“Model Home” by Catherine Uroff

30Jul13

Terry and I lived in a model home once. It was part of a new development that never took off after the housing market went belly-up. The developer was a friend of Terry’s father, and he let us live there for a reduced rate. He said it was better than having the house vacant.

Only the model home and one other house had been built before construction stopped. The two houses were side-by-side, almost identical with their red brick facade, Palladian windows above the front doors, attached two-car garage. Our yards were smoothed over with bright-green sod but the rest of the lots on our short street were filled with mud and pebbles. Across the street from us, tall For Sale signs rose from a tangle of weeds and wild bushes.

Just past the development’s entrance, a giant hole in the ground marked the spot where the in-ground pool was supposed to go. Although asphalt tennis courts had already been paved, they were missing their white lines and nets. Still, I was happy enough with what was there. The model home had a master bedroom, walk-in closets, an eat-in kitchen, and it came completely furnished.

On our first day there, the neighbors came to our door with a wicker basket filled with wine and cheese and crackers. Their names were Melissa and Dan Jackley. Their two daughters, Kylie and Taylor, skipped in a circle behind us while we talked. Melissa was blond and pretty. Dan was muscular and fit. He wore his hair in a military-style buzz cut. Melissa told us that the neighborhood was going to be great someday, that we’d made a good investment. I waited for Terry to correct her, to explain that we were only renting, but he didn’t. Melissa said that once the economy got back on its feet—“Any day now,” Dan joined in—construction would start up again. We were in one of the best school districts in the state and then she rattled off some statistics about above average standardized test scores. When they finally left, Terry smiled at me. “I’m exhausted,” he said. I took the basket from him, and the first thing I did was open up the wine and dump it down the sink.

* * *

Sometimes I’d see Dan outside, washing his car. He drove a black Suburban that had a small sticker of a skull and crossbones stuck to its rear bumper. He took care to soap up the front and back windows, hubcaps, side mirrors. He also mowed the lawn a lot and trimmed the grass near the sidewalk with a loud edger. Then, one day, I ran into Melissa at the Krogers in town. Her cart was filled with square boxes of frozen dinners, soda bottles, party bags of chips. The girls were trailing behind her, pushing their own miniature-sized carts—neon yellow, plastic contraptions with big wheels. After I said hello to her, she put her fingers to her lips and cocked her head towards her daughters.

“I have to tell you something,” she whispered to me, “Dan’s moved out.”

* * *

He came back every Sunday to take the girls for the afternoon. One time I was outside when he drove up to the house. It was a bright, windy day, and I was sitting on my heels, plucking out a bunch of prickly-leafed dandelions from the front flower bed. Dan parked his Suburban at the curb. After he got out, he just stood on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips. I thought to call out to him that I’d seen Melissa leave with the girls about twenty minutes beforehand, but he was so focused and still that I didn’t want to disturb him. The wind picked up a little, ruffling the hair on the back of his head. A clear plastic bag, the kind used to bag produce, skittered down the sidewalk, running into his legs, wrapping around his ankles, but he didn’t even notice. Melissa came home about ten minutes later. I saw her Toyota minivan at the top of the street, coasting slowly towards us. As soon as she pulled into the driveway, the van’s side door slid open and the girls jumped out. They hugged Dan’s legs, crying out for him. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”  He patted the tops of their heads and pointed to his car and they ran to it and climbed inside. That was when Melissa and Dan started to fight. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but at one point, Melissa put her finger in his face and Dan leaned into her with his shoulder. I got up and went indoors before I could see anything more.

Terry was in the small study that was just off the foyer. He was playing Solitaire, slapping cards down in a sloppy formation on top of the wide mahogany desk that took up most of the room. Next to his cards, there was a fully loaded glass ashtray with a lit cigarette wedged into one of its notches.

“Dan’s next door,” I said.

Terry put a two of spades below a three of diamonds.  “So?”

“He’s fighting with Melissa over something. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying but it looked bad. It was sad to see, what with the kids being involved and everything.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can think of sadder things.”

