The house was unremarkable, a house like hundreds or thousands of others. A brick ranch house, low and long and skinny, with a kitchen/breakfast nook adjacent to a living room/den and a hallway extending from both, splitting the three bedrooms and two bathrooms into two neat sides. Kids’ rooms on one side, both opening inside to opposite sides of a jack-and-jill bathroom. Parents’ room on the other side, slightly larger, with its slightly larger bathroom attached and its two small-ish closets.
And at one end of the hall, a doorway leading to stairs leading down to a basement/rec room, filled with ugly furniture made of heavy, dark-stained wood and topped with ugly, brown plaid, scratchy cushions. An ugly, orange recliner. Maybe a second, black-and-white TV, seated on a banged-up coffee table, rabbit ears pointed up optimistically, pulling in three, maybe three-and-a-half stations on a clear day.
The better, color TV would be upstairs in the living room/den, of course. It would be encased in a giant, dark wood frame, taking up approximately nine square feet if you really considered it. It would have a big round dial on the right side of the front, just beside the screen that would take minutes to show a picture after you turned it on and would emit fuzzy, zap-your-fingers rays for seconds after you turned it off.
The bedrooms would be unremarkable, each filled with a variety of dark brown, heavy furniture, some of it hand-me-down from older relatives and some in new sets from Sears. It would all manage to look basically identical.
How many brick ranch houses were built in America between 1950 and 1985?
Look, if you want data like that, read an academic paper. This is just a story.
To blame the house for what happened would be unfair. The house did not ask to be built, and it was not consulted before the first family moved in, a father and a mother, a son and a daughter, sometime TV in the late 1960s.
When the family moved in, infant daughter in arms, small boy running circles around the kitchen, harried mother looking on with a mix of tenderness and exhaustion, proud father puffing out his chest and thinking to himself that he’d realized the American dream—and ahead of schedule—the house said nothing. It opened itself up and allowed the ugly brown furniture to be placed in logical places on the ugly shag carpet, a noxious mix of brown and yellow and gold which seemed designed to camouflage dog vomit if necessary.
Their dog, a mutt whose part-wiener-dog heritage he wore proudly, did vomit on the carpet more than a few times. The house didn’t complain.
The house was warm in winter, when the kids would run in from playing outside, their cheeks red and noses runny. They would drop their pastel-colored windbreakers on the ugly couch; they never had gloves or mittens because the house had the good fortune to be built in the South, far below where it typically snowed or where Belk or Kessler’s would stock real winter wear.
When it was chilly—which it very regularly was between October and April—the kids would ride their bikes furiously on the neighborhood streets in their subdivision, a group of nearly identical houses off a busy country road. The main road was far too dangerous for bike riding or roller skating, but the streets of their neighborhood were tucked safely away from that traffic, and they rode their various wheeled recreational implements with fervor and abandon.
When the father was diagnosed with a chronic disease usually discovered in childhood, people scratched their heads, but who could say why certain things happen to certain people? It was a shame, that was true; but you play the cards you’re dealt, and the mother did: she stocked up on Tab and sugar-free snacks, to the extent such things were available back then, and did her best with a husband suddenly slower and more tired and fragile than she’d expected him to be for decades.
Their lives continued, and the house didn’t mention that anything might be bothering it, that it might be sick, too; and no one asked. So, no one knew.
When the mother had her first round of cancer—ovaries or uterus, one of those women parts that people didn’t speak of specifically—people sympathetically shook their heads, and by “people,” the inference is “women,” because men didn’t speak of such things. The mother had a hysterectomy, and aside from a handful of women friends who organized a casserole brigade, not many people knew.
She scheduled the surgery for over the summer, so her job as the secretary of a local elementary school wasn’t impacted. The principal knew, vaguely, what was going on with her, but he really didn’t press for details because he suspected he did not want them. The mother was an excellent secretary—in truth, she did more to run the school than he did—and he wasn’t going to complain about her being unavailable over the long summer weeks when it was usually just him, her, and a custodian on site anyway.
The father died, probably about twenty years earlier than might’ve been expected. But he’d been ill so long by that time that no one was truly surprised.
They were surprised, however, when the oldest child, the son, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that saw tumors develop in the bones, his lungs, his skull, his everything. He was a young man by that time, but he’d had a difficult time getting started as an adult, and with the father so ill, it’d been a relief to his mother for him to continue living in the brick ranch house. And once the son was truly sick—it happened very quickly—his mother was able to take care of him instead.
