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Short Story
4803 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

The House on Kingsley Drive

by Karen Ackland

I’m ashamed. That’s the only message printed on the back of the postcard in fat block letters. On the front, a bearded man in a dark turban stands before a mud fort, Tombouctou printed on the bottom border. It’s unsigned, although I know who the card is from.

It’s been years since I’ve seen Richard, so I suppose he could be in Timbuktu, although the postmark says Van Nuys. Most likely he picked up the card at some yard sale or second-hand store. He was always skilled at spotting the oddly valuable in what others thought was junk. He’s the last person I’d expect to feel shame, although I understand. I’m ashamed, too. At a certain age, I suspect we all are.


Richard and I met at work. I’d recently moved to Los Angeles to take a marketing job with a company that manufactured office equipment—printers, copiers, facsimile machines. One Friday afternoon, he draped himself over a wall in my cubicle and said, “Miss Barbara, I’m going to be in your neighborhood tomorrow. What about lunch?” His use of the honorific made him sound foreign, sophisticated even, which didn’t match his appearance. He was one of those tall men whose clothes looked permanently rumpled.

I wondered how he knew where I lived. “Did I miss the invitation?”

“It’s just lunch,” he said. “I’ll pick you up around 10:00.”

“That’s early.”

“You have something else planned?”

I didn’t. I usually made lists on Saturday morning, sitting with a cup of coffee at my kitchen table. Not lists of things to do, which I made each work day, but countries I planned to visit, books I intended to read, the characteristics of an ideal mate. I found one of those lists recently, tucked into a book I hadn’t opened in years. Full head of hair, I’d written about my fantasy companion. Original teeth and limbs.

“Noon’s a good time for lunch,” I said. “Why don’t you come by around then?”

“Okay, 10:30.”


I was ready at 10:30, waited until 11:00, then decided to leave the building. I walked down the block and stopped at a yard sale outside an apartment building similar to the one where I lived—two-story, beige stucco, white trim. A short boxwood hedge lined the walkway.

I was attracted by a plain wooden dresser on the lawn. I’d moved without a lot of furniture and my underwear was currently looped over two hangers in the closet. The dresser had been painted white, then stripped, and ghosts of paint were still visible in the grain. I’d read that the test of a good second-hand dresser was if you could put the drawers in upside down—something about them being square—but the two women on the driveway in lawn chairs were watching and I felt self-conscious. I’d just pushed the top drawer shut when someone came from behind and covered my eyes.

I jerked away and fell forward against the dresser. Richard laughed. “You shouldn’t have resisted. I went by your apartment but you weren’t there.”

“I was at 10:30,” I said, rubbing my hip bone which had bulls-eyed one of the wooden knobs.

“I thought you wanted extra time.” He ran his hand along the dresser. “Interested?” Without waiting for an answer he called over to the women.

The one with a platinum pageboy got up and shuffled over. She named a price that looked about her age.

“This stain won’t come out.” He pointed to a black semi-circle on the top.

She bent to examine the mark as if she’d just noticed it. “You can put a scarf over it.”

“Fussy,” Richard said. “Reminds me of my grandmother.”

“It’s well-made.” I didn’t mention the upside-down test.

“How long have you two beauties lived in the neighborhood?” Richard asked and walked off with the woman toward her friend.

I pushed shut each of the dresser drawers. They moved easily enough. I could hear the women giggling.

Richard called me over. He reached into his pocket and handed one of the women two quarters, apparently in payment for the atlas under his left arm.

“The dresser,” I whispered.

“If it’s still here at the end of the day, we’ll give her forty for it.” He put his hand on my shoulder and walked me to the curb. I considered pulling away, but it was a nice day.

“Where are we going?” I asked as he opened the door of a yellow Mustang convertible. I hoped lunch would include a view of the ocean.

“Another yard sale,” he said, gesturing toward two boxes on the back seat. “My last stop took longer than I expected.”

