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Authors: Dan Pope


BOOK: Housebreaking
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In memory of Donald Pope

It was a splendid summer morning and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong.

—John Cheever, “The Common Day”


The first day of summer, 2007

hadn't been back to Wintonbury since she'd graduated from the Goodwin Academy, twenty-five years earlier. In the town center, she recognized only two shops from her prep school days, the hardware store with creaky wooden floors and the stationery shop, where she'd once bought a leather wallet for a boyfriend. All the other storefronts had been transformed into boutiques and restaurants, coffee shops and art galleries, the provinces of the wealthy.

“It's a terrific downtown,” her husband said, turning at an intersection.

“I went to high school in this town, remember?”

“They didn't have Crate & Barrel back then. They didn't have Starbucks. All your favorites.”

Favorites? Starbucks coffee gave her stomach pains and she hadn't been inside a Crate & Barrel in her life, but she didn't want to argue. Andrew liked arguing; it pleased him, and the more pleasant he became, the more annoyed she got. His good humor was a sort of rebuke to her.
You can be happy
, it said.
Just move to a different place

They were looking at houses. Andrew had circled the listings in the real estate flyer, numbering them in his neat hand. He hadn't bothered with anything on the south side of town, which was less wealthy. The north side had one of the best public high schools in the state, known for its music department and high test scores. Emily would have an excellent
shot at the Ivy League coming out of a place like Wall High, as Andrew pointed out. “It's ranked higher than most prep schools in the state,” he said, “including your beloved Goodwin. That's a thirty-thousand-dollar savings right there.”

Audrey restrained herself from mentioning that they'd be taking Emily out of Denton, one of the best schools in the country, for this lark of his. She felt out of sorts. It was barely 9:00
and she hadn't had breakfast yet. Andrew liked an early start. He'd programmed the open-house addresses into the car's GPS. Her husband was organized, if nothing else. They'd already toured a six-thousand-square-foot architectural eyesore that smelled of glue and drywall, part of a new development called Stonecutter's Crossing. A bulldozer sat on the adjacent lot, cleared down to dirt. “Excellent amenities,” Andrew had said during the tour.

“Take a left at the next intersection,” announced the GPS device in a fussy voice.

“Is that it?”

There was a Realtor's sign at the edge of the road, festooned with balloons:

He consulted his map. “No,” he said. “Not on my list.”

Audrey wouldn't have programmed the GPS, wouldn't have consulted a real estate flyer, and definitely wouldn't have started out so damn early. She would have just driven into town and followed the roads.
Too much control,
as her drama professor used to say,
is the antithesis of invention

Andrew slowed as they approached the property, an old one-story farmhouse at the base of a street that rose toward the mountain in the distance. The house was L-shaped, the clapboard painted barn red with wooden shutters. There was a stone well in the front yard and a weather-beaten split-rail fence around the property, collapsed in a few places. The grass was wildly overgrown, and as they got closer she could see paint peeling and ivy crawling over the windowpanes.

“The Hufnagle house, built in 1807,” she said, reading the plaque on the side of the house. “Let's take a look.”

“It's not—”

“Forget your stupid list.”


He turned in to the gray-pebble driveway. The house seemed out of place in the manically manicured neighborhood, with the lawn over
grown and strewn with a few stray newspapers. Insects hissed loudly in the brush. A rabbit sprang up from the tall grass and ran toward the trees beyond the backyard.

“Nobody's lived here for a long time,” she said.

“Probably for good reason. You'd think they could at least mow the lawn for an open house.”

They got out of the car and followed the brick walkway to the entrance. The Realtor appeared, a middle-aged woman with dyed blond hair, wearing a pencil skirt. She met them on the stoop, crying, “Early birds get the worm!”

