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Authors: Lauren Acampora

The Wonder Garden

BOOK: The Wonder Garden
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The Wonder Garden


Lauren Acampora

Grove Press

New York

“Swarm” previously appeared in
The Missouri Review.

Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Acampora

Jacket photograph and artwork © 2015 Thomas Doyle

Author photograph © Sarah Landis

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or
[email protected]

Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America

ISBN 978-0-8021-2355-8

eISBN 978-0-8021-9129-8

Grove Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

154 West 14th Street

New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West

In memory of my father


to arrive first. He enjoys standing quietly with a house before his clients arrive, and today, although he feels pinned beneath an invisible weight, he resolves to savor this solitary moment. It's one of those overhauled ranches so common to Old Cranbury these days, swollen and dressed to resemble a colonial. White, of course, with ornamental shutters and latches pretending to hold them open. A close echo of its renovated sisters on Whistle Hill Road, garnished with hostas and glitzed with azaleas. He has seen too many of these to count, but today he feels newly affronted.

He begins with the property. The front grade of this particular address slopes gently away from the structure, ideal from a topographical standpoint. There are no real trees to speak of, only snug rows of adolescent pines at either side of the property, screening the house from its neighbors in the most neighborly possible way.

He strides slowly up the front path in his work boots, noting the fine condition of the brick pavers, flush to the ground with just the slightest efflorescence. On the porch, he squats to finger a pile of fine orange frass. Carpenter ants—nothing unusual this time of year. He goes around the side of the property, surveys the TruWood siding, the tidy soffits and fascias. A quick survey of the back lawn gives the septic risers away: two low welts in the soil. The grass itself is the jolly green attainable only through obsessive fertilization and well-paid maintenance.

Foraging for the well head, John pauses for a moment and listens to the ambient sounds of yard work and birdcalls. From time to time he might experience a mystical flash on a job, a brief collapse of boundaries between himself and the house he is about to examine. He might divine a premonitory sketch of a structure, what its trouble spots might be—foundation, floor, or roof—like those men attuned to the silent thoughts of animals. John closes his eyes, stands upon the pampered grass, and waits. The sun touches the roots of his waning hairline and presses against his eyelids until he sees the red throb of his own blood vessels. No presentiment comes to him. Instead, he finds himself replaying last night, starting with the phone call from Diana. When he opens his eyes again, they catch sight of a neighbor watching from the far side of the privacy pines. The man is buffing a vintage MG and pauses to give a soldier's salute.

Of course, John Duffy's work is not remotely psychic. His skills have been carefully honed over two decades in the field, and he takes pride in their hard-won mastery. As a young man, he itched to be outdoors, driving a vehicle, autonomous. In a moment of bold lucidity, he'd quit his deadening job at a mortgage bank and enrolled in a home inspectors' certification course. After passing the exam, he apprenticed himself to a crabby old man for five years, paid his dues. Knowing that his employer would never retire, John did what every warm-blooded American has at one time or another dreamed of doing: he plucked the dangling fruit of self-employment, turned fantasy into fact. After that, no one could put John Duffy down or undermine him, no one could second-guess the calls he made on site visits or apologize to
clients for an alleged mistake in a report. He has no one to answer to but himself, his clients, and the all-inspecting eye of God.

As he turns back toward this particular front porch on Whistle Hill, a silver Audi pulls into the driveway, and a woman emerges from the passenger door. John sees a short triangular dress and uninterrupted legs, and even from this distance his blood responds. The woman glides up the path beside a man whose pale skin and squinted eyes suggest a good deal of time spent indoors. Her dress vibrates with a kind of 1960s optical illusion pattern, white with orange circles embedded within one another. His eyes are drawn into these mini-vortexes, and only after an overlong stare does he recognize that she is pregnant. The woman smiles.

“I hope you haven't been waiting long,” she says.

“No, you're right on time.” The husband's hand, when John shakes it, feels like chilled meat. Hers is narrow, paper-dry, the bones discernible beneath skin.

“First-time buyers?” John asks.

“Yes,” answers the husband.

“We have a lot to learn about houses,” the wife says. “I've been looking forward to this.” Her voice hits John's ear like a tuning fork, a silver bell.

“Well, I hope to help educate you,” says John.

Indeed, on his website John emphasizes that the mission of Argus Home Inspections, Inc., is not only to protect consumers from unwise investments but also to educate them about the properties they intend to purchase. The company is named for the all-seeing giant of Greek mythology. Its logo is elegant, designed by Diana's artist cousin—a spray of blue peacock feathers, each tipped with a human eye.

“What's that, I wonder.” The wife points at a conical hive at the crease of the porch ceiling.

“Wasp's nest,” John reports. “You can get it down with a broom but they'll keep coming back. Welcome to country life.” He lifts his clipboard and pencils a desultory note about the hive. “You're from the city, aren't you?”

“Mmm,” says the wife.

“Manhattan, yes,” the husband adds.

John nods. These two will be easy, reasonable clients. Something about the husband's manner suggests a wish for swiftness. This is a formality for him, John suspects. The wife is easy in her own way: a wide-eyed beginner, trusting of John's expertise and secretly confident that the house they've chosen is faultless. She has the crescent-shaped eyes of an optimist. Sky blue in color, these are eyes accustomed to admiring and being admired, that dare anyone to make them unhappy. If it weren't for the tiny creases like gentle comb marks at their outer corners, John might mistake her for a very young woman.

As it happens, John does not really enjoy educating the consumer. He prefers inspections during which the client does
follow him like a lapdog, asking questions and taking notes. And he prefers most of all those clients who are too busy to even show up to an inspection, who take him at his word and are satisfied with a handwritten report. The truth is that John does his best work solo. Like a doctor making a diagnosis, he believes a good home inspector shines best when unmolested.

The three of them stand on the porch for a prolonged moment broken finally by the arrival of Lori Hatfield. Lori is John's favorite broker. No other broker consistently refers clients to him, and he might even go as far as to call her a friend. He supposes that he has, without really intending to, seen her through some bad times. They've gone out for a few drinks in days past and found themselves trading heartaches. There has been no romantic angle to this whatsoever; Lori is a mousy woman in her fifties with a string of dirty pearls forever at her neck. But they respect each other. John knows her to be one of the few right-minded brokers, a woman with an intrinsic inability to profit from a customer's ignorance. And Lori understands that John, too, is haunted by his own honesty. Other brokers hate him for the deals his inspections have ruined, but Lori knows that he is the consumer's best friend, a kind of superhero who saves buyers from their own mistakes.

Reputations, after all, are everything in this field, and John carefully guards his own. He serves as vice president of the local branch of the American Society of Home Inspectors, dutifully collecting news for the quarterly newsletter. His colleagues think well of him. They know he adheres like flypaper to the ASHI code of ethics: integrity, honesty, objectivity. And he, in turn, knows all the guys in the business. He knows who is too lazy or chicken to climb on a customer's roof; who overcharges for flashy computerized reports; who has been sued, lost his business, and been forced to change his name.

Lori slams the door of her Lexus and rushes up the front walk to her clients. “Sorry I'm late,” she wheezes. “David, Madeleine, I see you've met John.” She smiles toward him, her tired eyes smudged with liner. Dog hair is visible on her black pants and, from beneath a colorful neck scarf, the dingy pearls peek out. John pictures her applying makeup in the car with a shaky hand.

“He's one of the best,” she says.

John does not know the asking price of this house, but he is certain it will be high enough to make Lori's year. He blinks and breaks her gaze. “Well, should we get going? I'll start with the roof.”

He ambles to his GMC, hauls the articulated folding ladder from the back, and braces it against the front elevation of the house. His first step on the ladder is unsteady, and for a moment he feels fatigue overtake him, the undertow of his sleepless night. By the third and fourth steps he regains his composure and scales the rest of the ladder as effortlessly as a lemur. His footing established on the roof, he looks down to his audience and sees the tops of their heads, triangulated, as they chat among themselves. A gust of laughter reaches his ears. Not one of them looks up to where he balances on an eave. Quickly, he takes in the condition of the roof. Standard three-tab asphalt shingles, two layers, unremarkable.

