Empty Summer Houses

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Colten’s wife, her blonde ponytail swaying above her jacket, boots crunching on oyster shells, had turned off the sandy lane onto the white path that led to the house she’d added to her List in August. Three weeks ago, after they’d photographed an improbably pink stucco house on the bay, he’d decided that stalking empty summer houses was getting too strange—not what they saw, but actually doing it. Today, he’d promised himself was the last time. After this, Liz was on her own. He hadn’t told her yet. But he would.

“Colt, see that,” Liz said. She pointed to a limp garden hose and a wheelbarrow propped against a dilapidated shed with no door. “Eerie, right.”

Ignoring ‘eerie’ Colten said, “No, dumb. Why not put the gardening stuff in the shed.” ‘Eerie’ was Liz’s major criterion for the photographs she’d taken for the past two years: broken lawn chairs; rusting grills, rotting chunks of driftwood. Then peering through windows: crooked lamp shades; couches swathed in sheets; paintings of watery landscapes and molten sunsets; a red kayak in the middle of a living room; wind chimes on a table, kids’ stuffed animals. To Colten, these houses just looked neglected, empty.

“I’ll leave the shed for later,” Liz said, patting the camera he’d given her last year for her 30th birthday. Her ponytail beckoned him onward.

“Fine,” Colten said.

It was November and most of the summer houses in this Outer Cape town had been closed up for the winter. Water drained, deck furniture dragged inside, plywood nailed over windows facing ocean or bay as the population went from 65,000 to 4,000 in a matter of days. Traffic disappeared and restaurants using white tablecloths and cloth napkins closed. The back roads of Truro and Wellfleet were hidden and lush in summer, but fall pulled down their curtains of leaves and vines, and houses of wildly varying proportions and styles seemed to appear overnight. Many summer residents were now the absentee owners of what was called in real estate parlance “a winter water view.”

Colten stopped to assess the compact one-story house ahead, caged in by tall scraggly pines. A spongy carpet of needles rimmed the path to the front door and dry leaves ruffled the edges of the gray shingled walls. Everything gray. Cedar roof, decks. Gray. Mortal.

They’d started photographing empty houses the autumn after Rosie died. She was seven months old, when late one June night she stopped breathing. The ambulance’s siren split their world in two. The next day they were childless. Soiled diapers still reeked in the pail; the mobile of circus animals still trembled above Rosie’s crib. Colten found himself clasping a throw pillow against his chest. Liz was inconsolable as the languid hours of nursing Rosie were replaced by the whooshing rhythm of a sterile square machine pumping out Liz’s milk.. That fall, her breasts dry and the baby furniture stored in the attic, they took long walks to get out of the house. Liz began to keep a list of odd, closed-up houses to photograph. She called her collection Empty Summer Houses. If she ever displayed them, which he suspected she would do sometime in the future—maybe in her next Provincetown show, it would be a form of transgressive art.

This morning she’d said, “OK. Let’s take a walk. I want to visit that house set back from Ballston Beach.” It was her way of getting them past the argument they’d had last night. Colten had started it by saying let’s think about having a child. Liz had slammed down her wine glass so hard the stem broke. “How can you say that without adding the word ‘another?’ Have you forgotten her?” she cried. And he’d said, “Never. But I want to raise a child. I don’t want to replace Rosie. I want a different child. Children.” Turning away, she said what she always said, that it was too soon. This time he’d countered with, “Then when? It’s been two years. We don’t have one photograph of Rosie anywhere.” He’d never pushed so hard before. Last week in the Stop & Shop, in line behind a harried father with a squalling baby, the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder nearly made him cry. “When?” She’d slept in the guest room.

After a silent breakfast, she’d thrown his barn coat at him and said, “Come on.” He’d hesitated—long enough for Liz to ask “what?”—so he put on his coat, telling himself this was his last such walk.

Having declared that the shed was for later, Liz lead them to where they were now—peering through the screens of a large screened-in porch, so open that it was the obvious place to start. The Cape hadn’t had a first snow, but when it did everything on the porch would be covered in a sifting of white.

They pressed their noses to separate panels, inhaling the fall screen smell, metallic and woodsy. The porch had the sort of clutter that Colten had come to admire, even envy. A round Weber grill missing its lid and filled with pillows of gray ash stood beside a statue of a cement cupid holding cement grapes. In the corner, a dimpled soccer ball. A second green hose, newer, wound around and through various wicker chairs and small wrought-iron tables. An old glider reminded him of the one his grandmother once had, gently sliding back and forth, a movement a swing can never replicate.