The “Hufnagle” had once been the only house for miles, she told them. On the kitchen table she laid out an early-nineteenth-century town map, framed in glass, and pointed it out: “Hufnagle Farm.” The interior hadn't been renovated in fifty years: 1960s refrigerator and stove, worn linoleum, fuse box in the basement. There were only two bathrooms, both relics with claw-foot tubs. The ceilings were crossed with dark oak beams. The Realtor offered coffee and blueberry muffins. She explained that a recluse—an old woman who painted landscapes—had lived alone in the house her entire life. The hardwood floors of her studio were splotched with dabs of color, like a Jackson Pollock. “A pity, those planks,” Andrew muttered. After the old woman died, her heirs battled over the estate, and the house fell into disrepair.

“You've got ants,” said Andrew cheerfully, gesturing toward some sawdust along the baseboards.

“It's a corner lot,” said the Realtor. “Historical register.”

“Needs work. Real work, not just a paint job. New roof, new kitchen. I'm surprised they'd put it on the market looking this bad.”

“It's a fixer-upper, that's for sure,” said the woman, trying to sound chipper.

When they left, the Realtor waved like a beauty queen from the stoop, squeezing out a phony smile.

Back in the car, Audrey said, “Did you see those beams? You can't find wood like that anymore.”

Andrew pulled out his handwritten list. “It's cramped.”

“No,” she said. “It's perfect.”

When he didn't answer she grabbed the paper from his hand, balled it up, and tossed it into the backseat. “That's the one I want.”

“It's too small, Audrey. It's barely two thousand square feet.”

“Would you rather live in that Tyvek McMansion?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Well, I won't.”

He sniffed, an expression of disapproval, which she considered one of his more irritating habits. “We'd have to do the whole thing over,” he said. “You want to do all that work? Deal with contractors? They're all thieves and drug fiends.”

“You can pay people for that.”

“Let's look at a few more, at least.”

A reasonable suggestion, of course, but he wasn't just offering alternatives. She knew him too well. He would wear her down, try to change her mind. “No, Andrew. This move is your brainchild. You're pulling Emily out of school without even thinking—”

“That school's been nothing but trouble for her. You said so yourself. We should've gotten her out of there last year—”

“I'm not looking at any more houses.”

He glanced at the information sheet and disclosure forms the Realtor had passed them. “It's not exactly a bargain. And you're talking another hundred grand in renovations.”

She glanced out the window. “What does it matter?”

He sighed. “Do me a favor. Stop saying that. You say that all the time. You've got a master's in English literature, you've read more novels than Alex Trebek—”

“Alex Trebek?”


“I know who he is. What makes you think he reads novels?”

“First name that came into my head.” He started the car. “You really want this house?”


“Fine. We'll buy it. Happy now?”

She had to stop herself from repeating the words:
What does it matter?
Jobs, houses. Before, when there had been a future, these were primary concerns. The accident had changed that. Everything had changed overnight, their personal 9/11. There was before and then after. Nothing could be the same, although Andrew liked to pretend otherwise.

She noticed the street name on the sign as they backed out of the
driveway: Apple Hill Road. Andrew opened his mouth to speak, but the computer voice drowned him out: “You are going the wrong way. Take the next legal U-turn and proceed in the opposite direction.”

As they drove off, Audrey glanced up the street at all the white houses and green lawns, the children's toys lying unattended in driveways. Pretty in a sculpted sort of way, but mildly sad. It was an illusion, one that promised happiness indefinitely. But the whole thing could collapse at any moment.

Part One


The last day of summer, 2007

his wife kicked him out, Benjamin Mandelbaum took the dog and a bag of clothes and drove to his father's house in Wintonbury. It was 10:00
on a Saturday, the suburban street as quiet as a graveyard. He got out of his car and felt the wind rise, stirring the leaves of the apple tree he'd climbed as a boy. He took the spare key from under the flowerpot and let the dog in ahead of him. The house smelled like mothballs and stale cologne, an old man's lair.

A few minutes later Leonard appeared in his bathrobe at the top of the stairs. “Who's there?”

“It's me, Dad.”

“Benjamin? What's going on?”