At least he can tell time, I thought. “What are you looking for?”

“Stuff people are throwing away. I picked up a couple of hymnals earlier.”

“You collect hymnals?” He didn’t strike me as a religious person.

“Only pre-1950. The old couple must have been pinching them for decades.” He started to sing, An Old Rugged Cross, and for a moment I imagined I might like him. Then the car in front braked to make an unexpected left turn and Richard leaned out the window and yelled, “Learn to drive, dipshit. Some of us have places to go.”

Fifteen minutes later we parked in front of a house near Silver Lake with a rack of clothes in the driveway and plastic crates on the lawn, but no dresser. As we got out, Richard suggested I poke around by myself. Did he assume I’d inhibit his ability to bargain? Snatch a hymnal out of his hand and drive up the price?

I rummaged through a couple of crates and had just picked up a rusty eggbeater, when a woman walked past and whispered, “The good stuff’s on the porch.” She lifted a towel draped over a box and gave me a peek at a pair of praying hands. “This makes twenty-four.”

Two dozen praying hands—what did she do with them? Drape jewelry over the fingers or serve candy in the cupped palms? Or did she drop to her knees before them and ask forgiveness? I considered introducing her to Richard, thinking her praying hands and his hymnals could pair off.

I thanked her and headed toward the ivy-covered porch. Richard was already there. In a stack of dishes I found an egg plate that reminded me of the deviled eggs Grandma Reis made every Fourth of July. The plate had a small chip in the gold trim, but was otherwise in good condition. I bought it and Richard carried away an armload of books.

Afterwards we drove downtown, practically deserted on the week-end, and had French dip sandwiches at Philippe’s. Richard claimed he knew what was best and ordered for us both.


We continued to rendezvous for Saturday morning yard sales. Not every week, but more often than not. Richard collected books, maps, and photographs, while I rummaged for egg plates. I meant to look for cookware, or dishtowels, and occasionally I left with something I could use in the kitchen, purchases Richard always criticized, saying I needed to focus. I assumed he wanted to reserve the limited space in his car for his own random acquisitions.

Richard worked a yard the way a socialite works a cocktail party. He’d greet the sellers like old friends, ask about the neighborhood, tilt his head to one side and nod agreement as they spoke. He moved from one box to another, exclaiming over one thing and setting something else aside. He’d hide the one book he was interested in within an armful, the photo he liked inside a ragged album. By the time we went to leave, more often than not, the sellers encouraged him to take more. A widow went inside and brought out a book of her late husband’s she hadn’t intended to sell; a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt emptied his glove compartments of outdated maps, then pulled open the garage door and suggested we look around. Richard seemed energized by the sales, but despite my growing collection of egg plates, they struck me as sad places.


I’d moved to L.A. because of my job. That’s what I told people, but the real reason was my husband, my college sweetheart, had confessed he was in love with a man.

We’d just sat down to dinner. I’d brought a stack of travel magazines to the table, expecting to talk about our upcoming vacation. That’s when he told me he was moving to San Francisco. With Jon.

Tim and Jon worked at the same graphic design agency and at first I thought he was talking about some work assignment or suggesting we all go away together.

He was sorry, he said, he hadn’t known how to tell me.

Then don’t, I thought. We’ll start the conversation over. I won’t bring up Panama; you won’t talk about Jon. We’ll take a road trip. Drive through the coastal redwoods or search for hot springs in the eastern Sierras. Oaxaca was just a suggestion.

Later, friends said I must have known, and in hindsight everything was a clue. Weeks earlier I’d found Tim curled up in bed, his back toward me, crying. A migraine, he’d said.

Was I supposed to read betrayal in his spine?

So, my relationship with Richard was based on a syllogism. The man I loved wasn’t who I thought he was. My judgment about men was seriously flawed. Therefore, I might as well sleep with Richard who I didn’t like. Our relationship expanded from Saturday morning yard sales to sex on Friday nights. His skin had a plastic quality, smooth and practically hairless, which was probably why I thought when the time came I could slip off the nonstick surface, unharmed.


