The House that Jack Laid

This is for Alli, who also loves sad and beautiful things.

(This short story is a homage to one of her favourite books. If you know which book it’s homaging and would like to discuss it with me, please use rot13. Bit pretentious I know, but I want people to work it out for themselves!)

The logo was all over the house; the imprint, the embossed letters, the straight Deco lines that initialled something long forgotten covered the building like a smothering brand of ownership.  I’d travelled through every room that summer, keeping a tally of all the initials I could find.  Hidden in the lines of the light switches, embedded in the elegant patterns of the parquet floor, the distinct stamp could still be seen in the overgrown flowerbeds, and it flowed between the patio tiles that led towards the outside pool and out towards the private beach.  There had been a pier once, ready for some magnificent yacht to waltz by this house, this magnificent house, but it had collapsed into Peconic Bay years ago.  The lapping waves, which seemed so peaceful as they stroked the beach throughout the day and night, had devoured – no, cannibalised – the pier piece by piece until all that remained was an iron pole, red with rust, that I could see eye to eye with.

Nate and I were young, intelligent, and had absolutely no drive towards anything much in life.  I had gone to college with the hope that I would know what my life was supposed to be; I would gain an achievement in ‘life’ and I would become what I thought to be a proper grown-up.  What I had achieved was becoming several years older, several thousand dollars in debt, and the attentions of a boyfriend as equally uninterested in what life had presented with us so far.  There seemed that there was nothing that we could do, and nothing that we wanted to do.  I had left home to be educated, but I had only left with an education.

I can’t remember whose idea it was to buy the house.  A surfeit of television had implanted the idea in our heads.  It was simple enough, really.  The housing market was up, up, up, and it was only sensible to hitch a ride as it would continually rise.  Between the two of us, we could afford a dilapidated house.  We would live in it, fix it up, and sell it on for a comfortable profit.  It was easy enough; I’d seen a hundred families do the very same thing as I puzzled over essays and the intricacies of author intent.  It was the sort of thing two people could do as a year project, when they tried to make an adult life that may or may not have included each other.

I suppose I may have had the idea, as it was Nate that found the house.  A dilapidated mansion, long abandoned, in a small town on the Peconic Bay of Long Island, being sold for a pittance.  The realtor company had experienced no luck in trying to shift it, and had long given up trying.  It had been abandoned, the fate of it left to a public auction.  Nate had found it, somewhere, somehow, and declared it to be entirely perfect to our needs.  I was dubious at first, to say the least.  I argued that we should start with something smaller, something more manageable for two people with no experience in renovating houses.  That was before I visited the place.

The mansion had been transposed from a fairy tale to sit in comparatively dull surroundings, a shining palace of 1920s exuberance and high fashion, isolated between vivid green trees and the prolonged decay of old money.  The town it was built in had once been the historic rival of The Hamptons, that playground of the wealthy and the ambitious.  The Hamptons had survived, leaving the rival to rot.  The wealthy had proved to be flighty, and Nate and I had driven through the sad collection of houses which had been turned to other uses.  That one there was a rather miserable looking hotel.  That one over there catered to the needs of the elderly.  A few were still homes, but they were slowly sinking away just as much as the mansion we had bought.  The area was too old.  It needed the impetus of youth to prevent it from simply detaching from land and drifting out to sea.

I love the mansion as soon as I saw it.  I have a weakness for the plight of sad, lonely creatures, and this building was the saddest and loneliest creature I had ever seen.  I explored it slowly, while Nate followed me, rattling off what little he knew of the history.  It had been built around the turn of the century, he said, but it had been bought out by one of the many self-made millionaires of the 1920s.  He’d transformed it into an Art Deco wonderland for his own amusement, but had been murdered on the property.  The house had fallen into disrepair, occasionally falling into the hands of owners who wanted to do something with it.  A family home for an oil millionaire.  A building of holiday apartments for the elite of New York City.  A fancy period style hotel.  Using it for some kind of boating club.  One by one, the shadows and the silence of the place had eaten up their dreams, and they would sell it on.  Now it would be ours, and it would gobble up our hopes too if we were not careful.

