Johnny America


The House that Arthur Neville Lives In


Arthur Neville or­ders all of his ne­ces­si­ties from the In­ter­net. They are de­liv­ered to his door by a black man whose name Arthur does not know. The black man takes big, bow-legged strides up Arthur’s walk­way and taps syn­co­pat­ed beats on his door. Da-dat-dit-dat-da. Arthur opens the door un­til it catch­es on the chain. “Mr. Neville,” says the man. He holds his face up to the open­ing so that Arthur can see on­ly one gi­ant eye and a row of teeth. “How are you to­day, sir?”

“Leave the pack­ages on the porch, please,” Arthur says.

“Hey now,” the man says, stand­ing on his toes to peer over Arthur’s head in­to the house. “You re­al­ly chang­ing things up in there.”

Arthur sur­veys the stark white walls. They were olive when he ar­rived, a col­or nor­mal­ly ac­cept­able to him. Still so much to do.

“You ever meet the la­dy who lived here before?”

Arthur shakes his head.

“Mar­ta,” the man says. “Mar­ta Cast-elle. Pret­ty la­dy. A bit spooky, though, if you know what I mean.”

Arthur does not know what he means. He signs for the pack­ages and waits for the man to leave be­fore ven­tur­ing on­to the porch to bring the pack­ages inside.

One of the pack­ages con­tains food. The oth­er four box­es are filled with an as­sort­ment of chem­i­cals, clean­ing agents, brush­es, sponges and pro­tec­tive ap­par­el. Arthur pulls out a tele­scop­ing duster and ex­tends it to its full length. There is noth­ing like a fresh duster, still shim­mer­ing as it glides across the mold­ing. Arthur watch­es dust col­lect in the bris­tles, dust which Arthur knows is com­posed of lint, mites, and dead skin cells shed by a woman named Mar­ta Castelle.

It is not un­usu­al for Arthur Neville to spend the day clean­ing. He en­joys the phys­i­cal­i­ty of it all: the scrub­bing and sweep­ing, the stretch­ing, the bend­ing at the waist. He likes to stand at the end of the evening, hands on hips, sur­vey­ing the or­der and san­i­ta­tion of his home. He sleeps in peace know­ing that when he awakes, every­thing will be as it should be.

What is un­usu­al is for the ar­eas which he has al­ready cleaned to be­come soiled again up­on his return.

Af­ter san­i­tiz­ing the bed­room and giv­ing the win­dows a good spritz, Arthur takes a break and makes him­self a plate of food. Roast beef sand­wich, quar­tered, sev­en ba­by car­rots and a peeled ap­ple. He eats them in se­quence and takes care of his dish­es. He re­trieves a new scour­ing pad from one of the pack­ages and heads back to the spare bedroom.

He stops in the door­way, un­able to move.

On the win­dow sill sits a cup. The cup is emp­ty. Small beads of con­den­sa­tion gath­er around its base, sug­gest­ing that it re­cent­ly held ice wa­ter. A faint red cres­cent dec­o­rates the rim.

Arthur does not leave a room in dis­or­der. He does not leave emp­ty cups on win­dowsills. He does­n’t for­get to use a coast­er. Above all, he does not wear lipstick.

Arthur us­es a nap­kin to pick up the glass and car­ry it to the kitchen, where he scrubs at the red stain with shak­ing hands. The day re­plays in his mind: wake up, show­er, break­fast, clean. The dirty glass. He is cer­tain the spare bed­room was clean when he last left it. It could not have been any oth­er way.

Arthur arms him­self with broom and dust­pan, sword and shield, and makes his way through the house. The bed­room is as he left it. The bath­room, too. No in­trud­ers, no mess­es. He can’t de­cide which would be worse.

It oc­curs to Arthur — not for the first time — that al­though he pur­chased the house in which he lives more than six months pri­or, it still does not feel as though it is tru­ly his. He has paint­ed every wall from its orig­i­nal col­or, yet he did not choose their con­fig­u­ra­tions. He has steamed every car­pet, but he did pick them out and they are not his pre­ferred soft­ness or tex­ture. He has san­i­tized every sur­face and bleached every stain.

Still, true own­er­ship eludes him.

When he is cer­tain the in­te­ri­or is clear, Arthur peeks through the blinds in the liv­ing room. Two boys walk along the curb, lost in their phones. Arthur un­locks the win­dow and rais­es it halfway.

“Young men,” he calls. The boys look up from their phones. They point to their chests and look at each oth­er. Arthur nods and waves them closer.

“I have have a job for you,” he says. He pulls out his wal­let and ex­tracts two ten dol­lar bills. The boys eye the money.

“I need you to walk the perime­ter. You know ‘perime­ter’…” Arthur moves his hands in a cir­cle. The boys give him a look. “Of course. I need you to walk the perime­ter of the house and re­port back to this window.”

“What are we look­ing for?”

“Noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar,” Arthur says, wav­ing dis­mis­sive­ly. “Any­thing out of the or­di­nary, that’s all.”

“Do it your­self,” says the short­er of the two boys, his eyes back on his phone.

“I would,” Arthur says. “I would, re­al­ly, but I’m not much for — well, I don’t –” Arthur clos­es his eyes and takes a breath. The boys look at each oth­er. Arthur opens his eyes and speaks calm­ly. “If I do it I will have no rea­son to pay you.”

The taller boy nods and el­bows the short­er one, who rolls his eyes. Arthur slides the mon­ey un­der the screen and be­gins to im­part a few last words of in­struc­tion. The boys grab the ten dol­lar bills and run off laugh­ing. The short­er one stops briefly to make a rude ges­ture and snap a pic­ture of Arthur with his phone.

Arthur calls to the boys but they soon dis­ap­pear over the hill. A truck rum­bles past the house. Arthur finds him­self wish­ing it was time for an­oth­er delivery.

At four o’­clock, Arthur calls his moth­er. Arthur is her on­ly child, and it was with some re­luc­tance that she per­mit­ted him to leave home and pur­chase a house of his own. The dai­ly calls were a con­di­tion of­fered to help warm her to the idea of his absence.

Most days, Arthur rolls his eyes and punch­es the num­bers on the tele­phone with his fin­ger so they crunch loud­ly in their plas­tic cas­ing. On this day, how­ev­er, he watch­es the clock on the wall un­til the hour hand clicks in­to place, and di­als quick­ly. Tip-tip-tap, tip-tap-tap-tap.

“Hel­lo, Arthur dear,” his moth­er says. “Right on time, of course.”

“Yes. Hel­lo, Mother.”

“How is the house? Keep­ing it tidy?”

“Of course, Mother.”

Arthur sits with his back straight and eyes closed, tak­ing mea­sured breaths.

“Moth­er, the strangest thing –”

“Arthur, dear,” his moth­er says, in­ter­rupt­ing. “I do en­joy our calls, but I’m afraid I will be trav­el­ing for much of this week and quite un­avail­able. You re­mem­ber Mr. Bendermann.”

Arthur opens his eyes and stops breathing.

“Mr. Ben­der­mann?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Moth­er, I really –”

“I’m sure you will do just fine, Arthur,” says his moth­er. She bids him a good evening and hangs up the telephone.

Arthur walks to the kitchen and opens the cup­board. He eyes the strange glass, now clean and in its prop­er place. He picks it up and turns it in his hand, hold­ing it up to the light. No trace of lip­stick remains.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Arthur says, and laughs forcefully.

The next day, Arthur’s win­dows gr“ow smudges and fin­ger­prints ap­pear on the blinds.

“Looks like I’ll have to wash my hands more ef­fec­tive­ly in the fu­ture,” Arthur says aloud.

The day af­ter that, the bath­room tow­els pro­duce mois­ture and the grout spawns mold.

“I must be show­er­ing far too long,” Arthur says.

Dish­es ap­pear on the counter, flakes of mud in the en­try­way and drib­bles of mus­tard on the re­frig­er­a­tor shelves. Each time, Arthur smiles and scolds him­self for be­ing so care­less and ab­sent­mind­ed. He keeps him­self busy clean­ing mess af­ter mess, ex­pelling all oth­er thoughts from his mind.

At four o’­clock on the third day, Arthur tele­phones his moth­er and leaves a mes­sage on her an­swer­ing machine.

“I wor­ry about you, Moth­er,” he says. “Trav­el­ing at your age. Per­haps I should join you and Mr. Ben­der­mann. To look af­ter you.”

That evening, Arthur pre­pares his din­ner: cubed pota­toes, chick­en breast, and twen­ty-one peas. His com­put­er lies open on the counter, dis­play­ing two mil­lion search re­sults for Mar­ta Castelle. None of them ap­pear to the Mar­ta Castelle who once lived in the house Arthur now oc­cu­pies. The world, for all its knowl­edge, ap­pears thor­ough­ly ig­no­rant of the woman.

Arthur sets his plate on the din­ing room ta­ble. He hears mu­sic in the back yard. He pulls back the cur­tains and finds the boys who ran off with his mon­ey, along with sev­er­al friends. They are climb­ing his trees, traips­ing across his grass and loung­ing on his steps. Arthur opens the win­dow and calls through the screen.

“What are you boys do­ing in my yard?”

“Check­ing the perime­ter,” one of the boys says.

Arthur re­minds the boys that tres­pass­ing is against the law, and tells them to leave at once.

“You go­ing to make us?”

“I may,” Arthur says. “I will. I’ll come out there and make you leave.”

“No you won’t,” one of the boys says. He is the short­er of the two he met previously.

Arthur opens his mouth to speak, on­ly to close it again. The boys laugh and turn their mu­sic loud­er. Arthur shuts the win­dow and draws the shades.