Liz took 2 or 3 dozen photos. Two trellises leaning against a wall had caught her eye. Dry bits of vines still twisted in and out of the squares. She’d always liked squares, checks, polka dots, clay roof tiles on Italian villas, twenty nude torsos of manikins in the window of a store going out of business—all patterns. He could have predicted her choice for Rosie’s wallpaper—tiny pink rosebuds that from a short distance, looked not like rosebuds, but delicate splashes of color. Gone. Stripped away a month later.

Lagging behind, Colten photographed the cupid and red tricycle. The cupid’s concrete arms and legs and tummy were all soft gray curves. The tricycle’s seat was cracked and crooked. He pictured Rosie’s bruised knee and a faded blue tennis shoe doing a left dismount. He longed to pinch the bell and hear its fuzzy ring. Rosie always waved her chubby arms when they set her mobile into musical motion.

“Colt,” Liz called. He hurried to catch up.
Methodically, they began to circle the house, looking in every ground floor window that had an interior view. Flimsy curtains covered the windows of the first two narrow rooms, probably bunk rooms for kids, but not the kitchen’s. It was circa 1950 with stainless steel counters and a fridge with a rounded top.

Liz pointed to the rotisserie standing on its splayed four legs. “Just like my mother’s,” she said. Her camera’s shutter clicked four times.

To Colt, it looked like a baby’s bassinet but he didn’t say so. A row of seven coffee pots on a top shelf attested to not much being given away—or moving on to the swap area at the Wellfleet dump. “Dump”—a word the woman at town hall still used, to Colt’s joy, when he got their yearly “Transfer Station” sticker.

“Now, there’s a shot,” Liz said.
He strained to see what she was seeing. “That space under the sink?” he ventured. A limp curtain covered with perky chickens hatching eggs was pushed to one side, revealing all the household poisons: Lysol, Fantastic, Clorox, Windex, Murphy’s Soap Oil. Enough to kill a houseful of kids. What would Liz title it? Rather, why?

As she focused on the lethal collection of cleaning solutions, he moved to the next window and peered into a pantry or mudroom. Two dolls stared from the seat of an old wooden highchair, the counters were piled high with stainless mixing bowls and a bottle warmer. The floor was cluttered with sand toys–plastic pails and shovels, a water mill he would have loved. It wouldn’t interest Liz, but he’d loop back after she’d moved on. His thoughts snagged on those words ‘moved on’ and brought back last night’s argument. Could he ever stand to be without her? Here, they were known as year-rounders. They were both teachers at the Truro high school, where he used to think he taught teenagers, but now he affectionately thought of them as somebody’s children. As kids themselves, they both had looked forward to a month’s summer vacation on the Cape where they stayed in the tiny stand-alone cabins like delicate dolls’ houses lining the long shore road to Provincetown. Perched just five to twenty feet from the azure bay depending on the tide, they all had flower names: Petunia, Goldenrod, Wisteria, Lily. As teenagers, Colten and Liz fell in love with the Cape, and then with each other while working hot summers as fry cooks at The Lobster Pot in Provincetown. Their clothes reeked of oil and both sets of parents insisted they undress outside their cabins. Giggling, they had run into the shimmering surf, declaring this is where they wanted to raise a family. Or was.