One Saturday as we parked in front of the duplex, a squat building with a split personality, Richard claimed to have a good feeling. “I bet some old lady died in there and her family can’t wait to tear this place down and put up condos. They’re probably going over the plans at the kitchen table right now.”

The property might have been valuable, but I couldn’t see that the yard sale would amount to much. There was a single cardboard box on the lawn. We watched as a woman came outside with a sheet. She held it down with the box at one end and a cast iron skillet at the other.

“What’s next on our list?” I asked, reaching for the classified ads.

“Let’s give this one a few minutes,” Richard said.

He got out of the car and walked up the driveway to greet the woman. She was dressed casually in slacks and a sweatshirt, but the diamond bouquet on her finger suggested this wasn’t her neighborhood. They chatted for a few minutes, Richard’s head tilted to one side in its predatory position.

I interrupted their conference and asked, “Any egg plates?”

“There used to be one,” the woman said. “I haven’t been through the china, yet.”

A car stopped, but the people didn’t get out after scanning the lean pickings.

The woman sighed. “I should have hired someone to cart this all away. My daughter talked me into having this sale, said she’d help. But she’s late, like usual.”

“Tell you what,” Richard said. “We’re two able-bodied workers, at your service.”

She looked us over. Apparently we passed the test. “If you help bring things out, you can have first choice if there’s something you want.”

We followed her to a small room dominated by a television and upholstered recliner. She pointed to a set of cupboards under a built-in bookcase, painted the same dark beige as the walls. “I’m keeping the rosebud china for my daughter,” she said, pulling up the Venetian blinds. She gestured toward the shelves. “Mother remembered everything she ever read, but in the last few years, her eyes were bad. I doubt there’s anything of interest. It all goes in the trash this afternoon.”

After she left Richard glanced over two rows of Reader’s Digest condensed books and asked, “What’d you get me into?”

“You’re the one who wanted to stay.”

He opened a volume, sticky with dust, and muttered, “Interesting. I suppose it’s worth a half-hour.” I stood and looked over his shoulder. He held open a copy of The Friendly Persuasion—inside was a twenty dollar bill. “The old lady probably lived through the Depression and didn’t trust banks.”

I shook open another book—two fives fluttered to the floor. “How much do you think is here?” I whispered.

“Why don’t you concentrate on the china?” Richard said. “This might turn out to be a worthwhile stop after all.”

Sitting cross legged on the floor, I looked through the mismatched serving dishes in the cupboard and set aside a cut glass egg plate. I stacked the rosebud china on the dining room table, a mahogany set that had obviously been intended for a larger room. At the back of the cupboard was a framed certificate for participating in some women’s club and a shoebox of old photographs. I moved everything else outside and arranged it on the lawn. When I returned, the woman was talking with Richard. She pivoted toward me and asked, “Did you find something you wanted?”

“Only these.” I held up the egg plate and a tin tray with a rooster painted on top.

“I’ll take these books and the box of photos,” Richard said.

The woman flipped through the photos but ignored the books. “I used to ask my mother who these people were, but she’d only say, ‘Everyone is dead.’ You’re welcome to them. There’s nobody here I recognize.”

“I’ll give you twenty for the lot,” Richard said.

I expected her to wave it away, thanking us for our help, but she accepted the bill still complaining about her missing daughter.


Richard spread the photographs across the carpet in the living room of my apartment. He started arranging them into stacks, a giant game of Concentration, although I wasn’t sure of the categories.

“How much was in those books?” I asked.


“One hundred and eighty dollars?” After the first book, Richard had remained quiet. “Maybe we should have given it to the woman.”

“No way. Someone else would have paid a quarter for a book and received a bonus twenty. You heard her—she’s going to put everything in some dumpster this afternoon on her way back to Palos Verdes or Brentwood or wherever she lives.”

