Fantasy Literary Fiction Love

The Diorama

By James Van Pelt
Feb 15, 2019 · 6,932 words · 26 minutes

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn via Unsplash.

From the author: Restrictive neighborhood covenants protect property values and maintain a sense of propriety in a subdivision, but they also allow the most controlling people power that they can't resist. Maybe not everyone wants to be like everyone else. Maybe that's a good thing.


"Black!  Black!  He's painting the house black!"  Owen glared through his picture window at Gary's house across the street.  Emma, reading a Roads West magazine grunted as she pushed herself out of the recliner. 

"You're smudging," she said.  Owen pulled his hands off the glass, then she buffed his marks away with a handkerchief she produced from her jean's pocket.  He thought about saying a woman her age shouldn't wear jeans, but decided he didn't want to start that argument again. 

She said, "And that looks more like navy to me.  No one would paint a house black."  She tucked the hankie back in her pants as she looked out the window.  "Of course, navy would be just as bad."

"Navy?  You're out of your mind, Emma.  He's painting it black, and he's doing it to spite me because of the houseboat."

"With all those trees in the way, I can't tell."

"I'm not talking about the trees.  Who cares about the trees?  I can live with trees.  Can't you see what color he's using?"

"I'm old, not blind.  Might be navy, might be black.  Why don't you talk to him?"  Emma walked back to her magazine, removed her brass page marker, sat down in the chair and then adjusted her reading glasses.  "Not that he'll listen to you anyway."

"I will.  I'm on my way right now."  Owen slammed the heavy, burglar resistant door behind him.

He winced at the brightness of the unseasonably warm early October afternoon, and almost instantly a prickle of sweat formed on his forehead and the back of his neck.  He tugged at the bottom of his tie while holding the knot firmly against his throat, buttoned his grey suit-coat's middle button, then checked the shine on his patent leather shoes for scuffs.  When he reached the sidewalk he looked back at his own house, a sand-tan with sienna trim, plain Colonial two-story, much like every other house on the block.  He could see Emma reading inside.  She didn't look up. 

Owen marched across the street and onto the twigs and leaves beneath Gary's trees where the temperature seemed ten degrees cooler, and the paint-filled air smelled like silver polish.  Gary perched awkwardly, high on an aluminum extension ladder.  He sprayed paint onto the gutter and then pulled a foot wide swath of black down the side of the house almost to his feet.  Then he sprayed the next section of gutter and added another broad ribbon of black to the side of the house.  The asphalt shingles on the roof were already painted.  From the spray gun in Gary's hand hung a rubber hose that led to a chrome and blue power sprayer hunched like a metal mosquito over a five-gallon bucket, its proboscis buried deep in the paint.

Gary painted the five feet of siding from the corner of the house toward the first bedroom window while Owen, with his arms crossed on his chest, watched, waiting to be noticed.  The window wasn't covered, and Owen wondered how Gary was going to avoid spraying the glass when he reached it, but Gary didn't break his rhythm: he continued the same pattern, painting the window and brown frame a solid, flat black.

"You can't do this," Owen announced.  Gary looked down, his face covered with a dust mask and oversized goggles.

"Ah, Owen."  He clambered down the ladder, dropped the gun in a bucket that smelled of lacquer thinner, pushed the goggles onto his forehead then pulled the face mask onto his neck.  Where they hadn't protected his skin, his wrinkled face was grey with over-spray and so were the few normally white hairs that fell out of his baseball cap.  He was a tall, skinny man whose most notable features were his hands, long fingered and huge knuckled, arthritic looking; they constantly moved, picking things up, setting them down, rubbing his chin, scratching his chest.  The two times Owen had talked to Gary, once at a homeowners' meeting and the other during a short but heated discussion on the street, he had found it hard not to watch them. 

"Would you give me some help with the ladder?"  Gary asked.  Owen pushed his hands deep into his armpits and scowled.  Gary shrugged, pulled the ladder upright and clanged it a few feet further down the house.  He said, "Still steamed over the houseboat aren't you?"

"What are you doing?"

"Here?  I'm painting, of course."

"No, I mean what do you think you're doing."

"You don't like the color?"

"Yes, I don't like the color.  I hate the color.  What are you doing?"