Perhaps the house had resisted attempts to lose the period features that made it, in my eyes, to be beautiful in its decay.  The place was remarkably intact, having avoided the trends of the 50s and 60s to rip out and start anew.  Key period features – a must for selling on a place like this at a profit.  Not much had been changed in the eighty odd years since someone had last loved this house, and left his initials as a mark of what he had done.  There was even a collection of ‘modern’ cooking equipment in the kitchen, the steel dull and speckled with age.  Machines for functions that I would never think of nor need; who would need a device for juicing oranges, when it was the grocery store had everything you needed, from fruits to vegetables to bicycles and washing machines.  Art Deco symbolised man’s faith in technology, and this house had been an altar for it.

“What do you think?”  Nate’s voice echoed across what had once been, to what I could tell, some glitzy ballroom.  I walked around the centre of the room lazily, staring up at the ceiling.  There had once been some grand chandelier, no doubt, and the entire wall staring out across the bay had been once been a solid wall of shining glass.  All that had long since gone, leaving only an impression of what had been.

“I love it,” I said back, my voice rolling around the room.  “You knew I would love it.  I never want to leave here.  I want to live in this house forever, to brick up the doors, and to be stuck here until it all crumbles around me.”

Nate had frowned at that.  “We’re just here for a year.  Don’t get too attached.  If we clean it up, put in a few fixtures and fittings, we ought to get enough of a profit to buy an apartment in New York.  We’ll have our own place, and some money in the bank, maybe enough for another project.  I’ve seen people do that, on TV – start a whole business renovating houses, just from buying one by chance.  That could be us.”  That was Nate, cynicism, hope, and a distinct laziness, all mixed in together.  We were both lazy in our ambitions.  Life had always presented us with whatever it was that we needed and it would not fail us now.  There would be something to support us on our journey towards our eventual desired goal.

The loan was simply got, the house duly bid for.  I was now a joint custodian of a house simply no one could ever want.  I never wanted to see the place unfold its secrets and begin the slow process of recovery, and yet I equally yearned to see it shiny and new and beautiful to the rest of the world, not just me.  I was listless about the whole business of it all, seeing myself as an isolated piece of driftwood, floating out towards sea with no control over what I could do.  With no rudder, I was aimless in the water.  I had to rely on Nate for direction, at least until I found a current of my own.

The ephemera of our tiny campus flat were packed into cardboard boxes and unceremoniously dumped into that once grand ballroom.  There was nowhere else for our things, but equally, there was nowhere in that great house for anything to go.  Our presence was only temporary, a blink of a light in the history of the building before we would depart through the rusted gates like everyone else.  The only room that had any power left was a downstairs drawing room, and this was the only place which we touched to live.  The rickety old bed, that had been positively bohemian in the cosy apartment we had shared, was now stranded in the middle of the remains of what might have been used as an elegantly furnished office; the old telephone still remained, as if valiantly waiting for one last call.  The wind would whip through the room, sneaking in under the door to cause mischief, and Nate and I would shiver and shudder under a quivering pile of blankets and covers.  I often went to sleep in whatever I had been wearing, filling the sheets with speckles of plaster and the skeletons of leaves.  Food was prepared on a battered camping stove, mostly canned macaroni and cheese, or anything that could be spread on crackers.  The chemical toilet was emptied once a week, and the shower was a hose suspended above a tarp.  This was independence.  This was living the dream.

There was enough power left in the rusted generator to be able to run the box that started this whole madness.  I could not bear the menacing silences that flowed throughout the desiccated and empty multitudes of rooms, and so that box, that idiot box, flickered and filled us with its electric dreams.  The infinitively hopeful nature of the gaggles of smiling happy people nourished Nate and I; we surely could not fail when so many people believed in us and told us that our achievement was practically a certainty on a scientific level.

The television was my sole respite from the gruelling labours of the day, both the physical work of cleaning and decorating, and the emotional demands of keeping the two of us happy.  It was my only link to the world beyond the confines of the grounds, over the slow creak of the once-gaudy gates which hung low and drifting on loose hinges, to real people and real life.  Everything from beyond Peconic Bay seemed to happen as if in a dream – it just could not seem real to me, as I were a child who believes that things disappear and cease to be when I could not see them any longer.  The television was a thankful reminder of lives lived outside this place, away from the ever-present and ever-judging marks of the man who had lavished attention on this decrepit mansion some eighty years ago.  That was another use for the TV; it filled in the gaps between Nate and I where the brooding presence of the other was slowly inserting itself.

