Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4546 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Almost Home

Kenneth Rapoza

Alex Cruz knew what was coming the second he opened the front door. The girls were going to be pissed. He had passed Maggie Martin on the street on her way towards the subway in the driving rain. Her small house on an eighth-of-an-acre lot on Bailey Street stood as a testament to her inability to make up her mind. There was a sense of indecisiveness about the entire construction; it lived and breathed in a world of “neither here nor there.” Even though Alex and the two women he rented her home with wanted otherwise, they ended up spending their time complaining about Maggie’s home more than they spent coming up with ways to make it more to their liking. Maggie visited about twice a month to go through her mail, giving the girls fresh anti-Maggie ammo.

“I see she didn’t take her mail, again,” he said to the two girls who were staring at him as he dripped rainwater onto the wooden floor. Her mail was piled a foot high on the stairs and six inches high on a banister railing in front of him.

Vero DuPont and Raquel Gonzalez leaned back in unison and said together, “She said she didn’t want to get it wet.”

“I offered her a bag,” Vero said. She motioned to a supermarket bag sitting on the floor beside her. The threesome stood still in their respective places, adding nothing more about Maggie’s inconsistencies, until Vero broke the silence. “I can’t take this house anymore.” No one had said that during the past six months of living together under Maggie’s roof. It made sense that Vero would be the first to protest. Maggie’s house was a total contrast to Vero’s Back Bay fashion sense.

“If you move out, my rent goes up,” Raquel said to her.

“That’d suck, Vero,” Alex said in agreement.

“Well I’m sorry. Then you two should move out with me. This house is a mess,” Vero said and walked over to the sink.

Alex and Raquel met Maggie first during one of her teaching assignments in a post-graduate program at UMass Boston. Alex met Vero and liked that she laughed at everything he said in a way that shook her skinny body. He asked her to move in. Raquel hated the idea. Alex thought that the feisty French girl might be the catalyst for change. He had already grown accustomed to Maggie’s disarray and both he and Raquel were too busy with school and work to find the time and the money to make Maggie’s house more than a discombobulated, almost empty shell.

“I’ve sorted this mail before. I can’t keep up,” said Alex, spotting the other pile on a radiator. “She doesn’t know where to keep it, does she?”

“When her house burns down she’ll know that the radiator is no place for paper,” Vero said. The sparse interior décor did not sit well with her tastes. Yet, the woman had few choices. She was between jobs at non-profit organizations and housing costs were rising about 5% a month; so was rent. She was a refugee of a hot housing market, lost and searching for a home like the Africans and Haitians she tended to at her last NGO gig.

Maggie had moved out of the house ten months ago. She lived with her estranged husband, David Kildare. She kept her maiden name, apparently because she had not yet decided whether to adopt his. Shortly after Maggie moved out, Alex and Raquel tried to clean and better organize the house, but the work proved beyond their time and energy.

Once, Alex and Raquel spent an entire Saturday sorting through envelopes piled on the floor in the sunroom. “She’s got mail in here that dates back ten years, to 1995!” Alex had said, sitting on the wooden floor in the cold room. The room’s walls sagged into the earth so that the entire room listed at a ten-degree angle. He threw unopened junk mail from New Spirit book club and Carnival Cruise Lines into a grocery bag.

“Dios mio,” Raquel said. “We cleaning this up, but when she return, that stupid sheepdog of hers will mess it up again.” When she was tired, she spoke English like she had just flown in from Venezuela. “Americans are so filthy.”

“Hey, I’m American and I’m clean,” Alex said, stiffening his back.

She tilted her head flirtatiously. “Except you, Alex. But you no really American, you’re a Latino.” She ran her index finger down his nose. He examined her black curly locks and realized at that moment that he found her accent irresistible. They were a dynamic duo now, two adults in their early 30s all alone in this barely affordable house, sharing breakfast and dinner together every day. But that was the extent of their coupling. Alex found an opened income tax form tucked into a dusty envelope with a boot print on it. He read the numbers out loud. “The house is valued at four hundred thousand.” He looked at the postage stamp again. “Postmarked April, 2003. I bet it’s worth more now.”

“It should be worth less. What money has Maggie put into it?” Raquel had said.

Looking at both girls, Alex said, “We’ve got to Maggie-proof this house.” He hung up his wet coat.

“I don’t have money for home improvement,” Raquel snapped.

“But none of us have money for rent anywhere else,” he said.

