Hope serves as the foundation of every house. While a concrete slab may be the literal base beneath a structure and the frame may bear the weight of the edifice, the longing for a better future metaphorically supports it all. No house was ever built with the intention it would go to seed. That boarded up flophouse with the crack addicts on the porch? It was someone’s first apartment out of college. That dilapidated wreck in the middle of nowhere that’s almost certainly haunted? It was raised by a village and sheltered four generations of farmers.
When Earl and Jeanine Dering began building their house at 19 Cornet Street, they only had enough money to pay for the foundation and the framing; everything else was up to them. Friends and family pitched in to do the plumbing, the insulation, the drywall, and the assorted detail work. Earl did the electrical wiring himself, of course. They’d been scrimping and saving while living in his parent’s basement and the house was a true labor of love, made possible by literal blood and sweat.
It was 1963 and Earl and Jeanine married three years prior to construction. With increasing frequency, their friends joked how the United States could put a satellite in orbit but Earl couldn’t escape his parent’s house. The digs weren’t mean-spirited but, as Jeanine’s smile stiffened with each repeated barb, Earl bristled more and more. It was only when his father offered to loan him the final $2,000, a sort of umbilical cord that Earl both appreciated and resented, that they could finally begin work.
It would be generous to say construction moved in fits and spurts. More appropriately, it often entailed a week of harassment before a given friend finally showed up, followed by a week or two of manic activity each night. The contractors fell out of contact for two weeks; Earl’s friend Dizzy, who’d promised to do the plumbing, twice showed up so drunk that Jeanine told him to leave. With such meager proceeds and increasing time pressure to get the house built before winter, the uncertainty and the interruptions frayed the young couple’s nerves. Ultimately, construction went so late they moved in without the living room painted, much less furnished.
It didn’t matter. The fact that some drywall was visible did nothing to diminish the couple’s joy. They had a house! The wallpaper, the paint, the trim could all wait; those were simply decorations. They finally had their own house!
At certain points in the gestation process the terminology had changed. Initially referred to as, “the site,” when it was weedy land, it became, “the project,” when the frame was erected. When Earl and Jeanine moved in, however, the shift was more dramatic. Rather than a mere semantic switch, the entire feel of the place changed. 19 Cornet Street stopped being a house and became a home.
From that point, 19 Cornet Street became a joyous figure. Though there were only two other houses on the block initially, that changed as other couples in similar situations moved in. Earl and Jeanine may’ve been one of the last in their circle to build a home but they made up for lost time by entertaining friends, old and new alike. Dick and Rosy were parents of twins and needed an outlet to blow off some steam; Sharon and Pete were splitting a duplex with their in-laws and needed an escape from her insufferable brother-in-law. Earl and Jeanine loved the activity. After relying on friends and family for so many years, they could finally offer a safe harbor to others.
“Say Earl,” asked Pete one night over a game of gin rummy, “when’re you going to move out to the country? I heard Stan’s got a real doozy of a property out in Harlsburg he’s looking at.”
“What’re you talking about? We only built this place a year ago,” said Earl.
Everyone at the table looked at Pete like he was off his rocker for asking such a foolish question. Though all were imbibing, Pete’s drinks seemed like they were going to his head.
“I’m just saying,” responded Pete. “When you and Jeanine have kids. You’re going to need a bigger place. And the west side…all those Polish moving in. Not good.”
Earl scowled. He and Jeanine had disagreed about the size of their home from the start. She recognized, with only one extra bedroom upstairs, they’d either be limited in their number of children or they’d be forced to move to a bigger place eventually. Though never contentious, the topic remained a sore spot. At the end of the day, though, they simply didn’t have the money to build a larger place.
“The Polish?” said Earl, laying his cards face down on the table. “You’re telling me you’re scared of them? What’d they ever do to you?”
“Hey, I mean the property value, you get me? This house you got is swell. I’m just saying, if those Poles keep coming….”
