House on Fire
By Louise Turan
Charlie and I are driving north from Philadelphia to our summer house in Maine. He is escaping work and I am escaping, period. I will stay for the summer. There is no reason for me to go back.
It’s been a heartbreaking year. My mother and father died from long-term illnesses, and I left a job I loved. A toxic stew of anger, sorrow, and regret fills my head, giving me no rest. I should have taken better care of my parents, given them more time. I should not have been obsessed with work and let a bad situation force my resignation. I blame myself. There’s nothing I can do to change what happened.
“Charlie, I’m broken. My life will never be the same,” I agonize for the millionth time. He reaches over and squeezes my hand.
“You will mend,” he assures me. Again.
The rational side of me says, of course I will mend, but that side has gone AWOL.
As we cross the Piscataqua Bridge into Maine, I roll down the window and inhale: balsam, salt, and sea, like a tonic to make the past go away.
Our house is on the northern end of the St. George peninsula. A charming 1950s Cape, one side is right on the ocean and the other our garden, stone terraces filled with native perennials and surrounded by majestic evergreens. Three other properties share our private road; two are hidden in the trees, the one directly across the road from us unfortunately is not.
It’s a modern monstrosity that sticks out like a sore thumb in the rustic landscape. The weathered front, V-shaped, resembles the prow of a ship with glass windows stretching to the roof. A massive exterior stone chimney buttresses a rickety porch jutting out over a macadam driveway. Unlike the other houses in the neighborhood, there is no landscaping. The yard is bare except for a single spruce with a sheared-off crown. The Ugly House, as we call it, has been on the market for two years. Charlie jokes whoever buys it has got to be crazy. Little do we know he’s predicting the future.
Rounding the turn from the main road onto our private road, the first thing that catches our eye is a shiny blue BMW parked in the Ugly House’s driveway. Good news, someone with means has purchased the property and will fix it up. Charlie and I get busy with the rituals of arrival: unpacking, opening windows, and stocking groceries. The ground is too hard and cold to garden, so I organize my writing and begin work on my book. I put the Ugly House’s new occupant out of my mind.
Two weeks speed by, and it’s already time for Charlie to leave. We’re having lobster and champagne for dinner. Maybe it will lead to something later, but I haven’t been very accommodating or eager in that department lately. Being miserable is like wearing a damp wool coat all the time.
Charlie goes outside to do something. A few minutes later, he sticks his head inside the front door.
“Honey, can you come out here? Someone wants to meet you.” The screen door shuts with a slam, reminding me to call our caretaker. I take off my apron and go outside.
Charlie is standing in our driveway talking to a short woman with white hair. From her bent posture, I assume she must be older. He waves me over.
“Honey, this is our neighbor, Shirley. She loves gardening, and guess what? She’s writing a book too! She wants you to help her.” Charlie’s smile is full of genuine kindness. I love him but hate what he’s doing right now.
Shirley’s head sits deep in her shoulders; they turn together as a unit to greet me.
“Hiya, Maddy,” she says in a deep, gravelly voice.
My eyes travel from top to bottom. Her shoulder-length white hair fits her head like a helmet. She wears matching pants and sweater in vivid hues. Her ankles, pink and spongy, are anchored in new-looking Top-Siders. I intuit Shirley has medical issues, maybe resulting from her age, which I guess to be in her seventies. She transfers her weight back and forth, lifting each foot independently in a funny stomp, like a little kid. I almost laugh.
“Your husband Charlie heah’s been telling me all about ya,” she says in a thick New England accent. She starts talking.
In a breathless ramble, she recounts her life story, revealing the details of her past like chapters in a book, each more disturbing than the last. Chapter One: She’s from Bedford, New Hampshire (pronounced “Bedfuhd, New Hamshah”), born to a well-to-do family. Chapter Two: She was a lauded educator and happily married for many, many years. Chapter Three: Her husband died eight years ago. Cancer. And she’s had a rough time “evah” since. She elaborates on the wonderful life they had together. She’s decided to move to Maine because they had spent many happy winters skiing at Sunday River. Charlie and I begin doing the little stomp, only ours is weighted with the anxiety of extracting ourselves from Shirley.