Gary bent over a box with four one-gallon cans in it, pulled one out and pried the lid off with a screwdriver.  He poured it into the five-gallon bucket.  "Color's a matter of taste, don't you think?  But if it's any of your business, which it isn't, this is just an undercoat."

"You painted the window."

"No law against that.  Now, at least, I won't have to clean it."  Gary opened and emptied a second one-gallon can.

"Don't think you're so smart.  The Neighborhood Association will have something to say about this." 

Gary "hmphed."  He pushed the screwdriver into his back pant's pocket and slid the goggles over his eyes.  "Coming from their impeached past president?  Why don't you wait and see what it looks like when I'm done?"

"I won't like it, and they won't either, this breach of the covenants.  We have a nice neighborhood."

"Depends on what you like, I guess."  Gary covered his mouth with the dust mask.  "You need a hobby, Owen.  Retirement is making you an old man."

"Old man!"                                         

"Well, I know it's an insult to the elderly, but it's the worst I can think of right now."  He picked the spray gun out of the bucket, shook the lacquer thinner off and put a foot on the first rung of the ladder.  "By the way, Owen, when I retired I gave all my suits and ties to the Goodwill, but even when I was working I wouldn't wear them on a Saturday."  He climbed back to the gutter.

Owen's ear hurt from pressing the phone against it for ten minutes.  Emma said, "Why don't you hang up and try later?"  He turned his back to her.  The city building's tape of music for people on hold started over, a medley of old Rolling Stone's tunes done with violins and French horns.  He grimaced again at the coincidence of the first song, a syrupy, upbeat rendition of "Paint it Black."

The line clicked.  "City Manager Lisa Younger here, what can I do for you this time Mr. Burrows."

"I pay taxes.  I vote.  I don't expect to be on hold until you get around to answering your calls.  That's what you can do for me." 

Momentarily, the line between them whispered with tiny sounds, ghost voices.  "I'm sorry.  They had a hard time tracking me down."

"Gary Guy's painting his house black.  Stop him."

"The fellow with the houseboat and the hot air balloon?  Really?  Black?"

"Yes.  Flat black."  Owen stretched the cord from the wall phone so he could look out the picture window.  "Trim, windows and front door.  He started three hours ago and the front's all black now.  Our covenants specifically forbid 'decorations that are not consistent with the general tenor of the neighborhood.'"  Owen heard a shuffling of papers on her end.

Lisa said, "Decorations, according to city code, are 'Lawn ornaments and seasonal displays associated with holidays,' like Christmas lights or Halloween jack-o-lanterns.  Paint is not considered a decoration.  What do your covenants say about general upkeep?"

Owen thumbed through the fifty-page pamphlet he had almost single-handedly drafted four years ago when he bought the first house in the sub-division.  "Um.  'Homeowners will maintain paint, siding, brickwork or other accruements to the main structure in new or near-new condition.'  There isn't anything specifically referring to color, but the intent of the covenants is to maintain the appearance of the neighborhood.  He can't just willy-nilly paint his house a different color.  Earth tones!  Natural earth tones are our choices.  I give everyone who moves in a list of suggested color combinations if they decide to repaint.  Good quality Sherwin-William colors."

"He's not done yet, you said?"

"No."

"Even if we could do something, which I'm not sure we can, as long as he's still in the act of painting we can't very well judge the final job.  Maybe he's just putting on a first coat."

"He said it was an undercoat, but the windows and door...and the roof!  He painted the roof, and it was already black. They don't get painted no matter what he's planning for the rest of the house.  He's loony, and he's ruining the neighborhood.  You've got to do something now."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Burrows.  Maybe your homeowner association should meet with him.  The city can't look at the house as long as he's still working on it.  If there are no violations of the code, and your homeowners group doesn't appeal to us, there's nothing we can do.  He's not doing any construction, is he?  If he's building, then we could inspect the work."

"No, just paint."

"We're stuck, then.  Sorry.  If it's as bad as you say it is, someone else will complain too.  With your history with Gary Guy, you might be better to stay away from him."

"I don't need advice, I need the city to do its job."

