Upstate Dispatch: One Heard Road
by Harris Lahti
(above photo: “Abandoned House” by Timothy O’Rourke)
There is Tom the carpenter, Jim the plumber, and Harry the heating guy whose hunting dog recently bit his nose off. Ladybird still sleeps in the bed, he tells me. Wasn’t her fault.
The bandages on the top part of his nose slip down while he talks. The bridge of his swollen nose is clearly not attached to his face. Each time he turns away, I can see the eyelashes blinking on the other side.
I’m fixing up another house, an old log cabin entombed in brick.
The last house I fixed up did not go so well.
Major influences in my development as a person: lead paint, asbestos, and a childhood spent poking through the foreclosed and abandoned houses that my father would fix up.
In the yard, I discover a baby garter snake curled up in the pipe beneath the septic cap next to a salamander. I have no idea how they could have gotten in there, nor does there appear a way for either to climb out.
Since it is winter, I am uncertain what helping looks like in this scenario, so I leave them be.
The woman who I bought the house from was a New Yorker. She sealed off half of it with heavy locks, then lived in the other. She was afraid to light the pilot of the propane heaters, instead heating the house with the wood-burning stove.
Where she had hung pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on the varnished wood walls are now dark squares.
She used to do hair and makeup for the movies, she told me.
It was clear she needed someone to listen. After a routine surgery, the doctors had sown her elderly father up crooked and now she needed to move back to Queens to care for him. I said how sorry I was and made my low-ball offer.
When I sell the house, it will probably be to another New Yorker like her. I will probably breathe in deep and refer to the manure smell as “country”, then mention the lake rights and the bald eagle.
Tom the carpenter tells me there is a nest somewhere nearer to the lake. He swears to know fishermen who have thrown their catch into the eagle’s outstretched talons. Sometimes he sends me political memes at night.
The woman had an offer for twice as much as what she sold it for, but the bank would not approve the mortgage because of the mold in the crawlspace and crumbling septic tank, which was lucky for me. We were friendly until she started yelling at the closing.
She was yelling because I did not trust her. I had said I wanted to hold some money in escrow until she removed all of her personal belongings from the house. My father taught me to not trust anyone’s word. But she kept hers.
The only items she left were the mouse traps, probably one hundred of them. Whenever a trap caught a mouse, it seemed, she would leave it to decay and buy a new trap. Traps were laid everywhere—inside and out, on the roof—displaying mice in various stages of decay.
Every now and then I spring an empty one with the steel-toe of one of my boots.
My father says now I have blood on my hands.
After I drove off for the closing on the house, my father said he felt like he did on my first day of kindergarten.
He has this intellectual squirrel he regularly captures. Apparently, it had been chewing holes in the guest house he rents to a Brazilian photographer who drives up from New York on weekends with her girlfriend and epileptic dog. For weeks, this squirrel had been surviving off the peanut butter he had spread in Havahart traps. He brings the squirrel over to release into the woods with its head is all busted from thrashing against the trap.
See the flaps beneath its arms, he says. He lets me take a look. I’ve never seen a flying one.
Afterward, we poke around in the slushy snow with a railroad tie, unable to locate the septic’s leech field. There is a way to do it involving two coat hangers like magic wands, he explains. No kidding.
There is also Ray the electrician and Miguel the laborer. And a lot of me alone, singing incoherent songs.
I used to be afraid of being alone in old houses, but now I am more afraid when people are in them with me.
Turns out unoccupied houses are almost impossible to insure. Teenagers throw parties and throw rocks through windows, spray paint the walls. So I wave at neighbors and, when I wave, I am asking them to watch the house.
The inside of a house needs to be painted, one of these foreclosed homes. With the varnished wood walls, each room is the hull of a wooden ship, only in different sizes.
From a ladder, I scrape the places where the wall is bubbled, prepping the surface for paint, and the crisp scrapings flutter to the hardwood floor like a cloud of insects without bodies.
I mask the windows, the floors. I grease my face with Vaseline and strap a ventilator over my nose and mouth, then spray the inside of the house with oil-based paint until I am dizzy. I am already nostalgic for that Vaseline smell.
The bald eagle finally flies over one day while I am outside texting. It has something in its talons: the flying squirrel. The flying squirrel has its flapped arms spread too, as if it was the one flying. I do not tell my father.
The Brazilian photographer stops by to check out the progress. In the refurbished bathroom, she shows me pictures of animals she photographs in the woods with a motion sensor. There are more coyotes and foxes around than I would have guessed, but the deer are no surprise.
There is also a raccoon fornicating with the dead raccoon she salvaged off the side of the road. She put it there to attract another; raccoons seem to attract raccoons. We look at what the motion sensor recorded: the embrace, passionate, like a harlequin novel cover.
Well, I saw a bald eagle the other day, I tell her. And a marten once too. They are like weasels, I explain. Now what do you think of this stained glass window?
By the time the work is finished, the Brazilian photographer wants to buy the house, and a neighbor wants to buy the house for his mother-in-law, too. And so does my sister. They all want weekend getaways.
There is a concrete fawn in the yard under an apple tree. I knock its head off with a sledge hammer because deer are varmint. Little green grass sprouts have started pushing up.
I lift the septic cap again, and the baby snake is still there, but the salamander is not, and I stand there for ten minutes deciding if the snake is in the same position or not, and if it is any larger.
Maybe I do have blood on my hands.
The woman whose house it used to be had a pit bull she locked in the car when my father and I came to look at the house, and I still remember the sound of its teeth gnashing against the glass.
Once I discovered a suicide note buried in someone’s former closet. Another time, dirty Polaroids of someone I may have misremembered as being no older than I was at the time: a child, more or less. I helped break out gravestones buried in the corners of basements and I spent an entire day batting down and vacuuming up hairy worms that kept crawling up a moist wall. I have thrown away countless heartfelt personal belongings because there was nothing else to do with them.
Whenever people learn I flip houses, they tell me they want to flip houses too.
Sometimes I complain, but I will still get nostalgic about this work.
I know I will have more and more blood on my hands because I am getting married soon and will probably have a child that I will teach these things: how to find deals and make deals and fix what is broken for minimal costs.
Everyone else seems to have a child. Tom the carpenter has one and Jim the plumber has one and Harry the heating guy has one also.
The baby snake is still curled there. It is spring. Every time I check, I expect it to have gotten out somehow. I ask every person I meet what to do in terms of rescue, but no one knows, not even my father.
Eventually, I cannot take it any longer. I find a stick. I remove the septic cap and stick the stick into the pipe, and when I poke the baby snake its tongue flicks out and it curls ever tighter, safer into a ball.
I say to it: Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.
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