The first thing he notices is the entire horizon of the Pacific in one long picture window. That it’s installed upside down.
Countless times he has been into strangers’ houses to measure, assess, and discuss their dreams with them. Always the sense of privilege, coupled with hesitant dread: I know what to do to your house; what might I see and have to forget? In the past, with no life of his own, such a spectacle could fascinate or annoy him.
The house is polished blonde wood, clean, remarkable for its incompletion, windows’ frames rough edges exposed without trim, doors off hinges, dog chew toys scattered, mild clutter. The exterior is an afterthought with its bizarre stone façade.
The owner, the wife, looks up at him, slow eyes searching, it seems, for something in his face. His look? He doesn’t think this at the time, or not completely, just later. At the time he notices her plain clothes: a baggy sweatshirt with a beer logo, beneath which . . . baggy jeans beneath which . . . There’s a resignation, or tiredness there.
He makes a series of calibrations, considerations, above and beyond the work he is here for. He can’t help himself.
He never steps in the same house twice. Unmade beds, clothing flung tornado-like about rooms, closets stacked high impeding access, could seem briefly like the last gasp of a civilization gone wanting. Often there are children. Like precocious boundary-less dogs, children stunned in front of billboard sized televisions (“Shouldn’t they be in school now?” he would think) unwieldy toys underfoot, cooking grease suspended in the air to indelibly permeate clothes later. Fucking clutter. Then there were meddling clients, as bad as dogs. He’d want to say, “Can’t you see I’m working here?” or, “The sooner you leave me alone, the sooner I’ll be gone.”
There was something about her eyes, her chin. A look at him. He couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining it. But then he caught it again. He felt, or feels, in those times, like Raskolnikov–he always feels like Raskolnikov, or the underground man–though he’s done nothing wrong, just thinks it, sometimes. Frequently?
Pets are usually the unknown. Cats, with the urine tinged trails of misery, their hair drifts like continental storms to his sensitive sinuses. He usually preempts this with a precautionary dose of antihistamine. Dogs, too, can be trouble, and are frequently nosy, insistent, sticking their wet noses to his hand and trailing him like stalkers. Or leaning against him too familiarly. Others could be so aggressive they’d be forcibly locked by their owners into distant rooms. He wasn’t confident the door would hold. Shrouded in dark cages those mindless eyes were his unease, a growling soundtrack in a room he’d hastily sketch, measure and leave. There were on occasion birds with an eerily familiar hello! The client warned him ahead of time. “Don’t look into their eyes.” And once, a baby crocodile thrashing in a bathtub, its long tapered mouth bound with black tape.
Returning to look out the upside down window, the horizon arcs with a nimbus of misty white, blaring up into clear blue and fire where the sun rams like a poker obliterating the visible. The sun drills its presence, it’s there. Yet it’s so far way and so unfathomable, a perfect paradox: what provides so much comfort, is at once monstrous, incomprehensible, and will one day be the end of the planet. These thoughts can get him into trouble in polite company. At the moment, the thought casts an uncanny beauty on an unusually cold day.
The warmth of the room, he notices, is too much–he’s wearing five layers for the cold. “We love this room because it’s always so warm here,” she says, standing behind him. He thought she’d say “because of the view,” which he then remarks on, editing himself to avoid criticism. “All these houses are . . . similar in size.” He would have said small, or worse, compact. Almost tract housing, he thinks. It carpets the furling hills and stacks like dominoes in undulate pastel gingerbread. The one solace a high vista, Mediterranean in suggestion, the same one that decks windows in Moorish mullions and vestigial bay canopies in Spanish clay tile. The city is hidden behind a hill to the north.
In that abstracted way of having someone working in the same room, he is self-consciously aware of her, and suspects in her way, she is too, of him. Even more so. Her hands play a rhythmic snap of keys at fast typing. Every few seconds the computer gives off a bell or a whistle like a deranged child’s toy. When it’s not the calliope of her network connection, the phone makes a tinkle of messages. It will come to him later that she kept herself busy with this, that it might not merely be him as it was a distracted mind, where everything elicited her eyes wide as if caught by long high beams.
She reminds him of how he is drawn to a woman, and that it’s not about perfection. He almost always takes this for granted. So much about her would rule out his knowledge about himself for whom he’s attracted to. And in the moment he comes to realize what is happening. In another time he might have made a bold gesture. This is the kind of thing one brags about, or did when he was younger. He might have told one of his friends. Now, he reminds himself, it’s not so much a marriage that is sacred as it is, who really needs the complication? Besides, he’s there to do work, he basks in whatever it is–the sunlight in the cold, the dog that both is at ease with him and yet dubious in a dog doubting way.
The dog’s insistence. The imploring way with those black eyes. He’d think them unexpressive, until he spies the dog across the floor, floppy green bone hanging out of the side of its mouth; the look, uncontestable: play with me? This after he’d fooled him with his hood and glasses, had the dog eye level going up to the stair landing and, in its guttural growl, he thought, “That dog would just as soon rip my face off.”
“Dogs bark at people in hats,” she says. “The other day we were in the park and I wore a hat and all the dogs barked at me.”
Now, if amends could be made, surely the proffered chew toy was the dog’s version of the venerable olive branch.
She responds to his questions about their desired house’s layout, precise plans for the stair’s placement. The husband’s an aspiring contractor. The windows, prefaced with, “My husband . . . installed them wrong.” He asks if they have any kids. This seems to provide a distant light, a source of warmth at once possible to feel, and yet somehow as distant as an unreachable planet whose sun seems remarkably bright in the early evening. The house, the site of wreckage, measure, has secrets held like cupped winter flies in a child’s careful hands. She looks at him in this way at least three, maybe four times, but he’ll try to forget it as soon as he’s out the door.
Robert Detman is the author of the novel IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS (Figureground Press, 2014). THE SURVIVOR’S GUIDE, short stories, was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. His writing has appeared in the Antioch Review, Akashic Books Thursdaze, Word Riot, Spork Press, Decomp, and various other literary journals.