The House Behind
We found an adaptation of a detective novel on TV, a director with an eye for unsettling images. Soon Kristina was asleep. The film took place in Montana or Wyoming, but noir-shifted: black-and-white alleyways, hissing manholes, seedy hotels, long pans of strip mines and silt-thickened rivers. In one scene, after the PI departed, a man down the block blurred into focus, closer and closer, ready to climb through the screen. But the frame froze and his disfigured face, one half swallowing the other, filled the TV for nearly a minute: an eyeball big as a golf ball, another small as a penny. I tried to look away. Then the PI was fleeing a shootout at night; a man with no face opened a door, they dashed through a house, burst out the front.
Kristina, jolted awake, touched my back, said, It’s okay, breathe. We’d been living together nearly a year; she’d accepted a job down in the desert, asked me to come. Please, I replied, anywhere but the desert, but a few weeks later she moved anyway. Why are you crying? she asked that night on the sofa. What did you see? Tell me what happened. Is it the thing?
That thing, that thing. That night when I was nine and called for my mother—if I hadn’t had to pee who knows what would’ve happened? My father was away on business. She appeared and led me down the hall. Though it was dark I saw, immediately, the figure beside the toilet. Who’s that? I must’ve said. My mother made an extraordinary sound, a bottomless gasp, hunched into herself as though vacuumed of her insides. She began to sway. The figure had hair, black shaking bangs, its face was puffy and wet like putty. My mother released my hand and, amidst sharp moonlight, followed it out of the bathroom. Despite my calling her, despite those countless searches that followed, she was never seen again.
They didn’t believe. Or rather, not everything. Not the psychiatrists, not Father, not the special investigators—nor, later, Kristina, nor Tom, who Father met three years ago. When Kristina took the job in the desert, Father said I had to go. Forget your job, he said, there’s always jobs. Get out. Go. Away from all this stuff. When I asked what he meant, this stuff, he frowned. For Christ’s sake fall in love! he shouted. Look at me! It’s true: thanks to Tom, Father smiles nowadays, cooks, likes baseball, volunteers at the nature preserve. Your mother, he once told me, wouldn’t’ve liked it, but she wouldn’t’ve stopped it either. That, now, is all that matters.
The plan had been I’d join her. But a week before, our apartment filled with boxes, I
backed out. Kristina pushed me once, said I had two months to change my mind. The day she departed, in her cramped little Omni, Father invited me to count pintail nests in the marshland. On the wooden walkway he grabbed my arm. Visit her, he said, your heart will change. Please, son, you’re thirty-six, you can’t linger in it forever.
But I’ve been down to the desert before, seen its unnerving things. A trip after college, a friend along the border, a shaky little town beside a massive chasm: lights glowing in the foothills, earth groaning with gas, air blurred by cottonwoods. The hills, said my friend, bubbled with methane. Because of rig-men from the Dakotas, the Panhandle, every fifth or sixth house kept women, occasionally men. Bad stuff, said my friend. What was he doing there? We met an oil-rig-man, hands and face filthy, in a neon-lit cantina. In the bathroom, he claimed, a woman charged ten bucks to let him touch her. She also sold tamales. He smiled, meat between his teeth.
Thankfully, when I went to urinate, no one was there. Stupid with liquor and pills, we
wandered about. Some houses had side doors, bare flickering bulbs. That, whispered my friend, is how you know. We listened, tiptoed, dashed at little sounds. No, I gasped as we ran. Did the whole town know? Where did the women come from? We ate more pills, found ourselves on his neighbors’ porch. All around, the wash of cottonwood trees. Hoarders, my friend whispered, they keep chickens inside, line the floor with newspaper. I tried the door: to my amazement, unlocked. I tiptoed in, a den crammed with stuff, piss-thick ammonia, newspapers crunching. A rifle on the window sill. What good is it there? I whispered, beginning to shake with giggles. My friend mimed violently for silence.
From somewhere in the house came the clucking of birds. Now my giggling ruptured, my friend turned and ran, and I lingered amidst the trash looking for chickens. In the morning I puked what must’ve been my insides. I know you’ve had your shit, said my friend, but I really really wonder if you can leave today instead of tomorrow. He was trying to sound polite. I’d wanted, I realized, to see the neighbors sleep.
Some nights she is living, I dream, in a Wal-Mart parking lot donation bin. Her face like a photograph, smeared with ooze but smiling. She sticks out a hand but the hand is not a hand: a person the size of a doll grows from her arm. It shakes and spews tar, like a grasshopper. For some reason, in the dream, I think Idaho. A town’s strange name even appears: Udlow. Udlow, Idaho. On a map I found this Udlow, read online it has no Wal-Mart, though a recent petition—“We need Wal-Mart!”—received three-hundred signatures. Had I heard this name, Udlow, before? I told my father about the dream, said I’d like to drive out west. His look tore open like a piece of old fruit, all the things we’ve undergone. Then he said, You will do no such thing.
Tom, who stayed clear of things by cooking in the kitchen, once said: I bet you’re tired, no one believing you. We were watching TV. Tears filled my eyes. Tom was still a stranger back then, had asked my father to move to Florida. Then he asked what I thought. I didn’t have to speak; he nodded and said, Okay. He talked a lot about his younger days, a big dumpy rental in a Pacific hippie town: Eugene, Oregon. Moss carpeted the roof, honeysuckle inched through windows. Back then everyone in Eugene, he said, knew some maniac with acid. A friend dated a man who became a killer. People came and went, ten bedrooms to fill. In one year, I had twenty-two roommates, said Tom, and never learned a name. There was an influenza incident,
people vomiting everywhere. Once, in the kitchen, he watched a woman come downstairs, face covered in blood. Did you go after her? we asked and Tom said, Natch, but she was gone.
