by Pauline Mortensen
When Martin Blumenthal awoke that morning, he rolled over on his back and discovered that he had a stiff neck which seemed to cap the chill along his spine. He lay there looking at the picture above the foot of his bed. In it was a lamb shivering in the snow and an English sheep dog howling into the night storm. It made his neck hurt. He lifted himself to a sitting position and let his feet fall over the side, his toes just brushing the floor. He was wearing his long night-shirt that Ruth always said was too warm for summer. So, if she was right, how did she explain the cold down his back? She’d probably been fooling with the air conditioning again. Martin tested his legs on the hardwood floor and hobbled off to the bathroom. When he came back, he sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the bottom of his nightshirt around him. He sat there trying to remember; when he woke up in the mornings it always seemed like he had just forgotten something. Every day forgetting. Where would it end? He clawed the shirt up his back and pulled it over his head. He finished dressing—his smooth tan pants his wife always ironed with a crease, and an olive-green shirt. He brushed his stringing white hair back across his sunburned head and noticed that if his body stiffened anymore on him, made him stoop another inch, he would not be able to see into the mirror on his dresser.
Ruth was waiting breakfast in the kitchen. He spoke to her in a high-pitched graveled voice. She shouted something back that he couldn’t quite make out as she placed his plate of eggs in front of him on the table. He looked around for the ketchup. She had forgotten it again. When he got up to get it, he spilled his milk. He dabbed it up with his napkin.
“What is it this time?” He heard that. In the refrigerator he grabbed the bottle of ketchup in his fist and held it up like wine.
“The ketchup. You forgot the ketchup again.”
“Forgot, nothing,” she said. And he heard that too.
After breakfast he took his position in his rocker which faced out the front window toward his roses: Red and Amber Regalias, Bertha Whites. They grew as tall as men because he pruned them to grow vertically, the rows angling back slightly almost like auditorium bleachers. The plants seemed to soften the effect of the carriage house front which rose abruptly from the surrounding concrete walkway—the house not having the advantage of a porch.
The carriage house had two stories like the main house and faced Ninth East like the main house; it had been converted to apartments like the main house, but once when university students came to sketch the main house, they told Martin that the carriage house lacked “architectural integrity.” During American Heritage Week it had been described in the paper as “blunt and stark with a utility of design.” So, Martin had always kept it bright yellow as if to compensate for what it lacked in shape.
People still came to see the main house even though it had been neglected; the porch woodwork was chipped and had an occasional spindle missing from the railing. Where once roses had climbed trellises from the porch to the roof, students now chained their ten-speed bicycles. On one side of the porch was an original Davenport where neighborhood cats slept, and on the other was a chest of drawers that someone had started to refinish leaving it half stripped of paint.
As Martin took his place this morning, he glanced out the side window. Some men were unloading lumber from a pickup truck backed up on the lawn at the main house. Perhaps they were going to make some repairs, maybe build a fence around those garbage cans. “About time,” he said aloud. “Get the Board of Health after that lazy Don Avery.” He began to rock back and forth. His father would never have permitted such an eyesore, not the Judge, not on his property.
Martin felt something on his arm; it was his wife’s bony fingers. “I keep telling you, you should build your own fence,” she shouted at him, her face sticking out from her neck like a chicken’s. He pretended he didn’t hear. She leaned closer. “Did you hear me?” Martin rocked his head up and down so she would leave him alone.
Why should he do it? He had already built a fence, a chain-link fence, one that would keep the student renters off his lawn—out of his roses when they played football. In a way he had built it against his better judgment, as a matter of survival. The fence had divided the yard, cutting across a connecting sidewalk whose usefulness had passed away with horse-drawn carriages. There had seemed a crime in that. And he had built the fence at his own expense; Don Avery had resisted paying a penny. What did he care? He was no real neighbor, renting the place out to just anybody.
The key point was that a wooden fence on his property would completely block his southern view, and it would block out the sun. If Avery built a fence, a small one around the garbage cans, that would be the most logical and agreeable thing to do. But Avery wasn’t agreeable on most counts and logical only when it suited him.