“She would have wanted the money.”

“Of course, she’d want the money. But it’s a yard sale. The sellers are trying to get rid of stuff they don’t want, the buyers are looking for a bargain. Today we got the better deal.”

“Maybe we should take it back.”

“Do you remember that book I found last month inscribed to Edith?” Richard asked.

I shrugged. He was always buying books.

“It was by a Western author. A dealer in New York paid me three thousand for it. My return on that novel is much greater than what I made today.”

“It seems different taking the cash.”

“It’s a business transaction. Plain and simple. Is there anything to eat?”

In the kitchen, I grated cheddar cheese on top of wheat bread and slid the slices under the broiler. While waiting for the cheese to melt, I took out my collection of egg plates and arranged them around the table. A turquoise-colored Fiestaware plate, one shaped like an autumn leaf and another like a rooster were my favorites.

“I should have a party,” I called to Richard. “What goes with deviled eggs?”

“Something sulfurous,” he said. “Like that chardonnay you bought last week. It would have made a good spa treatment.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Hey, look at this!”

I knelt beside him and he handed me an old black and white photo of a two-story wood-shingled house. It was probably the camera angle, but the house looked like it had put down roots and spread horizontally along the ground, porches and awnings sprouting like branches from the second floor. “I always wanted to live in one of these old places,” I said.

“Thing is, you do.”

“What are you smoking? I live in a cramped apartment in need of a paint job.”

“Turn it over.”

I read the handwriting on the back: 1831 Kingsley Drive, my address. “I don’t understand. Did you just write this?”

He shook his head. “That house was right here.”

“Why would anyone tear down this house for these apartments?”

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Richard sang. He really did have a nice singing voice.


I’d loved the house in the Poconos where Tim and I worked as caretakers at an old camp. We’d moved there right after college, feeling lucky to have a house of our own. It wasn’t anything near as grand as the house in the photo, just a small two-bedroom on the other side of the rec hall, but we’d painted the rooms and installed a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. In winter, the firewood stacked around the porch made me feel safe.

Two years later, we headed home, although neither of us was in a hurry. We camped, stayed with friends and the parents of friends, taking odd jobs when we needed money. Spent a week with a potter in North Carolina whose wife kept Araucana chickens that laid blue eggs. What could have been a four-day drive stretched over two months.

We landed one more house-sitting job—friends of Tim’s parents with a carriage house on an estate near Santa Barbara. He found a job as a graphic artist. All those sketchbooks he’d filled at stops across the country seemed to pay off. Misspelled signs and giant hot dogs; a tobacco barn in Tennessee and hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.

I took a job as a secretary and told myself it was a start. I couldn’t help noticing he’d stepped into an adult life, while I was still in transition. When we split, I’d tried taking an X-acto knife to my memories, slicing away the parts that included him.

After Richard found the photo, I started to imagine that I lived in the house. Now when I came home, instead of walking up two concrete steps to the mailboxes, I imagined a wide, brick lined veranda. Instead of a stairwell with a rusty iron railing, I pictured a wood banister, notched together like fine furniture. There was a stained glass window in the dining room, polished hardwood floors, and Oriental rugs. Even a non-existent house felt like something I could count on.

At yard sales, I started buying things that might have decorated a turn of the century Craftsman home. A brass vase with dusty peacock feathers. A celadon bowl to hold floating camellias. A hand-woven runner for the top of the dresser. I saw no harm in pretending. Shelter is a basic need.

One Saturday afternoon, Richard said, “We should have a housewarming. Invite people over to see the old place.”

“Can I have the photo?” I asked.

“Patience. We’ll ask them to wear vintage clothes, serve pre-prohibition drinks.”

“Which are?”

“Something in martini glasses.”

Neither of us mentioned that hosting a party on Saturday night changed the ground rules of our relationship.


