Little House of Words, Juditha Dowd

Chas thought of himself as a plainspoken guy. It bugged him when Diane used language tricks—metaphors, maxims, things like that—especially when she used them to make points during a spat. Diane’s “sayings,” he called them.

Like taking candy from a baby, for instance. Off the mark and a little sick besides. Or Handsome is as handsome does. A maxim. He knew the proper term because he’d looked online. But Diane was implying what—that he was inconsiderate on purpose or just a clumsy dope? There were whole books devoted to this stuff, but she often made up her own—and they were worse! The sayings got on his nerves, couldn’t she see that? Yet at the same time it drew him, her crafty way with words. This way he lacked.

            “Life’s a tale told by an idiot,” said Diane one afternoon. They’d been bickering about a movie.

An aphorism? He was pretty sure there was more to it, some part she’d left off.Where do you find this junk?” he fumed.

Diane winked. She often got wink-y on a glass or two of wine. “In the little house of words,” she said. That smug look.

“What little house of words?” He hated himself for taking the bait.

She glanced over her shoulder and through the blinds toward the snowy woods. “Oh . . . out back . . . you know.”

He didn’t know. Little house of words, my ass, he thought. Life was challenging enough without this bullshit. Despite getting up every morning to ride his bike, he’d gained ten pounds. Overnight his hairline disappeared, just as his dad’s had at forty. And his ex-wife acting weird again, what was that about? He might have to go back to court. It would make her wild, but the boys’ welfare came first.

Most troublesome was the state of his office supply business, a firm founded by his granddad and inherited by his father back in the seventies. It remained a cornerstone of Robinston’s waning Main Street. But three years ago, when his father died, Chas left a management job at the tile factory to take over. It seemed little had changed since his granddad’s day, so he got to work. The store was getting trounced by the new Staples out on Highway 19.

All these issues. Who needed Diane with her “likes” and “as ifs?” The relationship wasn’t working, so maybe they should move on. Do it right or. . . Hmm. Was her habit infecting him? Chas vowed to pull back, let her wonder why. But he’d agreed to come over for Sunday brunch, and he showed up as expected because, well, he was that kind of guy. Diane made eggs Benedict. She wore her pink sweater and her hair pulled up in the high pony tail that always turned him on. How could he stay mad.

While they were eating he found himself gazing toward where Diane’s backyard blurred into multiflora rosebushes. Beyond, in dense woods, the treetops were getting the red tinge that signaled spring. No sign of any “little house.” What was she talking about? Then he caught a cold that progressed to walking pneumonia. He was the type that liked to be left alone when he was sick. He hadn’t meant this to hurt Diane’s feelings, but it had. They didn’t talk for a month. But he called and apologized for the umpteenth time and they got back together. Now they were having supper on the patio and she’d started up again.

“If we can’t be there for each other in the bad times, why bother at all?” she said. Her chin was in her hands, her cheeks pushed up. “It’s like choosing to starve to death when you’ve got a big fat carrot cake sitting in the refrigerator.”

He was looking at her to show he was listening. He was nodding agreement, even though what she was saying was ridiculous. Carrot cake, uh huh. And then, over her left shoulder, he saw it—just a glimpse before it disappeared into the leaves. A blue roof.

Diane lived on the north edge of Robinston, while Chas’ rented condo was a few miles west. She worked an early shift at the clinic and he didn’t open the store till nine. So at seven on Monday, five minutes after he’d watched her Toyota go by, he turned his bike into her street.

He took what appeared to be a path and resisted the urge to look back over his shoulder. This wasn’t Diane’s property, he reminded himself. It belonged to the state, a wide swath that ran to the outskirts of town. Boulders clustered among the oaks and black walnuts, a reminder that glaciers had dumped a load on this part of Pennsylvania. Funny, he thought, how the woods seemed to have its own source of wind, warm and sweet though the day was chill. It murmured through the pines.

At the verge of giving up, he spotted the little house in a clearing ringed by rhododendrons. It was farther from Diane’s than he’d originally thought, and in what felt like a different direction. He circled it twice. Both windows were smudged, as if muddy paws had pressed them—raccoons, likely, a curious bunch. They were all over the township, raiding bird feeders and garbage cans.