There had been few occasions when Martin had actually visited the main house after the remodeling. He had returned several letters over the years delivered to the carriage house by mistake. There had been the trips to see the manager, but there had been many managers, students who only lived there two or three years and moved on. He preferred to catch them in the yard or to phone to discuss his business of reminding them about their responsibility of keeping the place up. This was better than walking to the manager’s apartment down the darkened hall with its two bare light bulbs, one at each end of the corridor. The remodeling had destroyed rooms and entry ways. The house had changed so much Martin always had to struggle to figure out where he was; he was never allowed to go into the living rooms where the fireplaces had been, where his bedroom was with the window seat, where his mother punched down bread dough in the kitchen, and where the chandelier in the parlor mirrored a million images of his face. These rooms he was not allowed to go into because of some new wall that felt like chalk and rubbed off on his shirt when he brushed against it.
Martin watched out the side window. There were two men on the back of the truck and one on the ground; he couldn’t make out if one was Avery. The man on the ground could be him—he wasn’t doing much. The other two were bringing out the lumber, sliding one end out onto the pile and dropping the other end like dry bones.
It was a lot of lumber for a fence the size Martin had in mind. He stopped rocking and pushed back with his legs to see if he could get a better look. The window glass was old and had ripples in it that made the men look like snakes. He put on his reading glasses, but it didn’t help. The men were still warped and their purpose even more so. Martin put the glasses back on the end table. The clock on the mantel began to chime.
It was the clock Ruth had brought home from some antique store just after they were married. She had brought it home and removed some dusty old thing from the mantel, replacing it with the polished brass clock. There it had bleated out the Westminster chimes every fifteen minutes for the past forty-five years. Martin had known then that she wasn’t going to be of any help, that she didn’t understand about the main house and the Judge and couldn’t because she had never known either one. She didn’t know that the Judge had convicted a man once just because of the fancy clothes he was wearing. He had told Martin this and warned him when Martin wanted stripes in his new suit. And Martin told Ruth this, but she still didn’t know it. She had decorated French Provincial, even the piano with its cat’s-paw feet. She had insisted on that. And Martin had had to give lessons on that new French Provincial for thirty years. Now that he never played anymore, the cat thing was finally silent.
He touched the arms of the oak rocker where the varnish had been worn away, where the oak was nearly opalized with the oil from his hands. Now dry, wrinkled and covered with brown spots, his hands caressed the oak. He leaned back into the rocker and closing his eyes thought of a Talisman rose.
The sound of dropping lumber changed into footsteps in his head, the footsteps of his father on the porch saying “Where is Martin?” Martin was under the porch hiding where the cats slept and where it smelled like mice. He hid for fear of what his father would say when he got home, what he would do for breaking the eggs that he and Lew Mitchell had stolen from the chicken coop and splattered on the roof of the barn just for the fun of it. Martin’s father found him under the porch shaking with fear and took him to the carriage house where things smelled like leather, horse sweat, and axle grease. There his father had set him on a bale of hay, and the Judge himself climbed up on the lid of the grain bin. “Hear ye. Hear ye. The court of the Honorable Judge Blumenthal is now in session. You are charged with stealing and destroying property that does not belong to you. How do you plead, Martin Blumenthal?” Martin had pleaded guilty because there was no way around it; his mother had caught them throwing the eggs. So, the Judge took the pitchfork and pinned Martin’s leg to the bale of hay, and closing his eyes to represent blind justice, he passed down the sentence of guilty, for which Martin was to take the hired hand’s place in the carriage house cleaning stalls and feeding the horses for a period of two weeks. This was to repay his debt to society, to his mother, and to the Judge. Martin did it and felt that it was fair and felt anger and pity for Lew Mitchell who got away with it here but would have to pay in the next life. When the sentence had been delivered the pounding stopped, and Martin opened his eyes. That was always the way it came out, and the forgetting that seemed bent on taking it all, had not taken that.
Next door they had finished stacking the lumber and were pulling the pickup off the lawn. Someone was parking it on the street. It reminded Martin of the off-street parking ordinance that Don Avery ignored. Martin had obeyed it, digging up half his lawn and his roses to provide private parking for his tenants as required by law. But what did the law matter to Don Avery? Martin’s fingers tightened on the arms of the chair, and he started rocking.
