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June 17, 2024

House of Mildew and Sunshine

By Terry Petersen

I sprayed disinfectant into a patch of bathroom-ceiling mold with the vigor of a one-woman warrior. The attack backfired into my bare face. With enough scrubbing, the mildew disappeared. My memories didn’t.

Curt had emptied his closet, packed his bicycle, golf clubs, and laptop, and driven away. His lawyer spoke for him.

I felt justified in my misery as I passed the nick in the hall wall where my ex had thrown a golf shoe. Two years earlier, he had bought me a bookshelf because I loved the feel of the dark cherry wood. I dusted it now, lost in the strangeness of relationships. Was this house still home? For what?

Couldn’t my husband, my pseudo life mate, see not all events fit neatly onto a balance sheet? One evening I cuddled a healthy, handsome baby boy with dark hair just like his daddy’s. During the night, our infant stopped breathing. SIDS, a neat scientific answer.

Curt suggested we go on a golf trip to heal, renew, and forget.

Our marriage ended with a zip to nothing score.

My wedding ring faded against my skin. The band reminded me of a blank billboard. I sent the empty circle to the bottom of a box of out-of-season clothing.

None of my Geometry students noticed. Kids excelled or floundered. The arcs, points, and angles in their interests connected in no tangent places with mine. They called me Mrs. Campbell, and I answered. They didn’t know Ms. Campbell. Neither did I.

After classes on Monday, I pulled up in front of my house. A U-Haul truck arrived in front of the vacant place next door. A for-sale sign had been in the yard for at least a year. Poison ivy climbed the drainpipe. The roof tiles were warped, shriveled, like dried orange peelings. Dirt appeared to penetrate the windows. I couldn’t tell whether the filth came through from the inside or outside of the old building.

A woman with dark braids hopped from the driver’s side of the truck. A teenage boy came from the other side.

“Hi!” the woman called. “Do you live in the neighborhood?”

I dropped my briefcase on top of my old Buick and nodded toward my house.

The woman gestured for the boy to greet me. He turned his head and leaned against the truck as if the metal door could soften and let him slip inside.

“My name’s Heather. Heather Martin. My son and I are going to move into this old place. After we put some life into it.”

“Good luck!” I forced a smile and hoped Heather didn’t notice my disbelief. “The place has needed help for a long time.”

“We’ve already hired professionals for the roof, but I can handle the carpentry. I start teaching it at Wilson Tech next quarter.

I glanced at her left hand. She must have seen my look.

“Widowed.” She turned her back on the boy and whispered, “Bud has had a rough way to go the past few years. He looks tough. Really, he’s not. I haven’t been to magic-genie land either. But he’s just a kid.”

“My name’s Lois Campbell.” I extended my hand. She shook it with one sharp downward motion. I would have known she could do heavy work even if she hadn’t told me. Honesty came off her like a garden, manure blended with roses.

After teaching for ten years, I’d come to sense attitudes. I suspected Heather Martin had earned hers with a master’s degree in real life.

The boy moved away from the truck with a slow, hunched stride. “Let’s get this done and pick up something for dinner. I’m starving. Do you have to stop and talk to everybody you see?”

“That was unnecessary, Bud.” Heather stood arms akimbo. The boy kicked a loose stone into the street.

I didn’t want to have anything to do with this kid, but Heather intrigued me. Since my baby’s death, I had lost contact with more people than I wanted to admit. “I was just about to order a pizza. Care to join me?”

I had planned to break open a box of crackers and finish some leftover canned soup. However, my weekend cleaning hadn’t removed the toxic feeling in my stairway and halls. Maybe Bud would be a kid tied to a cell phone. I had basic cable. At least one TV program had to interest him.

“Really?” Heather turned toward Bud.

“Okay with me. No anchovies. And the frozen stuff sucks.” He seemed to take me in head to toe and then across the width of my body. I couldn’t read minds, but I felt a mockery in his eyes. I didn’t have the toned physique of his mother, but I didn’t look like an anthropomorphized beach ball either.

“Come on over in a half-hour. I’ll have something delivered.” I grabbed my briefcase and hurried up the steps to my front door.

Perhaps I had made a mistake. Before I called in the pizza order, I grabbed anything of value and hid it in the back of my bedroom closet.

Bud ate without saying a word. He drank the entire quart of organic juice Heather had brought. Then he grabbed the remote as if the television belonged to him.

Heather had ousted a family of rodents, hired a company to clear out the garbage, and found estimates for repairing cracks in the foundation. She planned to replace the windows and put on a new roof within the next week.

I had been so caught up in my own misery, a tornado could have brought down half the street, and I would have missed it.

“Wow! Even if you got a great price, is it worth the work?”

“No question about it. I got it for a song. And this house has potential. You know you can’t always tell what something is worth at first glance.” She picked up the empty paper plates and asked where she could discard them.

I wondered if she should have asked Bud to get-up off his behind, but I was just as glad he sat stunned watching some nonsensical cartoon. Animated balls of color threw fire darts at one another.

Perhaps childless wasn’t such a curse. Pain gripped my chest and gut. The memories of the events leading to my divorce replayed at triple speed. A white crib. An infant with dark hair. The night my precious child slept through … or so I thought. I felt Curt patting me on the shoulder, no embrace, and then stepping further and further away.

“We can try again,” he had told me.

But I felt his resentment during the short time I had been a mom. The crib and baby items disappeared, swallowed by a new silence from acquaintances. Deep. Broken. An I’m-sorry slipped into an unspoken goodbye.

“Lois, are you okay?” Heather asked.

“Yes, just remembering something best forgotten.”

“Someday, if you want to talk about it, I’ll be glad to listen.”


