Photo Credit: Summit Design Remodeling
Maya refused to set foot inside the house.
“You’re being ridiculous, Ed cajoled, stroking the back of his wife’s hand as they sat in the driveway by the For Sale sign, the blue SUV idling. “It’s ideal.”
“It’s staring us right in the face,” she said, her voice rising with each syllable. “No garage.” Her eyes stayed transfixed on the small white structure ahead, a renovated carport.
“Well, I should at least let the Realtor know we’re passing on the walk-through.”
Ed gently shut the auto’s door so Maya didn’t think he was cross with her. It was far too great a risk to take. Maya, after all, was his angel. He’d be a maniac to disrupt their ideal balance of a relationship.
“One minute, love,” Ed called from the front door of the sprawling ranch house, but Maya was preoccupied picking at spots of nail polish on her cuticles. Maya defined herself by her sparkling, perfectly-maintained ruby nails. She often clicked them together, and hearing the sound made Ed feel like he was home.
The front door, newly painted Belgian beige (a favorite of Ed’s) was adorned with streamers. The color of Deb the Realtor’s business cards cleverly cut into the shapes of starter homes. And magnets, she had magnets, one posted on Maya and Ed’s apartment fridge. Deb the Realtor promised dream houses but had yet to find one for Maya minus a garage.
“Ed, you made it,” Deb drawled, aggressively grabbing his shoulders and leaving a small cherry blotch on his cheek, one he immediately erased with his palm. Maya pretended to never be jealous, but he knew, or at least imagined, better.
“Deb,” he half-spoke, half-sighed. “We told you no garage. Maya had a bad experience with a garage. It’s a deal breaker. You wouldn’t understand.”
Debbie leaned to the right and caught a glimpse of Maya out of the expansive bay window in the living room. Twenty-eight panes of glass, all displaying Maya’s obvious displeasure.
“Ed. Let’s be realistic,” she said. Her voice rolled along slowly, deep and comforting. Ed noticed her bare nails cut short, just grazing the tips of her finger tops. Otherwise it appeared makeup was everywhere, including the edges of her bleach-stained teeth.
“No nice houses are without a garage. It’s like a cake with no icing. Now, who’d order that?” As she spoke, she navigated Ed through the living room into a spacious dining room the color of the sea. A pewter chandelier hung in the center, begging a dark mahogany table to feed people beneath. Ed lost sight of the bay window, drawn in by Deb’s enthusiasm and the lingering promise of the magnet.
“This will sell the house,” Deb motioned to the basement door. “You’d be a fool not to see this.”
In an instant Deb vanished through a small oak door at the end of the kitchen. Ed loved to cook and couldn’t ignore the brass pot rack hanging from the ceiling. Or the magnetic knife rack. He imagined his modest set liberated from the standard wood block at home. The knife tips were actually bent and chipped from overuse. He’d be forced to buy new ones if they bought this house.
“Come on, slow poke,” Deb hollered, her voice echoing up through various grates in the house.
Ed’s pocket vibrated. He knew Maya was calling him or texting. She must have finished her nails and wanted to leave. Deb’s voice beckoned, and Ed silenced the phone.
“Unreal.” Ed braced himself against a shaky wooden rail leading him down the narrow stairway. “Unreal.”
Deb stood in the middle of a master game room. She rested her curved hips against a professional pool table, the felt freshly edged. The corners, smooth carved wood, held playful indents. Dozens of professionals or giddy amateurs had left their marks. Deb’s shoes, black slip-away pumps, rested at the entrance to the basement. Her toes, long and wispy like a baby’s fingers, dug into the deep blue carpet. Ed remembered this sort of shag from his grandfather’s study. No one should ever wear shoes on it, and he found himself slipping off his own loafers, a bit ashamed of the hole in his left heel.
“There’s more.” Deb had mastered the art of buyer seduction. Ed let his phone continue to vibrate and followed her deeper into the basement. “The owner left it all. He’s moved past it. Three kids. A partnership. Now tell me you and Maya couldn’t start the most fun life here.”
Ed coveted the pool table, more so than the house. The basement room painted a fantasy.
“The garage is a deal breaker.” He fiddled with his wedding ring and ignored the other gaming tables. The dartboard and the strange door at the end of the basement.
“Bomb shelter,” Deb whispered before Ed could voice more concerns or tell the siren Realtor that his wife had seen her brother hanging in a garage, surrounded by poisonous fumes, two methods to guarantee one distinct outcome.
“A bomb shelter. Can I see it?” Ed felt eleven again, clothed in sneakers and sloppy jeans, sipping beer in a neighbor’s mother’s walk-in closet. “Is it safe?”
“Are you kidding?” Deb winked, a spider set of eyelashes fanning themselves. “Take a look.”
She flipped a switch along a concrete wall and Ed crept inside, unsure what a proper bomb shelter ought to look like. He felt transported to the fifties, faced with a barebones wooden bed with rope supports, a tiny metal stool and mystery canisters lining the wall.