“Wow, you don’t look like Aunt Edna,” Richard said when I opened the door the night of the party. I’d found an old satin slip at a swap meet, cut on the bias with wide lace straps, and added darts to improve the fit. It made a satisfying swishing sound when I walked. Richard had donned a tuxedo which, although pressed, seemed as rumpled as his work clothes—he looked like a black-limbed Gumby.

“Aunt Edna?”

“Our relations,” he replied. He’d framed a few of the photos we’d found, including an enlargement of the house, and placed them on the bookcase.

“What are we supposed to be—cousins?”

“Sure, kissing cousins.” He came up behind me and cupped his hand over my breast. “There’s nothing like family.”

I twisted away. “Lighten up,” he called as I walked into the kitchen. “It’s only a party.”

He’d suggested not inviting anyone from work. The company didn’t have a policy against fraternization, but it’d be better if we kept our business private. Fine with me. I might be sleeping with him, but I didn’t consider myself involved.

Which meant most of the guests were Richard’s friends. At that point, I’d barely met my neighbors. The women had taken the dress code seriously, if not accurately. Maria, who I learned was a former girlfriend of Richard’s, wore a black velvet dress with art deco designs down the back. She came with Kevin and made a point of announcing that they were just friends: they worked in the same office. Bruce, a racquetball partner, came with his wife, Sue, who wore a tailored jacket with large shoulder pads. I’d invited Peg, my hairdresser, who’d teetered on a pair of purple brocade heels that she wore with jeans.

I’d made eight dozen deviled eggs. The regular were the favorite; the chocolate eggs the runners-up. Others were flavored with chipotle and wasabi. The remaining egg plates held nuts, olives, and jelly beans. Richard walked around with a pitcher of martinis, filling the mismatched glasses we’d collected and singing snippets of Cole Porter songs. At one point he pulled me into a waltz and sang, let’s do it, let’s fall in love. I imagined to an outsider we’d look like one of those photos in food magazines, people standing around a table laughing, drinks in their hands. We seemed to be having a good time.

Maria was the first to ask about the photos. She pointed to a young boy standing on the running board of a black Ford, a palm tree in the background.

“That’s Uncle Jimmy,” Richard said. “The woman in the big hat is Aunt Beulah. A good-looking woman, but she had a hard life with her husband in and out of jail. A con man and not a good one. She stuck with him; women did in those days.”

The only photo I recognized was the one of the house. Richard walked the length of the bookcase, pointing to one photograph after the other, inventing a story about each. Uncle Ray. A day at Huntington Beach. By the time he’d finished, the entire party was gathered around him. As he talked, he’d touch an arm, incline his head to better hear a question, place his hand on a shoulder—his standard yard sale persona.

I glanced around the group hoping to catch someone’s eye, but they were all watching Richard. Their interest puzzled me. Sure they were his friends, but what did they see in him? No one questioned why photographs of his family were displayed in my apartment.

When he reached the photograph of the house, he tapped his finger on the glass and said, “This is my grandmother’s house on Kingsley Drive. You’re standing right where her bedroom would have been.” The group moved closer as if searching for some sign of the future apartment.

“What do you think the odds are?” I asked. “We found that photo at a yard sale.”

Simultaneously, Richard said, “It was my family home.”

“Your family lived here?” Peg asked.

“The old homestead,” he agreed. “I came for the house and found Barb. A double play, so to speak. Turns out the house was destroyed in a fire. Arson was suspected.”

Richard pulled me toward him and winked. It was a cue for me to make some response—a brief acknowledgement of that first meeting, answering the door to find a stranger, photograph in hand. As he’d said, it was only a party. I wouldn’t see most of these people again. All I had to do was smile and nod. But somehow the drinks Richard had been pouring all evening cleared my head, and I felt exposed, a woman who’d come to a party in her slip.

“We found the photo,” I repeated. Holding up my empty martini glass as an excuse, I left the group. I filled the glass with soda water and sat on the living room couch beside Kevin, who was flipping through an old issue of Life magazine.