“Come on, Bud, we have work to do,” Heather said. “Thank Ms. Campbell for the pizza.”

“Nice-sized pepperoni,” he said. Not exactly a thank you, but I knew how to consider the source.

When Heather started painting the walls and baseboards, I offered to help. This much I could do. I liked the house’s old-fashioned style. The dull, dead gray of the windowsills disappeared. Clean white trim contrasted the modern colors on the walls. I felt part of the change.

The house awoke as Heather added custom-fit wooden shades and African violets. She played musicals on her iPod and hummed along. I suspected my new friend had no sense of tone whatsoever. It didn’t matter.

Besides, Bud stayed in his own room. I never checked to see what he did there. Occasionally, I heard boxes pushed from one place to another, with rock music in the background. Heather played a Broadway hit. Bud chose a drum-beat solo favorite. I hid a cringe. The dissonance shook the house. And me. Heather talked about reviving the fireplace. “Next winter. Maybe.”

On Saturday afternoon, she asked me if I would tell Bud to come into the living room. She needed him to help unpack two huge boxes of books.

“That’s okay. I’ll help you.”

“No. No. I think some of these belong to Bud. Others were his dad’s. I’m not sure which ones Bud wants. So, do you mind?”

“Okay. Sure.”

I would rather have dived over the rail at the zoo and dragged a tiger from his dinner. I had difficult kids in my classes, but this one bit through raw nerves on my off time.

I knocked on the closed door.

“Not locked, Mom,” Bud said in his permanently bored tone.

As I opened the door, I saw a huge, framed photo on the wall. Of twins. Two boys who looked like younger versions of Bud.

I gasped.

He jumped toward the picture but hesitated. He flung both his arms down. “You didn’t know. Did you?”

My mouth opened. Nothing came out.

“My brother. Drowned in a boating accident.”

“No. I didn’t know. And I’m sorry.” I thought about reaching out to Bud like I so desperately wanted Curt to reach out to me. There had been a chasm between my husband and me. I didn’t know which one of us had cut it deeper. Now another gap appeared. I didn’t know what to do with this one either.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?” Bud asked.

“No. Just like I never asked anything about your dad.”

“Cancer. He died when David and I were only ten.”

My eyes caught his stare, and I felt a warm wetness reach behind my lids. “There’s something you didn’t know about me either.” I hesitated, expecting a smart-aleck remark, but he didn’t say anything. “My baby died not long after he was born. And my husband couldn’t deal with it. I don’t think he could deal with me either.”

“Can you deal with you?” he asked. “Lots of people can’t. My doc said even grownups pretend they are kings when the only crowns they own are on their teeth.” He acted as if he could see more than ready-to-flood blue in my eyes. But he didn’t flinch. He couldn’t have read anything I’d been thinking — about him or me.

“Not sure there’s an answer to that question.”

He nodded toward a desk chair. “If you want to talk, sit.”

“I didn’t know anything about this.” I sat on the edge, my back unnaturally straight.

“How could you? I act like a jerk most of the time. It keeps people away. That’s what my doc says. Well, sort of. He would never say I was a jerk. He just lets me come up with the notion on my own, then says something about how I have all this potential.”

“How old are you?” I leaned forward far enough I’m surprised I didn’t fall.

He stared at his shoes. His arrogance faded. “Almost fifteen. What we both would have been if David hadn’t decided he wanted to go boating. By himself. At twelve. When he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”

He swallowed. His attitude returned. “How old are you?”

“Thirty-six. Or old enough to look for sunshine where there used to be mildew, but not necessarily smart enough to find it right away.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m hoping it means we can become friends.”

He tilted his head and raised one eyebrow.

“Okay, then how about drawing a truce. I’ll let you be who you are, and you can do the same for me.”

“Reasonable.” He lifted the picture of him and his brother from the wall. “Okay, which kid am I?”

“You are the one wearing the blue shirt.”

“Nope. I’m the one wearing black. Can you imagine me in anything close to bright? Like ever?”

I shook my head, and he lifted the corners of his mouth into a tight-lipped smile.

“Maybe you’re not that bad as a neighbor,” he said. “Once, Mom and I lived in an apartment where this guy collected venomous snakes. He was arrested. For cashing bad checks. Do you have a prison record?”

“No. I missed that dubious distinction.”

“And I know what dubious means. I can be incorrigible, but the librarian knows me well.”

I gave him a wordless thumb-up.

When Bud and I returned to the living room, Heather had already emptied the hefty box of books. I wasn’t surprised.

As Bud chose his stack, I asked him, “You know it doesn’t really matter, but is Bud your real name?”

“That’s what Mom calls me. It’s only the two of us now. Really, my name is Devon, a little too fancy for a dark dude in depressive black.”

“Your real name is Devon?”

“Yeah. So …?”

“Wow. Fate takes some bizarre twists.” I remembered what Heather had said when I first met her. You know you can’t always tell what something is worth at first glance … Or someone.

Heather leaned her head to one side and frowned. “I think I’m missing something here.”

But she would catch up as our stories interlocked, our friendship grew, and she learned about the infant named Devon I’d lost. I came to know the boy named Devon I helped to heal. And somehow, he helped to heal me.

Heather’s house rose from a lifeless frame. Mine became a home again.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-04-17
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
2 Reader Comments
Sylvia Norris
05:50:52 PM
Terry is so clever with words. You think you capture all the nuances on the first reading but that makes you want to read it again to make sure. Excellent message.
Gerry Becker
07:21:46 PM
The dialogue kept me reading. The uncertainty of the relationships kept me interested. The ending was open ended and satisfying. Thanks Terry for the simple interlude!
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