Arthur re­turns to his din­ner, do­ing his best to ig­nore his rat­tling sil­ver­ware. Boom-boom-boom-boom. He can hear it over the run­ning wa­ter as he cleans his dish­es, and in the bath­room while he floss­es his teeth.

When the mu­sic fi­nal­ly stops, Arthur is sit­ting in his arm­chair star­ing at a book. He lifts his head and lis­tens to make cer­tain the boys have gone. Con­vinced, he sighs deeply and smiles. He leans over and switch­es off the lamp be­side him, plung­ing the house in­to darkness.

Arthur walks slow­ly to­ward his bed­room, arms out­stretched in front of him. A ring­ing per­sists in his ears.

As he reach­es the hall­way, a floor­board creaks in the dark­ness and he freezes. Some­thing like the hem of a skirt or a sheet in the breeze flut­ters in­to the bath­room and dis­ap­pears. Arthur claws for the light switch and the hall­way fills with light; empty.

It is at that mo­ment that the bath­room door slams shut.

Arthur cries out. He runs to his bed­room and locks the door. He un­dress­es quick­ly and leaps in­to bed, pulling his blan­kets tight across his body. Wild thoughts ric­o­chet through his mind like pen­nies in the dryer.

He hears the sound of a woman cry­ing soft­ly in the bathroom.

Arthur is star­tled awake by the door­bell. On­ly his straight-jack­et sheets keep him from tum­bling to the floor. The de­liv­ery man is call­ing his name from the font porch. Arthur rubs his tem­ples and tries to re­call how the cal­en­dar could pos­si­bly have land­ed him on Fri­day with­out first mak­ing its way through Thurs­day. Or Wednes­day, for that matter.

“Mr. Neville,” the de­liv­ery man says when Arthur cracks the door. His eyes widen at the sight of Arthur di­sheveled and half-dressed. “Rough night?”

“Leave the pack­ages on the porch,” Arthur says. The man nods and hands him the re­ceipt. Arthur signs with­out giv­ing the pack­ages his usu­al scruti­ny and be­gins to hand back the clip­board. The de­liv­ery man shakes his head.

“You look like you seen a ghost, Mr. Neville.”

Arthur’s eyes go wide. He pulls his hand away.

“My God,” he says, wav­ing the clip­board at the man. “You!”

“What’s wrong?” the de­liv­ery man says. He ges­tures to­ward the pack­ages. “They’re all here.”

“You think –” Arthur says. “You think you can scare me?”

The de­liv­ery man looks over his left shoul­der, then his right, and back at Arthur.

“The dirt,” Arthur cries. “The mustard!”

“Just a minute, Mr. Neville.” The de­liv­ery man wres­tles the clip­board from Arthur’s hands and takes a step back. “I don’t know what you’re get­ting at, but I won’t be spo­ken to like some kind of thug.”

“The cup… That’s when it start­ed. Your last de­liv­ery. I will call the au­thor­i­ties, sir. That is what I’m go­ing to do.”

“Mr. Neville,” the de­liv­ery man says, his can­non-ball voice bounc­ing across the cul-de-sac. He throws up his hands and dumps the pack­ages off his dol­ly. Arthur watch­es them scat­ter across the floor and reach­es out for him to stop.

“I’ve been kind to you,” the man says. “But I’m leav­ing now. You can pick up your own damn groceries.”

Arthur looks up at the de­liv­ery man and blinks.

“I –” he says. “I may have been mistaken.”

“Don’t both­er, Mr. Neville.” The de­liv­ery man shakes his head and stomps down the steps. He climbs in­to his truck. “I’m no thug,” he says, and dri­ves away.

Arthur clos­es the door and slumps against it with his face in his hands.

“That’s it,” he says. “That’s the end of that.” He pounds his fist on his thigh, again and again.

“That’s it. That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.

Arthur be­gins to cry and the house joins in. Lights flick­er, cab­i­net doors open and shut. Faucets run and wa­ter groans in the pipes. Arthur squeezes his eyes closed and puts his fin­gers in his ears.

“No,” he says. “No!”

The house grows qui­et. Arthur feels a cool breeze on his face, though no win­dows are open.

Af­ter a few mo­ments, Arthur opens one of his eyes and the oth­er. A woman stands be­fore him. She has short black hair and sad eyes, with a glow Arthur is­n’t sure he tru­ly sees. He does­n’t look away, fear­ing she might be gone when he looks back, or that she might still be there.

“Mar­ta?” Arthur says. The woman says noth­ing. She puts her hand to Arthur’s cheek and places his hand over her heart. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Arthur is aware of the curve of her breast and his own heart quickens.

“Do you like the house?” Mar­ta asks, lean­ing close.

“My house,” Arthur says. His own voice sounds hoarse and distant.

“Yes, of course it is,” she says. Mar­ta kiss­es him, her fin­gers in his hair.

Her mouth is sparkling clean.

Filed under Fiction on January 10th, 2014

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