Raquel’s money went to school, food, rent, and an occasional Saturday night dancing. Though it might have been just as likely that she didn’t want to give Vero any credit for the idea to spruce up Maggie’s house.

“I’m unemployed, guys,” said Vero. “But I’ll spend pennies for paint and flowers if I must.” She used to live in her uncle’s swanky apartment in historic Louisburg Square, but he sold it for $2 million after it was on the market for two days. It was listed at $1.5 million. Good for the uncle, but not so good for Vero, who moved to the “inner city.” She’s the only Parisian walking down Bailey Street to the subway each morning, strutting her skinny self to the tough rhythms of gangsta rap.

“We can do little things. Paint the stairs, seed the lawn, make like this is our house once and for all,” Alex proposed.

“Agreed,” said Vero. “I love living with you guys, but coming home to this place is depressing. I’m willing to spend the money to make this place work. And you, Raquel?”

Raquel lowered her eyes to focus on a bowl of grapes in her lap. Alex approached, putting his hand on Raquel’s sagging shoulders.

“Let’s make it ours,” he said, lowering his head into her line of vision. He put out his hand for Raquel to slap him five. She put her warm hand in his. Vero then put her hand in theirs. A complicit smile formed on their lips like they had just planned to change Maggie’s locks and rob over a quarter-million of Boston real estate.

That Saturday, Vero read from a to-do list. Raquel listened half-heartedly. As Vero read, Raquel burned two pancakes. The fire alarm went off. Alex waved an unread Boston Globe at it. “I don’t think we should be responsible for paying for paint,” Raquel said, fanning away smoke from the pan. “I think Maggie should pay for it. We’ll do the labor.”

“She might even have paint in the basement,” Vero said.

“I’m no going downstairs. Last time I was down there I saw flies eating a dead mouse,” Raquel said. She motioned with her fingers to mimic bugs burrowing into flesh.

“I’ll go downstairs,” Alex said. “Finish the list, Vero.”

Vero read from the list. Curtains for the kitchen. Agreed. Blue and white ones to match the Formica counter tops. Affirmative. Raquel rolled her eyes. Grass seed for the backyard. A must. The yard was half dirt, half weeds. They agreed, providing Maggie bought and delivered the topsoil. Neither of them had a car. Vero forgot about that.

Plant a fern garden. “I can buy ferns and transplant in the backyard,” Vero said, pointing out the window to the cement staircase at the backdoor which had a good pile of dirt beside it.

“I like that idea,” Alex said. “A little fern gully.”

“I don’t live in the backyard,” Raquel countered. “Ferns or no ferns.”

She raised her arms in surrender, then served the roommates some pancakes, giving Vero the burnt one.

Vero’s room was on the third floor. The third floor had poor lighting and was not insulated, so the staircase was always 10 degrees colder than the rest of the house. The wallpaper along the stairwell had water stains. The area Vero wanted to clean consisted of a small hallway full of sleeping bags, pillows, and old lamp stands. There were two attic rooms off to the side. One had their personal belongings from past apartments. But among these were boxes upon boxes of paper from Maggie’s graduate school days sprawled onto the floor in a room plastered with cigarette rolling papers and a twelve-by-twelve mirror overhead.

“Why do we want to clean up here? We don’t use it,” Raquel said.

“I live up here,” Vero said. “Can you help me clean it? It’ll take months by myself. I can’t take it, you guys. It’s disgusting. It’s ugly.”

Maggie was a benevolent Quaker who wanted people who would take care of the house while she took care of her marriage. She had found three good candidates, she had told them. She was a religion and ethics professor for a local seminary. She also worked part time as a Quaker spiritual counselor, and reserved one room in the house as an office. Her home office consisted of a black, busted futon; an old hand bag full of Beatles albums with no record player in sight; a computer printer on the floor unattached to a computer; a leather chair with a footrest; and two desks. There were two bookshelves in Maggie’s office. One held an old 1990s Apple laptop. She actually used a bookshelf as an extra desk. There was no room for her knees when she sat in front of the bookshelf to type, so she spread her legs wide open. The little leather footrest served as her seat. On the book shelf was one unframed baby picture bent into the letter “U” and seashells she never dusted. Raquel dusted them for her.

“I feel bad knocking her all the time,” Alex said to Raquel later that afternoon.