“I’ve met the Buczynskis and they seem very nice,” inserted Sharon.
Pete flashed a quick harrumph at his wife’s contradiction and, sensing those around the table turning on him, he stood up. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll call my buddy, Phil. He works in real estate. He was just telling me the other day how houses over on the west side are going downhill. Where’s your phone?”
“Oh Pete, stop,” said Sharon.
Earl, however, was smirking and emboldened by the table’s shared reaction. He wasn’t about to let his friend crap all over his new home. “My phone’s right over there, smart aleck. Be sure to give Phil my regards.”
“You’ll see,” said Pete, advancing towards it.
“Pete, stop being so stubborn and get back here,” said Sharon, appearing embarrassed on his behalf.
Pete was already at the phone, however, picking the receiver off the cradle. He held it to his ear and readied to dial the numbers. He paused then, frowned, and tapped the hook mechanism a few times. In a different, less glib tone he said, “Hey Earl, you ain’t got no dial tone.”
“Oh shucks,” said Earl, unconcerned. “Looks like we won’t receive the expert instruction from Phil after all.”
Everyone at the table laughed and, for a moment, Pete hesitated. He shot a final glare at the phone, as if it had purposefully skunked his plans, and waddled back to the table. The topic fell away and they resumed their game without incident. And, later that night after everyone left, Jeanine remembered to check the phone. Sure enough, she heard a dial tone immediately. She told Earl and they joked that Pete had probably faked the whole thing to avoid making the call. For a moment, Jeanine worried something might be wrong with their line but it was late and they still needed to wrap things up. 19 Cornet Street wasn’t going to clean itself.
Samantha was born a little over a year later, a healthy baby girl who arrived with a full head of hair. 19 Cornet Street was overjoyed. As Jeanine’s pregnancy had advanced and the pair began to entertain less and less, the guys playfully groused they’d need another place to hang out. In reality, of course, the loss of their weekly gathering spot didn’t compare to the joy of a newborn and there was no shortage of attention for Sam amongst the family and friends. Afternoon play-dates soon replaced Friday night card games and, as even more new houses popped up, the block teemed with local playmates for Sam.
19 Cornet took a beating over the ensuing years. It never resented a moment of it. Where once Jeanine would’ve scrubbed mercilessly to ensure her new home remained in pristine shape, keeping up with Sam became the new priority. Crayon marks on the wall weren’t unheard of. And who could forget the infamous turpentine spill that caused the edges of those kitchen tiles to curl? Throughout the first years of school, and the measles scare, and the loss of Earl’s job before landing an even better one, 19 Cornet remained a happy home.
In 1977 Samantha left for college. “Promise you’re going to move back when you graduate?” Jeanine asked from behind barely-welled tears. Earl sat in the driver’s seat of the packed car, ready to drop off Sam at the state school two hours away. 19 Cornet had only existed without Sam for about two years; it was going to be a challenge for everyone to begin this new stage of life.
“Mom,” Samantha moaned in response. She was barely holding back sobs of her own.
Both knew she had no intention of moving back. And that was okay. Someday Samantha would have her own home and her own family, but that did nothing to diminish her love for 19 Cornet.
Jeanine decided to stay home for both practical reasons—the back seat was fully loaded with Samantha’s gear—and because she feared making a scene at her daughter’s new school. Samantha and Earl pulled away and, after lingering in the driveway for a time, Jeanine meandered upstairs to her daughter’s former bedroom. Most of Sam’s clothes were gone yet high school awards sat untouched on the shelf. A poem she once adored was left crumpled in the garbage while a favorite teddy bear could be found artfully stashed in her closet. Her internal dissonance was obvious. It was as if she wanted to move on to her new life while nonetheless keeping the room as her own. Jeanine didn’t mind. Apart from making the bed and emptying the trash, she left the room in the exact same state.