Owen pushed the cut-off button, ending the City Manager's chance to apologize again and made a mental note to send a letter to the city council about Lisa Younger's job performance.  Emma stood at the window beside him.  The setting sun seemed to rest on the peak of Gary's house and shined directly through the grove of oak, casting shadows into their living room.  The house itself looked like a hole where a house had been, like the house had retreated backward and left a space that hadn't missed it yet.

Emma said, "A completely black house.  You don't see that often.  What a wonder."

A week later, the neighborhood association's meeting was a disaster, Owen thought.  First, President Phuong Kim Nguyen hosted, and his wife served punch in plastic champagne glasses with detachable bottoms that were left over from their daughter's wedding two weeks earlier.  Owen felt some obvious resentment from her, which he recognized stemmed from his opposition at the last meeting to the reception in their backyard on the grounds that the street would be cluttered with too many cars. 

He was sure that she spilled the punch on him, and gave him a glass whose bottom kept dropping off, intentionally.

Secondly, Roger Bing, who he could always depend upon to second his motions, stayed home with a stomach virus, and thirdly, no one else seemed as alarmed about the painting of the house.  Elston Newkirk, the elementary school principal, pointed out that Gary was still painting, and the house was obviously not going to be black when he finished.  Elston said, "Why, just today, when I drove by, he was using brown paint."

The real mess, though, came from the next item on the agenda, the treasurer's report.  Vonda Heaton read the total from the monthly income of association dues and the expenses, which, besides the normal landscaping service fees, included a large payment to Fenton and Associates, a law firm.  Carol Craft asked to be recognized, stood, locked her eyes to a position four or five feet above everyone's head, her normal speaking stance, inhaled deeply and delivered a well-rehearsed speech.  Owen saw her husband mouthing the words with her as she spoke. 

"I believe that since the debt to Fenton and Associates was entered into by our past president illegally, such illegality being demonstrated by our homeowners group's decision to oust said president, that the aforementioned president should not only be personally responsible for the debt but also repay the treasury the money he used to obtain the initial consultation, such action being neither presented to or approved by said homeowners.  Our bylaws giving the president such broad powers as to act without us should be amended retroactively." 

Everyone applauded.  All eyes were on Vonda.  They scrupulously avoided looking at him.

Owen stood, picked up his coat, began moving toward the door and said, "Gary Guy's houseboat didn't belong on the street!"

"You didn't have to try and sue him with our money to prove it!"  said somebody, maybe Elston.  "Yeah!" yelled someone else, and then the room erupted in angry shouting.  President Nguyen grabbed a brass chip-and-dip serving plate and clanged it repeatedly on the top of the coffee table, sending a spray of chip dust and guacamole onto the carpet.  "Neighbors, neighbors," he said.  The room silenced.  His wife looked horrified at the coffee table finish.

"I hope your property values fall," said Owen, as he opened the door.

"I'm not wrong about this, am I, Emma?"  Owen looked out the window.  "They hate me, and I did it for their good."  He was sitting on the love seat that he had pulled in front of the picture window a week ago.  A huge pair of binoculars rested on the windowsill within easy reach.  The sun had set two hours earlier,  but Owen could see Gary was still painting.  A Coleman lantern on a stool to his side cast a harsh light filled with sharp-edged shadows.

Emma had been reading when Owen came in, her feet curled up beneath her on the recliner, and she hadn't glanced up when he sat down heavily.  He heard her close her magazine.  She moved onto the love seat with him, put her hand on his shoulder and said softly, "Of course not.  You're not wrong.  You're clumsy, though.  You didn't use to be so clumsy.  You used to take time to consider."

He shrugged her hand off.  "They hate me."  He picked up the binoculars and peered through them.  Gary bent over a palette, dabbed a wadded rag into a color and applied it to the wall.  "What the hell is he doing?  Is that a tree he's doing?  Here!"  He thrust the instrument into Emma's hands.  "You tell me what he's doing."

"Don't bark at me, Owen, and I won't peep at Gary Guy because you're mad at the homeowners."  She handed him back the binoculars.  "As a matter of fact, it is a tree.  A California White Oak.  Some people call it Valley Oak.  I asked him about it."

"You talked to him?  What are you doing talking to him?  What was he doing in my house?  The maniac might have strangled you, or . . . or . . . painted you or anything."