“You’ll want to skip the pantry,” he called out, feeling sad and also mean. Withholding from her the beautifully carved highchair. He rounded a corner, ankle deep in brown leaves. And then he saw it. A narrow wooden door ten feet away was open about an inch. It probably lead to a washing machine or hot water heater. The wind must have done that. “Liz,” he called. “Come see.”
He slowly pulled on the metal handle and the door scraped open about a foot.
In this moment, more than anything, he wanted to go through that door. “Liz,” he called again. He needed to push her through into some unknown space.
When she came around the corner, her eyebrows raised in a question, he pulled her forward to stand in front of him. “Our lucky day,” he said, and reached around her to tug the door open all the way. Then he firmly placed his hands on her shoulders and propelled her through. She swung around as if to slap him, then stumbled and turned so she wouldn’t fall as he continued to push her forward through this narrow damp room and into the kitchen.
“Jesus, Colt,” she said. “Are you crazy? Now we’re trespassing.” Her nose was red. Her pony tail swung in wide arcs of anger.
“We’re not doing any harm,” he said, shivering. “What? Are the police going to show up?” It was colder in the house than it had been outside. He took his hands from her shoulders to bury them in his pockets.
“You know Charlie does rounds on all the empty houses,” she said, peeling back a curtain to peer through the dusty window above the sink.
“Like our friend is going to pull out his handcuffs. Like he’s not going to buy our neighborly story about looking after a neighbor’s summer place.”
Liz swished the curtain down. “Neighbors whose name we don’t even know.” She moved as if to leave but he caught her arm.
“Just this once,” he said. “You can’t see everything from the outside.” He pointed to a meager collection of salt and pepper shakers on a narrow shelf above the stove—all cutely brazen animals. Then to a potholder with a seriously burned corner.
“Five minutes,” Liz said, jerking free. Unable to resist, she raised her camera to take six photographs of the poisons under the sink. Then the kitchen sink itself.
He left her and walked into the next room, a sort of parlor. White bookshelves were filled with National Geographics and mostly smart people’s books:, Hillary Mantel, Robert Caro, Cees Nooteboom, Witold Rybczynski, John Banville, Murakami, Bolano, Krugman, Tolstoy. No mysteries. No “summer books.” Every book bristled with a bookmark and when he turned to that page it was also dog-eared as if the reader in the house stopped before the end of each story. Surely it wasn’t possible that someone could live with all these unknown endings.

He called out for Liz to join him. “Only another minute,” he promised when she appeared. As she scanned the shelves, he said “Notice that every book has a dog-eared page also marked with a bookmark.”
When Liz pulled Anna Karenina off the shelf, it fell open on its own.
“Maybe we should leave a note, explaining how each story ends?” he said. “We want you to know that Anna (after p. 224) leaves her husband of the big ears and her beloved young son for Vronsky who turns out to be a cad, which leads Anna to commit suicide.”
“Anna wanted to change her mind in those last moments,” Liz said.
He said he didn’t remember it that way.
He pulled out Home, one of his favorite books, and put it back. “But why did they stop reading?” he wanted to know. All these unfinished stories frozen in place.”
As if to ignore what he’d just said, or to confound the house’s incurious readers, with a grandiose gesture Liz plucked out the bookmarks from one entire shelf and stuffed them into her windbreaker’s pocket.
“Don’t,” he said.
She took more photographs. “Don’t what?” she said. She took more bookmarks. Her pocket bristled with them. “You brought me here.”

“That’s all I did.” Colt retraced his steps to the mudroom to make sure he’d closed the door behind them. Returning, he stumbled over a single two-by-four propped just inside the doorframe. He dragged it over to a tiny window to see it in the light.

On the first four-inch side, unevenly-spaced horizontal lines rose from the bottom. Each line had a name and a number: Sam, age two, age three, four, five, six, up to ten and each age was accompanied by a date. Sam was ten and tall this past summer. Slowly Colt turned the two-by-four. Ben’s side was next. He was now eight. Zoe’s narrower side was next. She was four last summer. Colt pictured their father holding them still, his hand on their rounded tummies, then using a ruler and pencil to mark how much they had grown in the past year. Each kid would step away, eager to see their progress. It was evidence of a real summer family–now a winter family somewhere else.

“Colt. Colt. Where are you?” Liz’s voice rang out. And then she was there, her gaze sweeping up and down the two-by-four, asking what he was holding in his hand.
“A family record,” he said. “Here, read it.” He toppled it toward her and she was forced to catch it.
“Sam,” she read, “age ten,” and stricken, stopped.
“And Ben and Zoe,” Colt said, pointing to the penciled lines. “Look how fast they are growing.”
“Where did you find this?” Liz said, her voice breaking. “We need to leave. Charlie doesn’t need to be put to the test.”

But the test was for himself. His heart was forever gone from this venture. “Liz, Liz,” he said, taking the two-by-four from her, leaning it back in place. “When we’re out here photographing other people’s houses, our own house is empty.” He turned her around and gathered her into his arms, her boxy camera a dark and silent heart between them.

She closed her eyes.

“I won’t do this again,” he said.

“Don’t leave me,” she said into his chest. The camera had to be hurting her as it was hurting him. He held her tighter for now.

Photo: “Still Life With a Mattress” by anasararojas; licensed under CC BY 2.0