Mr. Arane’s House (1991)
Jasper N. Vetch lives in the corner efficiency on the third floor of Mr. Arane’s house, under the old dormer in which a teenage girl in 1918 lost her virginity. Mr. Arane has owned the house as long as anyone can remember, which might not be a long time since the neighborhood’s residents are all college students.
Jasper’s room contains absolutely no furniture. In the middle of the wooden floor lies a dark green woven rug, and this rug is washed and hung to dry every Sunday, even when it sleets. The rug is a table at mealtime, a desk at study time, and a couch at leisure time. At night a twin-sized white futon is rolled out onto the rug, at which time it becomes a bed.
Jasper rolls up his bed on this particular Sunday morning and walks two blocks to the Wishy Washy Laund-ro-matic, where he buys a copy of the Lincoln Journal-Star Sunday and the Omaha World-Herald Sunday and the Denver Post Sunday. He pulls from each the color comic section and sets the remainder on the top of the respective paper vendor. He puts his table/desk/sofa/bed into a Super-Load Washer and pours in half a cup of Cheer Free, starts the machine, and sits down to read. It is not sleeting.
A young woman sits down next to Jasper after stuffing every item of clothing she owns into a Super-Load Washer and picking up three discarded Sunday newspapers from the top of the newspaper vendors. She sifts through the newspapers pulling out the Commentary/Editorial/Opinion section of each and dumping the refuse on the floor.
They read in silence for some time, accompanied by the vaguely pleasant white noise of two Super-Load Washers.
He finishes reading his comics--which understandably don’t require much attention--and is attracted to the young woman. She is exactly the same height he is and probably the same age. She has very fair skin but dark straight hair, which hangs down over her face and shoulders. Her eyes are a color very similar to his desk/table/sofa/bed, only grayer. She is lithe and has narrow shoulders and hips, but isn’t skinny; she is shaped like a young boy. Her feet are far too large for her legs; on them she wears one white shoe and one black shoe. This is unusual and warrants attention.
“Um, well, what’s that?” He points at her feet.
“Oh, well, yeah, of course...”
An awkward pause.
She smiles. Her whole oval face curls lovingly around her lips. “Why don’t they match?”
“Because people think they should.”
“Look, almost everyone wants to wear white shoes. I mean, they look good, don’t they?”
“So it’s all right if everyone wants to have white shoes.”
“I can’t ever keep them white, though.”
“Precisely. Everyone wants to keep their white shoes white forever, but you can’t do that.”
“They get so scuffed up.”
“Always getting dirty. Shoes were just...meant to get dirty, just impossible to keep them clean, but people are expected to anyway. So some people figure, ‘well, what’s the point? I wear these white shoes, but there’s no avoiding their getting all messy--”
“Everything shows on white.” It seems to Jasper to be a very profound thing to say, until he says it.
“--So they figure: ‘why wear white shoes at all? Yessir, it’s nothing but black shoes for me.’”
“Oh, I see.” He doesn’t really, and there is a long awkward pause. “No, I don’t. Why the unmatching shoes?”
“The problem with people is, they think they need to wear two white shoes or two black shoes. It’s all or nothing. White or black.” The girl is very excited with this turn of the conversation and hits the Commentary section of the Denver Post against her thigh for added emphasis.
“So, it’s unnatural. I mean, we’ve got two feet--we were meant to wear two shoes. I wear one white shoe and one black shoe, so when people look at my feet, they can’t say, ‘Well, she’s the sort of person who wears white shoes--’”
“--Or black shoes.”
“Or black shoes, yes.”
There is a terribly long silence in which they each contemplate the other’s feet. His machine ends its cycle and his table/desk/sofa/bed is clean. He gets up and pulls it from the Super Load Washer, and turns to leave. She is still staring at his feet and blurts out, “So, why don’t you wear any shoes?”
He smiles, but only with his eyes, which grow wide and childlike, almost in amazement. “Shoes are unnatural.”
Jasper N. Vetch lies on his sofa later that day watching the shadows slide across the room. There is a thunderous racket coming from the dormer upstairs, but somehow it isn’t terribly loud. It is as if two couples are cloghopping slowly, stooped slightly since the ceiling must be very low up there. He wonders if the dormer isn’t haunted and then the phone rings. He feels compelled to answer it this time.
“Is this Jasper N. Vetch?”
“You left your driver’s license in the Laund-ro-matic, and I have it and want to give it back to you.”
“Well, you’re going to need it...to drive and all.”
“Drive...oh, well I won’t need it to drive, only if I get pulled over.”
“Well, if you want it, you’d better come and get it, since I try to limit myself to one good deed a day.”
“Where do you live?”
“Four blocks north...920 south 14th street number 4.”