She laughed.  "You are ridiculous sometimes.  He'd been working all afternoon and I took over a beer.  We talked for twenty minutes.  He's doing a whole forest."

"A mural.  The maniac is painting a mural on the front of a house in Cherry Hills.  Across the street from me he is painting a mural like the side of a cheap restaurant?  And you didn't say anything?"

"What would be the point?  You haven't listened to me in years.  And if you won't be civil, I won't tell you the rest."

Owen leaned toward her, opened his mouth to speak, sort of coughed instead, and fell back into the loveseat.

She said, "It's not a mural: it's a diorama, and he plans on finishing it by early November.  He said he got the idea from the Museum of Natural History."  Emma took the binoculars back and focused them.  "See, he's doing a limb now.  I imagine he'll be on a ladder later to get the high parts.  The idea, he said, is to make the trees in his yard blend into the forest on the house.  That way you won't be able to tell where one stops and the other starts, just like at the museum with the stuffed animals."

"Why would he do such a crazy thing?  He can't sell a house like that.  The city will have to act now.  That used to be a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood."

"Oh, I'm sure he is going to change it back after November.  He said that he won't need it after then."

"What does that mean?"

"Just that the project will be done, I guess, and he'll be able to go on to something else.  You know he only flew the hot-air balloon once.  When he finishes one thing, he dismantles it and starts another."

"A balloon in his backyard was bad.  The houseboat was bad.  But they were only there for a little bit.  He's ruining his house."  Owen looked from Emma to the window suddenly.  "Ha!  The trees!  The trees!"

"What?  What?"

"He planted the trees a year ago.  Are you going to tell me that he's been planning this project for a year?  And that he will just clean it up when he is done?  He must have some other idea in mind.  No one works for a year on a whim.  Everybody is the same.  They all want to get something.  Look at me.  Years and years in the bank, and all that time I dressed nice, talked nice, and kept up appearances while you and I lived in rentals, one horrible rental after another, but I worked with a plan.  We got this house because of that plan, and now we live in a neighborhood as good as anybody's.  So I'll bet he's got some plan in mind.  Nobody buys a beautiful house just to paint it black.  Either he's after me, or he's crazy, or he's got some plan.  Why he can't retire gracefully and enjoy the fruits of his labor is beyond me."

"He said he didn't want to die in that house."

"He's sick?"

"He said that the neighborhood looked like a mausoleum."  She laughed again.  Owen hated it when she laughed at him.  "He said you looked like an undertaker."

"Well I say he looks like an idiot."

Emma walked away toward their bedroom.  "Maybe so, but he's a nice man.  Very polite.  I liked his tree."

Four days later, Roger Bing and Owen draped their arms over the top of the fence separating their backyards from their front yards.  They watched Gary across the street on his hands and knees painting in some detail they couldn't discern.  Roger wore a shapeless, floppy, wide-brimmed lady's hat that completely shaded his upper body.  He had said, when the doctor scraped a small carcinoma off the side of his nose the year before, that he figured the sun was out to get him.

Roger said, "Have you been over there lately?  He's got it so the ground just keeps going into the painting.  Damndest thing.  We're standing about five feet from the house looking at what he's done, and he says to me, 'See those five leaves?'  and I says, 'Sure, they're yellow.'  And he says, "How many of them are real and how many of them are painted?'  Well, this is quite a shock to me because I thought they were all real.  So I studied them extra careful, like it's a driver test.  Do you know we got to take that damn vision test every time we renew now?  You'd think they're saying because we're over sixty-five we're incompetent or something . . . "

"What about the leaves?"

"Right.  Anyways, I'm looking at the leaves, which are in a row, almost lined up, and I can't tell where the base of the house is!  He's matched the colors.  I mean, there are leaves lying on the ground from those damned trees of his, and he's painted leaves lying on the ground so they look the same.  So I check them out from where I'm standing, and I say three of them are real.  It's a guess.  But he laughs at me and says, 'Only one is real.'  I get down to look, and he's right.  When I get close, it's obvious, but from more than five feet, you can't tell."

"That doesn't sound so great to me.  Sounds like you shouldn't be driving anymore.  What does it matter anyways?  In another couple of weeks he's going to have to clean it all off.  The city will get him, or the neighborhood association.  The man's obviously mad."  Owen pulled his own hat lower on his forehead.  The grass seemed visibly wilted in the heat.

