If You Lived Here

Inkslinger Award Winner
Judith Day
Issue No. 13 – September 2016

Our house is for sale. It’s a very small house in rugged hills near the California ocean, too far from San Francisco to be primo and too modest for a fancy vacation home. Still, there are moderate sized towns nearby, so it’s possible to find a job. And being in northern California one does not lack for culture, even out here. Five coffee shops—not Starbucks—are within nine miles. A Korean family operates a great sushi house, and a library has hours four days a week. You can get the Sunday New York Times at a hotel. A movie theatre in a Quonset hut shows one quality flick five nights a week year round, but has no heat in winter. They provide blankets in the lobby.

We are selling our house but we are still living inside it, which means keeping it cleaner than normal and being gone on short notice. There is a lockbox near the door that realtors can open. Ordinarily we are not gone from the house because we live here and do not go away to work. So when realtors call and say they will be bringing someone over, we have to find someplace to go.

Once we took a walk on the road. Another time we thought about getting in the car and going someplace, but there is no place we wanted to go. So we walked into the neighbor’s woods until we were out of sight of our house. This worked so well that we do it every time now. We can go in our pajamas. We take books to read and walking sticks for the steep slope, and water, and a camera and binoculars, and something to sit on. Sometimes the cat follows us. He rolls around in the exciting new dirt and sits on our laps as we read. We feel like a family and take pictures of him.

Sitting out in the woods, we are not always sure when the people have come or if they have gone. One time we moved closer so we could watch, but my husband had worn his blue shirt and light tan cap. Someone waved at us from our deck. We went further into the woods and down the hill.

One time a realtor removed the gate off its hinges trying to get in. It seems obvious to us how to do it correctly, but after that we put up a sign: Latch, with an arrow pointing to it. We put up other signs around the house, black felt tip on pink index cards. At the kitchen sink: For filtered water, turn HANDLE not spigot. At the top of the inside stairway: Light switch for stairs – steep. At the top of the outside stairway: Caution, steep stairs.

The signs were boring. We made up better signs:

If you lived here you’d be home by now.

If you lived here you’d be drunk by now.

If you lived here your own food would be on the walls.

We cleaned. We put up a handrail on some of the stairs.

We wonder who the people are. The time they spotted us, we also got a glimpse of them: a somewhat obese couple who we figure could never live with those stairs. But who are the others?

There is probably a young, single woman, just the right size to live in a small, pretty house. She wants to save money for retirement and live in a quieter town, and will drive thirty minutes to work in the bigger town. She may be the one, I think. She says little as she accompanies the garrulous realtor, takes in the warm wood plank floors that need to be refinished, the many wide windows and the endless green outside them. The biggest trees are rooted in the slope far below, and their trunks rise past the windows to heights above. They have remained in their precarious rootedness for many decades and thus may be expected to remain for many more.

She may not notice that similarly gigantic trees are rooted in the slope above the house and soar almost too far to see. But the next prospective buyer notices this. He is burly, not fat, and his wife is slim. They have a ten-year old girl, old enough not to worry about her falling down the many steep stairs; although, “Mightn’t she trip?” the mother wonders aloud. Mightn’t I trip? she wonders to herself, eying the flimsy handrail. Her husband is looking up the hill at the trees that will flatten even his burly self when they fall. The wife is looking down the hill at the impossibility of catching oneself when one trips. If you lived here you would be dead by now.

Over the past weeks we have made many lists. One was titled “To Do or Not to Do.” There was a great deal to do, but here are some of the things we chose not to do: paint east side of house, level the driveway, paint posts below house, paint decks. Oh, my. We also did not make new steps for the studio or fix the crack in the office floor.

We did make other lists, though. We jotted down a will, in which we listed fifteen descendants to whom we plan to leave our eight Turkish carpets, my diamond ring (which we keep wrapped in a sock in the back of the refrigerator), my laptop, my husband’s collection of Red Rose Tea figurines, his antique gun which we plan to try firing before we move away from the woods, and our several small bank accounts.