He heard her smile. “Seeya, Jasper.”
Jasper N. Vetch stands in the basement of a very old white house which was nearly a mansion 80 years ago, staring at the numeral 4. From inside the room all sorts of loud crashing noises can be heard, like a slow-motion game of indoor volleyball played by six-year-olds. He is afraid maybe he has interrupted a very good fight, and that maybe the combatants would prefer to keep going at it. He wonders if Apartment 4 isn’t haunted and then knocks on the door.
Several seconds pass and then the door opens and he is looking into the eyes of the dark-haired laundromat girl. Behind her in the large darkened room something light grey sails through the air across the room and settles onto a piece of furniture, knocking off The Audubon Society Field Guide of North American Mammals as it alights.
Her whole face smiles. “Come inside, Jasper.”
The room is full of furniture, so much that he cannot count it all. There are large plush stuffed things to sit on and large hard flat things to eat at. There is a Sony home entertainment center casting faint orange shadows and Mozart’s Jagdquartett around the crowded room. Every inch of the walls is covered with a postcard or bulletin board or painting or poster, and every inch of the floor is covered with a rug or carpet. Every horizontal surface is a home to a book or magazine or dish or sculpture. Seated on the back of the sofa is something eight inches long, grey and furry, with large black eyes. It holds its paws in front of its mouth, gnawing on something. Another very similar object launches itself from the top of the Sony home entertainment center and glides the four feet to the floor in front of the sofa.
It is thoroughly astounding to Jasper, and his eyes smile. “Flying squirrels?”
“Why flying squirrels?”
“What’s so great about cats, anyway?”
“You’re a strange person.”
“Thanks. I try.”
“Tell me, stranger, do you have a name?”
“Somehow I knew it would be a strange name.”
“Like ‘Jasper’ isn’t?”
“There’s an awful lot of nothing about me, Robyn, and an awful of something about you. I’d call that a difference.”
She is in the kitchen now, looking in the refrigerator. “Do you want something to drink, Jasper? Coke? Juice?--”
“Juice is good”
“A juice man. I like that.”
She emerges with two unmatching glasses of Five Alive and sets them down on the table. One of the squirrels leaps up onto the table and Robyn hands it an almond. It turns it over in its paws and smells it, nibbles it a bit--just to make sure it is an almond--and stuffs it into its cheek.
“Do they have names?” He is taking a sip of his Five Alive.
“The one on the sofa is Icarus. This one is Rocky.”
“Good names. Do you have my license?”
“Oh, yeah...” she fumbles through a small Cree burial mound on the table. “Here...”
He reaches out to take it, and their hands slip across each other. Hers is warm and she drops the license on the floor. “Oh, shit, sorry...” She is already bending over to pick it up and Jasper seats himself on the floor to join her. They both touch the license at the same time, and he is struck with how warm it is. She is sitting on the floor now, holding the license out to him, looking at her bare feet. “Here...sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“Oh, and, happy birthday.”
“October 20th. It’s our birthday. We were born on the exact same day, Jasper.”
He takes the license and their hands touch for much longer than a second. She looks up into his face and his eyes are smiling at her.
“Happy birthday, Robyn.”
“Let me get the leashes and we’ll celebrate by walking my squirrels. They go nuts locked up on a nice day like this.”
“So do I.”
Jasper N. Vetch and Robyn Ouros walk towards the small woody park three blocks away. Jasper’s right hand is tugged along by the bounding Rocky, and Robyn must use her left hand to try and keep Icarus from tangling himself with Rocky. Neither can use their other hand to help the one holding a leash since their free hands are swinging very close to one another, knuckles brushing. Occasionally their shoulders and elbows touch, but neither is certain if they should hold the other’s hand.
At the park, Robyn reaches down to free up her squirrels, removing the leashes from the tiny red collars. They immediately scamper for the nearest pin oak and dash up its trunk and into the brown-red foliage at the top. There is a sharp odor of leaves in the air and the sun flirts with the sheepish white clouds. The two squirrels immediately lose themselves in the treetops, and only can be seen when they hurl themselves from one tree to the next. Jasper is certain, every time one does this, that it will hurt itself smashing into the tree trunk, but flying squirrels are very good at flying and manage to touch down gracefully on their target and scamper up for a better shot at the next one.
“I’m always afraid they’ll run away. That’s why they’ve got dog licenses...so I won’t lose them. People at the humane society can give a person with flying squirrels some pretty funny looks sometimes.”
“How long have you had them?”
“Rocky...she’s two, three years old? Icarus is a year younger.”
“I don’t think they’ll run away. If they did...I don’t know I’d want them to come back then.”