Yukon rushed up the stairs and sniffed at a stain on Leonard's robe. Benjamin realized that, in all the commotion, he had forgotten to feed the dog its dinner. “I'll be staying over, if that's okay.”

“That's fine. That's fine.” His father had a habit of saying things twice. “Where's Judy?”

“She's home.”

His father's eyes were bloodshot, his face puffy from sleep.

“Go back to bed,” said Benjamin. “We'll talk tomorrow.”

“There's some tuna salad in the fridge.”

In the kitchen, Benjamin filled a bowl with water while the dog went from room to room, inspecting. The refrigerator was practically
empty: the bowl of dry tuna, a few brown eggs, mustard and ketchup on the side shelves, lemons and wilted lettuce in the crisper. His father had lost weight since Mom's death, and now Benjamin could see why. In the cold-cuts drawer he found an unopened can of corn. In the freezer, among the frozen vegetables and meats, he found something even odder: a pack of Marlboros with only two cigarettes left. His father didn't smoke. Had he started now, at eighty-four? And why keep them in the freezer?

After Myra's funeral, Benjamin and his sister had tried to convince their father to sell the house and move into a retirement community. They thought it would be good for him: Leonard had always been a social creature; part of his job at the car dealership was going to restaurants and functions, handing out his business card. But Leonard wouldn't hear of it. He kept up the house as if Myra were still alive. It became a shrine of sorts: her clothes still hanging in the closet, her prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet, framed photographs of her in every room. His sole occupation was maintaining everything as she had liked it. He hired landscapers, gardeners, and handymen. It all made Benjamin wonder if he would end up the same way: old, alone, going to bed early, living with the ghosts of his past.

He went into the den and stood before the wet bar. His father always had a fine selection of single malt—not Benjamin's intoxicant of choice, but he'd left his stash of pot in the glove compartment. He poured a Glenlivet and added two ice cubes. His father had excellent taste in the good things—liquor, clothes, shoes. The old man had style, even if he now wore his pants cinched over his navel, shuffling around the house in his slippers. Benjamin eased onto the sofa and found himself exhaling after each sip of scotch, happy to be home.

The word gave him some comfort. Sure, Leonard was eighty-four. But his father would take care of him, even if Benjamin didn't need taking care of. He felt a luxurious heat rising from the liquor, and for the first time in a while he felt like he could breathe easily. Judy's presence had weighed on him for so long. He'd been held accountable for nearly every moment; his cell phone rang ten times a day, a phantom chaperone. Where was he? Did he remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Her prescription? He sighed. Years ago, he'd found it endearing that she wanted their lives so intertwined.

Yukon came into the den and stood before him, panting. “Lie down,” Benjamin said. “We're not going anywhere.” The dog obeyed, but was up again after a few minutes, padding out to the kitchen, roaming the first floor. Benjamin intended to walk the dog—their nightly ritual—but he dozed off after his third glass of scotch, and Yukon lay in the doorway, head between his paws, watching him. The dog slept, but not deeply. He whimpered throughout the night, unaccustomed to this strange house and its old man's smell.

Outside on the front lawn, a mob of deer nibbled at the arborvitae, silent as ghosts, watchful as criminals. Somewhere deep in the woods, an owl warbled.

* * *

Leonard Mandelbaum came downstairs to find his son snoring on the couch, his hair covering his face. He had a fine head of curly black hair, Benjamin did. Leonard stood for a moment, admiring his son, who looked childlike curled in sleep, his hands tucked under his chin. Leonard saw Benjamin regularly at the office, but it had been a long time since he'd been able to watch his son sleep. Leonard noticed the bottle of scotch and the empty glass on the coffee table. Benjamin had been a beer drinker ever since high school, when his pals would come to the house to play Ping-Pong in the basement. To take up the hard liquor meant something was bothering him. More trouble with Judy, no doubt. It was a shame that they argued so often. Leonard had always liked Judy. She'd helped out with Myra during her illness, staying up nights when the late nurse didn't show. You could always depend on Judy. A fine, sturdy woman. A good mother to the children. And she'd converted too, mainly to please him and Myra. How many gals would do that for their in-laws?

