The driveway is long with a slight curve that complicates the downhill slant. Shannon twists and leans, peers over her left shoulder, then untwists and contorts herself the other direction as she reverses down the driveway. She brakes a little too hard, and then starts down again. She’s almost on the mulch that landscapes in the side of the driveway with small, wiry bushes huddled in the mulch, but she’s not sure how to right the car on its path. She overcorrects, finds herself veering off the other edge of the driveway onto more mulch, tries again, and manages to make it to the bottom.
She considers not stopping. Looks and sees her path is clear to leave now. But instead, she pushes the button, and the window whirs down. She flips open the wooden door to the hand-crafted, log cabin mailbox, and pulls out the stack. She rifles through: bills, junk mail, January’s Better Homes and Gardens, and a letter. It’s the letter she wants. She pulls it out and shoves the rest back in.
The home had been a lucky find. She’d been walking the suburban neighborhood with its wide, hilly, winding streets, and windmill subdivision signs marking “Shady Glenhaven” and “Lilac View,” when she’d seen the owner, a woman with long, dramatically white hair pulled back in a ponytail, struggling to get a large suitcase into the back of her car. She rushed over, reached a hand under, and helped hoist the black, Samsonite bag into the trunk.
“Wow! This is heavy! I can’t imagine getting this into the car alone. What’s in here, rocks?”
“Kind of, actually. It’s lead crystal. I’m bringing it to a trade show in New Haven.”
“Really? No way! Is that what you do? Blow glass?”
“No, no, not at all. I’m a collector and occasionally an agent.”
Shannon stayed a while, friendly and happy to help (and to listen.) Jorja asked her to hold the door while she brought out the rest of her luggage and chattered on about her two week trip and all the hiking she had planned for when she wasn’t working. It had been a stroke of pure luck and Shannon basked in it.
Normally, she never stayed anywhere for more than a few hours. Long enough to feel what it was to be in the space, take a nap and a shower, and wipe up after herself before letting herself out and finding her next pseudo-home. But this time she’d been at the door, seen the inside of the house, and, between it and the glass, she could see herself inside. She wanted to feel the soul of this place, try it on like a designer dress, allowing alterations major and minor alike to swirl around her. Plus, she knew she would have two whole weeks to come and go as she pleased and sleep and eat and anything else she felt like. She hadn’t really adequately surveyed the neighborhood yet, hadn’t gone through the usual routine of finishing a leisurely walk, then taking a jog, then a bike ride to check out the personality of the neighbors. It didn’t appear to be full of retirees (home during the day, they make stealth coming and going difficult and always ask too many, too-friendly questions.) She saw enough brightly colored Playco plastic gyms and trampolines to believe herself safe.
Still, she’d waited a full twenty-four hours and until after dark before returning. Just before arriving, she suddenly panicked. She didn’t know how she’d get in. What if there was no key under the mat? No key in a pot by the front door? She tried not to think about it, and went ahead and checked. She flipped the aged, black rubber mat up and the spare was right there, leaving it’s dust imprint on the underside of the Welcome mat.
When she got inside a house, the first place she always looked was the kitchen. She’d go straight through, noticing nothing but turning right, left, straight down the hallway, left, and kitchen! She opened the refrigerator first, then the cabinets. It was the first feel you got for a house. She’d seen it laying on the otherwise empty, grey marble counter looking isolated and tempting. She ran her thumb over the thin, cream-colored, international paper, savoring the idea of who this son of Jorja’s might be, who Jorja herself might be.
El Salvador is wet. Wetter than wet. The rainy season’s just getting started but it’s already so wet that I have to wipe the floors off constantly. The moisture in the air condenses on the tile and tries to mold in a matter of hours. Sheets never dry and the thought of carpet is inconceivable. Plant life flourishes as do insects and I wonder constantly about all the things in floorboards and ceiling tiles that I share my living space with. I’m doing well with my classes but don’t quite know what to do about Pedro. He comes to school early, leaves late, never has any food, is always dirty, and is disruptive. He’s at least three grade levels behind the other kids despite spending more time at school than any of them. I worry where he lives and who watches over him. Pray for him, and for me. The slime might claim me if I get too tired from Pedro’s antics and forget to wipe it clean often enough;)
The letter really clinched it. She was addicted to this home now. She searched drawers for more letters, scoured the house for them. She’d been to beautiful, Bauhaus-style modern homes, and hundred-year-old places with overstuffed chairs that could almost get her to give up her vagrant lifestyle. Places with whole rooms devoted to books and a mahogany, baby-grand piano with the lid propped at exactly forty-five degrees so it resonates to fill a concert hall. She’d eaten pate and champagne out of dishes worth more than her rusty, ’89 Corolla and swam in luxurious, deep green, heated, lap pools with mosaics hand-laid into the floor. She’d contemplated her life as a misunderstood artist, or flirted with the idea of sleeping with the next-door neighbor after years of boring sex with an architect. She’d pick up a black and white photograph of a dark-lashed infant and feel the satisfying weariness of motherhood for a moment. She loved trying on these peoples’ homes, their relationships and routines, but this house she had time with. Time to search and think and sleep and smell. Mint grew in the glass-covered foyer and bougainvilleas and orchids bloomed in the mist that came on automatically twice a day. She wondered if Jorja read the letters from her son in that room. Decided she must have put the misting system and the plants in so that she could drink a cup of tea and be with her son while she read his letters.
She sat in her car now, at the bottom of the driveway with a new translucent envelop in her hand with the strange extra stamps and lettering. She held the paper to her face, closed her eyes and breathed in the foreignness of it, could swear she smelled freshly-baked tortilla and red and yellow and green patterns flashed before her eyes. She’d already dismissed her day, planned to go right back into the kitchen to make a pot of tea before sitting down to pore over the progress with Pedro and the slimy floors in the foyer when her reverie was interrupted with a knock at the window.
Startled, the letter flies from her hands as her heart leaps to her throat and she turns to see a man in his mid-fifties, salt and pepper (mostly salt,) hair leaning close to her window. Her heart sinks low into her bowels, suddenly leaden. And she knows, with the weight of the heaviest of disappointments, knows she is caught.