"What's going on between Emma and him?"  said Roger.

"There's nothing going on.  She gave him a beer and he gave her a ear-full about trees."  Owen spoke languidly.  The autumn heat made him feel lazy and slow.

"Oh."

A yellow jacket took off from its nest in Roger's gutter and flew almost in Owen's face before veering away.  He waved a hand at it.

"When are you going to clean those things out?  They start breeding and then you never get rid of them."

"Maybe next week."  Roger didn't move.  "I've seen her over there several times."

Owen suddenly became alert.  "Really?"

"Sure.  Ever since he started painting.  Most the time in the morning.  Don't you go to the Veteran's Hall in the morning?  They sit on the ground and yak it up like a couple of gossips.  'Course I can't hear a word they're saying."

"Why should she do that?"

"Who knows.  Maybe what's good for the goose is good for the gander."  Roger turned his head on its ear and looked at Owen slyly.  He was half smiling.

"That was a hundred years ago.  And she's an old woman anyways."  Owen paused.  "And where do you get off with that kind of talk?  I have half a mind to paste you one."

Roger sighed and put his chin back on his forearm.  "It's just words, Owen.  Just a joke."  He straightened up.  "I guess I ought to finish this lawn.  If winter'll ever get here I can quit mowing."

Owen pushed away from the fence too.  "Enjoy the Indian summer.  Can't last."  He headed for the back door. 

Roger's voice drifted over the fence.  "Even an old dog'll wander off sometimes, Owen."

The next morning, Owen settled into the loveseat next to the binoculars.  From the kitchen came glassy clinks and dishwater swishing.

"Isn't it about time for you to go?" called Emma.  He imagined her blouse sleeves were rolled up above her elbows and her hands were hidden deep in the murky water.

"Those old fogies.  A few rounds of canasta and they're ready for naps.  I'll stay home today."  The noises stopped for a moment, then resumed.

"Are you feeling alright?"  she asked.

He picked up the binoculars and focused them through the window.  Gary appeared to be standing at what used to be the front step of his house, except now the grey sidewalk didn't stop at the door but continued on, curving slightly through a flowered meadow until it vanished a hundred yards farther in a dense thicket.  All the trees, and there were hundreds of them now, glowed as if in direct sunlight.  Their yellow and red leaves seemed almost a flame across the house.  The shadows of the closest trees cast purple streaks across the meadow. 

Gary pulled a note pad from his overall's pocket, flicked it open and consulted one of the pages.  Then he bent down, tugged on what looked like a tent peg with a string running from it to the base of one of the trees and moved it over a couple of inches.  He walked down the front of the house, first looking at his notebook, and then shifting each of the pegs with strings on them that stretched from the real trees to the wall.

The binoculars limited Owen's vision so that he could see nothing other than Gary's painting.  The illusion of gazing into a mountain oak forest was almost perfect.  The real trees blended into the painted ones.  Owen rested the eye-pieces on his cheekbones and peered over the lenses.  The effect vanished.  The neighboring houses, prim, plain and proper gave Gary's property a weird, surreal frame.  But Owen had been looking through the binoculars for so long that it took him a moment to shake the impression that the forest was correct and that the neighborhood around it was out of place. 

Owen's front door opened, and he sat up.  His back popped and he lowered the binoculars gingerly to his lap.  His elbows had stiffened.  Emma stood, one foot in and one out.  A picnic basket hung from her hand.

"What are you doing?"  Owen asked.

She held up the basket and nodded her head across the street.

"How do you think it looks, you being seen over there while he's making a fool of me?"

"He's not even thinking of you, Owen.  If you thought about yourself half as much as you think about him, maybe you'd see more."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Just that you should pay attention to your own house.  That's all."

"So, you're siding with him.  Is that it?"

Emma put the basket outside and sat on the doorsill.  Owen could see the curve of her back and a fall of wispy white hair that covered her collar.  She didn't say anything for some time.       She said, "Do you remember right after we married when you wanted to take that job in Ontario, and I said it was a bad idea?"

Owen answered cautiously, "Yes."