It was clear to Chas that this cabin had been made by hand, not one of those prefab jobs from Home Depot. As he ducked through the door, a mustiness hit his nose, one he associated with old books, though none were visible. A small bench and table almost filled the room. The floor was constructed of varying lengths and different types of wood—scrap probably—but neatly joined in a regular pattern, the kind of practical craftsmanship he admired.

He glanced into a wastebasket near the door. It held a lone paper napkin, which he retrieved and smoothed on the table. Diane bought napkins like this—he was sure of it—a cheap brand, but hard to find, she’d said, the surface traced with abstract flowers. How often did she come here? He squeezed the napkin into a ball and tossed it back.

It wasn’t until he was leaving that he noticed something above the door: WORDS, carved roughly into the lintel. He traced it with his finger. So, he’d found the right place.

As spring became summer, Chas ramped up efforts to save the business. He leased a giant photocopy machine that offered many print options. He should have done this earlier—really, his father should have—when there would have been a competitive advantage. Shudda, cudda, he sighed as he did his books for June. Like his dad, he was nervous about expenditures and that was . . . coming home to roost. Meanwhile, Diane was getting to know his boys. She planned a day at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and gave them twenty dollars each to blow in the gift shop. This excited them considerably more than the pirate exhibit they’d come to see.

“Par for the course,” said Diane, laughing sweetly. “They’re kids!”

She and Chas had been getting along swimmingly all summer. That’s how she put it, kinda cute he thought. Nevertheless, on an evening too good to waste, here they were in another squabble. They’d been drinking Pinot Grigio and grilling chicken thighs. Something reminded Diane of the weeks Chas battled pneumonia alone, and she was wading right back into it like a pit bull on a turkey farm. He smiled to himself. Simile, right?

Diane was also waxing creative. “You are clueless,” she accused. “You’re as unreflective as. . . copy paper!”

Absurd as that was, it got him. Diane knew nothing about office supplies. Zip. “Where’d you dream that one up,” he said. “in the little house of words?”

Diane set down the grill tongs, eyed him suspiciously. “How do you know about that?”

“You told me, remember?” And eventually she did remember. Sort of.

“Let’s not fight,” she said.

He’d all but forgotten the little house and now it was on his mind again. On his next visit he sat on the low bench, his knees grazing his chin, and leaned against the table. Something was coming to him, slowly making its way through the years.

As a kid he’d been desperate for a tree house. Yes, that was it. With neighbor boys he’d created elaborate plans: plywood deck, peepholes, a hook for his red jacket. They’d made up rules about who could enter and talked of having a secret language—symbols and sounds that nobody else could decipher. But nothing came of it. The beech that hung over Chas’ backyard was ideal, but it belonged to the Snyders next door. They wouldn’t agree. With the perspective of age, he didn’t blame them.

From a shirt pocket he removed the sheet of copy paper he’d brought along, crumpled it up and set it in the middle of the table. He envisioned Diane unfolding the ruined page and. . . She’d see his point, wouldn’t she? But now he wasn’t sure he had one.

It was then he noticed that the napkin from his last visit was no longer in the wastebasket. Instead it held a small wooden box. Inside were six letters from an old Scrabble set. He turned them out on the table and idly moved them around. Without thinking about it, he quickly spelled WHAT IF. What if what, he wondered.

The very next day he awoke with the idea of putting an Internet café where he used to stock the school supplies people were buying now at Staples. His boys, twelve and thirteen already—soon they’d want to hang out somewhere. With the diner closed and the library relocating to the highway, why not here at the store? He bought a secondhand beverage cooler and found some chairs and tables at a yard sale. He leased a fancy coffee machine, because there wasn’t a Starbucks for a good twenty miles—not yet.

The lawyers next door were skeptical, but soon they were dropping by for a morning latté, an espresso after lunch. Within weeks they were joined by the accountants from West Broad. Orders for business cards showed a smart uptick. Chas asked his son Owen, the artistic one, to try his hand at a new store logo. The boy designed a rough circle and at its center placed thin bars that resembled pencils. A few gold feathers fluttered across them.

“Wings?” Chas asked, squinting. But Owen just shrugged, so he let it drop.

Chas ordered ball caps with the logo, and Diane reported seeing people wearing them at Stop & Shop—they were apparently a hot item. At the same time a number of young teens began asking their moms to drop them off after school. This increased the noise level to the barely-tolerable range, but few adults came in at that hour anyway. He let them be.