Avery’s only chance was to redeem himself with a fence. The Judge would approve of a fence, a small white-picket one around the garbage cans, something unobtrusive that would blend in. The Judge had always taken the plain view of such things. His tastes had remained simple in an age he said was architecturally extravagant. This meant that his house had less of the gargoyle effect, as he would put it, and more of the straight-line effect which created the feeling of solidarity, strength, and truth, more courthouse and less gingerbread house. Martin agreed. While other houses in the neighborhood of the same age had stained glass windows and faces carved over the entries, the Blumenthal mansion stood out bare-faced and open-eyed. The Judge was proud of that. It was the architect and not the artisan who gave the building its beauty, its gabled roofs and dormer windows instead of minute carvings that from a distance obscured the true lines and cluttered the solid space. The Judge had maintained there would be no angels or devils looking down on him when he went into his own house. And there were none.
Martin stopped rocking. There was a man dragging a ladder around to the front of the house. He disappeared when he rounded the corner, and Martin decided it was time to water the roses.
The hose was coiled along the side of the carriage house on the cement patio where he always left it. He bent over slowly and picked up the end, unscrewed the sprinkler head, laid it on the windowsill, and started for the roses, the hose uncoiling behind him.
There was dignity in caring for roses. Kneeling beside the Judge under the rose trellis, pulling weeds, Martin had felt that. The Judge under his judicial robes wore a red rose on his lapel where he could smell it when he was in court. It was something to keep him separate from the riffraff he had to deal with. The Judge told him about transients, about the winos down by the warehouse, how they’d sell their own mother for a bottle. They had no place, not like Martin who would someday inherit all of this, and his father would lift him to the top of the cement hitching post and pan the whole block with his arm.
Martin nosed the end of the hose down into the soil, waited while the circle of soil around the roses filled and the excess flowed out into the lawn. He could see what they were doing now. They had a ladder stretched up to the top of the porticoed front entry. And there was Avery, himself, starting up the ladder with a crowbar. They were not going to build a fence. Two other men waited at the top of the ladder, leaning against the dormer window of Martin’s bedroom. Martin moved the hose. They were going to work on the dormer.
Sitting in the dormer Martin could look down on the street and the carriage house yard waiting for his father to come home or waiting for Dave, the hired hand, to do something interesting. The rain would drum on the window sometimes, but always Martin felt impervious to the storm, sitting so far out from the house, yet always protected. Once he had seen lightning strike a tree in the vacant lot across the street, and the tree had caught on fire and some men had put it out.
Again, he moved the hose. The men on the roof were beginning to remove the shingles from the dormer roof. The nails squeaked and the old cedar splintered and cascaded down the roof into the flower garden. Martin felt the coldness of the hose. He bent over to collect some fallen rose petals with his free hand; he tucked them into the pocket of his shirt, pinching the softness to release the fragrance onto his fingers.
While he was bent over, he saw two boys cross the street from the ballpark. They each had on a baseball glove and were tossing a ball back and forth. They joined the sidewalk in front of the carriage house and started toward the main house. Martin held the hose tight in his hand, and the coldness seemed to move up his arm. Leaning over the Red Regalias he drew in the reassuring smell of the roses.
The boys hovered around Avery’s pickup for a while, then headed for the peach tree in the front yard, just on the far side of Martin’s chain link fence. “Just let me catch them in my yard,” said Martin just under his breath, “and there’ll be hell to pay.” He pulled up the hose to stick his thumb in the end and squirted down the grass between his roses.
The boys began searching the ground under the peach tree. They started throwing peach pits at each other. Not finding any fresh peaches, one of the boys started up the tree trunk, the other boy boosting him up with his hands.
On the roof Avery and his men were ripping away the shingles, clawing at the wood with hammers, Avery tearing things with his crowbar. The top of Martin’s head burned with indignity while the whole right side of his upper body seemed paralyzed with the coldness from the hose.
With his left hand Martin massaged the numbness out of his right arm. He pulled the hose into another circle of dirt and changed hands. He took a leaf between the fingers of his cold hand and polished the dust away with his thumb until the natural wax was restored.