“Now you could turn this into a wine cellar. Or a pot den,” Deb attempted to joke. “This space is reserved for good times. The whole basement is, really. Ed, when’s the last time you had fun?”
“Can I have a minute alone?” Ed tried to remain loyal to the cause, the mission.
Ed texted Maya.
This is our dream house, he wrote. I am claiming it for us. In the cool bomb shelter he radiated authority.
He knelt down and sat on the bed, pretending there were imaginary enemies outside, not his wife.
“I’d buy this house for my husband, if I had one,” Deb hollered from the rest of the basement. Ed heard a beer bottle uncap, and he stayed hidden in the shelter, waiting for a return text. He felt firmly trapped between Deb’s rabid yes and Maya’s equally potent no.
In one final act of desperation, he shot off a text.
We’ll rip down the garage. It’s gone.
Seconds later, both the basement dwellers heard the doorbell followed by several insistent barrages of knocks at the front door. Ed stayed frozen in the shelter. Deb slipped on her shoes and traipsed upstairs, greeting his wife with the same dogged enthusiasm she’d met all interested parties. Ed felt the old wooden bed creak beneath him as he shifted while the two pairs of footsteps danced above him, one set decidedly Maya. She walked heavily, in a determined fashion because she always knew exactly where she was going. Ed tended to shuffle, never quickly enough to keep up with her pace.
“Ed,” her voice ricocheted off of every object in the basement. “Ed, where are you?”
He paused, quickly glancing around, memorizing the details in case he wasn’t allowed back. There were several nails driven into the concrete. Someone had either hung pictures and taken them away or intended to make the space home.
“What are you doing in here by yourself?” Maya refused to sit on the old bed. “I can certainly see why you want the house.”
“It’s not just the basement. The price. The location. We’ve been looking for seven months. Isn’t there any way you’d consider?” Ed wanted to win this. He’d settled in his mind on the house.
“You know how I feel. You’re being insensitive.” Maya backed out of the bomb shelter, reluctantly followed by Ed.
“It was horrid, the man hanging there, purple as a blueberry and all that car exhaust. I’m lucky I didn’t die just opening the door,” she lamented.
He worried that the fumes had deteriorated her sense of joy. “Honey, I understand.” Ed didn’t, though. “But there’s more than one way to suffocate a person.”
It was the boldest statement he’d made in their relationship, and as soon as the words sputtered out, Ed missed the safety of the shelter. To imply that she was smothering him couldn’t be a bigger bomb.
Maya paused, the ruby nails frozen at her chest, roughly located above her heart.
“Let’s get it,” she broke the silence with a surprise. “If you mean it about the wrecking crew and the garage.”
“Of course I meant it. We’ll have them here the day we close.” Ed lunged at her, forgetting Deb standing at the foot of the stairs. “Thank you for compromising.” Stiff in his arms, Ed assumed it was rough if not painful for Maya to come to terms with her fear and surrender her exception. Over the next several weeks he found himself holding her more often, working to release the stiffness from her limbs. She packed the apartment silently most nights, letting Ed decide which items should be grouped together. He didn’t understand Maya’s change in demeanor but appreciated it. For the first time in years, he wasn’t holding on to her by a thread.
“I’ll meet you there,” Ed told her closing day.
“With the crew?” she asked expectantly.
“With the crew,” he assured her, brushing her ear with his lips as he headed to work, elated. Ed had visited the house a few times, lingering in the basement where he envisioned future gatherings with friends, playful nights with his wife, even tournaments with his children. The four boys he confidently saw in his future. The house had given Ed this, a taste of certainty. He’d even hung in the bomb shelter a small photo from the cruise he and Maya took to the Bahamas despite his interest in Alaska and chillier environments.
As luck would have it work was ravenous on closing day. Ungrateful clients ate up three-and-a-half hours of his time. Although the paperwork had already been signed he missed the satisfaction of the crew gutting the garage for Maya. A null gift, a gift removing something amused Ed.
We’ll start without you, Maya texted. Big exclamation points. An upbeat tone if tones could be expressed on a digital screen.
Ed cruised down 11-15 towards the new home, at least new to them. Apartment living had been too tight and now both of them could spread out. He pulled up at sunset, confused that he couldn’t see it through what still remained a solid, sturdy garage. There was, in fact, a dumpster full of debris. A gnawing barb rumbled around in his stomach as he left his car. Blue. Blue hair spiked up from over the edge of the dumpster. Blue shag carpet to be more precise. Ed staggered, reaching out to the edge of the dumpster where there stood a piece of knotted wood, a corner to a pool table ripped off of its body. The rest of the basement was in the dumpster, too. Even the bomb shelter bed, an antique in its own right, lay mangled. And on top, like a nasty bow, sat the small framed picture once hanging.
“Imagine that,” Ed mentioned to no one in particular as Maya flipped on the lights inside his once dream house.
She had actually listened to him for the first time in their relationship. After all, there certainly was more than one way to suffocate a man.
Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Small Spiral Notebook, and Moondance. She is currently an English teacher, mother, and at odd hours of the morning or late at night, a writer. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com