She senses this, I can tell, because her voice suddenly changes from calm to urgent, as if she knows her time is up but has more to say. Chapter Four: She’s been here for two months and has been trying to find fun things to do. She’s gone on sailing charters, out to eat, and to the movies. Painting classes did not work out. One of the women in the class, who claimed to have a degree from Smith, was not nice to her. Shirley’s stout form shakes as she laughs.
“That woman didn’t go to Smith,” she sneers. “I called Smith and checked. What a liah.”
Shirley, it seems, is an excellent sleuth. Did we know the Carsons up the road have bank accounts in the Bahamas? The owner of the town’s grocery store has a criminal record, she adds. Charlie and I silently exchange signals. I reach out and shake her hand.
“So nice to meet you, Shirley. I’m sorry, but I’ve got something on the stove. Hope to see you soon!” I say politely. Shirley responds with a slow nod and lumbers back to her house. Back in the kitchen, I give Charlie a piece of my mind.
“Now look what you’ve gotten me into. Why did you tell her I’m writing a book? She’s going to make me nuts! And frankly, I found her a little creepy. Wait. Not a little, a lot. And she’s clearly got some medical problems.”
“Aw, come on, Madeleine. Those droopy blue eyes. She looked like a wounded animal when you said we had to go. Be kind. Have mercy.”
He hooks my arm and swings me around with a kiss. Dinner was much later. He was happy and so was I, until the next day when he had to leave. I am looking forward to being alone, but our neighbor has me worried. Something about her sadness, her loss, hit a raw nerve.
The weather finally warms up. I dive into garden work, and at the end of the day have enough chocolate earth beneath my nails to please Virginia Woolf. I watch as spring brings plants back to life and have hope my heartache is working its way out. Shirley is apparently occupied and stays away. I’m only alerted to her presence at night; her outdoor security lights illuminate the entire neighborhood like a NASA launchpad.
All is going well until Shirley reappears. I’m in the garden, and I see her shouting and waving from her porch, signaling she’ll be right over. Be kind, I remind myself. Have mercy. There by the Grace of God go I.
Shirley hobbles across the road, her body rocking from side to side to the point where I fear she’ll tip over. I rush to get to her before she comes too far down the drive and is harder to get rid of. She’s dressed as I last saw her, in flag-bright colors, hair neatly combed, wearing pink lipstick and pungent old-lady perfume. Her sagging cheeks give her the same hangdog expression. Watery blue eyes turn up at me from the swale of her shoulders.
“They came again last night.” Her mouth hangs open in an upside-down U shape.
“I’m sorry?” I stutter.
Like reading her next chapter, I learn men, and occasionally women, break into her house at night, inject her with ketamine, and then have their way with her: oral sex, vaginal sex. They beat her legs and cover her head with wax to hide the drugs so they can’t be traced by police. Sometimes they pee on her. She sits up all night in her big yellow lounger by the window waiting for them. As long as she is awake, “they” do not come in to get her, but “they” have secret cameras installed in her house and know the minute she falls asleep. They can also see her through the television screen; some kind of camera is in there too. She tells me “they” are drug traffickers who work for a crime boss in her hometown. A vendetta of sorts, not clear to me for what or why.
Her monotone grows agitated. She shakes her head.
“What am I going to do? What would you do if you were me? I can’t live like this anymoha. I have to make ’em stop. What should I do?” She repeats her questions over and over, then stops abruptly, heaving a great sigh into my stupefied silence.
“But why don’t you lock the doors? Or get a security system?” I finally blurt out.
She bristles like a defensive child.
“They know how to turn it off. They jimmy the locks.”
“Have you called the police?”
She glares at me like I’m an idiot.
“The police are in on it too. The cops in Bedfuhd put them up to it. No, the only one who can fix this is the FBI.”
I listen to her plight with bizarre curiosity. She goes on about how the local police are not lifting a finger to help her because the crime boss is paying them off. Her next step, after going to the FBI, is to find a civil rights attorney. Her civil rights are being violated. No one in the United States should be abused in their own home.
“I’m so sorry, Shirley. I wish there was something I could do for you.” I truly mean it, but also don’t know what to say about her situation. She looks at me warily, maybe even enticingly, from the corners of her eyes.
“Well, there is something. You can come sleep ovah my house. If you are theah, they won’t come. Won’t you please come ovah?” she begs. “Just for a drink? I don’t have any friends or anyone to talk to. Or I could come to your house?”