There had been no trespassers when his father was at the head of the estate, at the head of the bar. There had been an iron fence to define the place, posts made out of four-inch plumbing pipe, and three iron chains draping between. Only a segment remained in front of the carriage house, a segment rusted but still solid. Avery had removed the rest of it and had hauled it away in the back of his red pickup.
The boy in the tree was tossing down peaches to the boy on the ground who caught them in his baseball glove. Then there was a crash. Martin wasn’t sure where it had come from. He stood there unmoored, drifting. It came again and again like signals for his attention. The boys at the tree were shouting, one jumping up and down, the other shaking the limbs of the tree. There were peaches falling all around. Martin stuck his thumb in the end of the hose and aimed it at the tree. There was more shouting, something about a crazy old man, and the water seemed to blur his own vision. But he kept squirting, squirting them out like ants. They retreated, dancing out of range on the sidewalk. Still, he kept squirting, but the sound persisted. He looked up at the house through the limbs of the tree, leaving off the pressure with his thumb. There was a gaping hole in the side of the dormer roof, and Avery stood with his crowbar lifted high for another swing. The bar came down on a new spot and slats and cement of the old-style construction were knocked away; they fell inward into where the window seat had been.
Martin had not understood. They were not putting on a new roof; they were not repairing the dormer, but removing it altogether, as one would attack and remove something evil, something offensive. The coldness in his arm seemed to spread into his chest and move outward from there spreading to his other extremities. His arms went limp; they hung at his sides, the water from the hose running down his leg and onto his shoes. His legs felt pinned to the ground.
In this position Martin felt he had to say something. He dropped the hose. Someone was talking to him.
“Hey you. Hey you.”
He turned to the sound, towards the street. Something hit him in the arm, but it didn’t hurt, and then he saw boys running down the sidewalk. He waited. He heard the surrey coming home, the sound of the wheels on the hard road in front of the carriage house, heard his father on the steps, and the horses pawing for water in front of the house. “No,” he said in answer to the voice inside his head. And to himself he remembered there had been a Depression, and there had been debts to pay. The voice persisted.
“Excuse me, but do you own this place?” Martin knew he had to answer true.
“No,” he said.
“We saw the sign. The ‘For Rent’ sign in the window? Can you tell us where the office is?” The voice drifted, moved outside.
“Excuse me, but could you tell me who we could talk to about seeing the apartment for rent?”
“Apartment?” The voice was standing beside a blue Volkswagen; the voice had a mustache. It was a young couple from the university. The woman was still in the car. He moved towards the young man, his feet squeaking inside his wet shoes when he walked.
“Yes, an apartment. We were just passing by and saw the sign. We’ve been looking all over for a place.”
Suddenly Martin demanded, “What is it you want?”
“This is really an interesting place. Are you in charge here?” The man looked at his wife through the front window.
Martin came up to him, stopping a few feet away. “My wife, she handles . . .” He looked at the student with the mustache, a number ten plastered on the front of his red shirt and demanded, “What did you think? Of course I’m in charge here. I used to own all this,” and he panned the whole block with his left hand.
He stepped in closer, tried to stand straighter to look the student in the eye. “I’ll show you something interesting if you want.” He took hold of the student’s arm just above the elbow and tried to pull him so he could get a look at the main house. The young man resisted slightly. Martin paid no attention—he held the student’s arm out like a turkey wing.
You see that house, built in 1889. That house has architectural integrity.” He pointed with his free hand, his wrist limp, and his fingers unable to straighten out. “You see what they’re doing to it? they’re destroying it, that’s what they’re doing. Do you see?” He pulled the man’s arm to get him to move to a better spot. “Do you see? I didn’t sell it to Averys to have them destroy it.”
Martin moved in, stuck his face next to the mustached one, stared into his eyes for an answer. The student tried to pull away again, but Martin held him firm, sinking his fingers into the man’s bicep.
“Hey, search me I . . . “
God knows what Avery’ll put up there, probably his garbage cans. Do you want that? Do you want that really?”
