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The Empty House

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Matthew could chuckle that his house was in foreclosure before foreclosure was cool -- years before.

He could chuckle, but it was too painful to laugh; and then he could only chuckle when telling the story to strangers. It had to be with strangers, because when he discussed what happened with family and close friends he usually cried.

He shared the details as jokingly as he could.

He called himself a renaissance man who had been at the vanguard of the economic meltdown … the first breath into a housing bubble destined to burst … a country boy who had gotten ahead of the Wall Street slicksters and gorged himself on a buffet of economic difficulties before others had even been seated.

 

Before anyone was talking about being upside down in his mortgage, Matthew joked he was in Australia. By time others found themselves underwater, Matthew said he had drowned.

The fact that everything had happened to him before it became national news and a national crisis let him know that he had been smarter than the dummies who had fallen down that well long after him, he said.

He would say it had been his destiny to be in front of the curve, and his destiny had been fulfilled.

And it hurt. The unfinished house was his greatest shame, and he was forced to not just live with knowledge of it, but to look at it every day. It would have been his greatest achievement, and now he had to watch it deteriorate -- slowly and surely. Not every day, but with each season. The cold of winter dried out the wood trim … the heat of summer stripped the paint and buckled the walls … the rain of fall made the wood rot … and every spring the flowers blossomed all around the house, and he had to watch it through the years go from picturesque, to rustic to dilapidated; and he knew – in his heart – that through those years travelers going by had gone from wondering who was building the house, to why it had not been completed, to how long before it finally fell down. Maybe they had made up a tragic back story about why the house had not been occupied: a death … an illness … a bank foreclosure.

Few if any knew Matthew. They just saw a house. But Matthew knew. He had kept every notice of foreclosure, and could remember the feel of his head in his hand as he looked at each one. The weight of that despair had stooped his back, and he had never recovered – his shoulders forever rounded.

This dream house was supposed to be where he and his wife would spend their lives, where they would start a family; and it was going to be a good life – bigger and better than his father had. Matthew had spent his life preparing for it. All of that was before his life turned upside down and inside out, and that was just before the economy faltered and fell and it seemed everyone else – at least the people he knew -- joined him.

All of that was after the marriage had dissolved and the bank reclaimed the house just before it was completed. They didn’t even have a chance to move in. That was right before they had to do bankruptcies. Then he got downsized -- his foreman job gone. What made it worse was that he lived in a rural area where land was plentiful, but jobs were scarce.

Maybe he could have made a better life for himself had he gone somewhere else. There certainly would have been more opportunities to work with and pursue. But country boys love the country, and so he stayed with the familiar, the comfortable -- the country. He couldn’t help it. He always liked to look up and see stars. He liked to wave at the cars that passed and have the driver wave back. He liked to throw a stick and not hit his neighbor’s house. And if he had to forgo some economic opportunities to live a life he liked, well, that was the price that had to be paid. Anyway, he hadn’t really liked school. He made a living with his hands, and his father had taught him that as long as you do that, all you need is an opportunity. Though, honestly, times like these he wished his father had pushed him to study harder and be a better student. Maybe he could have even been an architect. But, then again, his father wasn’t much for school either, and he had always made his way with his hands.

That’s the problem with the world -- always changing; more technology. He hadn’t kept up. He could barely use a computer, unable to get pass those early experiences when the machine seemed to always freeze and need to be turned off and back on; he could check and send email. That was about it. On his last job they gave him a cell phone so that he was always available. He didn’t really like that, since he didn’t remember signing up to work twelve hour days and be on call twenty four-seven, while only drawing pay for an eight hour day. It seemed like he was getting text messages all the time. His response to every message was always the same: “call me.” He didn’t like having to always be available for conversations, but it was certainly better than punching small keys and struggling to interpret the jumble of letters that passed for slang and discussion in a text message.