“They seemed like such a normal family when we first moved in.”

“Whatever normal means.”

“No, really.”

Terry looked up at me. His eyes were bloodshot. He hadn’t had a drink in two months. He was trying to do it all by himself because he said that AA had a 99% failure rate.

“Grace, why are you talking to me about this? I’m so far beyond worrying about the neighbors right now. Why can’t you see that?” he asked.

* * *

Terry had recently been written up by his manager for a bunch of unexplained absences, but the day after Dan and Melissa’s fight he got up early to go to work. Our house was bustling and purposeful, filled with the smell of coffee and toast. The morning news anchors buzzed to each other from the TV in our bedroom. Terry stood in front of the oval mirror in the upstairs hallway to fix a knot in his tie. Afterwards, he moved down to the kitchen where he filled a travel mug with coffee. Right before he went out the side door to the garage, he gave me a mock salute with three fingers to his forehead.

I waited until he was gone before I got ready for work. I had a good job back then, keeping the books for a small manufacturing company, but recently I’d been late a lot because of Terry. So I was rushing to get dressed—yanking blouses and skirts off their hangers, pulling pantyhose from a tangled ball, running the legs up my arms to check for runs—when I heard the doorbell. I was in too big a hurry to answer it but whoever was there kept ringing the bell over and over and it got me worried that it had something to do with Terry.  When I ran downstairs, I was half-dressed in a camisole and skirt. I pulled the door open to Melissa.

“I’m sorry to bother you but if you wouldn’t mind? Can I come in?”

She stumbled over the lip of the doorsill as she entered the house. I held out my arm so she could steady herself.

“I just need a minute or two to calm down.”

The kitchen had a large bow window that took up most of one wall. She stood by that window, staring out at the backyard. There was a play set by the far end of our property: two swings, a plastic slide, a deep sandbox. I wondered if she was imagining her girls playing there, swinging so high that the play set’s legs would jump a little with each rise and fall.

“You have a nice house,” she said.

I was pleased by her compliment. I already thought of the house as mine. I wanted to brag about all its finer details, like the master bathroom with its separate space for the toilet, porcelain tile that framed the garden tub, gilt framed mirror above the double-sink vanity. The other day, I’d bought candles to put around the wide-lipped edge of the tub, thinking that I could sink into a bubble bath each night, surrounded by flickering light.

“Thank you,” I said, “We like it here.”

“It’s the same floor plan as mine.” She sighed a little and turned towards me.  “Well, Dan came by yesterday. But you know about that already, don’t you? I saw you watching us.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s O.K. It’s been rough. I won’t deny that. But I’m trying to keep strong for the girls. Always, everything for the girls. Just some days are better than others. That’s why I’m here. I dropped the girls off at school and I was coming back to the house and I just couldn’t go inside, not yet.”

As I poured her a cup of coffee, I looked at the digital clock on the face of the stovetop. I would need to call my office soon to explain my tardiness but what could I say? I’d already made up so many excuses to tend to Terry: non-existent doctor’s appointments, car repairs, house maintenance.

“It’s a crap shoot, isn’t it? What you end up with. When Dan and I got married, well, I was so excited. I wanted it all: house, picket fence, kids. Do you know what I’m saying? Didn’t you feel the same?”

For some reason I didn’t want to tell her that Terry and I weren’t married.

“Well, sure,” I said.

“And then it changed. Without me even noticing it at first. Our fights always started out so small. I wanted the girls to take horseback riding lessons. Dan thought it was too expensive. I wanted to buy a mirror to hang above the mantel. Dan thought a painting would be good there instead.  Every little thing became a war.”

I tried to picture fighting with Terry over something trivial like that. We were barely hanging on—to each other, to this fragile life we’d created together. The thought of disagreeing over the placement of a framed painting seemed like a luxury we’d never have.

“Thank you for letting me come over and unload like this,” Melissa continued. “It was just what I needed. You know, Dan and I always wanted to have you two over for a cookout, just a little get-together. It was on our to-do list: have the neighbors over. You two seem like such an interesting couple.”