"I made lots of excuses: I wanted my kids to be American; I didn't want to be away from my folks; I didn't like cold weather; I didn't know French.  But the real reason I didn't want to go was because I was afraid of changing my picture of the future."  She hunched over.  Owen guessed that she had her arms wrapped around her knees, but he couldn't see for sure.  "I had this vision of the way my life was going to go, and Ontario wasn't part of it."

"You were right.  Ontario was a bad idea."

"Maybe, except we never had kids, my folks died, and I'm cold all the time now."

"You still don't know French."

"No, I don't."

"What's your point?"

"When we argued about going, you said that you didn't want to live, work and die in the same place.  You said that if we didn't keep our options open to 'the magic of possibility,' we'd just fade away.  'The magic of possibility.'  I remembered that.  You always could turn a phrase."  She started rocking.  Her ear appeared, then vanished.  He glimpsed the side of her face.  "It seems to me that somewhere in the last fifty years, we've switched positions."

"I kept you in new clothes.  You always looked good."

"I don't want that on my tombstone:  'She wore new clothes.'"

"Jesus!  Everybody is talking about dying lately.  What's this got to do with Gary?"

She turned, faced him and braced herself with one hand on the floor inside the house.  Owen thought it a very girlish maneuver.  It reminded him of when they had met.  She had been sitting on the end of a dock at Smallee Lake, tossing stale donuts to the ducks.  She had turned and looked at him like that when she felt his footsteps behind her.

"He's leaving, I think.  Pretty soon.  Maybe in the next couple of days.  I don't want him to believe that no one cared.  You know, he's been our neighbor for four years, and all he's gotten is anger.  His wife dies and nobody brings him a casserole.  Two months later you're threatening to sue him because he parked a houseboat where you could see it.  It doesn't feel just."

"The damn thing blocked the whole street.  You practically had to drive on my sidewalk to get around it."

"Well, you didn't have to bring in the lawyers.  His children stopped him. He had this idea about selling the house and getting away, and it turns out that his children convinced a judge that he wasn't competent.  Can you imagine that?  He's on an allowance now.  He sold everything to buy the trees."

"Where's he going?"

"I don't know.  He says he's getting away from it all though, somewhere the children won't find him."  She took a deep breath, held it, then let it out in a rush.  "He's not crazy, but I think he believes he can walk into that painting.  He hasn't actually said that's what he's going to do, but he talks like that's what he wants to happen.  He tells it like a story.  He said, 'What if the sun was just right?'  I don't know what he means by that.  But he said,  'What if the sun was just right? and my attitude was right, and I only had a few seconds where I could slip in?'"

Emma looked at him, as if waiting for him to contradict her, then continued, "When that doesn't work, he'll go someplace else.  He's talked about a ranch in Washington where he used to go, an artist's colony.  He said you don't have to be an artist to go there, that you don't have to be any more an artist than me, but that the people listen to each other, and they don't push each other around.  Either way, his kids will be stuck with a house that needs a new paint job.  That seems fair."

"You don't think that's crazy?"

"When he talks, he makes sense.  He says you got to believe in what you're doing, and not care what other people say.  He says he's on the edge of knowing enough to do what he wants to do and being too old to do it.  He says that most people don't even know when they cross the border, but that's what it is.  I like listening to him."

"I don't want you going over there."

"I know." 

She got up, picked the basket off the front stoop, closed the door behind her and walked down their sidewalk, and across the street.  Gary came out from beneath the trees and met her.  She said something to him and he shaded his eyes, looking in Owen's direction.  Gary waved, clearly a "come on over" wave.  Emma stood motionless beside him, then she waved too.  Owen clenched his jaw, straightened his back very stiff and didn't move.

In bed that night, Owen opened his eyes and read the time, 1:40 a.m., on the digital alarm on the dresser.  A distant hum from the refrigerator, and the measured ticking of the "antique" grandfather clock they had bought new at Penny's were all he heard at first.  The less prominent background noises soon sorted themselves out: a train passing through a half-mile away, a siren, a breeze wiping the house, his own pulse in his ears, and, finally, Emma's even breathing.