By time all of that had happened it was the end of Matthew’s dream of a dream house. Oh, but it would have truly been a dream come true. It was two stories, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a combination of brick and wood. Did I mention two stories? Bigger than the one-story, three-bedroom, one and a half-bath house with aluminum siding he had been raised in. Were his father still alive he would have had to look up to see his son’s bedroom; and from Matthew’s bedroom he would have been able to look out onto his nearly three-acre lot. His father had wanted more, but never got around to buying it; but he had told his son that the American dream was more and that his son should want it and live it. More. Father had taught son that the American dream was a wife, and two children and a house, bigger than the one he was raised in; and a car. No need paying it off. Just get a newer one, a bigger, most costly one. Father had taught son that the American dream was obtainable with enough money – and Matthew wanted to live the American dream – the version handled down from father to son and adopted as the standard for happiness and fulfillment. More. And what he couldn’t afford he could just charge and pay off, eventually -- that’s what his father told him.

The house had been built, mostly. The walls and roof were there, the windows installed. But you could just look at it and tell it hadn’t been finished, no kitchen appliances ever been installed.

Eventually, all his problems combined with society’s problems -- ending up with the house and Matthew’s dream back in the hands of the bank.

Unemployment payments kept him afloat financially for the year it took him to get another job. He wasn’t a supervisor anymore and he didn’t make the money he had, but now he could say yes or no to the extra hours. He needed the money but there were times when he didn’t want to work and said no, and he didn’t feel guilty about it. Maybe more importantly, he could go home and not have to worry about being paged or called or texted with a problem.

Matthew now lived in an older, two-bedroom wood-frame home a few miles down the road from where his once dream house wasted away. And on his way to work or to the store or to drink he would look at the house and daydream about what it would have been and what it would have meant to him. He thought about that sometimes … occasionally … well, less and less. And when he daydreamed his wife would be there. She would always be there. So would the children they would never have, and he thought of them too, albeit, like the house and their mother, less and less.

This house was less than he would have had, but Matthew knew he, and his now live-in girlfriend-and- if-it-continued-to-be-good wife, Alice, might one day buy a bigger house. Maybe -- if they felt like it and had children and needed the space. But only if they needed it. Otherwise, he and she would press by each other in the tiny kitchen, take turns walking down the narrow hallway and see no need to buy more stuff than they needed since there was nowhere to store it, anyway. In any case, Matthew figured, what made the house special and a home really was Alice. She made him happy. Alice was cute and sweet and not what his first wife had been. Alice didn’t seem to want as much as what his first wife had wanted, and what Alice wanted didn’t seem to cost as much. Maybe they would have children. One day. And if there were children Matthew had decided he wouldn’t teach them to seek more to find happiness, but to live better. He had learned that what he couldn’t pay for, he probably didn’t need. And that’s what he was going to teach his children.

Matthew knew somewhere in him would always be a hurt – maybe not how it did, maybe less and less, but, always some. But along the way he came to the realization that what he didn’t have he could live without; he would want a little less and have a little less, and he would be ok with that – because what he had would be his. Some days he wondered if all this made his dream less than it had been, or just different from what it was? He finally decided it didn’t matter. It might be a smaller dream and a simpler life, but it would still have its share of joys and celebrations and pains and hurts … and be his life. He was ok with that, too.

And so in the summer Matthew sits on the front porch sipping a beer or lemonade or a glass or ice tea as he looked out pass the trees close to the house, pass the eight-year-old car he tries to squeeze one more year out of, across the field and to the road; in the winter he sits in the living room drinking coffee and looking out across the leaves and bare branches before his eyes fall on the occasional car going pass … And sometimes, in these moments he thinks about how that stretch of two-lane blacktop will always lead to the dream he failed to achieve. But always he remembers that it also brings him back home to the life he has.

“That’s the thing with life and dreams and computers,” Matthew started telling people, “sometimes you just have to reboot.”

 

THE END

 

Jamie C. Ruff is a former reporter with the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, native of Greensboro, NC, and author of three e-books, the western “Colby Black: from Slave to Cowboy,” the contemporary tale of camaraderie and personal conflict “Reinventing the Uninvented Me,” and, most recently, the coming of age story “The Peculiar Friendship.”  All are available for download at Amazon.com. He is also a contributor to short-story.me.

 

 

 

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