She turns to look at him. He is exactly her height and exactly her age and his hair and eyes and shape and color of his body are exactly the same as hers and still he is completely different. Jasper is different in a very same sort of way, like the way the back of the right hand is unlike the palm of the right hand but they’re still both the right hand.
Robyn’s right hand reaches towards his shoulder and traces a line along his collarbone through his shirt and she notices the way a collarbone sits just beneath the surface of the skin. Their faces are very close together now and her breath is faint with coffee or chocolate. Jasper can feel it on his lips and nose, can inhale her odor, something fresh and wild. He feels his mouth open just slightly and his face gravitate toward hers, but slip back a little just as their lips touch. Her face slips back also and he reaches out his right arm stiffly to put it behind her head and twine his fingers around and through her dark straight hair, just as she puts her left hand on the back of his neck, their lips touching again. Softly and with hesitation they slide over one another and their mouths open a little more and they kiss now, very earnestly, for nearly forty seconds.
He feels something tug at his left shin and pulls back. Robyn laughs, very deeply, and her whole body shakes with the laugh.
“Rocky is climbing your leg.”
His eyes smile but his mouth feels a little left out and joins them.
Jasper N. Vetch lies on his sofa very near sunset and watches the shadows slide across the room. There is a noise coming from the dormer above him; the two couples are cloghopping slowly and Jasper wonders if the dormer isn’t haunted. He gets up, walks down two flights of stairs to Mr. Arane’s room and knocks.
“Yes...um...Jasper?” Mr. Arane is a thin and serious person who always wears dark cardigans and has very little hair. His room is always quiet, and he always speaks quietly. It requires some attention to listen to Mr. Arane.
“The dormer above my room...there’s bumping coming from it...and...I was wondering...if I could get a key for it...”
“The attic rooms are unlocked, Jasper, you just need to find the way.” Mr. Arane shuts the door, not impolitely.
Jasper walks back up the stairs to the landing. On his left is the door to his room, and on his right is the closet in which Mr. Arane keeps fuses and light bulbs. Jasper wonders what the door right ahead of him is for and then he realizes it must be the way to the attic, he had just never noticed it before, because he never had a reason to go up there.
He opens the door and smells dust and disuse. The sunset tumbles around the attic up the stairs ahead of him, and reflected light washes over him. He inches up the creaky narrow staircase and reaches a landing with a slanted ceiling and a small dirty window. The air here is warm and dry, thick like the air in an attic is. There are three more doors here; the right one must open into the dormer.
He touches the doorknob tentatively, then pulls with a jerk. The violence of the motion stirs the air, and long ragged cobwebs billow out into the landing. He steps into the room.
It is small, a bedroom for the youngest child of a large wealthy family. Golden autumn sunlight drips in through the window onto the motes of dust dancing in front of a spider web. The room isn’t haunted, isn’t even inhabited.
But there is the spider web here, shining like beluga in the October sun. It is five feet across and a perfect circle, a great delicate wheel which doesn’t turn. There are no ghosts, just a medium-sized grey-brown spider in the center of her web. Jasper sits himself in the dust to contemplate the web, and stays seated until the room is nearly dark. He hears the thumping, like eight feet tapping slowly and methodically across a resonant surface, cable or very thick piano wire or...spider’s silk. The Spider regards him for some time, moving in a slow circular motion around her web, and the room pulses silently with each tap of her slender legs.
“Jasper, you are nothing”
Neither the thought nor the source surprise him.
“I know, ma’am. I am full of nothing, a sieve, a cup with no bottom. The nothing flows through me and out me and I am nothing.”
“Don’t envy something, Jasper. Something is an illusion of a space where there is no nothing.”
“I have found something and I can’t contain it. It flows through me...and it leaks away.”
“Anyone with something can give it away. Someone with nothing can only share.”
“I cannot share my nothing. It is all I am, all I will be. I stand between two nothings, nothing in front of me and nothing behind me. She is full of something, everything. She poured it into me and now it flows through me like a sieve, a cup with no bottom.”
“Look in the corner, Jasper. Something is only an anchor, a lack of nothing. You have something in the corner; take it, hold onto it, and give it away. Share your nothing, and leave me alone.”
“Thank you ma’am.” He reaches for the dark corner, touches an envelope. The paper flakes off in his hand, but he grips it tightly between his thumb and forefinger and backs out of the dormer.
Jasper N. Vetch sits on his rug looking at the picture from inside the disintegrated envelope. It is a very old picture of five young girls, maybe still in high school. They are seated on a leaf-littered lawn in front of a wire fence with their arms linked. They may have just come home from an autumn social or church group meeting; maybe they will shortly hear about the sinking of the Lusitania. They are all wearing their Saturday clothes, voguish bag-shaped sailor-type white dresses, and they smile with their eyes and mouths. All except the girl on the left end. Her arm is not linked with the girl next to her; she plucks with her left hand at a blade of grass, and her voguish bag-shaped sailor-type dress is black, under which are hidden her feet. Her dark wavy hair hangs over a headband onto her forehead. She smiles, her eyes smiling wide like a child’s, almost in amazement, and her whole oval face wraps lovingly around her mouth. He is struck by how much she looks like himself.
