By Ruth Z. Deming
Quite a long time ago Norman would pick me up at the apartments and weâ€™d drive around looking for a house. Iâ€™d never wanted one, really, too much bother. Let the groundsmen mow our lawns with their fine steering of mowers, let the snow pile high in blizzards, the trucks would take care of that.
Why, I remember one night watching from our second-story apartment window as an army of trucks with yellow flashing lights were deployed and sent out on our behalf to each one of the sixteen parking lots of Village Green Apartments to eradicate the piles of snow sent by the unrelenting skies.
I watched and my children watched with me, cheering as the trucks came in to liberate us, trucks, coming in like a herd of elephants, taking over as elephants do among the brush, charging straight ahead toward the camera, trunks swinging with menace, gentle creatures really, you could practically tie knots with their skin.
Norman and I would roam the streets at ten in the morning looking for houses in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. There was nothing about houses Norman didnâ€™t know. But, alas, dear Norman, your taste in houses was abysmal. We could never in a million years marry. But it wasnâ€™t costing me a penny as he led me from one horrible house to another. It was all they had to show around here. Houses plopped down, bolted down, they could have been trailers for godsakes, blown to smithereens by a passing hurricane.
But oughtnâ€™t they think of looks, too?
Looks. I was always into looks, bigtime. In other words: Beauty. The cardinal on the branch. Any branch will do. You donâ€™t even need leaves.
But these, these houses, some had pretty fronts, but youâ€™d go inside and they were, dear God, all the same. The living room was over here and the dining room right next to that and sometimes there was a little bitty family room tucked over on the right that no one in his right mind could ever sit in and read a book. There was no fireplace or leather chair with golden studs. Or view from the window giving onto green pastures with sheep grazing.
No, you just had to figure it out for yourself how you were going to read a book in one of those houses. For thatâ€™s what we were after. The house where you could read a book.
Each day Norman would pick me up in his long brown LTD and say, â€œLady, do I have a house for you!â€ He was getting closer to knowing my taste when I saw him pulling up to one of those houses with a Spanish style porch, big arches, and red shutters.
â€œNorman!â€ I shouted. â€œThis may be it!â€ I ran out of the car, smoothed down my skirt, and waited for him to ascend the stairs with me of what just might be our brand new house.
But he hadnâ€™t checked the inside. Darn!
No, he hadnâ€™t learned to crack my code just yet. In fact, to be truthful, he never did. He never caught on. So many clues given. So many, â€œNo, no, Normans! Norman, you donâ€™t understand. I donâ€™t like houses surrounded by trees. I hate houses in the shade.â€
Imagine going to Frankâ€™s Nursery and seeking out tables for â€œShade Plants.â€ He never â€“ I say â€“ he never caught on. â€œNorman! Yoo-hoo! Itâ€™s light I want. Light. Ya’ know, like the sun? That everlasting fireball up in the sky that is the deliverance of us all?â€
And then one day, the day to end all days, we were driving down Edgehill Road â€“ he drove with the window open and his arm resting on the sill like a king â€“ and he opened himself up to me – and called out as if heâ€™d chosen me for his queen: â€œThis!â€ he said. â€œThis is the house where Iâ€™d like to live.â€
And I wrenched my neck around so I could see the house where he wanted to live.
And, oh, dear God, it was an awful house, just awful. It was sunk deep down in a gully. The rain would flood it in a minute. Youâ€™d have to rent one of those vac-u-sucks to get all the water out of the basement. And worse than flooding, it was surrounded by trees. Dear God, we love trees to death, but we would never buy a house where your first thought when you woke up in the morning and looked out the window was, â€œIs there a sun?â€
No, Norman and I could never marry.
But Iâ€™d set my heart on finding a house. There was no turning back.
I pictured myself moving out of the apartments. How would we get all those couches and beds and dressers down the three flights of stairs without marring the walls and losing our two monthsâ€™ security deposit?
There would be moving men involved, of course. Weâ€™d known men all our lives and would get them to move furniture for us. Weâ€™d pay them of course. What do you think, weâ€™re cheapskates? Is that what youâ€™re thinking?
Well, we are cheapskates, the lot of us, our cheapness is known and celebrated around town. â€œThe cheapskates are coming! The cheapskates are coming! Make way for the cheapskates!â€
I had an aunt once. A woman with a withered arm who came up from Knoxville to our hometown in Cleveland to visit. Now she wasnâ€™t a poor woman, by any means. You ought to know that right from the start. And they were trying to marry her off. She was a rich woman and they were trying to marry her off on account of her withered arm. And she was a cheapskate and she ought to have made up for it by being generous to a fault.