The idea of going to her house, or letting her in mine, is frightening. Scrambling, I offer to call an elder care service or social worker, someone to stay at the house. With head-snapping speed, she changes the subject and talks about my garden, like our conversation never happened. After she leaves, I call Charlie.
“Honey, I’m coming back. Tomorrow.”
I know what he’s thinking. I will quit again.
“Maddy, you can’t leave. Just don’t have to go over there. And for God’s sake, don’t let her in.”
“Of course not,” I bristle. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
He says to ignore her, but that’s impossible. Her white head is visible day and night, framed by the big picture window facing our house. The sheriff’s car appears in her driveway at all hours. I see service vans too, there to install more lights, shades, and locks on her doors. I want to tell them it won’t matter. What she seeks protection from doesn’t exist. To make matters worse, Charlie gave her our landline that first day in a moment of sympathy. She starts calling me.
Late at night, “Private Caller ID” blinks on the phone. If I don’t pick up, she’ll persist. The conversations are all the same. In a run-on sentence, she begs for help. What should she do? How can she stop being attacked? Why won’t the sheriff’s office or the FBI do anything? I grit my teeth as she relates every detail of the nightly abuse and horror, from penises being rammed down her throat to iron bars bashing her legs. Her family is no help. She is convinced the lesbian waitresses at a local fast-food chain are trying to poison her. When I interrupt and tell her I have to go, she starts talking about mundane daily chores. It’s like a conversation with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After I hang up, I watch TV to drown the buzzing in my head. Next time I won’t take her call, but I do, because I’m both fascinated and horrified by her insanity. I wonder if her madness is creeping across the road and infecting me. Am I beginning to believe her?
I call Linda, a psychologist friend back home, for advice. I tell her all about Shirley’s grotesque delusions and her seemingly absurd capacity to function. I describe how she gets in her car, goes shopping, out to eat, makes unlimited harassing phone calls, and drives miles and miles to doctor’s appointments. She speculates Shirley is a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition resulting from a traumatic loss. There is nothing you can do; there are laws protecting her. You can’t force involuntary psychiatric admission unless she poses a threat to herself and others. She is doing both, I exclaim. One, at night she sleeps in her car in the Walmart parking lot. How dangerous is that? And two, I feel threatened, or my state of mind does. Linda affirms what I know already: There is nothing I can do.
I plunge into garden work to clear my head, but Shirley is an ever-present nightmare as the summer progresses. The only good thing is that she can’t walk anymore because her legs are so swollen. She says it’s due to the nightly beatings, but I suspect, from experience with my mother, she has diabetes. Our exchanges are limited to phone calls and drive-bys in her car. This morning, I’m in the garden early. She appears out of nowhere, like she was parked somewhere waiting for me to come out, and pulls into my driveway. She doesn’t wait for me to walk over.
“My house and phone are bugged,” she yells, straining out the window. “I drove to Bangor to see my doctah.” She doesn’t go to the local hospital because it’s under surveillance by the crime boss.
“I have good news: The FBI is going to help me. This time it’s the real thing. Agents are going to take my case.” The certainty of her claim makes me twitch and shudder. She smiles at me with Pinkberry lips and a canny merriment in her eyes, like she’s taunting herself, seeing just how far her all-consuming delusions will take her.
I tell her I have to run, I have something on the stove, not waiting to see her reaction. I quickly go back inside, watching through the window until she leaves. It’s only 8:00 a.m., but I wish I was drinking bourbon instead of coffee.
No more garden for the time being, but my strategy fails. She calls every night with her latest news. Yesterday she drove to Portland and sat in a TV station parking lot all night, waiting for the newscasters to come out so she could tell them her story, the biggest news since 9/11. She also called the Maine State Troopers’ office, telling them she was being followed in her car. They said she needed to bring a witness. Would I go with her? Please? I have to help her.
Her request bursts a dam of self-restraint and patience in me. It’s no longer about her survival, but mine too. I have got to make this stop.
“Shirley, the only place I’m going with you is to the hospital,” I say firmly.
Her response is immediate.
“You are so fah off the mark, you have no idear,” she screams.
I don’t say a word. After a long pause, her voice softens. She assures me she is seeing doctors, at least for her physical ailments: diabetes, edema, rashes, etc. I feel better until I remind myself, with a slap to the head, that nothing she says is the truth.
