A Postmodern Short Story
Facebook has recently put me back in touch with an old high school friend, G–. He was never a close companion on the scale of D– or Brad or Mike, but we shared classes and we shared conversations for most of six years, so I was glad to see his name and face show up under the enigmatic, “People you might know.”
I added him to my friends list right away, and when he confirmed he immediately followed up with an email offering a quick summation of his lifestate, and I responded with one of my own. Then he wrote back, saying, “Man it’s good to hear from you! I’d completely lost track, but I’ve never forgotten all the crazy conversations we used to have. Are you still playing part-time philosopher, or have you finally joined the flock?”
I hesitated over my answer, and finally wrote back, “Still just as crazy, but I hide it better. My big obsession since college is radical social constructionism, which suggests we collectively shape our reality by our expectations. It goes deeper than that, but that’s a good snapshot.”
I sent that off and put the ball in his court. If he wanted to ask me for more clarification, he could. In the process he would bring down an avalanche of information from me, but at least that way it would be on his hands. If he wanted to let it go, safe in the knowledge that I still had some weird notions ready to hand, he could. He surprised me, though. He wrote back and said, “No way! That is a good summary, but I know all about it. Weird that we would still end up talking about the same ideas after all this time….”
So it turned out I was the one who couldn’t leave it at that. I’ve known a lot of people who get social constructionism when I explain it to them, but never one yet who was already familiar with it. And I sure didn’t expect G– to be the first one! He’d always been willing to listen, stupefied, while I rambled on, but he was never the real philosopher himself. So I asked him for his story, and it was a good one.
He graduated with me in the spring of ninety-eight, and while I went off to Little Rock for the summer and then to Oklahoma for college, he stayed in Wichita and spent a few months working on a roofing crew to save up his tuition. When he got into WSU in the fall, he held onto that job. It paid well, and he liked the work.
So one weekend he was working on this rotted out roof over on the West Side, tearing out ruined plywood and rebuilding the frame while the irritated homeowner tapped his foot down in the front lawn, wanting them to be done. It was a big job, though, and they ended up working until well after midnight, tacking down new shingles by the light of flood lamps so they could do another job the next day. Sunday morning he got up, went to work, and showed up at a home halfway across town to find the same homeowner standing by the curb talking to his boss.
G– pondered on that while he worked, and when his first break rolled around he struck up a conversation with the client. Turned out the guy flipped houses for a living, and both of these were projects he hoped to clear in a couple weeks. That piqued G–‘s curiosity, and I guess the fellow liked G– because he gave him a business card and told him to keep in touch. G– did, and at the older man’s direction he spent all his free time that fall going to seminars, reading books on the topic, listening to tapes, and checking out videos that all promised the guaranteed secret to financial independence through home sales. By the end of his first semester he was ready to give up roofing and studying and become a real estate man.
By that point he really felt like he knew what he was doing. Nineteen, with no money, no degree, and still working his high school job, he was sure he was ready to make the investment. So he did his research, and over finals week, between tests, he closed on a 2/1/1 FSBO west of Tyler that he knew was worth a twelve percent profit. It cost him sixty thousand dollars and he had the whole Christmas break to get it fixed up and listed.
So he drove out on a Sunday morning in his crappy little pickup, armed with nothing but a little toolchest he could carry easily with one hand. There may have been a power drill, too, but that would be pushing it. He eyed the dead lawn critically, the gutter hanging loose over the front porch, as he approached up the walk and turned his sixty thousand-dollar key in the twelve-dollar Wal-Mart lock. Then he pushed the door open, but it caught fast at three inches. The chain was on. Not only that, but he could smell incense burning in the house, and a moment later he heard someone moving around inside. He took a step back, checked the address, but this was the right place. He’d been here before after all, for the inspections, and the house had been empty then.
He probably should have been afraid, but young men are fools. He pounded on the open door, loud as he could, and called out, “Hey! Hey! Who’s there?”
A woman’s voice answered him indistinctly, and a moment later she floated into view. Her haid was black, pulled up on one side in a complicated braid. Her eyes were green, and she was wearing nothing but a threadbare white towel. That stopped him short.
She didn’t show any sign of embarrassment or remorse. She just smiled politely and said, “Well? What’s all the fuss?”
“This is my house,” he stammered, his anger coming back a bit. “I came out here to do some work on it–“
“Good,” she said. “You need a new water heater.”
“I need to know what you’re doing here,” he said. “This is my house.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s mine.”
He frowned, and his heart started pounding. He knew all about liens and he’d spent a week reading about squatters’ rights, but he hadn’t really expected problems at this place. He’d cleared the title two days ago. His stomach knotted at the thought of the legal expenses it would take to get this sorted out. He shook his head, trying not to think about it, and said, “How do you figure?”
