mirror hadn't shattered. The raccoon continued his kicking.

I dropped the gun on the green area rug we had gotten at Hudson's and hurried to our narrow kitchen. Holly stood next to the counter with her hands still over her ears.

"Scott?" she said. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"Nothing," I said as I pushed past her to the back door.

"Is he dead?" she asked, but I slammed the door behind me and dashed into the garage.

I grabbed the rusty shovel that had come with the house and carried it to the front yard. The raccoon lay gasping on the sidewalk. I didn't want to get close enough to him for him to scratch me, so I held the shovel at the end of its handle. I raised it up high in the air and brought the blade down on the raccoon' s head. It hit with a hollow, melon-squashing sound, and batting cage vibrations stung my hands. I repeated the process four or five times to make sure he was dead. Brains and blood spattered the sidewalk.

As I stood over the raccoon, shovel in hand, legs braced, daring him to try again, Holly said, "Well, that was scary." She stood behind the screen door which now had a hole in it from the shotgun blast. Her book satchel was back on her shoulder and she held her keys in her other hand.

"Don't worry," I said, still breathing hard from the excitement. "It's dead."

"I'm not talking about the raccoon, I'm talking about you. You looked like some kind of caveman. Those monkeys in 2001," she said and jingled the big silver ring of keys. "I almost felt sorry for it."

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at her, anxious to erase the Neanderthal impression I had made. I leaned on the shovel and said, "If I knew a taxidermist, we could make you a hat."

"I've got to call the school and tell them I'm going to be late," she said and disappeared into the house. I took the shovel and scooped up the raccoon, heavier than it looked. I wondered briefly if I should burn it or something, but I carried it to the extra garbage can and dropped it in. I put the top on quickly without looking at how he landed, then dragged the can out to the street.

Holly backed down the driveway in her battered Civic and stopped beside me. She rolled down her window and said, "Are you going to clean up all that mess?" pointing to the sidewalk.

"I'll hose it off when I get home. I've got to get going, too."

I could tell she didn't like this plan, but she didn't object.

"I hate this fucking place," she said and drove away.

- - -

The house plan had originated with Holly, but I didn't need much convincing. "It's time," she had said to me before we went to sleep one night in our apartment in Jackson. "We've been married four years. We both have steady jobs. It's time we bought a house." And a week later we were looking. We spent weekends driving all over town, feeling each other out about what we liked and didn't. We couldn't afford anything in Jackson, but to the south lay Crystal Springs -- backward and redneck, but cheap. Funny to us in a Mayberry-ish way. And with the prices so low, we told each other, we're bound to make money when we move.

We closed four months ago and began to find out how wrong, how unready we were. The dearth of restaurants we knew about, and the lone grocery store, a Piggly-Wiggly (though we didn't know how dirty it would be, and we couldn' t have known that all of the shoppers would look like carnies). Still, we were more or less prepared for all of that. We weren't, however, prepared for our neighbors.

All of them were retired. They watched us from their porches when we were home, but they never talked to us, never waved. At five every morning, they gathered in the street. They wore bathrobes and pajamas and carried steaming coffee cups and talked to each other in loud, hearing-aid voices that woke Holly and me up.

The only one who was friendly at all was Mr. Bullock, who lived in the house on the corner perpendicular to ours. He had a lawnmower graveyard in his backyard, right behind our porch. Every time we came out the door, we were confronted with the view of eight or nine rusting lawnmowers, riding and push, in various states of disrepair. Mr. Bullock mowed yards for a living, the realtor had told us. Mowed yards and drank.

When we voiced our concern about the decaying mowers, our real estate agent had hinted broadly that Mr. Bullock probably wouldn't live much longer. Around the time we closed on the house, he was in the middle of a shocking run of bad luck. His wife had died recently, and the day after the funeral, a bolt of lightning had hit a tree in his front yard and zapped his pacemaker. He was in the hospital the entire first month we lived here. The week he got out, his car was stolen from his driveway. Still, he stubbornly refused to die.

Of course, in Mr. Bullock's opinion as a "professional" yardman, I couldn't do anything outside to please him. The old woman who lived here before us had decided, when her health would no longer allow her to prune and rake, that she would cut down everything she couldn' t take care of. She cleared the yard, front and back, of every tree and bush. With no vegetable competition, our grass grew as lush and green as a baseball outfield. When I mowed, it seemed to push back against the mower.

