|A Home for the Winter|
Albert J. Manachino
Mr. William Squarrel of the realty firm of Squarrel, Bonza, Berkowitz and Arrowsmith appraised his visitor without appearing to do so. He sat behind a mildly cluttered desk and smoked a mildly expensive cigar as was fitting and proper.
Mr. Harlan Jones stood in front of the desk as was also fitting and proper. Tentatively, Mr. James was accorded the twenty thousand dollar slot. The real estate agent generated his famous twenty thousand dollar smile and extended his arm for the twenty thousand dollar handshake. This was much firmer than the fifteen thousand dollar handshake and twice as firm as the ten thousand dollar handshake. A thirty thousand dollar client included the added distinction of Mr. Squarrel's arm about the shoulder in man-to-man negotiations and the intimacy of "Just call me Bill."
"Good evening, Mr. James; may we be of service to you?" He used the twenty thousand dollar voice.
Mr. James seemed ill at ease. A tongue darted quickly between lips that were, perhaps, a trifle too broad.
"Yes, you might be. My wife and I are looking for suitable quarters."
Mr. Squarrel manufactured a face that expressed just the proper mixture of regret and wistfulness that was calculated to inspire anxiety in a potential renter or buyer.
"Housing is very scarce at the moment but maybe we can find something for you." He lied with professional aplomb. "Do you have any children?"
Mr. James assured him they had not. An uncomfortable foot exchanged places with its partner on the carpet.
"I know it sounds callous but most of my clients are particularly adament on that one point. They simply do not want their property rented to families with children."
Mr. James was already aware of this. He forestalled the next question by volunteering the information; "We have no pets." Nervously he ran a hand through hair that was too heavily pomaded. A single strand broke free and kinked itself into a series of very tight waves. The realtor smiled knowingly to himself.
Outwardly, his expression remained as bland as the surface of a melon. "That is very helpful, perhaps we can accommodate you. What exactly is it that you have in mind? A nice modern studio apartment? A condominium? We even handle trailer park rentals."
"A house! It has to be a house. Preferably an older one, well secluded. Privacy is very important to me, the fewer inquisitive neighbors the better. I'm a writer working on a novel and I wish to be disturbed as little as possible."
Mr. Squarrel's face assumed an expression of sympathy with the ease and expertise of an experienced stagehand substituting one small prop for another. "I know exactly how it is. I'm an amateur writer myself; it's almost impossible to find a place free from distraction. What is your novel about?"
The question was an unexpected one and it caught Mr. James unprepared. He fumbled and then rather lamely, "I prefer not to reveal anything about it just now. It's too early, don't want to give anything away yet."
"I understand, can't be too careful." Mr. Squarrel doubted his visitor had ever written a line in his life or even intended to. "Ah well, good luck to you." An abrupt change of topic. "What price range were you considering?"
Mr. James mentioned a relatively modest figure. The realtor was not perturbed at all. This was merely the first step on the bargaining ladder. There were many more rungs to climb.
Mr. Squarrel reached for a display album. . .the green one. Green was the bargain basement. The middle priced rentals were housed in the red album and the expensive rentals, appropriately enough, were housed in the gold album.
He beckoned Mr., James to a chair beside him and opened the book at random. "An older house, you say? Secluded?"
"The house needn't be a very large one, there are only two of us."
"In older houses, the rents are pretty much the same regardless of size...especially in out-of-the-way places. They lack modern conveniences and aren't actively sought after. Mind you, this doesn't mean they aren't comfortable or habitable." That was exactly what Mr. Squarrel meant they weren't. However, he had formed the conclusion his visitor would be happy to accept anything short of an atom bomb test site.
"Hmm" His finger stopped at a photograph of a turn-of-the-century brownstone in the last stages of delapidation. It was surrounded on two sides by factories and in the rear by an abandoned brewery. "You might be able to rent this one. The owner is a man of advanced years who now lives with a son. Shouldn't have any problems with neighbors, the factories close down at four. In fact, I don't think there even are street lights on that block."
Mr. James made an expression of distaste. The photograph failed to conceal a squalor that was above acceptable level. Windows were smashed and the roof was on the verge of collapse.
"I don't think so. What else do you have?"
"Well...for the price you mentioned..." Mr. Squarrel turned another page. "Here's a place you can purchase outright." The picture was that of a farmhouse that looked as if it was falling in on itself like the proverbial house of cards. "There are several detached buildings which could be put to good use with minor repairs. Now, if you're handy with tools..." One of the "detached buildings" was a toilet that leaned precariously forward in the manner of a man searching for a fallen coin.
Mr. James refused again. "No, I'm sure it's unsuitable."
The realtor exhibited his trump. After this, they would graduate to the red book. "This is for sale also and very reasonably priced." The page revealed a sinister looking gingerbread house that had been built between the civil war and the panic of '98. The mailbox had fallen. The porch showed signs of following suit. Starkly silhouetted against a late afternoon sky, it looked haunted. Trees and shrubbery had overgrown to the extent they threatened to engulf it.