She just smiled and said, “Magic.” He stared, blank, and she slipped the chain off the door and withdrew into the room. He pushed in and found a beanbag chair and a tiny, ancient black and white TV plugged in by the front door. A spill of worn paperbacks lined the wall — the tattered carpet their only bookshelf — and a stick of incense burned in its holder atop a battered minifridge on the far wall. He took it all in at a glance, and felt his rage rise up again.
“What is all this?”
She shrugged one shoulder without losing the towel and said, “My stuff.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why this house?” He felt a desperate fear, and wondered if his dad could help him out of it.
“I had a lovely dream that took place here,” she said. “Well, not exactly this house, but one close enough. And I was driving down the road last week and saw the sign out front and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s my house.'”
“But it’s not yours,” he wailed. “It’s mine. I saw the sign, and then I bought the freaking house.”
She smiled and turned away. “That’s a kind of magic,” she said. “Money. But mine’s better.”
“And what’s yours?” he said, as he dug the cell phone out of his pocket.
“Desire,” she purred, turning back to him. “Anticipation. Faith.” She gestured to the room around her with a long, slender arm. “This is going to be my house. I can make it mine by sheer force of will.”
She caught his hand and dragged him back toward the hall. “This will be my room,” she said, opening the door on the smaller of the two. “Just enough room for a twin bed and four bookcases.” Then she turned him around and pushed open the door to the master bedroom with one toe.
The walls in there were angry red, the wookwork stained almost black. Bringing that room to a neutral color was a chore G– was dreading, but it had a dreadfully oppressive feel as it was. It didn’t seem to get through to her, though, because the girl danced into the room and said, “This will be the kids’ room. Lots of space to play. Can’t you just imagine?”
“Listen,” he said, “if you want to buy it, I’ll have the house on the market soon–“
She shook her head. “No you won’t,” she said. “Not this house. Besides, I don’t have any money.”
“You don’t need any,” he said. “I’ve got a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”
She just shook her head again. “I’m not interested.”
“Then you have to get out.” It was hard to be stern with her, but he had work to do. “Today. Now. Or I’ll call the cops.” He wasn’t entirely sure he could do that, but she didn’t call his bluff.
She sighed, and her shoulders fell, and she said, “Fine. I’ll go. Can I use your phone? I need my dad to bring his truck if I’m going to get all this stuff out.”
He grumbled about that, too, but if it got her gone he could spare the minutes. He waited there with her while she made the call, heard her ask the man on the other end to bring the truck, and then he got his phone back. “Good,” he said. “Umm…thanks. Now you can get dressed or whatever. I’m just going to get started–“
“Fine,” she said, and disappeared into the guest bedroom. He just stood for a moment, stunned, staring at the closed door. He thought about calling his dad, but decided to wait. He didn’t want her to overhear any part of that conversation.
Instead he went to the front door and got his tools. He had a handful of little projects from the inspectors, and he had planned to knock those out quickly and then spend the rest of the day planning his big renovation. He pulled the list from his back pocket, unfolded it, and picked the first item: busted faceplates in kitchen and laundry room. He had a couple cheap tan light switch and outlet covers in his tool chest, so he grabbed those and a flat-head screwdriver and got to work.
Thirty minutes later he was out front with his pickup pulled up in the yard so he could stand on the hood to reach the gutter. He had three long gutter spikes between his teeth and a hammer on his belt, but all his attention was on the warped bit of sharp-edged sheet metal in his hands. He couldn’t get the dangling section to match back up to the piece still on the wall.
Below him the screen door screamed open before it banged against the wall, and G– mentally added two items to his list: oil the hinges, and reattach the hydraulic arm. Then he glanced down at the pretty trespasser. She was wearing patched jeans and a worn brown sweater now, with flip-flops for shoes in spite of the cold. He growled, “You still here?” but the nails between his teeth garbled his words. She giggled and held up a thick paper cup. Sweet-smelling steam curled off the top of it.
“He’ll be here any minute now,” she said. “Hot tea?”
He just shook his head, amazed at her aplomb, but after a moment he relented. He climbed down off the hood of his truck and let go the dangling gutter. It creaked ominously, but it didn’t fall. He took the offered cup, then sank down on the front steps. “Thanks,” he said.
She moved around in front of him, fists on her hips, and waited until he looked up to meet his eyes. “I’m not a bad person,” she said softly.
“No,” he said, biting off the words. “You’re just crazy.”
She took a step back as though he’d hit her. For the first time since he’d shown up she looked upset. “I’m not crazy!”
“You can’t just move into someone else’s house because you want to.”