Last weekend Mr. Bullock stood at the chain link fence we shared, a cup of something in his hand, a Doral hanging from his bottom lip. He watched as I struggled with my push mower. He often offered advice ("Keep your blade sharp"; "Trim the ditch lower."), and I smiled politely and said yessir. Saturday, I tried to ignore him, but he finally caught my attention, waved me over. I left the mower running to keep the conversation short.

"It wouldn't be so hard if you cut it more often," he said, his rough voice barely audible over the engine noise. The engine completely drowned out the weird clicks and whirs that seemed to come from the long vertical scar in his throat. For a while, I thought he had some kind of voice box implant, but I talked to a doctor friend and he said there was no such thing. I don't know what made those noises, but clockwork punctuated his speech.

"It's only been a week," I said. I took off my cap and wiped my hand across my forehead.

"You need to cut that ditch lower," he said, indicating the small gully that ran down the north side of our property.

"I've been weed-eating it," I said. He reached up to take the cigarette out of his mouth and coughed twice.

"You need to cut it down to the --" he began coughing again, this time much harder. His hand clutched the top of the fence as he hacked.

I could see that something was wrong, but I didn't know how to offer help.

In a strangled voice, Mr. Bullock said quickly, "You need to cut it down to the dirt." He covered his mouth with his hand and coughed hard. From the bottom of the scar in his throat, a thin white stream of sputum leaked, running down his neck to the collar of his dirty white T-shirt.

"Oh God," I said.

Mr. Bullock dropped his cigarette and reached up to plug the hole. "Excuse me," he said and hurried across his backyard toward his house, coughing all the way.

I went back to mowing, sorry to have seen that, sorry to have embarrassed him. As I made my turns around the yard, I retched occasionally whenever the scene replayed itself in my mind.

- - -

At night, Holly and I sometimes took walks around the neighborhood. Stray dogs slinked around the town in the twilight, skulking from yard to yard in packs. Our neighbors parked pickup trucks and Camaros on their lawns. Through the windows of their houses we could see big framed prints of magnolias, country wood wall fixtures, deer heads mounted above TVs and couches.

- - -

The raccoon story went over well at work; the brown coon blood dotting my pants at the shin served as evidence, proved that my unlikely excuse for being late was true. I hadn't been on time much since we moved and was expecting to be called onto the carpet about it. I couldn't adjust to the length of the drive from Crystal Springs to downtown Jackson, forty solid minutes in the morning when I had been used to five.

The story also bought me an afternoon off since I would need to leave early to have time to pick out a new storm door at Home Depot, take it home, and install it. My supervisor let me leave at two.

The parking lot of Home Depot was crowded with trucks of various sizes. Dirty men in T-shirts and gimme caps wandered the aisles of the store, pushing carts full of lumber or plumbing or paint. Occasionally an orange-aproned employee would hustle by. They walked quickly and looked at the floor, the way Michael Corleone was instructed to in The Godfather, anxious to avoid contact with actual customers.

Fortunately I didn't need any help. Holly and I had repainted the living room, the master bedroom, and installed a shower in the bath, and I had become all too familiar with the geography of Home Depot. The wood and chemical odor that filled the large warehouse made me feel a little ill at this point, and I wondered what kind of hit our checking account would take as I found my way to the door aisle.

I browsed through the large collection of storm and screen doors and finally settled on a plain one, a frame of white-painted metal encasing one large pane of Plexiglas. Raccoon-proof. I worried about the brass handle, but the stainless steel handle was more expensive. It didn't occur to me until I began looking for whoever was in charge of the door section that there was no way in hell I could fit a screen door in a box into my car. I would have to wait until the weekend when I could borrow Holly's dad's truck.

I walked around Home Depot, shopping for light fixtures, examining cabinets, and I bought some white plastic switch plates to replace some more of the brown ones that were original to the house.

- - -

I had been looking forward to seeing Holly when I got home, but a message from her told me that she had a faculty meeting and would be late. I cleaned up the coon mess as best I could, though most of the blood and stuff had congealed on the sidewalk and looked as if it would leave a stain.

Afterwards, to avoid spending time in the empty, awful house, I went to the local hardware store to check out their door collection, but didn' t find one I wanted. Still no Holly when I returned but another message from her asked me where I was and told me that she was stuck in traffic and not to worry. I prowled around the house turning on lights -- kitchen, den, bathroom, bedroom. I catalogued what needed work and admired the work I had done, particularly the bedroom, the last room I had painted. I told myself it wasn't bad, that I should be happy and proud. That it was a "cute house," as Holly sometimes said, but I didn't believe it, and I kept hearing her voice from the morning: "I hate this place."