“Listen, Shirley,” I say in my best in-control voice. “You can call me, but I’m not going to talk about your situation anymore. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” she says quietly, and that was that. We talk about the Fourth of July for a bit and then she hangs up. Her acquiescence and reticence is too easy. I have a terrible premonition that I have triggered a potentially dangerous reaction. Will she drive over and crash into the garden? Or my windows? Her house, normally lit up like a penitentiary, suddenly goes eerily pitch black. Shirley disappears.
She said something about going back to New Hampshire for a while. Two weeks pass and no Shirley. I go back to work in the garden and write. I head to the beach for a swim without fear she’ll shout at me from her porch. And no phone calls. I’m free from the contagion of her illness, writing myself out of her book of insanity.
Shirley has been gone for more than a month. I’m in the best mood I’ve been in all summer. Charlie will be up soon and take me back with him, but I think I’ll stay. Mainers say September and October are the best months of the year. Do I dare say I’m all better? Will I heal completely? I wonder if Shirley had the same thoughts once, before she lost her husband and her mind.
At the end of August, the light changes, getting darker earlier. Wine glass in hand, I go outside to take a walk in the garden. I find Shirley, in her BMW, sitting in my driveway with the lights off. Her face is white; she looks shocked to see me. I am terrified to see her.
She avoids eye contact. I tentatively approach her car, like it’s something that could bite. She looks at me as if we are just two old friends getting together for a chat.
“Hi, Maddy. Remembah what I told you about the persons who are gonna help me? Well, I found out they’re legit. I looked them up. They’re gonna take cahe of me because I can’t go on like this anymoha. They hurt me real bad again last night. They filed down my teeth. See?”
She opens her mouth and points to her front teeth. I can’t really make out what she’s showing me. She keeps talking, fingers in her mouth.
“Meh dehtast in Bedfuh. He’s good. Buth I got no wone up heah.” She removes her fingers and pushes a brown box through the window. “I got ya a present.”
“Thank you. You didn’t have to,” I say, with a jolt of guilt.
“It’s a birdhouse made out of a lobster buoy, for your gahden,” she explains. On the cardboard box she had written, For Madeleine’s Arboretum Extraordinaire. Her thoughtfulness really touches me, but at the same time feels like a stick of dynamite.
Her eyes are like matching blue moons glowing in the dark cavity of her car. They’re iridescent, like her hair, as if she somehow plugged herself into a socket.
“Where are ya gonna hang it?” she asks.
“I’ll wait until Charlie comes up next week. He can help me figure out where to put it. Putting birdhouses in the garden was his idea.”
She looks away. She knows that I know my appearance wrecked her sneaky plan to make it to my front door without being seen. It would have been next to impossible not to let her in. I gently tap the hood of her car.
“Nice of you to stop by, Shirley, but I’m expecting a call from Charlie any minute.” I’ve used this lie so many times, and I really don’t care anymore. I can tell she’s trying to think of something else to say and not leave.
“I really have to go now. Thanks again for the lovely present!” I start to inch away. She leans out the window.
“Do you think they’ll try to get in tonight? I can’t take it much moa, the beatings, the oral sex.” She searches my face with those terrible blue orbs.
“I’m sure you’ll be okay,” I say, knowing nothing, no consolation, will matter.
Suddenly the other Shirley appears, the one I’ve seen from time to time, clear-thinking and lucid.
“You’re a good person, Maddy. A real stand-up gal.”
Unlike anything else she ever says, I believe she means what she says. That she can be aware and social accentuates the absurdity of her life. I always feared her life-threatening delusions would kill her, not reality, but realize reality already has.
Slowly, reluctantly, she backs out of the driveway and drives across the road. Her garage doors open; a bright yellow square appears in the darkness, like a warning. She pulls in and the doors shut. The house is a shadowy hulk until each window is ablaze with light. They will burn all night to protect her from imaginary intruders but be useless against her very real torments. The entire house is like a terrible furnace, fueled by unhinged grief I can feel from here.
Early next morning, I hear her blue BMW roar out of her driveway and up the road, scattering gravel. I wonder where she is going this time, and if she’ll be back. Charlie arrives later for his last visit of the summer. He examines me as if he might something with parts, to make sure they are all working. “Your arms and legs? Hands and fingers? Elbows and knees? Your mind?” he jokes.
“I don’t know,” I say.