Jasper N. Vetch has walked four blocks through the rain to 920 south 14th street, and now he stands looking at the numeral 4. He knocks on the door and Robyn Ouros answers, and smiles at him.
“Hello, Jasper...I was...thinking of you.”
The room behind Robyn is no longer in the state of cluttered disarray it was in a few days ago. Its walls are bare and the rug is pulled up and all the furniture is pushed up against the right-hand wall. Rocky and Icarus are sitting on the radiator, cleaning themselves like cats.
“Oh...the room. I was...cleaning...I own...so much stuff. And since last Sunday I just can’t stand to look at it anymore...”
“Well, come in...” For once, Robyn is at a loss for words.
“No, I want you to come to my place...I have...something I found.”
“Okay, let me get my umbrella--no, never mind, I don’t want an umbrella.”
She steps into the hall and shuts and locks the door. They go outside, and the rain has abated and they arrive at Mr. Arane’s house only mostly damp.
At Jasper’s, he unlocks his door, turns to her, opens his mouth to say something, closes it again. He opens it again. “Something has happened, Robyn, something I can’t explain...I have found something, and it’s behind me...you...I’m looking at you and you’re in front of me. We’re the same, somehow, and different. I don’t know why, but we just are, like...two sides of the same story...”
“I know, Jasper.” She has leaned very close to him, left arm around his back, right hand tracing the lines in his face which seem so similar to hers, almost like a mirror. He is her exact same height, her exact same age and they are the same, and they are completely different. He moves his hands hesitantly behind her head, locks his fingers there. He can smell her...something wild and fresh, like something. She is flowing into him, filling him slowly; nothing leaks away. There is a distant rumble of thunder and the lights flicker and they kiss suddenly, nervously, lips pressed together, hungry and satisfied, their mouths deep and moist inside each other.
Robyn pushes him through the door at the exact moment a very close snap of lightning strobes through the neighborhood and the power goes out. The room is dark, their hands moving now without reason, without connection, like something unattached moving across each other’s backs and backsides and frontsides as he pulls her down onto the floor, onto their knees on his dark green rug. Her hands grow bolder, pushing his flesh, kneading it and touching it, feeling what he is; he reciprocates, probing her awkwardly, gently. He can almost touch the something in her, and he cups his hands against her soft firmness, trying to reach into her, through her as she empties herself, trying to hold in his hands everything flowing from her. The rain sputters against the window and she fumbles at his clothing, tugging his shirt; he kisses the back of her neck under the dark straight drying hair. He pulls off his shirt and helps her with hers...another crack of lightning and their hair literally stands on end, the chilly air charged with electricity. Water erupts against the glass and walls of his efficiency. There is a zipping noise and the pops of snaps and buttons, the clunk of shoes being thrown a distance to the wooden floor. He hears remotely but not impassionately the sound of fabric passing over skin, something fresh and wild, her body pressing against him and around him, soft and firm under his grip, against his face and mouth. She knocks him down onto his table/desk/sofa/bed (rug), and glancing up notices a small black and white photo tacked to the wall above her. She pushes down onto him, and fills him full of herself.
Mr. Arane knocks on Jasper N. Vetch’s door. It is the last Friday of the month; rent day. Jasper opens the door.
“Good morning, Mr. Arane. The rent...oh yeah...wait a minute...”
Mr. Arane takes one step into Jasper’s empty room, standing just short of the dark green rug. He sees two photos hanging on the opposite wall, and cannot help but smile a little. Jasper sits in a rocking chair, and writes a check against the wall by the window.
“I wonder, sometimes, Mr. Arane, how you can afford to rent rooms so cheap”
“The price is always right, Jasper. It’s never fair, and you can’t get out of paying, but it’s always right.”
“Here you go. Wait a minute...I’ll...walk down with you.”
Jasper shuts the door and locks it. He walks down the stairs behind Mr. Arane, who steps into his room and shuts the door, quietly and not impolitely.
On the porch, Jasper regards the runny watercolor sky and the distant roll of thunder, like hundreds of couples cloghopping on piano wire. His attention is caught by a bird’s chirping, a dark grey bird, with a darker grey hood and orange belly. He steps out off the porch into the drizzle. It is cool and electric and alive, dripping onto Jasper’s head. The October rain drops in a fine and steady mist from the empty sky and trickles over his smile, over his body and into the promising earth.