“He really is full of shit, isn’t he?” He didn’t look up, and I wasn’t even sure he was addressing me.

I shrugged. “The others seem to be enjoying it.”

“Right, if you don’t care about facts.”

I picked out a cashew from an egg plate and pushed the nuts toward Kevin, who scooped up a handful. I surveyed the group over by the photos. Richard had become even more animated, opening his arms as if indicating the size of a fish or the amount of a fortune. Maria had assumed my place by Richard’s side, glancing up in admiration.

I handed Kevin a platter of deviled eggs, but he waved them away. “Eggs make me gag. Can you break away from the old family homestead? I need some real food.”

I wanted something else, too. I went into my bedroom, changed into a pair of jeans and a turtleneck. We drove to Canter’s.

“How long have you known Maria?” I asked after the waitress had taken our order.

“Couple of months. I’m an architect. Maria’s the office manager.”

“Do you design houses?”

“Not often. Those commissions are hard to get. We just finished a fire station though.”

“What’s it look like?”

He took a pen out of his pocket and sketched on a paper napkin. “There,” he said, turning it to face me.

He’d drawn a building with a steeply pitched roof. On the second floor was a large round window and behind that was a fireman sliding down a pole. “Fire, fire,” was written in a cartoon bubble.

I laughed. “They still use those fire poles?”

“To be honest, there isn’t one. I was disappointed myself. The window is accurate though.”

I appreciated the distinction. I thought of telling him about the house, but I remembered the group fawning over the photos in the hallway and decided to keep the house for myself.


The apartment was dark when I returned except for a light in the bedroom—Richard was sitting on the bed, his tuxedo jacket folded by his feet.

“Where have you been?” he demanded.

“I went out for a pastrami sandwich.” It wasn’t an explanation, but it was the truth.

“Odd behavior for a hostess.” He snapped shut his book and stood in front of me.

“You seemed to have everything under control.” I wished he’d just leave. I reached around him to slide open the closet door and hang up my coat.

“You’re jealous, aren’t you?” he said. He gave me a two-fingered jab in the shoulder. “Maria’s an old friend, if that’s what you’re upset about.”

There’s probably no way to refute jealousy without sounding like you’re pouting. “No big deal. You were talking to Maria, I talked to Kevin.”

“What’s Maria see in that guy, anyway?”

“For one, he’s not always calling attention to himself. She might find that refreshing.” I tried to sidestep past Richard. “Anyway, I’m home now. I’ll go clean up.”

Suddenly his Gumby-limbs stretched, blocking my passage, pushing me backwards. When I tried to muscle past he shoved me onto the bed. It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t playful either. I stood up and he knocked me down.

“You’re a pushover,” he said, “A lightweight. You might as well stay where you belong.”

“Get out.”

He put on his jacket and gave a mock bow. “Madame.”

I stayed on the bed after I heard the front door slam, listening to be sure he was really gone. The scent of his cologne lingered along with my humiliation. Finally I got up and went into the kitchen. The egg plates were stacked on the counter. The martini glasses had been washed and turned upside down to dry on a dish towel, their glass stems broken off and resting beside them.


People tire of hearing stories of an ex-husband, tales of infidelity and heartbreak: they worry you won’t be able to stop. But that isn’t the story I want to tell. I’d tell about the swimming hole near the waterfall, the bread I baked each week in the wood-burning stove, pale blue eggs in honest stoneware bowls.

I keep Richard’s postcard in my nightstand drawer along with a flashlight and an extra pair of reading glasses. The card doesn’t have a return address, but if it did I’d reply: I’m sorry. I’m ashamed, too. He kept me company when I was lonely and that I could never forgive.


SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Karen Ackland

has been published in Quarterly West, Story Quarterly, Literal Latte, Salon, and other journals. She recently graduated from Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program and is a book reviewer for ForeWord Reviews. “The House on Kingsley Drive” is part of a cycle of stories dealing with shame, LA, and searching for home.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury