The House Across the Street
by Roy Dorman
Andrew Benson’s mental health was in a downward spiral, and his self-medicating with whiskey and beer had only been making matters worse. His doctor had recently increased the dosage of his medication, but Andy hadn’t been honest with her about his alcohol use.
Hallucinations revolving around events in his life had made his grip on reality more and more tenuous. Often, events Andy thought were real were nothing more than glorified musings. Consciousness flickered in and out as visions ran through his mind like the frames of an old silent movie.
It was 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, and Andy was suffering from a humongous hangover. He was standing in front of the picture window in his living room watching the activity at the house directly across the street. A moving van had pulled up and some uniformed moving guys were unloading boxes and furniture onto the lawn.
Andy had already been staring out the window when the van arrived and would have been surprised if someone had told him he had been watching the unloading for ten minutes. Or maybe he wouldn’t have been; in his unhinged state he felt he had a vested interest in the proceedings.
A thought had slowly pushed its way to the surface: The place must have finally sold. Why didn’t she tell me?
Andy absently scratched his stomach beneath the extra-large Rolling Stones concert tour t-shirt he was currently using for pyjamas. It had once been his, then his wife had commandeered it, and now it was his again.
Seeing himself in the faint reflection in the window, he thought the t-shirt had looked better on his wife. Andy had been letting himself go. His standing there barefoot on a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat pretty much painted the picture.
* * *
Andy’s wife, Jennifer Adler, had left him two months before and had moved back to Iowa, where her mother lived. Andy felt that it hadn’t been an acrimonious parting; they both had just realized that, after two years of marriage, they really hadn’t known or liked that much about each other.
Andy liked beer; Jenny liked white wine. Andy liked to go to bars with live music on the weekends; Jenny liked to stay home with Netflix. Burgers and fries; salads and yogurt. Yada, yada, yada; the list went on and on. At some level, though, Andy had known that recently it had become more than that. Much more.
He could easily swing the mortgage payments by himself; he was a reasonably successful freelance commercial writer, and the plan was that he would be giving Jenny a cash settlement in installments over the next three years for her share of the equity in the house. The divorce would be a long-distance, no-frills affair without the rancor that usually accompanied the ordeal.
They were both in their early thirties, it had been a first marriage for both of them, and maybe neither of them was the “being married” type. Jenny had already become someone Andy felt he had known for a long time.
* * *
As for Jenny, she was still recovering from watching her soon-to-be ex-husband become untethered from reality. Jenny had always been close to her mother, Martha Adler. Her father, Albert, had been one of those men who strayed often and had been abusive to both Martha and Jenny. One day he had just disappeared.
Jenny had been about ten at the time and had often listened to her mother talk to her own mother about how awful men were. Nobody knew where Jenny’s father had gone. Well, almost nobody; Martha Adler did. Albert Adler was buried in a shallow grave in her backyard.
When Jenny was a teenager, she had attracted the attention of a man in his early twenties. Though she was flattered at first, as most teenage girls would have been, she became frightened when he started pushing her to have sex.
Jenny’s mother had noticed the change in her and easily got the truth from her. A couple of nights later there had been a fire in the boyfriend’s rattrap apartment, and he had died from smoke inhalation. The investigators from the fire department wrote it up as a fire caused by the careless use of smoking materials.
Until Jenny met Andy at age twenty-nine, she had had no other boyfriends who had hung around longer than a few dates. Martha certainly had had something to do with that.
* * *
Still watching the movers, Andy drifted into a hallucinatory state. He saw two people drive up, a man and a woman. His mind pictured them in an older, but immaculately kept-up cherry-apple red Cadillac Eldorado. Andy had always wanted to have a flashy car like that but had never had the nerve to get one.
They pulled into the driveway as far as they could, but because their stuff had been unloaded helter-skelter onto the lawn and part of the driveway, there just wasn’t enough room for the entire car.
In Andy’s mind, the woman was tall, very slim, with an unruly mass of red hair. The man was also tall, well over six feet, with a muscular build.
Andy’s hallucination continued. He saw the man put that build to work right away as he went over to the “HOUSE FOR SALE” sign and rocked it back and forth three or four times before finally lifting it out of the lawn and carrying it into the garage. He then went back to the driveway to move enough boxes around to get the car into the garage.
The woman strode up to the front door, unlocked it, and went inside without looking back. The Eldorado was driven into the garage and the door came down. Having emptied the van, the movers started to carry the furniture and boxes into the house.
* * *
From out of the blue, a coherent thought interrupted: Don’t they usually plaster a “SOLD!” sticker on the sign to show that the realtor and realty company had been successful in selling the house?
And then another; a follow-up on an earlier musing: Why hadn’t Susan mentioned it? You’d think that she would have thought the sale called for a celebration. Maybe she did have a celebration — without me.
