A house and a home

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

The house on Home Street was a blue one, even though the bungalow was painted white, and the space it surrounded was as far from Heaven as you could get. The light on the inside of the house was aluminum gray, about the same color as the car wash behind the two-story apartment next door, and as dingy as the redwood house on our other side — both of which augmented the sadness. Adding to the gray futility was the fact that our landlord had broken his promise to get rid of the fleas in the basement, and to enter the property only with our permission.

Whereas Patsy said she was confused there, I was just unhappy, but both of us stayed ill at ease, and perhaps that was the reason for our continual bickering. The same week we moved in, we began to wish we had never seen this gray place, and after the super gray of a snowy winter we knew we had to get away from it.

One day in early spring I left for school early, turning right through a better neighborhood keystoned by our landlord’s house, then onto a street of older frame houses. Because I had some extra time, I decided to slow down and enjoy the drive. All of a sudden my attention was drawn to a white two-story house, with three windows over a full front porch. The windows had no curtains, the porch had no chairs, and the driveway had no car.

“This house is empty,” I said to myself, pulling into the driveway. I ran up onto the porch to look into the house, but stopped short at the light streaming through the window in the dining room, glowing like a painting by Thomas Kincade.

“Maybe this just looks good compared to Home Street,” I thought, but that explanation did not do justice to what I was seeing. This light was simple goodness streaming through clear glass, softly gilding the wallpaper, the arch to the living room, the bare hardwood floors, and the staircase. I turned away, with my back to the window, closed my eyes, and exhaled slowly, before I looked in again.

“I could stay here all day long,” I thought. But when I looked down at my watch, I turned toward the car.

“You like that house?” a voice interrupted.

“Yes, ma’am I do,” I said to a smiling woman perhaps 15 years my elder.

“Would you like to live there?”

The question startled me.

“You know … I would like to live here. Very much. Is it for rent?”

“Yes, it is,” she smiled.

She walked into her house and returned with a slip of paper, which she handed me over the railing.

“Here’s the landlords’ phone number. I’ll tell them you’ll be calling.”

“Thank you.”

“My name’s Eileen,” she said.

“Hey, Eileen,” I replied, “My name’s Leon. I’ll call this number, I promise,” I continued. “But right now I’ve got to get to class.”

“Hope to see you soon,” she replied, waving as I drove away.

I wanted Patsy to see the house, even though I didn’t know if we could even afford to pay the rent. Neither was I sure she would have the same reaction to the house that I did, because by the time we could get back there, the eastern light would not be streaming through the window, and the room might not glow for her the way it had for me.

When we walked up on the porch and looked through the living room window, the glow was not as intense as it had been that morning … but it was still there. PJ never mentioned the glow, but she did say, “I like this house.”

When Eileen came out on the porch, I introduced her to Patsy, then asked if she knew how much the rent was. It was only $25 more than we paid for Home Street. We would scrounge for that.

Eileen brought a key to open the door. Inside, every room had the glow, even the basement.

When we went to see our new landlord, we learned there would be no lease; just bring a check before we moved in. Now I had to talk to our old landlord. When I drove by Mr. Gabbard’s house to tell him my good fortune, he was not pleased.

“You signed a lease for Home Street,” he said. “And you’ll stick to it. I‘ll see to that.”

“What if I find someone to rent the house?”

“Don’t send no hippies or artsy types,” he said. “I don’t rent to them.”

“But if I get someone you like, will you cancel my lease?”

“If you find someone I like, I’ll void your lease.”

I had no idea where I would find a renter for Mr. Gabbard. But only a day or so later, an art student asked if I knew where he could find a house to rent. “My little boy has breathing problems,” he explained, “and he has to have air conditioning year round. The place we’ve got is so big,” he sighed, “I’m borrowing money to pay the electric bill.”

“Can you get out of your lease?” I asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“I could break my lease if you rented my house,” I said. “I pay a $100 a month.”

“I can pay that.”

“But the landlord doesn’t like long hair,” I said. “The house is small, there are fleas in the basement, and he likes to come by when you’re not home.”

“I need a small house,” he smiled. “Can you close all the windows tight?”

“I’ve never opened them,” I said.

“I’m in,” John replied.

“There’s one other catch.”

“What’s that?

“Gabbard won’t rent to an art major. Can you tell him you’re something else?”

“I don’t know what I would say …”

“I’ll call him for you,” I said, “and I’ll tell him you’re a ceramics engineer.”

“But I’m not a ceramics engineer,” John said.

“It’s not really a lie,” I pseudoed. “You do ceramics engineering every day, John,” I said. “ You design pots, and what are pots if not ceramics?”

“This school doesn’t even teach ceramics engineering,” John said.

“You know that, and I know that, but Haley Gabbard does not know that.”

“I’ll look at it,” John said. “For my son.”

“When I got John’s OK, I called Gabbard to say a ceramics engineer named John was going to call him.

John cut his hair, went to see Gabbard, did not betray my ceramics engineer lie, and persuaded Gabbard to rent the property to him.

Once I got the go-ahead from Gabbard, Patsy and I took a check to our new landlords, rented a small U-Haul truck and moved our stuff to May Avenue. As for John, he never mentioned the sadness at Home Street, but said his little boy really liked his new home and that his family was very happy there.

As for us, in spite of my prevarication, our lives improved too — the confusion and sadness we felt at Home Street melted away on May Avenue. Eileen put freshly baked bread on her porch rail and invited us over to eat. In her kitchen, she taught Patsy how to make sourdough bread, as well as noodles to go on top of mashed potatoes; at our house Patsy introduced Eileen to Duke’s mayonnaise, and fried okra. Eileen came to sit on our front porch, too. She introduced us to many of her friends when we had our first block party. She took us to the church we later joined.

On May Avenue, Patsy and I felt accepted, comfortable, and, for the first time since we married, we felt at home.

Tennyson once said, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and I believe that. But I also believe we leave a part of us behind as well: in our houses, whose personalities are formed by our living there. While we still lived on Home Street, our neighbors told us the tenants before us had been cultists; while we lived on May, Eileen told us that Christian missionaries had preceded us there.

I don’t know how well we’ve carried forward the glowing-house tradition. But the couple that looked at the house as we prepared to leave May Avenue seemed to love it. And we felt the same way when we returned to town two years later and rented that same glorious home again.


Leon Smith

Contributing columnist