We sometimes woke to sounds of neighbors’ sex, funny at first but soon I lurched from bed—was someone being bludgeoned? It’s been twenty-seven years, Kristina said, trying to understand. That’s just one-third, I replied. Of what? she asked. A life, I said. But now, she said, you’ve only got two-thirds left. . .
When, on the phone, I say I cannot sleep, she mails a package. Why am I sending this? she writes. Your choice, care for yourself. But inside I find a pamphlet on deep breathing, eucalyptus oil, Vitamin D tablets, a CD of oceanic tones. The return address features a street with a pretty name, Sonora Lane. I picture Sonora Lane, both of us there, a tall alien tree. She suggests the bakery we used to frequent, brown-black breads heavy with seeds. It will bring you peace, she writes. Warm it in the oven. Butter, blackberry jam—just before bed. Licorice tea. A postscript, double-underlined: You shit.
What does work are the little blue pills mailed by the friend in Texas. Sleep glows after those, comes on like winter whiting out farmland. I feel warm going down, filled with good oil, leave the lamp on so that, snapping awake, I don’t cry out in fear. I dream about standing over the rig-man from the cantina while he sleeps. About waking him with a little sound, listening as he calls to the dark, afraid of what comes next.
Then I find the show, a public access rerun from the nineties, reenactments of real-life
abductions. Not the usual fodder—aliens, pedophiles, ski masks—but unspeakable creatures: short quaking mammals, giants bounding from forests, figures not unlike the one in our bathroom all those years ago. The narrator calls them putty-men in a matter-of-fact tone as though naming a species of bear. Witnesses describe warped, melted features. The show, riddled with cheap effects, is hosted by a woman dressed like a bank teller but who works as a mystic, seated in an arboretum. The credits say Filmed/Produced in Fort Wayne, IN. I showed my father a segment on putty-men; he sat silently then spat, What is this shit? before storming to the kitchen. Come back, I called. The mystic read names of the mysteriously disappeared, sent by viewers, dozens scrolling past in blurry yellow font. Tom entered and sat, asked, Why’d you show him that? Father, in the kitchen, spoke. Tom softly told him to hush.
We are living amongst them, the woman concluded at each episode. An address flashed, a P.O. box in Fort Wayne: viewers could pitch their stories. I found myself mailing my mother’s. To my surprise, a response arrived, the old mystic still alive. She described a park in Fort Wayne, a dark place choked by oaks. Yet here, she wrote, she felt at peace with the horrors permeating our world. About the men and women—mostly men, she wrote—whose brains have been caramelized by rage. In this park, she once witnessed a man beat another with a chain, over and over, blood everywhere. The assailant dropped the chain and gaped at his hands while the man on the ground made horrible sounds. Across the park, wrote the woman, a little lapdog licked the face of a fat laughing guy. The man on the ground moaned. Then the mystic watched in terror as a shape climbed out of him and vanished up a tree. This is what she wrote: a shape climbed out of him and vanished up a tree. She approached the assailant. My hands, my hands! he sobbed. She had to call the police, did the man understand? He nodded. When she returned ten minutes later there he still stood, studying his hands.
I taped and mailed a putty-men segment to Kristina, 815 Sonora Lane, but it returned
unopened. When, I asked over the phone, had she moved? I wanted a smaller place, she said. Why didn’t you tell me? I asked. She replied, It’s been two months, isn’t this it?
I decided not to mention my discovery. I’d recently slipped through the hedges to try the neighbors’ door. Unlocked. The next day, again, unlocked. Kristina had often surveilled their backyard: Jacuzzi, solar lights, big expensive dogs shitting and loping about. Surgeons or dentists or engineers, the woman fit and blonde, her husband overweight. The neighborhood hated their house, actually two: a little historic brick thing facing the street and a massive concrete annex behind it, dwarfing the trees, connected by an all-glass corridor. The couple’s heads appeared in the windows of the brick house, but never the annex. In the annex, at night, something glowed blue. One night, I swear I saw a man crowned with light pass down the corridor.
As is the case with such things, when I decided to go in, I was already in before I knew I was in. The entryway felt impossibly dark. The brick house’s air smelled awful; I’d expected scented candles, aromatic oils. I closed the door, inched down a hall, heard a TV or radio, that rich peoples’ trick to scare off intruders. The burbling voices eased me towards a den. Here the smell was strong, the walls filled with art. Behind, across the hall, something like a kitchen. The glass corridor led to the annex where, back in the dark, a third house sat, small but elaborate: tall as me, six feet wide, white with green shutters, windows the size of tiles. In the right place—Iowa, Indiana, Idaho—families are butchered in houses like these.
Hello? I must have called, kneeling to knock. The windows suddenly blazed blue. I screamed although I wasn’t afraid, shielded my eyes, pictured Father in his condo, sitting there, smiling. I suppose I could have kicked down the wall, but what if little people cowered inside? On my third knock the door inched open. A hum filled the room. Overhead in the real second house, footsteps thumped. Titters came from inside the third little house. I got on all fours. Yes, something was there. The brightness made me sick. Someone in the real house shouted. A little hand emerged and I saw, in the light, a miniature wristwatch. Someone had my legs, was tugging me back. But my head was already in, a tiny room burning with promise. Someone punched my sides. Things were screaming in the brightness. I saw two small detectives, perhaps their questions inspired the screaming, so much screaming. One of the detectives flicked his cigarette, stoking the blue light, and everything seemed to suddenly rise.
Jeff Frawley's writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Portland Review, Crab Creek Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bridge Eight, Storyscape, Storm Cellar and elsewhere. After receiving an M.F.A. from New Mexico State University, he served as a Fulbright Scholar in Budapest, Hungary, performing research for a novel. He lives in southern New Mexico.