Leonard went into the kitchen to start the coffee and opened the
Hartford Courant
to the obituaries. Each day, it seemed, he knew one of the deceased, usually someone who'd bought a car from him. Leonard Mandelbaum never forgot the name of a good customer.

Today it was Manny Silverman. Above the obituary was a thumb-size photo taken in the 1950s, around the time Leonard had put Manny into his first DeVille.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Cancer, then. Poor Manny. Leonard had sold him another five Cadillacs over the next fifty years, most recently a top-
of-the-line XLR. That had been when? Last year? No, longer than that. He recalled telling Myra about it—dapper old Manny in his seersucker suit, zooming off the lot in a seventy-thousand-dollar convertible.

Leonard went into the front hallway and sat at the mahogany desk, where he made his phone calls and wrote his personal notes and letters to the editor. When his grandchildren visited they treated his black rotary phone like some Ice Age fossil. Fingering the dial, David had once asked,
Does this actually work, Grandpa?

Leonard took a sheet of his personal stationery from the desk drawer and wrote,
In Memory of Manny Silverman
. He checked the date on his calendar—September 23, 2007—and wrote a hundred-dollar check to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. On another sheet of paper, he composed a letter to the editors of the
Wintonbury Gazette

Manny Silverman, who died recently, served this community for more than forty years as a dentist of great skill
. He filled two pages with remembrances, then concluded:
When we lose a man like Manny Silverman, we lose a small part of the qualities that he stood for: integrity, wisdom, professionalism. We will miss you, Manny

He addressed the envelopes, pasted on the stamps, and brought them to the front porch. He checked his watch: not yet 8
As he put the letters in the mailbox, Benjamin's dog appeared in the doorway, tail slashing.

“Stay,” said Leonard, trying to conjure the dog's name. “Stay right there.” The dog wanted to go outside and run around, like all dogs, but he was well trained and would not disobey. Benjamin always trained his pets well. So many dogs and cats had come and gone, Leonard could not remember this animal's name. “Good boy,” he said. “That's a good boy. Now go sit.”

Benjamin would be up soon, and hungry. His son liked raspberry Danish from the Crown Market. He complained that he couldn't find anything as good in Granby. Leonard picked up his keys and his wallet, got into his Escalade, and accelerated out of the driveway.

At the bottom of the street he noticed a few pickup trucks parked outside Eleanor Hufnagle's place, with workmen milling around the yard. The farmhouse had been unoccupied for years, ever since Eleanor collapsed at her ironing board and the postman found her four days later.
The woman had lived to ninety-nine alone in that house. He had one of her oil paintings hanging in his den.
Loss of a great artist,
Leonard had written, then, to the
Wintonbury Gazette

At the supermarket, he clipped the curb pulling into the handicap space. His physician had gotten him the permit for his arthritic knees. All those years of running—on the track team at City College, in boot camp in the Navy, then later on the tennis courts at Tumble Brook Country Club—had taken their toll.
You're rubbing bone on bone
, the doctor had told him, and that was exactly what it felt like these mornings, worse in wintertime.

At this hour he had his pick at the bakery. Most days the challah went before noon, no matter how many times he complained to the manager about the shortage. He often had to go without challah or marbled rye if he got there late. And Benjamin was absolutely correct about the quality of the baked goods. You'd have to go to New York City to find a better challah. He picked out a couple of loaves, a few Danish, and a coffee cake. Orange juice, he remembered, which Benjamin drank like water. He examined the cartons in the cooler, feeling the chill of the refrigeration. Was it Tropicana or Minute Maid that Benjamin liked? Pulp or no pulp? There were so many different brands now, so many choices. Reaching for one of the cartons, he lost his grip on the challah, and it fell, followed by the marbled rye. “Dammit,” he hissed.