Before moving into the model house, we’d lived in a duplex off of Buford Highway. One time, coming home from a very bad night, Terry misjudged the first step of the duplex’s front porch and toppled over and landed on our neighbor’s rose bed. She was an elderly Asian woman who lavished care and attention on those roses every day, always fertilizing, pruning, checking for black spots. And Terry just crushed them with his weight. He was too heavy for me to move so I just left him there. When he woke up in the morning, our neighbor was standing over him, trembling in her housecoat, chattering in her native language, poking him hard against his ribs with the end of a broom.

“Well, that would’ve been very nice. We would’ve enjoyed that,” I said to Melissa.

“You two keep to yourselves, don’t you? I never see anyone come over. It’s like you guys are your own island or something.”

“No,” I said, “We’re just like everyone else.”

* * *

When Terry came home that night, I wanted to tell him about my conversation with Melissa. But he just sank into the deep leather chair in the great room and waved me off when I came in to talk. He stayed there all night. When I turned on the flat screen TV that hung above the mantel, he asked me to turn it off. The only sound he made was when he lit another cigarette—the scraping of the lighter, his deep inhale. At one point, I thought I heard him leave the house, but when I looked out the bedroom window, his car was parked in the driveway.

When I came down for breakfast in the morning, he was still dressed in the clothes from the day before. He even had his dress shoes on, black laces tied into double knots.

“I’m surprised it didn’t wake you up,” he said. “Quite a ruckus going on next door. Would’ve woken up the neighbors if we had any.”

“Melissa and Dan? What were they fighting about?”

He pulled on his tie to loosen it and grimaced as he unbuttoned the collar button on his shirt.

“Melissa’s voice was the loudest. She kept saying that she wasn’t going to take it anymore, that it had to stop. Whatever ‘it’ is.”

“I hope she’s O.K. She came over yesterday.”

I was about to tell him more, but Terry shook his head. “You shouldn’t get involved. We don’t know them. They don’t know us. Best to keep it that way.”

“I’m not getting involved. I was just listening to her—”

“Anyway, I’m feeling a little shaky right now. It’s been a long night. You understand that, don’t you? Please tell me you do.”

I nodded.

“I’m going upstairs to bed. Would you call in for me?”

He left the room before I could answer. I heard him on the stairwell, slowly going upstairs. I called his office and told the receptionist that he wasn’t feeling well. “Uh-huh,” she said. Right as I put the phone down, Melissa came over.

“I have to explain myself,” she said.

We went into the kitchen again. She sat in a kitchen chair and put her feet on the bottom rails of the next chair over, tipping the empty chair back and forth, a gesture that reminded me of what I used to do when I was younger. I’d sit in the kitchen with my feet up and talk to my mother as she prepared dinner. She’d sip from a glass of scotch and water as she cooked. Once I turned 16, she’d mix a drink for me too. Some nights, by the time dinner was served, I’d be too drunk to eat anything, but I’d wobble to the dining room table anyway to keep her company.

“Now Dan wants me to get a job. He says I’m spending too much. He’s threatening to close our joint checking account. I’ve told him so many times that I can’t work right now, not with the girls being so young. He doesn’t get it. But why would he? I was the one who wanted kids, not him. Oh, I mean he was perfectly happy when I was pregnant with Kylie. But he only wanted the one. When I got pregnant with Taylor, he didn’t talk to me for a week.”

“That’s horrible.”

“So he comes over last night, furious mad, because he’d just tried to balance the checkbook and found all these extra expenses. You probably heard us. I mean, we were loud.”

“Terry did. I was sleeping.”

“Is he home? I saw his car parked out front.”

“He’s resting right now.”

“Is he sick? I heard there’s a stomach thing going around.”

“He has insomnia sometimes, that’s all.”

Melissa wrinkled her nose. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. You tell him that, will you? Tell him that if he’s up in the middle of the night, he should flash a light out the window or something, and I’ll see it. Hey, did I tell you? I saw him the other day, walking on the side of Jones Bridge Road. Crazy place to be walking, don’t you think?”