He had watched them eat their little picnic.  Gary had spread a drop-cloth under the trees; she had taken from the basket a thermos, a small cheese board, a quarter wheel of Longhorn cheddar (all that was left from a present from the Bings), a knife, two coffee cups and a box of crackers.  They smiled often as they ate.  Occasionally Emma looked over her shoulder toward him.  He knew that she knew he was watching, so, eventually, he put the binoculars down and went to the basement.  There, among lumpy, misshapen cardboard boxes filled with clothes they no longer wore and newspapers they intended to give to the Boy Scouts on the next paper drive, he found what he was looking for, a photo album.

Most of the pictures were from a trip they had taken during the summer of '63, twenty-six years ago, to south-west Colorado.  Here was a picture of Emma at Four Corners with one foot in Colorado, one in Utah, a hand in New Mexico and another in Arizona.  Here was a picture of Owen standing in front of a kiva entrance at Mesa Verde.  He had one hand jauntily on his hip and the other pointed down the ladder.  Here was a picture of the two of them at the base of Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride.  The mist from the falling water nearly obscured them, and they were hunched over, their hands pulling their collars tight against their necks.  They were laughing.  He couldn't remember now who had snapped the picture.

He hadn't heard Emma come in, and he, in fact, did not come upstairs until the middle of the afternoon.  She had been reading and did not acknowledge him when he passed through the room.  Dinner was polite. 

The album was beneath the bed.  He thought about showing it to her in the morning.  He thought about what it would be like to lay in the bed without the quiet, continuous presence of her breathing.  Yes, he thought, he needed to pay closer attention to his own house.

Things would be better when Gary left. 

A sound woke Owen up.  Grey morning light faintly illuminated the dresser, the posts on the bed, a bentwood rocker with lace arm sleeves by the window, and on the wall a seascape Emma had painted years ago.  He strained to hear the sound again.  There was silence.  He knew she was gone without looking; he swung his feet out from under the covers and grabbed his robe from behind the bedroom door.

"Emma!" 

He walked briskly from room to room.  He wanted to run, but what if Emma stepped out of a door and saw him, running?  What would she think?  What would she say to him?

She would say, "Owen, why are you running?  What will the neighbors think when they hear you were tearing around your own house at the break of dawn?"

He threw open a bathroom door and the spring door-stop buzzed on the rebound.

He paused at the top the stairs.  The living room was empty.  Her magazines were neatly stacked beside the recliner.  His binoculars were in the case by the loveseat.

"Emma?"

He tip-toed down, suddenly afraid to make a noise.  The carpet scratched at the bottom of his feet.  The balustrade slid smoothly beneath his hand.

He looked into the kitchen.  The rising sun flushed the curtain over the back door window.  The light streaked the polished linoleum.

Then he ran.

The front door was ajar.

Slanting sunlight turned Gary's trees a mellow, softer color than Owen had seen before.  He sprinted down the sidewalk, his robe untied, flapping behind him.  The street stung his feet.

"Emma!"

He thought he saw a movement at the end of Gary's painted trail, the trail into the mountain forest, a flash of color like a ray of sun on the backs of two people a hundred yards away in the painting.

The leaves skittered beneath him.  A breeze creaked branches in the trees above, and for an instant it seemed like the trees in the painting swayed too.  The sun cast long shadows from the real trees that exactly matched the shadows painted on the meadow. 

He skidded to a halt.  "Oh god.  Oh god.  Oh god."  He stood on the sidewalk, peering into the painting.  In the distance the rising sun caught the face of a snowcapped range of mountains, reflecting orange and blue.  A deep purple and black gash marked a pass, a place for the path he was on to go through.  "Oh god!"  He closed his eyes and ran forward.

The front door slammed him down on his rear, and his left cheekbone and eyebrow swelled his eye shut instantly.

He sat with his legs spread and straight before him, his hands braced on the sidewalk behind.  His left hand hurt.  He brought it up to where his right eye could see it.  A chunk of gravel was imbedded in the middle of a broad, red scrape on the heel.  He shook the stone out and then felt his cheekbone and eyebrow.

He rolled onto his knees then forced himself upright.  The doorknob was a bright, meadow green, but was easily visible this close.  He turned it.  Light spilled through into the empty living room.  There was no furniture.  In the kitchen he found a card table with one folding chair pulled up to it.  A single plate and cup rested in the drying rack next to the sink.  His lungs felt like they were filling up with water.  Each breath bubbled.