In the living room, I found the gun on the rug and picked it up. The hot barrel had burnt the area beneath it, leaving a brown diagonal line pointing toward the couch. This unanticipated, incidental damage pushed me over the edge. I had done the best I could, I wanted to tell a referee, someone. I had played by the rules and handled the problem. Why should I, we, be punished? I asked as I paced down the short hall into our bedroom.

When I painted the living room right after we moved in, there was an odd screw in the wall. I tried to unscrew it, but it didn' t come out, so I pulled it out with a claw hammer, and with the screw came a big chunk of the wall. I felt the same way then, as if I were being punished for doing my level-best, and though I had filled the hole with spackle, I could still see the rough patch, a kind of bulge on the wall.

I clicked the lever to open the barrel of the gun to take out the spent shell from the morning. I could see myself pulling it out with my fingernails, carrying the red, powder-burned tube of plastic into the kitchen to throw away, but when I opened it, the gun ejected the shell automatically, a part of the action, apparently. The cartridge bounced at my feet and rolled across the hardwood floor. The gun inviting me to reload.

I opened the drawer to the dressing table and took a handful of shells out of the box inside. I loaded one and put the rest in my pocket and carried the gun back to the living room.

"This is what you deserve," I said to the rough patch on the wall. I lifted the gun and fired. The blast didn' t shock me this time, gave me a feeling of pride, in fact. I had created it, after all, and there was a kind of beauty in the woody blondness of the newly exposed wall stud, the bright white of the shattered sheetrock.

After the initial blast, I went through the house, systematically settling scores.

The living room ceiling which I had painted with oil-based paint before we moved in, before I knew any better -- I shoved another shell in and blasted it -- payback for the white eyebrow I sported for two weeks. The shower of dust and pink insulation that burned my eyes brought back that squirrel hunting trip with my dad when I had shot into a nest. My father still told the story, how I had looked at him, eyes wide, and said, "Did I do that?" as the debris rained down around us.

I took several shots at the teal and cream striped couch we still owed a hundred bucks on even though it looked like shit now. From there I went to the wooden yard sale filing cabinet with a drawer that wouldn't open. "I guess I'll put my papers through this fucking hole," I told it and reloaded.

By the time she came home, I had visited every room and sat in the recliner drinking a beer, the gun across my lap, its barrel warm on my legs.

When she came in the door, she said, "You would not believe the day I had." Then she noticed the holes in the walls and ceiling and the mangled couch. "What have you done?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer.

Holly walked through the house, cataloguing the damage, the freckles of shot, the yellow, exposed wood. I followed her, and when we reached the guest bedroom, her shoulders began to shake. Ashamed, I rushed to her and pulled her to me tightly with my left arm. In my right, I held the .410, its stock balanced on my forearm, its muzzle pointed casually at the floor, like John Wayne. Before I could tell her I was sorry, a loud peal of laughter escaped from her. As we held each other I began to laugh, too.

"We have to get out of here," I finally said. "We have to sell this place."

"We'll lose money," she said, her breath warm on my neck.

"I don't care," I said. "This isn't what we wanted."

She pulled away and looked at me quizzically.

"Or maybe we thought we did, but this isn't it," I said.

"I know," Holly said and let go of me. She looked around the room at the bed her grandfather had refinished for us, the chest of drawers she had had since she was a little girl. She walked over to the battered chest and ran her fingers across the top, feeling the imperfections in the finish, the drink rings left over from her childhood.

She turned to me and said, "We can't keep doing this."

"I know."

"We have to settle down and be adults at some point."

I nodded and looked at the floor, the shotgun heavy on my arm.

She walked over to me and put both of her hands on my shoulders, forced me to look her in the eye. "We have to do better next time," she said.

"We will," I assured her.

She smiled and said, "Let me see the gun."

"Be careful," I said. "The barrel gets hot," and handed it to her. She raised and aimed it, her left eye squinched shut tight, the way she had seen in movies.

"Like this?" she asked.

I showed her how to open the breech and when it discharged the last shell I had fired, she jumped. I said, "Isn't that cool?" and handed her a new one to load.

She raised the gun again and pointed it at the heavy chest of drawers.

"I thought you liked that," I said.

"No, I never liked that thing," she said, surprised.

"It's going to kick a little. It'll probably leave a bruise," I told her.

Holly nodded slightly and tightened her grip on the gun. Then she pulled the trigger.

About the author:

Andy Kelly's fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review and the Oklahoma Review. He is currently pursuing his PhD at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is also the assistant editor at the Mississippi Review.