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “But I didn’t. I moved into my house–“
“This is not your house!”
“As you see it,” she said, then held up a hand to forestall his argument. “Okay, and the cops, too. I can’t suppress that kind of authority.”
He took a slow sip of his tea, then set the cup aside. He leaned back and looked up at her, finally curious. “What are you talking about?”
She frowned, as though she didn’t understand the question, and he shook his head. “You were talking about magic earlier,” he said. “Now it’s ‘suppressing authority.’ You don’t look a crazy person–“
She stomped her foot. “I’m not crazy!”
“Then what are you talking about?” He glanced up at the dangling gutter and knew he’d rather hear her story than get back to that. “Spill it.”
“Have you ever heard of Phenomenology?” she asked. “Brain in a vat?” He shook his head and she sank down on her heels in front of him. “Your whole universe is a model built inside your head, using your experiences, your expectations, and tiny electrical pulses from your nerves to populate it. Everything you see is just a message from your eyes to your brain, and based on that little spark of lighting your brain adds to the model however it sees fit. Everything you touch, every word you hear me saying–“
“Okay,” he said. “What’s the point?”
“It’s all a dream,” she said. “Your reality is a dream. Your brain is making it up, all the time, and you just go along with it. If you wanted to, though, you could change it. Take control of the dream. Put your mind to work for you and start producing reality instead of just consuming it.” She was breathing faster now, and her eyes were wide. He couldn’t help smiling at her enthusiasm.
“See,” he said, “that’s where you start to sound crazy.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s the hard part,” she said. “When dreams overlap. When my world and your world come into contact, and they’re not the same, we have to negotiate a common ground.”
“And how would you do that?”
“Talking,” she said. “That’s the purest magic, rhetoric. Money works, too, like you said. And force.” She turned up her nose. “You invoked force, and I retreated, and your dream won out over mine.” She rose back to her feet, unfolding gracefully, and reached out to touch the fallen gutter with a tender hand. There was sadness in her eyes. “I lose my dream house,” she said, “and you get this dump. Congratulations.” As she said it her dad pulled up to the curb behind her. He honked the horn once and she glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ll be gone in a minute,” she said, and disappeared into the house.
After that there wasn’t much excitement to the project. G– got down to work. He fixed the easy stuff quickly, but after that things ground to a halt. He got into the attic to examine the ductwork and found termites in the ceiling. He pulled up carpet to check out the hardwoods and found water damage down to the subfloor. Christmas break came and went. When the lease on his apartment expired in the spring, he moved into the house so he could work on it full-time over the summer.
In spite of his difficulties, he kept an eye on the real estate market, still committed to his plan. In June he bought another place and sold it in July. In August he bought and sold two places, one of them in the same neighborhood as his starter house. He finally settled into a rhythm, learned the eccentricities of the local market, and got pretty good at what he did. He never could sell that first 2/1/1, though.
Then on a Thursday night, two years later, he was at Barnes and Noble grabbing a book on plumbing when he spotted her in one of the comfy chairs reading a trashy fantasy novel. He fell down into the chair next to her and when she didn’t look up he said, “Hey, squatter.”
That got her attention. She blinked at him for a moment, then grinned sarcastically and answered, “Hey there, cops.”
“That’s me,” he said. “What’s happening?”
“The kingdom’s crumbling and the lord goes off to war,” she said. “You?”
“Better than that.” He grinned. “Want to know something funny? I never did sell that house.”
She tilted her head, considering him, and said, “If you’re looking to unload it, I still don’t have any money.” She opened the book back up, ready to forget him.
He blinked, and coughed an awkward laugh. “Umm…no,” he said. “That’s not what I…. Listen, do you think you’d want to go out to dinner?’
Again he got that long, quiet stare, but then she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Where did you have in mind?” They did Mexican, and then the Olive Garden on Saturday, and burgers next Friday before they went bowling. And then in April they got married. He finished college, and two years after that they started a family with twins on the first try. He spent a weekend moving furniture, painting, getting the kids’ room ready. And as he put the finishing touches on the new nursery — their old master bedroom, but they would need the extra space for two cribs, two dressers, and oh, the mountain of toys — he laughed out loud and went to find her in the living room, curled up with a book.
“It’s about done,” he told her.
She looked up at him absently, then saw the look on his face and her eyes narrowed. “Why are you smiling?”
“Remember the day we met?” he said, sinking down next to her on the couch. “Here?” She nodded, and he went on. “You said the master bedroom would be your kids’ room. Standing there in a towel, you told me that with a straight face.” She nodded again and he smiled. “Well, it’s done,” he said. “It came out just like said. Isn’t that crazy?”
But she just smiled, and laughed, and told him, “No. It’s just as it should be.”