Everything changed when Earl finally retired. After decades of contorting in odd positions while running wire, his knees and lower back were shot. Over the years, the stairway to their bedroom had come to represent a dispiriting obstacle at the end of each day. And, once free from traditional morning wakeups, Earl began sleeping on the couch downstairs most nights. 19 Cornet felt terrible as Jeanine trudged up to bed alone, one ponderous step at a time. It wasn’t 19 Cornet’s fault. Yet its heart ached at the sight.
Eventually the pair decided to take the plunge and buy a condo in Florida. 19 Cornet had heard the whispers, of course. As their health deteriorated and as the neighborhood changed, it recognized the pair would move out sooner or later. That did nothing to assuage the hurt, however. Whenever Samantha and her then-husband visited, they pressed Earl and Jeanine about their plans for 19 Cornet. Each time the retired couple insisted they weren’t ready to sell. Yet they stated it with ever-weakening resolve. The inevitability tugged at 19 Cornet’s heartstrings and, on occasion, a very small pool of water would swell in the basement, unnoticed by anyone.
After some time, a compromise was reached. They decided to rent out 19 Cornet in case Earl and Jeanine changed their mind about Florida. Samantha’s husband wasn’t overjoyed with the arrangement but, anticipating the eventual sale of the house, Samantha convinced him to go along with the plan. And that was when 19 Cornet met Rick and Maria Gelt.
In many ways, Rick and Maria reminded 19 Cornet of Earl and Jeanine. They were also a young couple, married but not yet parents, and full of optimism. Rick appeared earnest, albeit a little rough around the edges, and he habitually failed to leave his work boots at the door. Maria was Latino, a fact Samantha and Jeanine hid from Earl until the last moment. And she worked at a tattoo shop. 19 Cornet tried to remain optimistic. Yet, when they moved in, they banged into the baseboards and scored deep cuts in the hardwood floors when dragging furniture across it. In that way they differed from Earl and Jeanine. While good people, Rick and Maria seemed to take certain things for granted, like a hungry person at a buffet lunch.
Around the same time, the neighborhood began to change. Through the 1970s and 1980s the city lost jobs in droves as manufacturing shifted overseas. By the mid-1990s, good employment could still be found but the downward pressure on wages was endemic. Many of the homes on the block reverted to mere houses; some were inherited by children while others were sold outright. The backyard of 25 Cornet became so overgrown with weeds they caught fire one day and the mangy dogs at 31 Cornet never stopped barking.
For the first few years at 19 Cornet, Maria and Rick did a decent job keeping the house together. Rick handled simple fix-its and Maria kept the place tidy, even as certain long-term problems went unaddressed. It was easier to shove a rock under a sagging porch plank than it was to call Samantha for repairs.
One night, after dancing around the topic like a fidgety child, Rick asked Maria, “Do you think it would be okay if my mother moved in?”
19 Cornet Street knew immediately it was a bad idea. The lights flickered. From the dusty attic came a jarring crack. Yet Rick barely registered any of it. “Her health isn’t doing so good, actually. And I don’t think she can be left alone. So, it’s like, we’ll probably be going up to her apartment almost every day anyway.”
Maria remained unconvinced but it was a challenge to articulate her feelings. What Rick was proposing was noble; it was his mother, after all. And Maria was well aware of the woman’s ever-increasing dependence on him. Yet she also knew certain financial incentives remained unspoken in his plea. “I worry,” began Maria, while nervously tugging on her index finger, “it might hurt our relationship.”
She stopped there, the implication evident. And Rick’s reply sounded as rehearsed as the lines from a third-grade play. “No. Don’t worry about that. I’ll be around here even more. I won’t need to spend so much time at her apartment. And, actually, if I’m not helping Mom with her rent anymore, that’s more money for us.”
19 Cornet shuddered. It’d suspected Rick’s true motive but his spiel confirmed it. A moan emanated from the walls that no human ear could detect. Outside, a dog howled.