He was just 35 when he died. People were devastated—the young man had been well-liked, despite his unwillingness to really grow up. His mother mourned, only slightly comforted by the familiar brick ranch house, which witnessed all things and bore all things stoically.
All this time, all these decades, the house was ill, too, but no one ever thinks about a house getting sick.
The daughter was the last to get ill. The cancer that hit her was fast and brutal, just like her brother’s, and the doctors couldn’t eradiate or remove enough quickly enough. She lived to be 45 years old—older than her brother, for sure, but still about thirty years shy of the life expectancy of a woman at that time.
People no longer knew what to say. They could still shake their heads, but any wisdom about “playing the cards you’re dealt” sounded churlish at best, and no one said it anymore. They didn’t say much at all to the woman’s face; but to their own families, in their own brick ranch houses, they muttered to each other in quiet voices about God’s mysterious plan and Job and curses and whatever else they could think of to layer some sort of reason or order over such a set of calamities befalling one family.
The mother, who still thought of herself in relation to her husband and children, looked around the brick ranch house and realized that she didn’t need or want that much space anymore. She’d had a cancer recurrence shortly after her daughter passed, and she wanted to sell the house and move into something easier to maintain, something with people around who could check on her. She enlisted a real estate agent, a competent and efficient woman at least twenty years her junior who called her, “Ma’am” or “Miss Martha.” The agent lined up a home inspection so she would know what she was dealing with.
When the inspector finished, he called the agent before he was even off the property, which was unusual. Typically, they never even spoke; he just wrote up the report and emailed it off to her. “You ain’t gonna believe this unless you see it for yourself,” he began, without even a greeting; “Can you get over here to the Locke Lane property in a few?”
The real estate agent always reacted quickly to client requests, but home inspectors demanding her presence was unexpected and, in truth, unwelcome. Her curiosity was piqued enough for her to assent—with a heavy sigh so he would know how intrusive and annoying this was—and drove her late model Buick to the property in question, a ‘60s brick ranch house, never updated, 3 and 2 + finished basement, as she thought of it. It was situated in a development that never really took off and so never got bigger. Just 25 or so houses in a circle off the main road, some with paved driveways, some with gravel, some with packed earth. This was one of the latter, and the agent noted with some irritation that her car was going to be covered in dust.
She found the inspector in the basement in a utility closet off the main room. The smell of earth was redolent in this part of the house. It was too strong, the agent thought, too earthy and organic. She would need to air the whole house out and station a fan down here to try to dry out the closet a bit so it wasn’t so funky.
The inspector didn’t waste time or words once she arrived. He pointed to a corner of the closet with his flashlight and used a yardstick to poke at the mortar. The stick went straight in, all the way in, and as the inspector pulled it out, pieces of mortar fell to the ground in wet clumps. He poked in a space about three feet away with the same result.
A dank, unpleasant smell permeated the small closet, and the real estate agent backed out in alarm. “What on earth?” she demanded; “What’s wrong with it?”
“Don’t know,” the inspector replied, his front lip bulging out from the wad of tobacco he kept in while he inspected properties, when he knew no one would be around to turn up their noses at the ugly habit; “Never seen anything like it in one of these brick houses. They’re usually solid as a rock.”
The agent quickly got to her greatest concern, “What will have to be done before it can be sold?”
The inspector regarded her with amusement, “You don’t understand. This house is sick, a goner. It’s rotten down here. Something in the earth. Probably been working on taking this thing down since it was built.”
The agent recovered quickly, “So it’s a tear-down, and maybe we can sell it to a builder who wants to put something else here?”
The inspector replied, “You can do that, I suppose. Could be something in the building materials that caused this. But I, personally, would never want to live in anything built here. For whatever reason, I think the earth saw this house as a cancer, and God help the person who tries to tell this land differently.”
The day the brick ranch house came down, the mother was there. As the home that contained all her memories was destroyed, she marveled at the cruelty of life. That the house had been trying to tell her it was sick for fifty years, and only now, after it had taken everything she loved away, was she able to hear it.
Kay Summers is an emerging author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s been published in The Chamber, Rural Fiction Magazine, and Wilderness House Literary Review, and her story “Marlene” was awarded an honorable mention in the 2022 Writer’s Digest Annual Competition in the Mainstream/Literary Short Story category.