Around Thanksgiving, a couple of high school kids asked about doing a poetry reading on a Friday night. Chas caught himself before he could say no. Why not, he thought. Two giggling girls and a thin, earnest boy read to eleven classmates. They drank a lot of Coke and purchased six ball caps. The boy who read poetry also bought Uniball pens, and Chas chose to see this as a thank you.

The readings continued as a monthly event with thirty or more in attendance, including a reporter from the county weekly. She did a story featuring then-and-now pictures and called the store a local institution. It tickled Chas to see his granddad, a real character in his day, taking up half a page in the About Town section. But when he studied his own photo, he decided to get it over with and shave his head. That took ten years off his face. A newly-thinner face. Because for no apparent reason the extra pounds were melting away.

By spring the business had realized a 15% increase year-over-year. Chas was frankly amazed. Another month of hunting down the wolf, he said to himself. Was that how it went?

One Sunday he came in to restock a few shelves. He’d been at it only minutes when he heard a knock at the door. A girl was peering through the glass, an elfin brunette he didn’t recognize. When he opened the door, she announced she was a student at the county college.

“Sorry, we’re closed today,” said Chas.

“But I saw your sign. I’d like to apply.”

What sign? Yet sure enough, there it was in the window, a hand-printed ad: College student wanted, part-time. Apply within. She stood looking up at him expectantly. He didn’t really need any help. Still, he thought, wouldn’t Owen and his brother be more comfortable at the café if their dad wasn’t always lurking about?

“I can only pay minimum wage,” he said, which was true.

She nodded. No problem.

The girl—Fern was her name—proved an immediate hit with the young boys. She had a way with the temperamental coffee machine, too. While she put it through its paces, it never clogged or shot steaming milk all over the place, as it did for him. She knew how to make designs in the cappuccino foam—toads, rabbits, reindeer. Even the lawyers found them irresistible.

One night Diane asked Chas if he’d like to move in with her. From the way she kept pausing, trying to get the words just right, he realized she’d been thinking about it for quite awhile. The look on her face touched him. . . no, it was more than that. She’d unearthed an emotion he’d almost forgotten.

“Better wait until the store is out of the red for a bit,” he said. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

That didn’t quite make sense, and it would obviously be cheaper to maintain one place instead of two—but the fact he was talking “until” rather than “if” satisfied Diane. It occurred to him then that she was using fewer sayings lately, even as he seemed to be using more.

Something was different at the store, too, a new atmosphere. Fern had persuaded him to install a line of desk accessories with a woodsy theme. They were surprisingly popular with the accountants, the snow globes especially. Twice a week she baked biscotti from her mother’s secret recipe, and on those days sales rose to levels the store hadn’t seen in years.

Chas increased Ferns hours, gave her a small raise. He also decided to re-broach the subject of moving in with Diane. His only hesitation was the boys. They’d reached an age where the court would allow a choice. He suspected they’d remain primarily with their mom; their presence had a stabilizing effect of which they were well aware. He’d keep an eye on it though, and he wanted to be certain Diane would welcome them fulltime if things came to that.

“Of course,” she said. “Those dear, gawky boys.”

One summer Saturday, while Diane was at aerobics and Fern was minding the store, Chas took a stroll in the woods. Brambles clawed at his khakis, making it hard to walk. He heard the distant shouts of children.

When he couldn’t find the little house he thought state employees might have torn it down, but right then he stumbled on the site. There had been a fire. Little remained except charred sticks and a bald spot where the earth had been tamped to support the structure. He knelt to look more closely.

A greenish fuzz, tough and wiry, was struggling up from the packed clay. A type of lichen or moss. Survival of the fittest came to mind at first. But that didn’t seem quite right for what he saw. How about Where there’s a will, there’s a way?

Not really, he decided, as he stood slapping dirt off his knees. Then he brightened. No, not quite right. But close enough.

About The Author

Juditha Dowd writes poetry and prose near the Delaware River. Her work can be found in The Florida Review, Spillway, Streetlight, Kestrel, Off the Coast, and elsewhere. A full-length poetry collection, “Mango in Winter,” came out in 2013 (Grayson Books).