We made a list of the improvements we’ve made to the house over fifteen years, and it was good. If you lived here you’d be safe from the propane tank exploding next to your front door, because we moved it. You’d be less wet when you entered the house because we put polyurethane sheets above the front entrance. You would not so often fall down the steep stairs outside because we put up a handrail, however flimsy.

More couples come to look. A woman peering over the deck stairway asks the realtor, “Is that the only way to get down there?” Two gay men from the city are shopping for a weekend retreat. If you lived here you would have done native landscaping by now. Another couple, in their twenties, with jobs, are looking to buy their first home. If you lived here you’d have a lot of work to do on the weekends. They look behind the curtains that are our closet doors and notice too many clothes, including the same clothes usually strewn about on chairs but now stuffed in wads on the shelf.

A couple on vacation from Nebraska fell in love with the area yesterday and today they are house-dreaming before they go home. He is charmed by the idea of heating with wood, and he thinks: if I lived here my in-laws would never visit. But when he considers the large piles of scavenged firewood he wonders if the electric wall heater really warms the place enough. (It doesn’t. If you lived here you’d be cold in the winter.) She whispers to him: for this price, we can get four bedrooms, three acres, and a pool outside Omaha. They look in the fridge. If you lived here you would know what is really inside that jar. If you lived here you wouldn’t look in the freezer.

An older couple comes to see the place. They are downsizing. The steep stairs are not a good feature. Still, they are a spry pair and not even as old as us. He might ride a bicycle, which is hard in these hills but people do it. She likes to take long walks and hills are good for cardio. If we lived here, we could replace the old decks and add a small room off the north side, for a guest bedroom and more storage. We could move the washer and dryer from where they sit outside on the top deck and put them down below, and build a proper rain shelter over them. If we lived here, that cute little studio building with all the windows and skylights could be a playroom for Josh when he comes, and a sewing room the rest of the time. I could spread out my quilting materials and have good light to work. I could play classical music on the radio and not bother you.

We’re in the woods again. We’ve found a place to sit where they can’t see us but we can see them, with binoculars. There is a single man walking across the deck. Now he is peering over the rail at the fallen trees with their ancient bark crumbling off, the mess of ferns dying from the drought. He looks out at the view of trees, treetops, all across the canyon. He sees no other houses, hears road noise far in the distance, hears jays and chickadees close by. He looks up at blue sky and soft drifting clouds, and sees the hawk’s nest which will be occupied again next spring. If I lived here, the night would be dark and quiet. The full moon would come up there in the east, a huge golden globe rising stately through the trees and shining into the house most of the night, circling through all the wide windows. I could grow tomatoes in pots, like these people have done: small red and yellow globes nestled among big leaves. I could take walks down to the river, drive easily to the ocean. Build fires in the woodstove and heat food on top. He looks out into the woods, in our direction but not seeing us, we are sure. We are low to the ground, wearing camo, and holding very still. I could go out into those woods and sit for a while, read a book. He walks back to the front of the house, disappearing from our sight.

Well, someone will buy it. The best scenario is this: the single woman who admired the big trees wants the house but is afraid she might need someone to help with the upkeep. She returns to look at the house again and crosses paths with the single man, who is thinking he might be pretty lonely up here by himself. They talk, admiring the house together. Soon they are admiring each other.

By the end of the week, the newly paired singles are in a modest bidding war with the downsizing couple. We decide that the younger folks deserve an easier start. We explain: If you lived here you’d be divorced by now. Also, their offer may be a little fragile, since they just met.

So we choose the downsizers. They’ve been through enough in life to handle this home. We accept their generous offer, and everybody is beginning to pack. It is really terribly sad for us. But we can truthfully say this to them: If you lived here, you’d be happy by now.

Judith Day grew up in St. Louis and lived for thirty years with her husband near the northern California coast. Her stories recently appeared in Persimmon Tree, Canyon Voices, The Otter, and Behind the Yellow Wallpaper, an anthology of women and madness. She is working on a novella about three people who lived through war.

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