Maria reacted differently, though. She appreciated Rick’s honesty. For once, he was taking initiative and thinking about their future together. She didn’t like the idea of his mother moving in but she felt like she should give him credit for thinking things through. With extreme reticence she whispered, “okay,” as if her low tone might somehow absolve the responsibility.
Two weeks later, Rick’s mother arrived. It was a disaster, of course. What became apparent quickly, though only after her former apartment had been rented, was that Rick hadn’t been altogether forthcoming. He’d given Maria the impression that his mother should live with them due to her ever-worsening dementia. Yet the only way he’d convinced his mother to move in was by telling her their marriage was in trouble because Maria needed help around the house. It didn’t take long for this chicanery to come home to roost. Almost immediately, Rick’s mother began offering unsolicited advice and taking over in the kitchen. Maria, unprepared, felt ambushed by the newfound intrusions. Making matters worse, Rick never fully copped to the deception after Maria put two and two together. Instead, he used vague allusions to his mother’s mental state to sweep the topic away. A new, wholly unneeded jet ski appeared in the backyard one day and, in Rick’s increasingly frequent absences, his mother and his wife were forced to sort out the new arrangement on their own.
A new, harsher ecosystem formed. Rick’s mother stayed in the small den off the living room, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere which afforded neither her nor Maria privacy. Rick began spending more time at the bar after work and, with his mother’s presence unavoidable in the living room, Maria retreated to their upstairs bedroom virtually every day. The elderly woman’s mental state continued to decline and, with layers of resentment at their virtual imprisonment heaping ever-higher, Maria gradually stopped attending to her. Tissues full of excrement clogged one of the vents; an unaddressed leak rotted an entire corner of the room. And by the time Rick and Maria divorced in 2000, portions of 19 Cornet were reduced to filth.
Samantha only barely kept Earl and Jeanine from inspecting. She suspected 19 Cornet might not be in the best shape when Rick and Maria moved out but nothing could’ve prepared her for such squalor. Her voice cracked on the phone and Earl intuited something was wrong with 19. Yet Samantha managed to convince him a flight from Florida was unnecessary.
Unfortunately, Samantha was also going through a divorce at the time. She didn’t have the resources to hire professionals to fix 19’s myriad ailments and, instead, relied on favors from friends. Some were professionals and their work was spot-on. In other instances, she needed to settle for the best available option. And she did most of the cleaning herself, in even the vilest, most disgusting corners of the house. Witnessing the indignity of her drudgery on its behalf made 19 Cornet despair.
How it missed Earl and Jeanine!
Samantha rented the house to a string of tenants yet, after that experience, she became noticeably less discerning. Whereas previously she would peer at her former home wistfully, with obvious reminiscence in her eyes, that sense of wonder diminished with each successive appearance. A pair of college students rented the house for a couple years; another couple lasted all of three months before breaking the lease and disappearing. Samantha might visit, wiggle the loose banister, and then move on with a sigh. Eventually, she ceased making any repairs unless absolutely necessary.
When Earl and Jeanine died, 19 Cornet found out three months after the fact. Samantha arrived to collect the mail after yet another pair of tenants moved out and 19 overheard her informing a neighbor. 19 was devastated. Of course, it understood that Earl and Jeanine couldn’t live forever. Nonetheless, a part of the home fractured at the news. The late arrival of such a heart-breaking revelation only made it that much worse. Even if 19 Cornet hadn’t seen Earl and Jeanine in decades, it always possessed the comforting knowledge that they were out there, somewhere. Now 19 was fully alone.
By the time Nick and Loreen moved in, 19 Cornet had just about given up hope. Geriatric, and with too many ailments to count, it was barely a house much less a home. Nick and Loren only made matters worse. They were different. While previous itinerants might’ve been decent people with lazy or careless tendencies, Nick and Loreen were the first people 19 truly loathed.