I know this for a personal fact because she came to town and took the lot of us out to lunch. Clarkâ€™s on Shaker Square with the toasted hamburger buns, and this was the time before calculators came into vogue, and she had this black ladiesâ€™ purse and pulled out a calculator, and right there in front of the entire community she added up the bill on her calculator and then set down a tip that made you want to double over and puke.
I had a propensity for selecting cheapskates for boyfriends. Itâ€™s in the genes that seek to perpetuate themselves. And then that last boyfriend of mine. Sweet Jesus, you talk about the â€œKing of the Cheapskatesâ€™ Boyfriendsâ€ sneaking Sweet â€˜n Loâ€™s into his breast pocket at the diner. And then patting his pocket with the crinkling fake sugar. And oh how we laughed our heads off like a couple of crooks.
And Norman, too, in his own inimitable manner was one of them. A different sort. There was something lacking about him. To put it bluntly, I donâ€™t think he was in touch with his own sexuality. I couldnâ€™t figure out his sexual preference. None, I believe.
His was a commanding presence though: An out-of-date handlebar mustache and the look of an English schoolmaster, bewildered, as if suddenly woken from a nap.
That was Norman all right. The man who was driving me around looking for a house.
Oh, of course I loved him. I love them all. All of them. Like Degas with his ballerinas. Me, with my men. My dishwasher man, my furnace man, my plumber, and now, the newest, Manuel from El Salvador, who rides over in a caravan with his men, to mow my lawn. He doesnâ€™t speak English so we play charades and watch our shadows on the grass.
But Norman. He was the man of the hour. The man to drive around with in a car. And stare out from the passenger side as all the houses of Willow Grove passed me by. I knew each and every one of them and can tell you instantly the first thing I saw when I walked through the door.
Every one of them had something more wrong with it than right.
To this day, I drive past the houses and say, â€œOh, I looked at that one. Great view of the baseball field next door, but rooms like boxcars.â€ Or, â€œThis one with the porch swing smells of mildew as soon as you walk in.â€
Something so adorable, donâ€™t you think, about a divorced mother of two young children, always on the lookout for a new husband, driving around with the perfect wrong man.
Ever play the game, oh, I did the other day on the elevator, at the hospital, waitâ€™ll you hear this. I get on the elevator, the men always let you on first, and I was alone with a guy pulling a dolly with a load of two plastic bins that you couldnâ€™t see through. I was dying to know what was in those bins. But the delivery man wouldnâ€™t look up. If you work in a large institution like a hospital you must wear badges nowadays, weâ€™re a paranoid nation and buy houses in the suburbs with alarm systems, we donâ€™t have time for our families, and the Canadians hate us.
I looked at the guy for just a second, hoping he would look my way. Elevators can be such lonely places.
He was otherwise occupied. I wanted so badly just to say hello.
What? Iâ€™m not Miss America? What? I donâ€™t wear enough eye make-up or have deep enough cleavage? Look, Iâ€™ll get silicone injections, I promise. And botox. Maybe itâ€™ll end up that botox is actually good for you and will extend the life of your decaying body.
The binmasterâ€™s name was Roberto. The badge hung like a prize around his unspoiled neck. They all work two jobs, the immigrants, just like we did when we came over on the rolling seasick ships watching like Henry Hudson for land ho.
And when the doors closed and the two of us were alone, maybe on the second floor going up, just going very slowly, listening to the hummmm, and you catch yourself thinking your standard elevator thoughts like going through the rosary â€“ wow, we could certainly write a book about Elevator Thoughts, couldnâ€™t we?
Another time – and this is a an important aside – after seeing my beloved psychiatrist Larry, I took the hospital elevator down from the fourth floor, nice shiny stainless steel elevators, bonus of doors on both sides â€“ wow! what a treat â€“ digitilized numbers up top â€“ and suddenly the elevator shook, a mini-earthquake, and stopped stock still.
I had just seen my psychiatrist so I was all pumped up and thought I was cured â€“ and then this happens, and knocks me to my senses. Who am I kidding? Iâ€™m a lifelong â€˜fraidy cat â€“ the elevator is hovering, hovering in nowhere-land and Iâ€™m gathering my strength, holding it, mastering it, and feel my knees bend ever so slightly in surrender. I was planning to hit the floor, if necessary, if panic came, and then come up with a plan of action on which button to push, probably with my right foot, as Iâ€™d be writhing in panic on the floor.
But before I hit the ground, the elevator started moving again on its slowly descending sophistication of rope. And I was saved.
