Upstate Dispatch: Ye Olde Paint Smithy
by Harris Lahti
After ten years painting houses and squirreling away savings, then securing a private loan with predatory interest rates so I couldfinally purchase a foreclosure of my own, and renovating said foreclosure into a drop-dead beauty of a home that would sell quick on any market, I receive a certified letter. In so many words, the letters states: you are being sued for a hundred-thousand dollars!
Apparently, the foreclosure’s previous owner was in rehab during the time of the auction and the county had not served her notice properly. The county had sold me a property they did not own.
They can do that? I ask the cheapest real estate lawyer I can find via a quick search on my phone.
They just did, the lawyer says. Should have read the fine print.
Apparently, the previous owner claims her house contained caches of invaluable jewelry, antiques, silver and china that she believed I should lawfully reimburse her for. And I must accept the fact that, if the previous owner was not a desperate junkie liar, I threw all these valuables away without knowing it when I cleared all the boxes from the house.
The thought keeps me up at night.
In the meantime, I must return to painting houses. Since I stopped, my cell phone has kept ringing. Only now I pick up.
Yes, hi, hello. How’re things. Whenever I am attempting to sell myself, my voice skyrockets two octaves higher, and I sound like goddamn Mickey Mouse while using phrases that make me cringe. I’ll be over in a jiff. I actually say that.
When I do not have a job lined up, I drive the wealthy neighborhoods looking for lemons, meaning a house with the slightest amount of dirt, grime, or exhibiting any other signs of degradation. Should I find one, I slip my business card into its mailbox.
The card reads: Ye Old Paint Smithy, specializing in historic houses—
Really, the card should read: Specializing in listening to lonely people talk about the history of the ghosts they perceive living in their historic houses.
Something I have learned: If your house was built over a hundred years ago, you are required by some unwritten law to perceive the spirit of a teen mother, scorned lover, or demented nun walking your halls.
I paint this wealthy woman’s rotting horse barn. Before work each morning, I must talk to her while she strokes her hairless cat’s furrowed brow and tells me of the restless soul of yet another little girl who lives in the hayloft and who must have been killed by one of the stable hands… and… and… and… I just nod.
After purchasing the foreclosure, I figured I would not have to sell myself in this way anymore, that I would flip the foreclosure, then use the profit to purchase another, and so on, and on—breathing life into these dying homes—until the day I retire or keel over from the work of restoring foreclosures to charming and habitable spaces.
Isn’t it funny to be a realist?
According to my lawyer, the lawsuit could take months to work its way through the courts since I have no money with which to pay the inordinate settlement the previous owner continues demanding for allegedly selling her stuff.
I know I could be less fortunate, that there is a sanding block of logic I could apply to this particular situation to round off the barbs. But I am too exhausted. My head aches from the paint fumes. There is a wheeze in my lung.
I spray the prime coat of oil paint inside the wealthy woman’s rotting barn, and the next day when I return the field mice are still falling from the rafters. All day long, as I spray the topcoat, they rain down, spring-boarding off the bill of my Sherwin Williams painter’s hat.
And I think: How many dead mice does it take to equal the paranormal presence of a little girl who died long ago in a hayloft? How many small mammals must die before a haunting is official? Is there some sort of mathematics to any of this?
I laugh too hard, for too long. Maybe owing to the fumes. Or perhaps owing to what my lawyer said. That this lawsuit could go for up to a year. Or longer even.
My cell phone rings, and I pick up: Hello, Mickey Mouse.
The wealthy woman whose rotten horse barn I painted wants me to paint something else: her ninety-five-year-old father’s condo. The thing is, he's becoming demented and his children are forcing him into an old people’s home.
I do not want to say that I hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around. Someone said that. Who said that? For the life of me, I cannot remember. It could be anyone.
The wealthy woman’s ninety-five-year-old father understands what it’s like to forget things. He fought the Nazis and now spends his days sitting around playing solitaire and watching FOX News with a near-religious fervor.
During commercial breaks, he gets up to follow me around his apartment with his twig arms quivering over a tennis-ball footed walker, complaining in a gravelly voice of how his maid—this woman that despite my being there for days on end I never glimpse—steals his stuff.
Typical, I say, knowing this will make him affectionate toward me.
He smiles with slanting bright dentures. You know who you remind me of? he says. A young Bill O’Reilly.
Why thank you, I say with a nod because, owing to the lawsuit, I cannot afford to be anything but a bobblehead for the next year or even longer. And I cannot risk any further legal action.
As much as the ninety-five-year-old man complains about things around the condo, he doesn’t complain much about being shipped off to the old people’s home, which surprises me—
Sure, it’ll suck for a while, he says. But, in a few months, I’ll settle in.
I try and take this attitude with me—along with a tube of toothpaste from his medicine cabinet and an unopened razor. With these things that are now mine, I promise I will never allow myself to get used to painting houses.
That fucking maid, he says, before I manage to exit the house.
I cannot be certain, but I am suspicious the previous owner of the home I bought in foreclosure, the litigious one, is using drugs again. She does not show up for court and the judge keeps pushing the court dates back. She does not return my lawyer’s calls.
It pains me to allow the grass on the foreclosure’s plot to grow long, for the grime to collect again on its vinyl siding. But what is the point of keeping up with maintenance if the judge rules in the previous owner’s favor?
Whenever I am there, the neighbors no longer wave hello. They box their eyes as I stand glumly before their neighborhood’s only dying home.
On the next court day, the previous owner no-shows again, and the judge refers to her as cavalier but offers up no real consequences, only pushes the court date back yet again.
Is this world going crazy? I say.
Another rich, lonely woman calls me to fix the poor paint job another company did. Apparently, they cut lines against the ceiling like an erratic reading on an EKG—
How cavalier, I say, my voice high-pitched and awful.
You know they call me a young Bill O’Reilly, I say.
Oh, really, the spirit of an amputee Union solider haunts your attic?
I laugh. I laugh until I am crying.
Every day it is work, work, work, work, work, work—but between the payments on the predatory loans I took out to buy the foreclosure, plus the lawyer fees, I am doing nothing but treading water. At least in a financial sense. Meanwhile the fumes are making my head feel lighter.
In bed at night, the big oak tree that hangs above my bedroom sends acorns crashing across the roof, and I carry the sounds into my dreams until they become a rainstorm of dead mice.
This might go on forever, my lawyer says.
Are you joking? I laugh.
The ninety-five-year-old man who moved into the old people’s home is probably adjusting better than me. He’s probably shouting BINGO at this very moment in time through straight bright dentures.
After the horse barn and her father’s condo, the wealthy woman wants me to paint the ceiling in her kitchen in order to conceal a water stain. Really, though, she just wants someone to talk to about her new ghost. It’s one whose identity she cannot figure out.
Have you felt anything strange happening lately? she says, stroking her hairless cat.
Why yes, I say, nodding. There’s a certain strangeness drifting about.
Three months, four months, five months pass in this fashion. The work comes easy, the lawsuit continues. I fall into a rhythm despite knowing the trick is not to. I recall that I should not allow myself to get used to any of this.
At night, I remind myself: Do not! as I listen for the acorns on the roof. But the oak tree must have dropped the last of them because I hear nothing—
I listen harder, and from the silence the acorns start back up. The harder I listen, the more seem to fall, the sound louder than ever. I imagine the ghost of a little boy, pacing the attic, his steps in the rhythm of the falling acorns.
Harris Lahti's work is forthcoming or appeared in Post Road, New York Tyrant, Hobart, Fanzine, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. He edits fiction for FENCE. Read more: harrislahti.com
(photo credit at the top: Cody Rosenthal)