19 became a captive audience to Nick and Loreen’s abuse. Like two drowning victims dragging each other down, they shared their misery freely, compounding it exponentially. With people like that, 19 possessed very little ability to influence. The house might stretch its joists until the beams emitted a nightmarish wail but Loreen would remain oblivious if careening into another tirade. It could turn off the refrigerator on Nick but, if he was opening his tenth beer of the night, he might not even register the can’s warmth.
Worse, 19 Cornet could see the future. And it wasn’t good. Shyla, eleven years old and born when Loreen was seventeen, was already a bully and a thief. 19 feared it might be too late for her already. Kaysie, though, was still young. Not quite a year old, she was Nick’s biological daughter and his obvious preference for her guaranteed a wedge between the girls for the rest of their lives. 19 saw the sneers of resentment Shyla shot the infant and knew, if Loreen’s rage or Nick’s drunkenness didn’t ruin her, then Kaysie’s step-sister was waiting in the wings to finish the job.
“You hid them! I know you did! You’re such an asshole!” cried Loreen.
“I didn’t,” said Nick with a burp.
Nick slouched on the sofa in the living room, making no effort to move, as Loreen tore through the kitchen. She was threatening to leave them yet again but the rage-multiplying fact that she couldn’t locate her keys was foiling her plan. To avoid the drama, Shyla had sequestered herself in the den formerly occupied by Maria’s mother. And Kaysie lay unattended on her back in the middle of the hardwood living room floor.
“I swear! You have no idea what I do around here. You’ll see!” Loreen picked up and slammed down any item within her reach. An empty fruit dish, a tin can filled with screws and bolts, and a stack of junk mail all fell victim. What started as a search for the missing keys quickly lost focus in the face of such fuming ire.
19 saw her fury spiraling ever-higher. While the house was as tired of her antics as Nick was, it wanted to beseech him to do something, to show some passing interest. Couldn’t he see that his aggressive indifference only fanned the flames of her rage?
“You can’t do this. You can’t keep me here!” A cabinet door slammed shut. A dusty phone book flew across the kitchen countertop. “It’s, it’s illegal!” A chair fell sideways. “You can’t…can’t….” A kick to the side of the garbage can. “Are you even listening, you asshole?”
An abrupt, eerie silence replaced the commotion. Then broken by a guttural snarl, the slightest -whoosh- of air, and the shattering of a beer bottle on the living room floor.
Momentary shock dominated in its wake. Then Nick barked, “Did you throw that? Are you crazy?” Finally spurred to action, he charged into the kitchen.
“You’re damn right I did! You deserve it. It’s self-defense. You can’t keep me here!”
Though Nick didn’t notice or didn’t care, the bottle missed Kaysie by mere inches. The glass shards left a jagged trail across the floor and the glinting edge of the bottle’s neck came to a rest directly beside the baby. Her eyes, wide and curious, fixed on the glistening curiosity. Then the infant attempted to reach for it, again and again. And against the backdrop of the escalating rancor in the kitchen, 19 Cornet decided something drastic needed to be done.
⋈ ⋈ ⋈
Causing the electrical wire to come loose would be easy. 19 Cornet had been holding it in place for years and no one would notice that a barely-used basement light was on the fritz. The real dilemma was the timing. Once 19 committed to an act as irrevocable as suicide, it needed to be positive the children weren’t present at the time of the fire. Given such variables as the dryness of the wood, the speed of the fire’s spread, and even the humidity on a given night, timing it correctly was like trying to hit a moving target while wearing a blindfold.
Thankfully, Loreen’s sister would be visiting soon. She’d promised to take the kids off her hands for the day and even the normally sullen Shyla had lit up with excitement. Of course, Loreen was tickled pink to have a day free of the kids and likely wouldn’t leave the house all day. Twenty years earlier 19 Cornet would’ve never considered suicide, much less murder-suicide. But every day it sat idly by doing nothing represented another day Kaysie’s future grew darker. She didn’t stand a chance on her current trajectory and this would be the one opportunity when Loreen would be home with the girls.