* * *
Susan was Susan Kelly, the real estate agent who had been showing the property once or twice a week for three or four months. Susan wasn’t the usual realtor type. She wasn’t a glad-hander who showed a winning smile the whole time she talked to you. Her stance was more one of patient resignation that said that the house would sell eventually when the right people came along, regardless of her acting all bouncy about its merits.
Even before Jenny left, Andy’s tortured mind had invented a romantic relationship between Susan and himself. Andy often enjoyed falling into that fantasy and embellishing the relationship as he chose to. To him, Susan and he were a couple, and he felt they were together for at least a part of every week.
Still looking at the house across the street, and still standing on the flattened sandwich, Andy’s mind drifted into an often called-up fantasy of the time he had first met Susan. In the fantasy, he had wandered across the street in the early evening after closing up his laptop for the day and asked Susan how it was going. They wound up going inside and had some very enjoyable sex on the living room floor, getting their clothes back on just minutes before a potential buyer had knocked on the front door.
Deep into his fantasy, Andy now chuckled as he thought about how Susan had started showing up a half hour early whenever she had an evening appointment to show the house, and she and Andy had started to tease each other that they should go out on a real date sometime.
But it was a small town, Susan was married, Andy wasn’t yet divorced, and they both knew that tongues would wag if they were seen in a restaurant together.
Three nights ago, they had decided that this last Friday night, last night, they would go into Chicago and see a blues band at a bar that Andy had been to a few times. It was an hour’s drive, they’d be getting home late, but Susan had said that she had her cover story tight.
In reality, last night Andy had passed out about 7:00 pm and hadn’t woken up until almost midnight. Disoriented by liquor and a blinding headache, he had been puzzled as to why Susan hadn’t come over to pick him up.
She also hadn’t answered her cell phone. Andy had figured that something had come up at home. He hoped it wasn’t something nasty. He wondered if there was someone else in Susan’s life. Someone other than her husband and himself, that is.
Feeling depressed, and even though it had been then moving toward morning, Andy had started drinking again.
* * *
Now, in the overly bright light of day, still looking out the window, he remembered that as he had been sitting in the living room drinking, he had been trying to piece together the details of a dream he had had earlier that evening while passed out.
He had dreamt that Jenny had come back from Iowa and had asked to use his car. They’d had a conversation that had something to do with Susan. He even remembered smelling the perfume she liked to wear. But why would she have asked to use his car if she had driven from Iowa in her car?
Since dreams are often puzzling and sometimes mean something other than the obvious, Andy decided to let it go.
* * *
The show across the street was now pretty much over, so Andy stepped out onto the porch and picked up the morning paper. There, in a picture above the fold, was Susan. It was the realtor headshot photo that she used in her ads. The caption above the photo in large letters read, “LOCAL REALTOR VICTIM OF HIT AND RUN.”
Andy read that headline two more times before he went back inside and fell, rather than sat, on the big easy chair facing the street. He started to skim the article to see if the accident had been serious enough that Susan had had to be hospitalized and came to the part where it said that she was already dead when the police and the ambulance arrived.
“Nooooo!” Andy wailed to the ceiling.
* * *
An article in the paper the next day said that the police “are following up on some leads” and “are confident that the person responsible would soon be apprehended.” Andy had written and read enough crime fiction to know that this was probably just that: crime fiction.
In addition to his day job, Andy had been working on a novel, but that day he couldn’t get into it; his mind kept wandering back to Susan’s death. Had it maybe not been an accident, but rather premeditated murder? Supposing her husband had found out about them?
The paper said she had been struck and killed as she was walking to her car in the strip mall where her office was located. How could somebody be going that fast in a strip mall parking lot? Why hadn’t somebody in the strip mall seen something that would have led to the driver by now?
A question that was not really related, but still nagged at him, was why Susan hadn’t told him about the sale of the house across the street. If people were moving in, the sale and the closing probably had taken place earlier in the week. They had been together three nights ago, and she had been showing the place that night. Things don’t usually move that fast when a house was being sold. A car; maybe. A house; not that quickly.
Andy felt he needed to do something, but what? He didn’t feel it would be appropriate to go to the police and ask to talk to someone about the incident. They might think such an out-of-the-blue inquiry was not only somewhat unusual but also maybe a little suspicious. He didn’t think he could call up Susan’s husband, now a widower, and ask him questions about what he knew. “Who the hell are you?” was what he’d probably say.
However, thinking about talking to Susan’s husband did give him an idea as to how he could do a little detective work without raising any alarms. He could go to the funeral. If anybody asked how he knew Susan, he’d tell them the truth, or part of the truth: she had been the realtor who had been showing a house across the street from him and they had talked a few times. The obituary said that the funeral would be at 10:00 on the upcoming Wednesday morning.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Roy Dorman