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April 19, 2018

17. The House of Oakes

He wore a bow tie, seersucker shorts, and odd dress shoes. None of it matched. His confident strides took him through cobblestone streets and past struggling businesses. He was jolly and carried himself beyond his stature.

Maybe six feet tall and barely 100 pounds, he rolled his minimal-frame fixie down the sidewalk. Slim as a snake. His tattoos were all a little too small to decipher but the four letter word on the upturned bill of his hat was easy to read.

His outfit showed his status: poor, seeking the appearance of refinement. Passerby could read this and gave him an extra foot on the sidewalk. Just in case.

And there, walking, he turned and froze. He made perfect eye contact with an elderly lady in a window. She was straightening a sign: for rent.

Contrapposto, he relaxed against his bike. He remained statuesque and only turned his head, hocked through his chest and throat, up to his mouth, and spat an enormous glob of mucus. The slug of spit turned over midair and landed with a wet slap on the concrete. It wasn’t his intent to seem uncouth, it was simply his nature. Inside, he as kind and tender.

The man shoved his own finger into his chest and lightly turned his hand back, saying can I come in? The lady nodded and smiled in the slowest and most discreet fashion it was barely visible—except he was rapt and understood. In that moment, the two were made for each other.

A hairless sphynx cat broke their attention. Its fleshy self slinked between the lady and window, begging for attention.

“So what do you do, young man?”

He was now inside and felt small. “I wash dishes and need a new place to live,” his typical confidence softened in her presence.

“The room is on the second floor. I live on the bottom. There are three other rooms upstairs as well.”

He nodded and followed her up to see the space.

The second floor was minuscule and seemed impossibly placed on the footprint of the ground level, as if only a fraction of what it should be. A narrow hall, wide enough for one set of full-grown shoulders, and two evenly placed doors on either side of the hall.

She turned the knob and pushed the door in—it probably wouldn’t have opened outward into the hallway in the small corridor. The room was the size of a generous walk-in closet.

“There’s two burners on a mini stove beside the sink,” she said, as if that was all one needed in a cozy home.

“Does anyone else live in those rooms?” he replied, the proper tenant thing to do: know your neighbors.

“Ah not currently. Vacancy is a quiet thing,” She paused. “What’s your story?”

He looked at her. He looked past her. His gaze froze over. “I sold a car to a man who gifted it to his daughter, her first car. She loved it and he was so thankful. But a week later she wrecked it and died. I know it’s not my fault. I know I had nothing to do with it. But the proximity of death… and so near to joy… I couldn’t stand it. So moved and I’m trying a new hand. I don’t have any more to lose.”

She softened a little to this rough man. “Well it’s yours. When can you move in?”

* * *

She was retired and made well on pension and her late husband’s assets. So she simply watched out the window, over her front garden, during the day.

The two spent hours together. The man had no friends she was aware of. When he wasn’t washing dishes at the local pub they did crosswords and watched romcoms. She was maternal to him. She trusted him. And he trusted her.

She made and remade all of her famous recipes for him for dinner. There was always enough for ten, despite the two of them. He would come home smelling filthy with his clothes wet from washing countless dishes to the lady placing one more dish in front of him, a fresh meal.

Two years and thousands of conversations later, Ms Oakes was taken to the hospital. Four decades of smoking has consequences. A week later she passed away.

The man wept. He had relatives but she had become family.

Her funeral was attended by few. The lady was kind and generous and warm but rarely got out to make herself known. He paid his respects and tried getting on with his life—but how impossible it felt to return to the same home without her presence.

Days later he got a call. A man with Ms Oakes’ last will and testament was contacting to let him know the house was now in his name. Stunned, honored, and in disbelief he followed through, signed documentation, and the house was his.

Vacancy is a quiet thing. But memory is a packed house.

This little bit was inspired “This Old House,” a short story from When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I didn’t have anything in mind when writing this piece, I just started typing.