The student looked back at his wife and then to Martin. “I really couldn’t say. It looks like they’ll do a nice job.” And then, “I’m sure they will.”
Martin gave back the arm, pushed it away with both hands in disgust. “What do you know about Avery?” The student got in his car; he said he’d come back another time. There were flowers painted on the car door. What did he know?
Martin looked down at his own wet shoes and pants and made his legs move out onto the sidewalk. He had to stop Avery before it was too late. In front of the main house Martin stopped about where the cement hitching post had been that had held the iron ring where the horses were tied in place, to keep them from pawing the lawn. He looked up to where the dormer was being taken apart by the three men. The men moved from side to side on the roof like matchsticks on the piano, like the matchsticks he moved back and forth when he practiced.
He had tried to work all the matchsticks to the right side of the piano, playing a piece over and over, moving one match if he played the piece all the way through without a mistake, but moving it back when he fumbled the next time through. He tried to get all the sticks on the finished side at the same time, three times perfect so he could finish practicing. His father had hired Mrs. Finch because she was particularly strict about practice. She smelled like vinegar sitting next to him on the piano bench, sometimes onions. She’d sit there nodding, trying to stay awake while he labored through the pieces, and Martin had felt guilty about making her sit there that way.
The sides of the dormer were disintegrating before him. Avery was smashing the wood, bringing the crowbar down as if it were something hateful. The wood splintered and popped, and soon the obstruction that had been Martin’s childhood had been removed. Avery was coming down the ladder.
He came over to where Martin was and stood there smelling of sweat, bits of wood and plaster stuck on his arms. He said that Martin needn’t worry about a thing because he had a lot invested in the old house and that he wouldn’t do anything to bring the property value down. He insinuated that Martin couldn’t understand such business matters. Martin wanted to tell Avery how the house had been built, the design of the thing, what it meant, but Avery told how the tenants were complaining about how drafty the dormer window had become and that he, Avery, poor mechanic, was stuck with the bills because he paid the utilities. Martin could only say that he understood, because, after all, he rented apartments too. So, he only said that he hoped it would look nice when he got done. And Avery walked off still clutching the crowbar.
Martin thought it had been all right living next door cultivating his roses, prodding Avery and his managers from time to time to keep the place up, to keep his tenants in line. But Avery was going too far in this. He shouldn’t be fooling around with the way things were.
And Avery had stood there dusting his pants and stomping his feet on the sidewalk, never really looking Martin in the eye. There was no reassurance in a man who couldn’t look you in the eye and swear to tell the truth. Martin started home rubbing a pain that was working up in his thigh.
Walking back, Martin heard laughter coming from his yard. Those boys, the ones with the baseball gloves, were in his yard after his roses. One was grabbing at the flowers, pinching and twisting the petals free. The other one was running in and out of the columns of plants. A fistful of petals showered into the air, and then another. Martin was working his feet.
“Hey you two. Stop that. Stop or I’ll get the law after you.” He was moving as fast as he could; he was out of breath.
The boys saw him coming; one cupped his hands around an entire flower and popped it off, and he trailed the petals in the air behind them as they ran all the way to the corner of the block. They were gone by the time Martin reached his yard. There were petals all over the grass. Too many for Martin to pick up.
He picked up the hose, turned off the water, and recoiled the hose by the side of the house, more out of habit than from conscious effort. Martin went into the house and dropped down into his rocker, his hands rubbing the arm rests.