Raquel was ironing a white shirt. “She’s nice, yes, but she gets in the way. I can’t work around this woman anymore, like Vero says. She is starting to get on my nervous.”

“Get on my nerves, not get on my nervous,” Alex corrected.

“You know what I meant.” Raquel put her hand on her hip, ready for an argument. She looked around the room before pointing to a ceiling fan. “Did you ever notice? There is no globe around that light. It’s just an open socket.”

“I put a light bulb in there last week,” Alex said, looking upward and wondering. “Where’d it go?”

“When the fan’s on, the bulb unscrews itself,” said Raquel. “And there’s more. I put the globe to cover it, but the damn thing fell on the floor and shattered all over the place when I turned the fan on. Remember that?”

Alex shook his head in disbelief. He remembered. “It is unbelievable the things that are wrong with—how can you keep a ceiling fan that spits out light bulbs!? Just buy a new one! Ain’t this America?” Steam hissed from the iron like a mad cat.

“Do you know, when I was nine, armed banditos came into our summerhouse and told us to get out. They told my father he already had a house, so they kick us out and they took it over and no one did anything about it. I had a dollhouse in that home that I loved to play with. I never saw it again.” She looked out the second-story window over Maggie’s dead lawn. A rickety fence was collapsed atop a pile of tree debris. Next door was a beautiful pink Victorian home with a strawberry patch in the backyard. “I’m at that nesting phase. I’m going to be 35 next month. I’m single. I don’t have a career anymore. I don’t have a baby, but I want a nest, Alex,” she said, her back to him. Her eyes fixed on the clean pink home next door. She turned to face him.

Alex slouched in the leather chair. “If I was making 60K a year, my wife would have to make the same for us to afford this house right now. What’s a home but a roof and a pot to piss in, right?”

“You know what my mommy say? She says home is the place where you want to die.”

Alex sat up straight. There was a sudden, deafening scream that made him leap from the chair. It came from Vero downstairs. “A rat! Alex, come here, it’s a rat!”

Alex raced down the stairs as if he was on skis, sliding his hand along the wooden banister for balance. Raquel stayed at the top of the staircase. “Open all the doors!” she shouted.

“And let in more rats? Are you crazy!” Vero said.

“All right, where did it go?” Alex said, taking the broom from Vero’s hands. She pointed to the living room and jumped up and down like she was standing on hot coals. Double doors once divided the room of the old house, but Maggie had taken them out. The frames that had held the doors were empty now, so anyone could look into the gap between the walls.

Vero tiptoed into the room. Raquel came down the stairs.

“What do you see?” Vero whispered.

Gray dust balls clung to the wooden frame of the house like polyps growing on the home’s innards. “It’s in there,” he said.

“Dios mio...,” Raquel looked inside the gap, fearless. “He’s in the walls. Listen...”

Vero shook her body and rubbed her arms. “I’m calling rat patrol.”

“No. Call Maggie and her husband. Tell them their house is a health hazard,” Raquel suggested.

“Oh, so the board of health can shut the house down?” Vero snapped.

“You want to live in a health hazard? I don’t want to live in a health hazard.”

Vero fired back. “I have to live here. I can’t afford $1,200 a month rent, I don’t know what to do except what I’m doing.”

“Ask your rich uncle for money.”

“Oh, for God’s sakes, Raquel. I’m thirty fucking three years old. I’m not asking him for money.”

Defiant, Raquel marched toward a cordless phone in the kitchen. Alex, on bended knee, wondered who she would call and took notice that this was the third time this week that the two girls had a shouting match. He stared at the wooden floor, not wanting to watch Raquel make the call.

Over the silence, she left a diplomatic message on Maggie’s voice mail up north. “We found a rat,” she said. “We think we know how it is getting into the house. Please take care of this.” She hung up. They all stood in separate rooms like angry spouses heading to separate beds.

The next day, Maggie came to the house and apologized for the fiasco. She put large glue traps inside the wall, but no one asked her why she had taken the double doors down in the first place and didn’t seal up the gaps. It became too embarrassing to confront her about the house.

“I’m happy you guys care so much for my house,” Maggie told them, sipping orange tea in the kitchen. She habitually left some of her food in the pantry. Raquel had taken to throwing some of it out, but always left behind expired oils, so Maggie would one day pour the stuff over food and suffer bowel cramps and maybe learn to throw things away. Alex felt bad for Maggie. It wasn’t that Maggie was forcing them to live there. The entire economy was. People were getting richer, and they were getting poorer.