That Thursday night, the exposed wire touched the wooden beam. The contact was brief but enough to form an ember. 19 Cornet remained nervous, of course, fearful the flames would erupt in earnest either too early or too late. A twelve-hour cushion seemed best. But 19 couldn’t be positive.
The next morning opened ominously, however. Loreen’s sister was close to an hour late. Shyla took the delay in stride, texting with friends to pass the time while milling about. Loreen didn’t handle the situation nearly as well. Following another fight with Nick that saw him storm off, her enthusiasm for her day took on an anxious quality. The uncertainty over her sister’s arrival time gave her too much time to stew and, with gradually dawning horror, 19 sensed her demented indignation rising. She jumped to the paradoxical conclusion that Dina wasn’t going to arrive at all, even as she continued to wait and seethe at her little sister’s tardiness. And by the time Dina pulled into the driveway, Loreen was at full boil.
“Where the hell have you been? You said you’d be here two hours ago,” cried Loreen, charging out onto the dirty porch in her socks.
Dina’s car windows were still up and, hearing nothing, she emerged with a cheerful, “Hey sis.” Then, registering Loreen’s expression, she stiffened. “What’s up?”
“That’s all you can say for yourself? You’re late!”
“What? I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was a big deal,” stammered Dina, unprepared for such hostility.
“You always do this! God, why do I trust you? I shouldn’t be surprised any more.”
At that, Dina sneered and drew her chin tight to her throat. No longer ambushed, she became defensive and agitated instead. “Hang on. Where is this coming from? I’m doing you a favor.”
“Oh, so I’m supposed to bow down and thank you? Is that it? All praise gorgeous Dina because she can spare five minutes for her sister?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t know what’s going on here or what you’ve been smoking but this is bullshit.”
Behind them, at the window, Shyla stood frowning. Then, though neither took notice, she quietly slipped away through the back door to go to the playground down the block.
19 Cornet was aghast. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this! It could already feel the ember of heat growing in its belly, too late to extinguish. Once the ash landed on the beam below it, the resulting flame would start to lick the underside of the floorboards.
“No, it’s bullshit that you show up two hours late! You never could handle responsibility.”
“It’s not two hours, you liar. It’s barely an hour.”
“Whatever. You’re still late. It’s always the same with you. You’re always going to be a goddamn loser.”
No. No! 19 Cornet howled from the attic, growled guttural from the basement.
“That’s it. I’m leaving. This is nuts.”
Loreen’s rage nearly erupted her eyes from her skull. “You’re leaving? You’re actually leaving?”
Dina didn’t reply. She simply fell into the driver’s seat, dropped the car into reverse, and screeched out of the driveway. Loreen trembled, incensed at her bitch sister’s audacity. For a fraught moment, she stood motionless, her glare afire as it followed the car roar out of view. 19 Cornet watched, waited. Then she barged into the kitchen. Her veins throbbed, pounding with fire and wrath. She yanked on a pair of shoes and, before 19 could attempt to stop her, she snatched her car keys off the table.
19 bellowed in horror. Everything was wrong! What about Kaysie? The house twisted and contorted. Planks ripped free of their studs and baseboards grinded against the floor beneath. Yet Loreen’s red vision registered none of the chaos. She flung open the front door and, exactly like her sister, she tore off in her car.
Time halted for 19 Cornet. The immutable reality of the situation hardened to concrete and its sense of alarm, once a string of exclamation marks, went silent. There was nothing left to do now, no urgency in the face of the inevitable. Tortured anguish seeped through the house. Down the wall where Earl once kissed Jeanine so tenderly, through the floor where teenage Samantha fell in a heap sobbing after a boy’s callous rejection, across the ceiling that Rick’s mother stared at for years on end. 19 was helpless to stop the murderous fire it started. And it realized there were no heroes here. Only villains.
It was too late. It was all too late. And, though the world would end in two hours, Kaysie slept upstairs, blithefully oblivious to the dual conflagrations coming to engulf her.