“Let me help you, Mr. Mandelbaum.”

Leonard turned to see a middle-aged man, dressed in sweat clothes and a baseball cap like a high school kid. He gathered Leonard's items from the floor and rose to his full height. “It's Dick Funkhouser,” he said, smiling.

Leonard took his hand. “I knew your father. A wizard with a nine iron. How's your mother? I haven't seen her at the club lately.” Terri Funkhouser, originally from Newark; she'd never lost the accent. Myra hadn't liked her. Said she smelled like cheap perfume.

“She's not a member anymore. Ever since Dad passed.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.”

The man carried Leonard's goods to the checkout line and placed them on the conveyor belt. Leonard began fishing in his wallet for some cash.

“She doesn't get out of the house very often,” said Dick Funkhouser.
“She always speaks fondly of you.” He produced a pen and scribbled something onto a scrap of paper. Leonard pulled his reading glasses out of his breast pocket and examined the note: a phone number.

“She'd love to have dinner or see a show. You should call her.”

Leonard tucked the slip of paper into his pocket. Why would he call Terri Funkhouser? He hardly knew her. The woman hadn't been a regular presence at the country club or synagogue. Dick Senior had once complained that his wife would rather stay home with a bottle of sherry than go to the Met.
She has low tastes
, he had confided.

“Are you a member of the club?” asked Leonard.

“I'm not much of an athlete,” said Dick Funkhouser.

“I see.” Leonard remembered now. The son had resigned from the club following the scandal at Funkhouser's Dry Cleaning. After Dick Senior died, the son had ruined the business on bad loans, second mortgages, tax evasions. A shame, that sort of financial mismanagement. Dick Senior had put his life into dry cleaning.

“Let me take the groceries out to your car.”

Leonard shook his head. “I'm fine. I'm fine.”

Back at the house, he carried the brown bags up the front steps. Benjamin met him at the door. He looked puffy-eyed but otherwise his same boyish self, curly-haired, fit, more handsome than his dad ever was. The girls had always gone wild for Benjamin, as far back as junior high school. Fonzie, some of the gals called him then, on account of the resemblance.

“I've got Danish,” he told his son.

* * *

a car horn blared from the street. Benjamin looked out the kitchen window and saw the familiar red pickup truck pull into the driveway;
, read the faded letters on the side. Two men got out, slamming the doors.

“Who's that?” said Leonard, peering over Benjamin's shoulder.

“No one.”

“Are those Judy's brothers? Why are they honking the horn? It's a Sunday morning, for goodness' sake.”

“I'll take care of it.”

Benjamin went out the front door in his socks. “What's up, guys?”

Anthony, the youngest of the three brothers, glanced at him and went
around to the back of the truck and pulled down the tailgate. There was a third brother, currently under house arrest on a DUI charge. In the winter they did snowplowing, and sometimes Lou worked maintenance for a guitar factory in New Hartford.

Anthony pulled a set of golf clubs from the bed of the truck and dumped the bag onto the lawn. A couple of yellow Titleists rolled out of the bag toward his dad's Japanese maple.

“Here's all your shit. Special delivery.”

The truck smelled of gasoline and grass clippings. Benjamin peered into the back, seeing a jumble of clothes, luggage, skis, books, DVDs, Rollerblades. Actually, those were his son's Rollerblades. Judy must have gotten confused in her frenzy. He could picture her rifling through the closets in the basement and attic, plucking his possessions from the wreckage of their marriage. How exhilarated she must have felt, purifying herself of him. She'd always liked throwing things out. He noticed random clutter as well. Board games. A black-and-white TV with a broken antenna. Even some of her old clothes. He recognized a French maid's costume, a Valentine's gift from years ago. The brothers tossed it all onto the lawn, a showering of his worldly possessions, old and new. His
trilogy hit the grass, and one of the DVDs slipped out of its case and rolled toward the street.

BOOK: Housebreaking
2.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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