As I have said, the initials of the man who had made himself a pleasure palace worthy of a prince were to be found all over the house like a rash.  I would be scrubbing out an old bathtub, and the familiar entwined letters would stare up at me from the tarnished drain.  They were boldly emblazoned on the tiles of the outside swimming pool, dutifully cleansed of skeletal leaves and bony corpses of unfortunate animals, assessing me while I panicked over a cracked tile.  And above the bed that we shared – no, right above my head, where I had to look at it when I fell to sleep or woke in the morning – those damn initials were, painted with a gilt that continued to catch the dying light of the sun long into the night.  What sort of a person felt so insecure in their need to proclaim their own identity to themselves?  In the name of God, who puts their initials on their taps?

While Nate and I were capable of doing a majority of the work ourselves, there were problems only professionals were capable of dealing with.  I knew nothing of the delicate art of plumbing and had no desire to cause myself any damage by bothering to touch the electrics.  It would all cost extra than normal, of course, as the place was so old and so large.  Nate was eager to keep those valuable original features, fixtures, and fittings, wanted by so many and kept in such a superb state of preservation here.

“They’re all forgotten leftovers from 1922 – you know how they’re always saying how much money people will pay extra for a kind of prestige like that.  Art Deco bath taps don’t rain down from the sky,” he said, as we sat down to canned tomatoes on cold bread and a rerun of a decorating show.

“We didn’t plan for this in the budget.  Do you really think it’s worth the extra cost?” I asked, feeling the accusations burn into my skin from the marks of ownership spread about the room.  I could feel their presence as keenly as I might feel Nate’s.

“I’ll just apply for another loan.  The bank’s supported us this far, I can’t see them turning us down now.  It’s an investment, with at least a 20% return,” and that was that.  We would use the inexhaustible waters of credit that flowed from banks across the world and existed to fund this sort of mad venture.  The money would be paid back when we had it, no sooner, no later.  It was like our student debts; to get anywhere, a person had to spend more money than they had, how else would anything get done?

How very stupid we all were.  How very dumb we all were, to get collectively brainwashed by that small group of men that form high finance, to forget the most fundamental of all truths; what goes up, shall always come plummeting down.  The greedy dragon had awakened, his love of gold demanding the return of his stolen gold.

When the news of this crash, the collapse of everything, was screamed out by the ever-present television, I had been polishing the wood in my favourite room, an airy bedroom that overlooked the waters of the bay, the view stretching out to the elegant mansions on the other side.  The wide windows looked out onto the sky, and I would be filled with this urge to stretch out my arms, and be cradled by the wind out of the window and far above the bay below.  I was stood, my arms out wide to feel the pull of the wind on my limbs, eyes shut tight…

“We’re ruined,”  Nate said close by my left ear.  “It’s all over the news.  The stocks – mortgages – it’s all – there’s no money left.  They’re going to take the house.  We’re going to be bankrupted.  We’ll be kicked out in the next few days.  There’s nothing we can do.  We owe too much, and there’s no way we can pay any of it back.  No one will want to pay anything for this old place now…”

I opened my eyes and the light struck my eyes, blinding me.  I would have to leave this place, abandon everything, move back home and get a crummy job.  I could see nothing past the image of the two of us, two pale figures, side by side in pain and silence.  But as my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see over the sunlight-tipped waters, whipped into a gentle frenzy by the wind that sucked and pulled me towards the balcony window.  I could see those mansions across the bay, and they filled me with a warmth of hope.  The culture and society which I had been brought up in had been so transitory, so passive in acceding to my demands, and so fleeting, that I could simply fly out of here and make a new life for myself.  There was nothing that forcibly held me down here, not anymore.  I was in debt now, yes, but some day this would all be like a bad nightmare, something that filled me with terror in the morning but would disappear from my memory by the afternoon.  I had been looking for a purpose, for a means to pass me over to my next stage of life, and this was it.  Nate had forced me to search for the self-made American dream; now, I was free to dream from myself, away from this madness.  I did not have to play the part in the dream that TV had told me I should play.

I quietly packed up my belongings, while Nate was glued to the flashing screen of the box, unaware of me slowly leaving the ship.  As I left, and the last remnants of summer’s heat hit my body, I idly wondered if I would ever come back to this place.  I was another owner leaving under a cloud, another hit by the curse that haunted this place.  My eyes caught that cracked tile in the swimming pool and I shuddered, thinking of when the house was new and brimming with life, how it would have been then.  I would have been the same person – a girl of moderate means stood on a teetering ledge that was overlooking a sudden crushing drop.  To get away entire, I would have to turn around and find a new course for myself.

This was all temporary.  Tomorrow would last forever.


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