Everyone was unusually quiet. “The house feels loved. It really does,” Maggie said. She told them that she would be spending the night in her office. Then she asked if it was okay that she still had a lot of her belongings cluttering the house. No one said a word, until Vero asked if Maggie could help clean the third floor, do something about her mail, and if they could paint her house. Maggie said she would, and, yes, they could.

In the kitchen late at night, Alex repeated what he had said earlier. “It’s tough being upset with her.”

Vero gave a small, enigmatic smile.

“I don’t care if she’s sweet,” said Raquel. “We have a good deal here, that’s true, but if she is going to rent out her house, then all of her stuff should be out of here. She’s left us half a house.” Raquel pouted with tight lips. She spoke quietly. It was midnight anyway and Maggie was certain to be asleep.

When Alex and Raquel first moved into the house, Maggie didn’t know whether to move in fulltime with her husband or keep separate residences until they decided to remain a couple or get divorced. The two had lived with Maggie for six months, spending almost every evening at home with her, except weekends when she was in Gloucester. They knew her sleeping habits: in bed by 10, breathing heavily by 10:15 with a book about Quakers still in hand. Either Alex or Raquel would gently shut her office door like parents after tucking in a child. The door did not shut properly because the doorknob was missing.

“Half a house,” Alex repeated Raquel’s comment. The statement made him think. “There are two bathrooms, but only one of them is insulated. The walls are painted on the first floor, but need painting on the second. The living and dining rooms have curtains, but the kitchen does not. Her home, partially furnished, has a yard that’s half weeds, half dirt. She’s sometimes married, sometimes not.”

Vero’s face blushed as she held her ribs in pain, slapping Alex’s arm to make him stop. Raquel leaned her head against a brick wall and shook her head from side to side as if forbidding herself to laugh.

Alex got up from the barstool and pointed to the wall, showcasing it wih his hand like a model calling attention to a new car. “The wall...partially bricked,” he said. “For crying out loud, woman! Make up your mind! Brick or no brick. House or no house. Decide already!”

Raquel hugged him tightly, grabbing a fistful of his shirt and shoving it into her mouth to drown out her laughter. When she pulled away, two wet crescent moons, one on top of the other, had soaked the fabric. Alex looked at the lip marks. She smiled at him and touched his nose with her fingertip. He was playing house with two attractive women who had embarked on a home-making project with him. It could only get better.

Vero came home with news that she got a job as grant writer at a new climate change NGO. She poured herself a glass of merlot and went outdoors to check on the ferns she had transplanted on Saturday. She was going to water them, she told Alex who was re-washing a pasta pot Maggie had cleaned. Vero dropped her wine glass as soon as she stepped outside. Alex followed behind her. On Monday, the twelve Boston ferns were roughly a foot tall, but after just one day with Maggie Martin they were turning brown as if someone had lit a fire on the tips of their leaves.

“What...happened?” Vero stuck her fingers into the soil. “It’s sopping wet. Did you water them to death?”

“Can you water plants to death?”

She looked dumbfounded. Clinging to the cement steps in the back yard was a patch of white suds. She got down on her knees, rubbed her hand along the cement, and then smelled her fingers. “Soap suds.” A light seemed to go on in Vero’s eyes. “Maggie poured soap over the plants! Why would she pour dirty water on top of a fern garden?”

“She’s not paying attention. She’s not used to it being here.”

“Wait,” Vero said, shooing imaginary bugs out of her eyes. “Why would she pour water here and not down the drain?”

“Maybe it’s a chemical cleaner she used. It could corrode her metal pipes. I’ve lived in the woman’s house over a year and I honestly can’t tell you why she does these things to her house, but she has cursed it, that is for sure.”

Raquel said that Maggie wasn’t a Quaker; she was goddamn “Quackers.”

“I’m giving this one more try,” Alex said.

Raquel seemed to take that in.

That entire summer, the ferns stayed brown and nothing grew.


In the months that followed, Alex and Raquel painted the stairs that led to the sidewalk. They painted it “periwinkle”—as Vero called it—and white. All three of them were proud of the shiny paint job. The next morning Alex discovered a graffiti tag on the porch railing. It read, “KILLAZ.” Raquel and Vero argued again, this time about whether to paint over it. Vero cried and said that as long as she lived in the house she would make it a home, no “gangstas” and no “Maggie Martin” would stop her!