Jones Bridge Road was a six-lane, split road with no sidewalks, just deep drainage ditches separating the road from the Blimpie sandwich shop, walk-in nail salon, and Pride gas station that line the road. Terry’s favorite bar, Morrow’s Tavern, was on Jones Bridge as well.

“Are you sure it was him?”

Melissa nodded. “Oh, definitely. It was Monday, no, Tuesday. Sometime early last week.”

The week before, Terry had been at work. Or, at least, that was what I’d thought.

“It could’ve been someone else,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe.”

There was some silence between us before Melissa spoke again.

“It’s hard, isn’t it? Being married. I mean, I know all about it.”

“Well,” I answered, “It’s not harder than anything else, I guess.”

* * *

That night, Terry was restless in bed, turning from his stomach to his right and then left side. He punched the pillow and pulled the sheets across his shoulders. I started telling him about Melissa, how she guessed there was something wrong with us, that she saw him walking around town when he should’ve been at work. He flipped over onto his back, knitted his hands together and placed them on top of his chest.

“Why are you listening to her? She’s just a nosy neighbor, that’s all.”

“There’s no way she could’ve seen you, right? It must’ve been someone else, don’t you think?”

“I don’t care what she saw or didn’t see.”

“It’s like she senses something, that we’re not what we seem.”

“Why don’t you tell her the truth? Tell her that I’m just another bozo on the bus. Isn’t that what they’d call me in AA? And that, until very recently, you were just as bad as me. Tell her that we met in a bar, buzzed out of our minds, and it’s been downhill ever since. That should satisfy her curiosity, don’t you think?”

I used to match Terry, drink for drink, until one morning when I woke up in his car, pinned in by my seat belt, my arms draped over the steering wheel. I fumbled with the door latch and as soon as I was able to get the door open, I threw up on the cracked pavement. My vile-smelling vomit looked like coffee grinds. I was behind Marlow’s and although I could remember going there with him and standing at the bar, taking shot after shot after shot, I couldn’t remember anything else. I kept the car door open for awhile, trying to catch my breath, and then a garbage truck pulled into the parking lot and a man who was standing on the back lip of the truck laughed at me. I drove back to the duplex and found Terry asleep on the floor, his cheek burning against the synthetic wall-to-wall carpeting. I wanted to call my mother at that point. I wanted to hear her tell me to get out. Don’t think twice, sweetheart. Just leave. But when I dialed her number, no one answered the phone, and when I hung up I wasn’t sure that that was the advice she would’ve given me anyway. So I shook Terry to wake him up. I told him that we had to change. A month later, we learned about the model home.

“Don’t talk that way. Things are different now,” I said to him.

“Oh yes. You’re right. Thanks for reminding me. We’re model citizens now, living in this model house.”

He reached over to hug me. I put my head on his shoulder and fell asleep.

* * *

Hours later, I was startled awake by the sound of a woman screaming. It was a horrible noise—shrill, hysterical, high with fear. I sat up in bed and could feel my heart gallop underneath the palm of my hand. Terry was asleep, lying on his stomach, his arms stretched above his head. I stayed in bed, waiting to hear something else. I put my hand on Terry’s shoulder but he didn’t wake up.

I’d almost convinced myself that the scream was nothing, just a part of a dream I couldn’t remember, when a car door slammed and I heard spinning wheels racing down the street. I got out of bed and crept downstairs, taking the steps slowly, clutching the banister for support. In the foyer, the moonlight flooded the Palladian window, making squares of light on the wood floor.

Melissa’s house was dark. Across the street, the door to an abandoned porta-potty drifted open and slowly closed. I ran over to her house, the grass prickling the soles of my bare feet, and rapped on the front door. When no one answered, I used the doorknocker, a custom-made brass contraption designed with their initials: D and M swirled together into a fancy knot. Still no answer, so I pounded on the door with my fist. The door knocker jumped in its socket. Sensing a slight sigh, an exhalation of breath, I whirled around, but no one was there.