“It's really one of the most desirable neighborhoods in town,” Lori is saying as he returns to the ground. “I think you've made a great choice.”

“Oh, good . . .” The wife trails off, her eyes turning toward the house next door. The neighbor is still there with his MG, wielding a shammy cloth.

John suspects these two young people to be the type who will hire landscapers to trim their bushes. They will hire handymen to clean their gutters, plumbers to tighten their pipes. He is well aware that he is among the few in this town who prefer to do things himself; who would rather drown than pay a professional; who insulates his own attic, extends his own drain pipes, replaces his own cracked shingles. Most others treat home ownership as an entitlement, trusting that their house will provide shelter from the elements without strenuous effort on their part. Few seem to respect the marvel of engineering and ingenuity that a house represents.

Only once has John overestimated his abilities. Without the help of an electrician, he'd attempted to replace several two-pronged outlets with three-pronged grounded outlets and had been flattened by a forceful shock. As he lay prone on the dining room floor, Diana had shrieked that he was foolish and egotistical, that he would never admit there were things he was not qualified to do.

Lori opens the lockbox. Inside, the house is bright and cold as an art museum. John does not usually notice a home's decor any more than a woman's nail polish, but today his senses are uncomfortably heightened, and as the party steps through the living room, he is sharply aware of its spare furnishings. There is a low-slung orange sofa fronted by a coffee table, a glossy black oval at knee-banging height. What person enjoys sitting on such a sofa? Where does a man put down a drink? The wife who lives here, he is sure, would scowl at a glass placed upon the table. She would be a woman who slides a coaster beneath her husband's tumbler and moves it away from the table's edge, as if he were a child. The kind of woman who picks lint from his shirt without asking, who brushes crumbs from his chin in public.

John's own home boasts original geometric linoleum from 1941, and its bathrooms are lined with veteran baby-blue tile. The furniture, however, is only eighteen years old, chosen by himself and his wife during a giddy shopping spree the day after closing. He remembers that day as one of the most joyful of their marriage. He and Diana had been buoyed by the same warm wave of exhilaration, tasted the same salt of home ownership. They'd spun through the furniture showroom, laying claim to a sectional sofa, a king-sized sleigh bed, a dining set for eight. Styles have changed since then, of course, but Diana has nimbly updated the existing pieces. The sectional has been disguised with slipcovers over the years, each retiring to the linen closet after its tour of duty. The huge oak bookshelf—forever displaying John's building code manuals and Diana's archive of
House Beautiful
—has been renewed with countless coats of color. The marriage may have slipped into obsolescence, but the house has always remained painstakingly fresh. For eighteen years John has been comfortable within its confines, surveying the world from its windows, watching the daffodils bloom in spring, rose of Sharon in summer, sunflowers in fall. At no juncture has he felt the desire to trade it for any of these nouveau colonials. He loves and respects the house and the ghosts it contains, of his own life and of those who came before. The previous owners had remained there well into their eighties, and John wholly expects to do the same, with or without Diana. He intends to keep the bones of the house strong and its organs clean for decades to come, even as the skeletons of newer houses rise and fall around it.

Most inspectors make a beeline for the basement mechanicals, then vet the rest of a structure. John knows that he is a bit of a renegade in that he prefers to reverse the order. In his opinion, kicking off with heavy-duty items like the service panel and furnace is a sure way to unsettle a buyer, and once the questions start coming, it can take hours to get to the first floor. He prefers to start with attics, sparse and innocuous, and work his way down so that, by the time they reach the water heater, his customers are limp and glazed over.

So he leads Lori and her buyers to the attic first. Inhaling deeply, he ventures out along the narrow beams. The wood beneath his feet feels solid and sure, and he marks this on his clipboard. He follows the beams as far as he can in each direction, feeling the slabs of the sloped ceiling with his hand. Dry and clean. The insulation is new, mirror-tight. He stands for another moment, listening. There have been times when he's detected the scratching of hidden animals in attics, even in daylight, so brash and accustomed to privacy they are. He holds still for a long quiet moment, breathing the fishy smell of fiberglass, before turning and stepping back.

BOOK: The Wonder Garden
11.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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