His footsteps, soft as they were, echoed.  He turned on lights as he went, and for a moment couldn't figure out why the house was so dark, until he remembered that the windows were covered with paint.  Upstairs, in the master bedroom, was a bedsprings and mattress lying directly on the floor.  The bed was made.  All of Gary's belongings could have fit in the back of a small truck.

Owen sat on the edge of Gary's bed.  He realized that the house was exactly like his.  The design was the same.  Without furniture, there was no difference.   He lay down on his side, and then on his stomach.  His knees were on the floor.  His face pressed into the bedspread that smelled of lacquer thinner.

After a while, he got up, shuffled through the house turning off lights and shutting doors, locked the front door, crossed the street, went inside and sat in the loveseat.  He stared out the window, unfocussed for an hour.  Eventually, he picked up the binoculars and pointed them at the forest.  The left eyepiece he canted away from the swollen side of his face.

The next morning, just before dawn, Owen waited under the trees.  He wore new hiking boots, new jeans, a bright blue backpack over a new flannel shirt, and his old yard-work cap.  He shivered.  Frost edged the leaves and a wind swirled some of them into the air.  He could smell the inevitability of snow although there were no clouds.  Indian Summer had broken.

A sliver of sun popped over the peak of his house.  He adjusted the shoulder straps.  Shafts of light fell through the limbs and remaining leaves of the oaks.  He faced the painting, half embarrassed to be standing there but fully resolute to do something insane.

The light grew and he watched.  The trees in the painting stood still, exquisite, convincing, but still.  They never rustled like they had for an instant yesterday.  The wind didn't touch them.  He watched the shadows from the real trees.  They didn't quite line up to the shadows of them painted on the meadow now.  Where they first touched the house the difference was minute, a fraction of an inch, but perceptible.  Yesterday, the shadows matched perfectly, but the earth had moved on.  They shadowed the painting; they never lay down as if there were no wall there.  When the sun cleared his house completely, he took off the backback and dropped it on the ground.  He laced his hands on top of his head like a prisoner of war and walked home.

Later that morning, the phone rang.  He listened to it for a long time, ten rings, before lifting himself out of the loveseat.

"Mr. Burrows?  This is City Manager, Lisa Younger.  I have some good news for you."

"Yes," he said dully.

"About the matter of Gary Guy's house, I had a man go by and take some photographs, and I think we can make a case that he's violated the city's sign code.  We ought to be able to get the sheriff to serve him papers forcing him to change it, or we can condemn the property and do the job ourselves.  Also, your homeowner's association president, Mr. Nguyen, came by with a formal request for the city to enforce your covenants.  Either way we go, the place should be back to normal in a couple of weeks."

He said nothing for a moment, then he rubbed his forehead.  "You can repaint it without his permission?"

"Yes."

"What if you can't find him?"

"It won't matter.  We can condemn the house anyway."

"No."

"Excuse me?"

"You can't change the house."  He gripped the receiver tightly.  "The house has to stay the same.  It has to stay like that for a year."

"But, Mr. Burrows, we wouldn't be involved if you hadn't given me a call.  We've gone to a lot of trouble at your request."

He thought.  "Do you know the law firm of Fenton and Associates?"

"Yes."

He extended the phone cord from the wall to the window so he could see Gary's house.  "Well, if you try and change that house . . . that . . . work of art, I'll have a court order from them blocking you every which way to Sunday."

"Mr. Burrows, it doesn't fit into your neighborhood.  It doesn't match the appearance of the other houses."

He started to speak, paused, and then said, "Who cares what the neighborhood looks like?"

Her voice was amazed.  "You did.  Have you lost . . . I mean . . . changed your mind?"

Owen saw his new backpack still sitting beside Gary's house.  A pile of leaves partially covered it now.  He made a mental note to go pick it up.

"We'll have to consider that possibility," he said.

This story originally appeared in TransVersions.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."

  • 1 Comment
  • K.G. Anderson
    February 17, 3:58am

    The build-up to the magical element in this story is slow, but the richness of the characterization makes it all work. A highly satisfying ending!