Back inside our house, I woke up Terry to tell him what had happened. I wanted him to go downstairs, patrol the neighborhood, make sure we were safe. But he didn’t get up. He was too sleepy. Whatever was going on next door, he said, had nothing to do with us.

* * *

Terry slept through the alarm clock the next day. I ate breakfast, emptied the dishwasher, and drank three cups of coffee, all the time hoping that he’d get up, but he stayed in bed. When I went back into our bedroom, he had the covers over his head. After my shower, I fiddled with the wood blinds that covered the picture window above the garden tub. Light flooded in between the slats, and I saw, for the first time, how tacky the candles look around the tub, how one of the wood panels on the vanity was peeling off at the corner, how there was a dirty footprint on the white, fluffy area rug in front of the glassed-in shower stall.

Terry woke up as I was getting dressed. He sat up in bed and lit a cigarette.

“I am planning on going in today,” he said, “Just having a slow start.”

“O.K.”

“So you can stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

He exhaled a stream of smoke. “I’m right behind you. Honest.”

I slipped on my shoes, waved goodbye, and left for work. Melissa came outside as I was backing out of the driveway. I pulled up next to the curb in front of her house so that we could talk. She was dressed for a workout, wearing cropped sweats, her t-shirt’s collarless opening showing the hint of a wide-strapped sports bra, but she was wearing flip-flops. Her toenails were painted red.

“Are you O.K.?” I asked.

“The girls are staying with my parents right now so at least I don’t need to worry about them. Dan’s losing it. He’s just losing it. And it’s all about money. Is that the only thing he cares about?” Melissa rubbed her fingers and thumbs together. “He says he’s going to put me on a strict budget. I’m not to have access to our checking account anymore. He’ll give me a certain amount of money each month and that’ll be it. He freaked out just because I ordered a new bedroom set for Kylie.”

“I went over to your house last night. I was pounding on your door.”

“The house. That’s another thing. Now Dan wants to sell it. He says he won’t pay on a mortgage for a house he isn’t living in. He knows damn well I can’t afford it on my own. He actually had the nerve to tell me last night that I could always buy him out if I wanted. If I wanted? I told him he’d never get me out of that house. Ever. We’ll be in court for the rest of our lives before that happens.”

“But why were you screaming?”

“I won’t let him do it, Grace. I can’t let him take away my home.”

“No, of course not.”

I could see the roofline of my house over her shoulder, cutting into the cloudless sky.

“So you know what I’m talking about. What a good friend you are. It’s times like these when a girl needs a friend. I could just tell, when I met you, that we’d be friends.”

“You did?”

“Although I was a little nervous about Terry at first. I don’t mind telling you that. One night, I went out late to empty the garbage and there was Terry coming out of your garage. I think I startled him a little. He didn’t say a word to me, just lit a cigarette and stood there, looking out on the street. It was all dark and everything but that didn’t seem to bother him.”

I wondered where I’d been at the time. In the kitchen, doing dishes? Organizing our clothes in the spacious, second-floor laundry room? When we first moved in, I spent a lot of time pouring over design magazines—Home Beautiful, Home Design, Metropolitan Home—looking for decorating tips until Terry told me that it was in our contract that we couldn’t change a thing.

“Terry’s a good guy,” I said, “Really.”

“Did you ever ask him what he was doing on Jones Bridge Road the other day? I thought I saw him there yesterday too.”

She leaned towards me. She was so close that I could see the pores on her nose, a small, light-brown mole on her cheek, a tiny clump of mascara dangling from her eyelash.

“It wasn’t him,” I said.

“What?”

“You must’ve seen someone else. It wasn’t Terry.”

My voice was sharper than I intended. Melissa drew back a little.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I’ve got to go now.”

When she stepped away from my car, I drove to the end of the street and waited a few minutes there before turning around. I parked in our driveway and went in through the front door. Upstairs, the door to our master bedroom was closed. I hesitated for a second and then I pushed the door open so hard that it cracked against the wall.

Terry was standing next to the king-sized bed. At first, it looked as if he was about to make the bed, something I liked to do every morning, pulling the sheets to the top of the mattress, bringing the comforter up too, making sure there are no wrinkles.