He leaned back into the chair, his head bobbing up and down slightly, but out of control as if it were in water. When his head was down, the water tapped his mouth so he couldn’t breathe; then he heard his mother shushing him, holding him in her arms, rubbing his toes and fingers trying to make the color come back into them. They sat in her chair, the oak rocker, gently rocking while she tried to shush him from crying so much. The Judge was saying, “He should have done what I told him; he should have stayed in the carriage house until I came for him, but he was bound and determined to get back to the house.” Martin saw himself looking out the carriage house door from where he was perched on the seat of the carriage, where he was wishing he were in his room away from the water. Only yesterday there had been snow up to the second step of the house, but now there was only water running down the street, through their yard swamping the carriage house and most of the sheds. There were animals drowning which his father and Dave were trying to save, rabbits and chickens struggling in the foot-deep water. All the sandbags and digging was not helping very much. Going out to help his father had not turned out to be as fun as he thought it was going to be. The water came up over his boot tops and spilled in on his toes, and it was cold water having just been snow, and he had wanted to go back when his father set him on top of the carriage seat and told him to stay until he came for him. But Martin had become colder sitting there waiting and doing nothing. Outside, the water surged at him knocking him over. He remembered going down, his face hitting the water, the water trapping his mouth and burning his eyes. He had closed his eyes and mouth tight and his eyes had seemed to push inside his head. He had slid along the hard packed ice underneath the water, his face going under and up and the water going down his back turning him over and up and moving him along. He had tried to lift himself up, but his arms wouldn’t work. The cold had dislocated them taking them away from him, and his legs were tied together with the cold. So, there he was without arms and legs, a rolling sightless lump, until a hand grabbed his coat and lifted him up. Then there he was with his mother stripping his clothes off of him in the foyer and throwing the blanket around him, and the Judge was saying, “He should have done what I told him; he should have stayed in the carriage house until I came . . .” In the foyer, then in the parlor before the fireplace where his mother was rocking him gently and shushing him and telling him everything was going to be all right. The Judge leaned against the mantel and said, “He should have done what I told him . . .”
But Martin on his eighteenth birthday had come down the spiral staircase very proper in his long-tailed coat, pressing his piano music against his side. He came down the stairs and into the parlor where the Judge’s friends were waiting, and the Judge was waiting, standing by the fireplace, his arm resting on the mantel with his foot on the grate. Claude Debussy was on the cover of Etude magazine, a memorial tribute. Martin played Suite Bergamasque, wading through it as best he could. The men in the new style suits told him that he certainly had a chance, and they shook his hand and made a bow towards him. They talked with one another in the corner, and then they talked with the Judge in front of the fireplace and shook his hand. Everyone who shook Martin’s hand had whispered congratulations as if they all knew he had already been accepted.
Perhaps they had known more than he had, for he went away to Juilliard that fall to study the piano. His father had put him on the train and had given him his best valise. Martin had put his music into where the legal documents and books had been.
He went away in August and came back for good after eighteen months. Martin was sitting in his father’s study, uncomfortable, fidgeting in his father’s leather chair. It made his legs sweat. He sat there behind the massive desk and tried to comprehend the shelves of books “the dark covered mysteries” the volumes of law.
From behind the desk, he could look out on the street at the spring rain. The side window had been opened for spring cleaning and airing, and the rain was coming in on the floor. Martin went to the window and pulled out the pins and let the window slide down into place. The Judge was dead. Last week Martin had gone to the funeral where they had lowered the Judge beside Martin’s mother. Martin was alone in the house now. He had decided not to go back to school; there was no point in it anymore. He wondered what he should do, not knowing then that he would go to Lew Mitchell for financial advice. His eyes toured the high-ceilinged room with its endless books, and he seemed out of place in the solid-grained, leathered-covered room.
Martin saw himself then as a young man starting out on his business career with Lew Mitchell, and he saw himself old at the same time, watering the roses, and in his dream he laughed at what a young man thinks, about how a rich young man thinks there is enough money, and how it had seemed that there would always be enough if he handled it, not prudently, but wisely.
Then in ‘29 Martin saw himself sitting in a dark-colored room. There was a lemon-shaped burning object out in front of him, a sphere not completely round that was solidifying into a lamp. The lamp was on a desk made out of fashionable mahogany. It was deep reddish brown with square black leather insets in the top; the walls of the room were paneled with similar dark wood which absorbed the light from one small lamp.
Out of the darkness Lew Mitchell leaned forward and placed some official looking papers on the desk; his eyes were one dark bar across his face, the face that was the grown-up face of his childhood friend. Lew spoke.
“I believe I have found the way for you, Martin. A way that will leave you financially solvent and secure for the rest of your life.”
“I appreciate how you’re helping me, Lew. You always were the one for making plans.” Martin heard himself talking, remembered how it had always been with Lew sitting across the desk with all the answers.