"This place is part of an estate. The late owner died several years ago under mysterious circumstances. We haven't been successful in renting or selling it. No one wants to stay there very long. Of course that's all atmosphere. There is a large cemetery abutting the property on three sides. I neglected to mention the bones of a tramp who had broken in were found by one of the heirs during an inspection tour." Mr. Squarrel smiled roguishly. "Privacy will be no problem at all."
Mr. James was staring at the picture with a hungry concentration. "We'll take it."
The agent's smile fell and was lost somewhere amidst the clutter of his desk. "Really," he began to renege, "my conscience would trouble me if I didn't warn you the place is utterly beyond repair...stairs falling...no plumbing...no electricity. There's no way of heating it in winter. The fireplace has collapsed...no running water."
"Is the roof sound?"
"The roof is sound," Mr. Squarrel admitted reluctantly.
"Are the windows intact?"
"There is no glass but the shutters are undamaged and nailed from the inside. Ventilation is poor."
"Are there holes in the outside walls?"
"There are no holes in the walls."
"We'll take it."
Mr. Squarrel expended his final card. "Strange lights have been sighted moving around the place at night. A dog, no one has ever seen, has been heard howling when the moon is full."
"We'll take it."
"Don't you even want to look at it first?"
"No, your description is adequate. Atmospherically, it sounds ideal. I'm working on a horror story."
"Once the lease is signed you won't be able to back out."
"We'll take it."
"OK, it's your funeral." On that cheerful note, the negotiations were concluded.
Mrs. Janice James surveyed their new domain with no special enthusiasm. She was a trifle darker than her husband. Mr. Squarrel might have exaggerated about the condition of the place but not by very much. The stairs did not sag. Cobwebs hung everywhere like Spanish moss. Tatters of wallpaper clung desperately to the walls with the final remnants of their strength. There was physical damage, Harlan had neglected to inquire about holes in the ceilings and floors. Over everything lay an indescribable layer of dust so thick that what lay underneath was suggested only as an outline. There was a heavy odor of staleness and dry rot. The shutters were still nailed fast and the only illumination came from a kerosene lantern he was holding.
"I suppose it's better than nothing," she finally decided. "We're very lucky. No one would rent to us if they suspected."
Mrs. James was understandably bitter. "That's the unfairness of it all. We have to pretend to be what we aren't to get something the others take for granted. If they think we're like them they fall over themselves to cater to us at the first show of money. If they know what we are you couldn't pay THEM enough for a room...much less an apartment. Why? They can't differentiate, by looking at us, between what we are and what they think we are."
Mr. James had endured this many times. It no longer left him feeling bitter or defeated. He merely accepted the situation as it existed.
"They say we depreciate property values and I suppose we do. That's why I stipulated a place that was outdated and isolated. If there were neighbors and they suspected...well, you know."
"A lot of our friends live in established neighborhoods. There's George and Marion and Ken and Harriet," she reminded him.
"They're engaged in the great old American game of passing, crossing the line, whatever you want to call it. It never lasts. Sooner or later someone makes a slip and they've got to get out fast. They never learn from experience."
"You think Squarrel suspects?"
"He suspects something but he's not sure. He tried to argue me out of this place but his greed won out. As long as this property produces a revenue and there are no complications, he won't look too closely. He can always plead ignorance if something backfires."
"I hope you're right."
"I hope I'm right too. It's almost winter and that's not a good time to be looking for another place." Mr. James held the lantern up higher. Its feeble light revealed an assortment of ramshackle furniture and abandoned odds and ends.
"This is a housecleaning chore even grandma wouldn't tackle."
"The important things are the four walls and the roof," he reminded her.
"I suppose so. Come on, we may as well explore."
He preceded her with the lantern. Each room was worse than the previous one. The kitchen stove was a mass of rusty iron. A few sticks of wood were still stacked beside it. "A fire?" he suggested hopefully.
Mrs. James vetoed the idea. "There's too much danger. The flue is probably clogged." "I suppose you're right," he sighed.
They left the kitchen and went upstairs. An ice-cold wind moaned and shrieked in the ruined eaves.
"Supposed to be a blizzard tonight," he mentioned in a matter-of-fact voice.
Janice shivered. "I guess we're lucky at that."
They paused before the bedroom door. Sadly, she reminisced, "Remember our wedding night? You carried me into the bedroom."
Harlan smiled. He tugged at the handle. "It's warped shut. We'd need tools to open it with."
"It doesn't really matter. Shelter is what's important. Are you certain Squarrel doesn't suspect?"
"You can never be absolutely certain. I tried to create an impression I was a light-skinned negro."
He extinguished the lantern and set it carefully on the floor. Then he lifted her in his arms and together they passed through the wall."
Story Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino
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The Albert J. Manachino Series