Vero and Alex made kitchen curtains on her sewing machine. Together they finished a second coat on the second-floor staircase and painted the third-floor stairwell, too.

Later, Alex put a new wall-to-wall rug in the sunroom and bought a space heater. Vero hung up framed French lithographs, some of which she found in Maggie’s attic. Pictures of themselves with friends and family hung on the walls. Maggie’s mail was gone from the piano top and thrown into grocery bags. Vero put fresh flowers on the piano. Alex filled the gap left by the sliding doors with two-by-threes cut at Home Depot. The girls painted them Behr white.

Alex took to reading on the couch at night while Vero watched police dramas, headphones plugged into the television so she wouldn’t disturb anybody. She sprawled out her lanky frame on an imported Egyptian cotton rug her uncle gave her. Raquel baked sugar cookies barefoot on a clean kitchen floor and served her roommates. In October, Maggie told them that she so loved what they had done that she had finally made up her mind.

She sat them down in her living room. Sasquatch the sheepdog was in the kitchen sloppily drinking water from his bowl. It had been almost a year since Alex had heard that beast drinking in the kitchen. It was one of the only decisions Maggie ever made—that if she didn’t live in the house, Sasquatch couldn’t eat and drink there.

“Alex. Raquel. Vero. I’m privileged to have friends like you in my house,” she said, displaying her open hands, palms upwards, in the direction of Alex and Raquel.

“Living here made grad school affordable. Thank you.”

“No, Alex. Thank you. For painting my railings. Even though boys wrote on it. They at least could’ve spelled killers correctly. My goodness.” She giggled, her cheeks and nose turning red. She took in a deep breath. “You showed me what a lovely home I have. Well. I decided to move back in.” Everyone exhaled. Alex covered his mouth and looked out the window, so as not to say how sorry he felt for himself at that moment.


One late Friday evening, when Vero was out on a date, Raquel stepped out of the shower wrapped in a towel to watch Alex putting his clothes in two suitcases. She had tears in her eyes.

“Aw, chiquita. What is it?”

She bit skin from the side of her index fingernail. “I don’t want to leave.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, not moving an inch. She looked ashamed of something. Her wet eyes were contagious.

“I don’t?”

“You know what I loved about living here?”

Okay. He knew in a quiet way that this was coming.

“Living with you.” She let out a confused sigh, encouraging her body to take a step towards his bedroom door. “I was thinking, if I don’t see you in the morning when you leave, now would be a good time for me to say goodbye.” She leaned her curly black hair against the doorframe. “Why don’t you make it easier on me and come here so I can give you a kiss adios, okay?”

He stepped forward. He had wondered in these last weeks what their goodbye would be like, and as their mouths drew closer like two teenagers not 100% sure it’s right, he knew exactly how it would be and how hard it was to say goodbye to her and to the house.

“Now this feels like ours,” she said, and put her hand behind his head.


Vero’s two suitcases kept flopping over on their sides. “Ya know, I’m over it,” she said, looking back. “Still, we put sweat equity into that thing and we lost it.”

“It wasn’t ours,” Alex said.

“I want a house,” she said, a cold sun in her eyes. “It was fun living with you, Alex.” She shook his hand and then flagged a cab. A cold wind blew a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup across the sidewalk. Two boys strutted by in black New Era Red Sox caps tilted right. A Vietnamese family piled out of an overcrowded minivan and headed towards a dilapidated six-family home with vinyl siding, the drainpipe leaning off the house. A second later, a car crashed into the back of their van in a loud metallic crunch. The drainage pipe fell off the house and banged off the smashed hood, jarring loose a patchwork of twigs and straw as two sparrows fled to watch the disaster from a perch on a telephone wire. The Vietnamese father screamed unintelligibly. Vero gasped, grabbing Alex by the arm. But he was much too busy imagining himself in the backseat.

“Alex?” Vero looked into his eyes, but he wasn’t there. “Alex?”

Raquel’s mom’s definition of a home came to him then, and he understood, too, Maggie’s decision after all this time. Because, he thought, if you should one day find yourself dumbstruck by a deadly rear-end collision, where would you rather have spent your last days? Would you choose the only place on Earth that held your books, your family photos; the place so familiar you knew which floorboards creaked? The only place whose graffiti-tagged, half-painted, half-brick walls depended on you. You’d choose the only place that knew all you had done, and all you had done without.

“...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