“Yes, but you realize, of course, there is going to have to be some sacrifice on your part.”
“Of course.” Martin felt his head bobbing in agreement. “It’s just that with the city building up around the place, I can’t afford the taxes.”
“Yes, Martin, but it’s not just the taxes. You’ve piled up a considerable debt in the market. Continuing to live in the style you are accustomed to is no longer the question. There are going to have to be adjustments.”
“I see. Well, what have you got for me?” Martin leaned forward on the mahogany desk, trying to see the papers in Lew’s hand.
Lew leaned back into the darkness. He waited a few minutes as if trying to find the appropriate starting point. He began slowly. “You are familiar with the current situation in the housing market, are you not? The new steel mill, the expanding university?”
“They say there is a shortage.” Martin tried to see his face; it was like trying to see through water.
“Exactly!” Lew seemed to leap on his words; he slammed his flat palm on the desktop. “Here it is. The best deal I’ve been able to manage under the present conditions. I have several interested parties who want to buy your place.”
The news did not exactly take Martin by surprise, but it was still a blow. “What do you mean my place, Lew?”
Lew’s eyes reflected the light of the lamp; they seemed to glow with the prospects of the plan. “Just this. The crash has left you penniless. I couldn’t predict that. You have debts, and your only assets are tied up in this real estate. You’ll have to liquify those assets.”
Martin tried to say something, but Lew went on.
“The way I have it figured, you could keep the carriage house. Convert it into apartments, make a place for yourself in it, and live off the income from the tenants. With the sale of the rest of the property, you’ll be able to pay off your debts and be able to afford the remodeling.”
When Martin woke up from his nap, it was late afternoon; he opened his eyes slowly, unsure of where he was. There was light on the philodendron in the corner and the philodendron
silhouettes on the wall. His neck hurt. There was something pushing, hammering against the top of his head, forcing his head downward into his shoulders. He tried to move, but a sharp pain down his back restricted him. He grabbed for the arms of the rocker, but his hands seemed strapped in, encased in thorns. He looked down anxiously at his lap, at a grey wool comforter drawn up over his arms and tucked in at his sides. After a moment he remembered it was the one Ruth had put on the foot of his bed. Slowly he lifted his head and upper body away from the back of the chair, and the pushing sensation gave way to a throb in his head. He tore his hands free from the blanket and caught hold of the rocker, gripping the wood, working his fingers into the worn indentations. He sat there tilted forward, staring out at the roses that were shaded by the carriage house.
He smelled bean soup from the kitchen and heard the clank of silverware on the Formica counter. Then the day came back, distilled into the one impression of roses cascading down from Avery’s crowbar.
Martin pushed himself up from his chair trying to raise himself straight. He went out into the afternoon sunlight to see what Avery was doing. He walked around his stadium of roses that stretched from the asphalt parking lot to the chain link fence. The wet grass squeaked under his feet as he slid them along underneath him. He moved down the fence until the peach tree was out of the way, and he looked up. On the roof of the main house above the Judge’s porticoed entry was the fence for Avery’s garbage cans. The new wood only roughed out the shape of the remodeled room, but rather than a gabled roof, the roof sloped outward to the street like a rabbit hutch, broad and squat.
Martin took hold of the steel fence, sticking his fingers through the holes and around the wires. He clung to it as if he were receiving a freezing electric charge, the jolt reaching the center of his body.
“He should not have done that,” said Martin, and he released the fence and started backing up. His feet dragged, and his legs were stiff. There seemed to be movement around him, but he couldn’t account for it. He rocked forward and back, turned west to the carriage house toward the sun, toward where his roses should have been, but he was blinded by a whiteness that pushed in his eyes. He thrashed out with his arms expecting to take hold of something, but he seemed unable to locate himself. There was a cold pain down his back, and he was turning and falling forward, crashing down through the roses, his face peeling against the thorns. He clenched his teeth against the impact, clenched them so he couldn’t get his breath. The ground hit his shoulder first; it compressed his chest and knocked all the air out past his teeth. And then he was on his face sucking in the wet grass, and the throbbing in his head was like a pounding gavel.