But now Roberto and I are gliding upward together, just the two of us, and donâ€™t you know I get stuck on a new elevator thought: What if the bomb goes off now. Weâ€™re locked together in the elevator and, vacuum-sealed, escape nuclear destruction.
Just the two of us.
And Iâ€™m thinking for certain he could get us out of the tomb. I always carry a Swiss Army Knife in the bottom of my purse. I like the little scissors feature that comes out. And the bottle opener for a wee little can of Welchâ€™s grape juice.
And Iâ€™d have in the bottom of my purse some peppermint candies from the diner which me and my King of Cheapskatesâ€™ boyfriendsâ€™ stole, and a bottle of water we could share drop by drop until he dug us out â€“ and we could also parcel out some of my emergency psychiatric drugs and aspirin that could quell our panic and hysteria, for who are we kidding, it would be the job of a lifetime digging our way out; maybe something in one of those plastic bins could help out, maybe they were a load of candy bars for the vending machine, doubtful, but Roberto would nonetheless dig us out, I was sure of it. And then it would be up to the two of us to procreate the race.
Dear God, donâ€™t ask. Donâ€™t ask the eternal question. Oh, here, let me get it over with already. Would it be worth the sacrifice of fucking my elevator companion whose magnetic pull was zero on the Richter scale, to procreate a new race. Of course I was 58 already so it would be near impossible to get one clean egg out, but the explosion might just have given my ovaries the necessary jolt they needed to sprout one perfect specimen so the binmaster could be the patriarch of a new race. The Book of Roberto.
And so it was that way, too, with Norman. It wouldnâ€™t have been quite so horrible, but it would not have been natural, not a natural thing, like coming into the house and putting down my keys on the dining room table, which is what finally did come to pass. It was a yellow house we found. I actually found it myself. Or rather gave in. We had exhausted all the possibilities.
It was a house I had driven by for six straight months saying to myself, This is the ugliest house God ever put on earth. It was so ugly I couldnâ€™t bring myself to go in. The roof was screwy. Atilt. Aslant. Angled. Who wants to live in a house like that, I thought.
â€œFor sale by owner.â€
You will totally not for a single merry moment believe me when I tell you what I finally did. Or rather forced myself to do. It was precipitated by an act of God. He is always there, hovering, unseen. God lowered my guard and I called the people up.
And I went in. And the first thing I saw when I went in the house was the ceiling. It wouldnâ€™t stop. It was the highest fucking ceiling Iâ€™d ever seen. A cathedral ceiling with fake beams. The year was 1990. And you walked in and it was quite simply a cathedral ceiling.
I was sold. The house spoke for itself. I ran in and checked the kitchen. Nothing amiss. Bonus of light streaming in through the addition theyâ€™d put on. Nice family room downstairs with its own entrance, and a screened-in porch where I could watch the backyard maples and sit in the lap of my newest maybe husband.
And the upstairs? Why, three little rooms all in a row. Iâ€™d sleep in the master bedroom since I was both mother and father. The girl would be in the middle, and the boy in the blue room. A three-bedroom house on the upward slope of Cowbell Lane, right across from Charleyâ€™s house. The most beautiful house I have ever laid eyes on. A house to die for.
We never saw Norman again. He just disappeared from sight as if we hadnâ€™t spent the best six months of our lives together. I saw him last when I was signing my life away in his office. Masses and masses of papers shoved in front of me.
God, he looked so different sitting behind his desk. Like a bewhiskered magistrate with bourbon in his bottom drawer. Business tycoons, you know, have little bars in their offices and serve fine liquors to their cronies. Ah, for a tiny sip of blackberry brandy straight from the bottle, hot and smoking all the way down.
Knowing me, I must have tried to wangle a date out of Norman, but failed. He said he stayed at home the whole livelong day eschewing women and reading literature.
Who needed him? Who needed him anyway, a fucking man who stayed home all day instead of walking hand in hand around the lake with his beloved and watching the geese come in for a landing. Who needed him, a man who eschewed women and would rather read about them in Lorna Doon than be with one. Did I mind? Did I spend my nights in my new peach-colored bedroom pining over his handlebar mustache or the way he gestured lavishly when pointing out a mouth-watering architectural detail I had never heard of such as chair rails or downspouts.
Or the way he stood aside as he opened the car door for me as if I were a lady in waiting, a woman in a tight red suit and high heels, with a red hat and black veil over my eyes like in the Betty Grable days?
You think I minded? You think I lost any sleep over him?
You figure it out youâ€™re so goddamned smart!