“You caught me,” he said, and that was when I noticed the black bottle of red wine. It was sitting tall on the bedside table, the one with curved legs and a top drawer that I’d filled with sweet-smelling sachets.

* * *

We left a week later. Terry blamed his drinking on the house. He thought that the neighborhood reeked of failure. The developer didn’t mind our short notice; he said interest was picking up so he’d have to start showing the house soon anyway.

On the day we moved out, a truck pulled into Melissa’s driveway. I was outside, squeezing suitcases into the trunk of Terry’s car. A middle-aged man hopped out of the truck, tugging on his waistband to pull his wrinkled khakis over his hefty gut. He waddled over to introduce himself. His name was Bobby and he was Melissa’s older brother.

“I’m not sure if Melissa is home,” I told him.

Since his relapse, I’d been stuck inside, watching over Terry, packing up, gathering the things we could take with us. I hadn’t noticed Melissa at all.

“Oh yeah, she’s gone. And you won’t be seeing her back any time soon,” Bobby told me, wiping the corners of his mouth with his fingers. It was a gentle, girlish gesture for such a grossly overweight man. “I’m here to get some things for her. Clothing and such for her and the girls You’re her neighbor, so you’ll want to know. Dan started calling Melissa at all hours of the day, telling her that he was going to throw her out of the house, that she’d have nowhere to live. It was freaking her out. Then he gets stopped after running a red light and what does the cop find right in plain view in his car? A canister of tear gas and a police baton.”

“I don’t understand. Was Dan going to do something—”

Bobby shaped his fingers into a gun and shot me. “That prick even had a knife with him. Now what do you think he was going to do with all that?”

I imagined Melissa scrambling out of the house, grabbing her pretty girls by their skinny arms to get them to move faster.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know about any of this,” I said.

“The tear gas wasn’t registered, which it needed to be. And with that police baton, they were able to charge him with possession of a deadly weapon. Melissa’s hiding out at my house now. Dan hasn’t posted bail yet. But I’m guessing he will soon. So if you see him around…”

“But, I won’t. We’re leaving today. We’re not staying,” I said.

Bobby folded his arms across his big chest. I knew that he was waiting for me to say more, to give a reason behind our sudden departure, at least to ask for Melissa’s phone number and inquire after the girls. But I didn’t. I thought I heard Terry calling for me, so I turned around and went back inside. I passed through each room of the model home, looking for him.


Catherine Uroff is a writer from Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Floodwall, Prime Number, The Bellevue Literary Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Georgetown Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and other journals. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about grieving women.


Read Catherine Uroffs’s comments on Christine Kindberg’s  “Stephen Dreams of Visiting Heaven.”
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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor

“Model Home” exposes the frailties of reinventing ourselves to move on from the past, making clear the impact of our environment. It reminds us that human failing is all around, a part of who we are, a human condition we can either give into or face head on, making the necessary changes to better ourselves and find our place in the world. The subtly in which this mystery is unraveled keeps the reader intrigued, waiting for choices to be made, action to be taken, and in the end, being wholly satisfied with the outcome.

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Comments on this story by Virginia Luck, author of “The Art of Saving a Life”
What strikes me about the short story “Model Home” is Catherine Uroff’s attention to landscape, the way she captures suburban sprawl: the vast open land and the box like homes filled with everything pretty, the Palladian windows, the two car garages, the smoothed over dirt with bright green grass. The image suggests a starting over, a bulldozing of the land to destroy a recurrence of whatever was there before. When the construction stops in its tracks leaving half built homes and nothing at all smoothed over and pretty, the former landscape is left lurking around corners and just beyond manicured lawns.

The landscape is a subtle way to introduce the narrator’s crisis, how the puddles and gravel roads elude to a psychological downfall within the narrator and her own family, one that eventually forces them to leave without any clear direction of where to go. There is not a resolution; the ends of the story are not tied up nicely. There is simply an example of one’s struggle to let go of a dream, of denial and how one might avert any terribleness by simply concocting better and bigger ways of covering up the truth.




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