The House that Arthur Neville Lives In

by Refe TUMA
 

Arthur Neville orders all of his necessities from the Internet. They are delivered to his door by a black man whose name Arthur does not know. The black man takes big, bow-legged strides up Arthur’s walkway and taps syncopated beats on his door. Da-dat-dit-dat-da. Arthur opens the door until it catches on the chain.”Mr. Neville,” says the man. He holds his face up to the opening so that Arthur can see only one giant eye and a row of teeth. “How are you today, sir?”

“Leave the packages on the porch, please,” Arthur says.

“Hey now,” the man says, standing on his toes to peer over Arthur’s head into the house. “You really changing things up in there.”

Arthur surveys the stark white walls. They were olive when he arrived, a color normally acceptable to him. Still so much to do.

“You ever meet the lady who lived here before?”

Arthur shakes his head.

“Marta,” the man says. “Marta Cast-elle. Pretty lady. A bit spooky, though, if you know what I mean.” —”

Arthur does not know what he means. He signs for the packages and waits for the man to leave before venturing onto the porch to bring the packages inside.

One of the packages contains food. The other four boxes are filled with an assortment of chemicals, cleaning agents, brushes, sponges and protective apparel. Arthur pulls out a telescoping duster and extends it to its full length. There is nothing like a fresh duster, still shimmering as it glides across the molding. Arthur watches dust collect in the bristles, dust which Arthur knows is composed of lint, mites, and dead skin cells shed by a woman named Marta Castelle.

§

It is not unusual for Arthur Neville to spend the day cleaning. He enjoys the physicality of it all: the scrubbing and sweeping, the stretching, the bending at the waist. He likes to stand at the end of the evening, hands on hips, surveying the order and sanitation of his home. He sleeps in peace knowing that when he awakes, everything will be as it should be.

What is unusual is for the areas which he has already cleaned to become soiled again upon his return.

After sanitizing the bedroom and giving the windows a good spritz, Arthur takes a break and makes himself a plate of food. Roast beef sandwich, quartered, seven baby carrots and a peeled apple. He eats them in sequence and takes care of his dishes. He retrieves a new scouring pad from one of the packages and heads back to the spare bedroom.

He stops in the doorway, unable to move.

On the window sill sits a cup. The cup is empty. Small beads of condensation gather around its base, suggesting that it recently held ice water. A faint red crescent decorates the rim.

Arthur does not leave a room in disorder. He does not leave empty cups on windowsills. He doesn’t forget to use a coaster. Above all, he does not wear lipstick.

Arthur uses a napkin to pick up the glass and carry it to the kitchen, where he scrubs at the red stain with shaking hands. The day replays in his mind: wake up, shower, breakfast, clean. The dirty glass. He is certain the spare bedroom was clean when he last left it. It could not have been any other way.

Arthur arms himself with broom and dustpan, sword and shield, and makes his way through the house. The bedroom is as he left it. The bathroom, too. No intruders, no messes. He can’t decide which would be worse.

It occurs to Arthur — not for the first time — that although he purchased the house in which he lives more than six months prior, it still does not feel as though it is truly his. He has painted every wall from its original color, yet he did not choose their configurations. He has steamed every carpet, but he did pick them out and they are not his preferred softness or texture. He has sanitized every surface and bleached every stain.

Still, true ownership eludes him.

When he is certain the interior is clear, Arthur peeks through the blinds in the living room. Two boys walk along the curb, lost in their phones. Arthur unlocks the window and raises it halfway.

“Young men,” he calls. The boys look up from their phones. They point to their chests and look at each other. Arthur nods and waves them closer.

“I have have a job for you,” he says. He pulls out his wallet and extracts two ten dollar bills. The boys eye the money.

“I need you to walk the perimeter. You know ‘perimeter’…” Arthur moves his hands in a circle. The boys give him a look. “Of course. I need you to walk the perimeter of the house and report back to this window.”

“What are we looking for?”

“Nothing in particular,” Arthur says, waving dismissively. “Anything out of the ordinary, that’s all.”

“Do it yourself,” says the shorter of the two boys, his eyes back on his phone.

“I would,” Arthur says. “I would, really, but I’m not much for — well, I don’t —” Arthur closes his eyes and takes a breath. The boys look at each other. Arthur opens his eyes and speaks calmly. “If I do it I will have no reason to pay you.”

The taller boy nods and elbows the shorter one, who rolls his eyes. Arthur slides the money under the screen and begins to impart a few last words of instruction. The boys grab the ten dollar bills and run off laughing. The shorter one stops briefly to make a rude gesture and snap a picture of Arthur with his phone.

Arthur calls to the boys but they soon disappear over the hill. A truck rumbles past the house. Arthur finds himself wishing it was time for another delivery.

§

At four o’clock, Arthur calls his mother. Arthur is her only child, and it was with some reluctance that she permitted him to leave home and purchase a house of his own. The daily calls were a condition offered to help warm her to the idea of his absence.

Most days, Arthur rolls his eyes and punches the numbers on the telephone with his finger so they crunch loudly in their plastic casing. On this day, however, he watches the clock on the wall until the hour hand clicks into place, and dials quickly. Tip-tip-tap, tip-tap-tap-tap.

“Hello, Arthur dear,” his mother says. “Right on time, of course.”

“Yes. Hello, Mother.”

“How is the house? Keeping it tidy?”

“Of course, Mother.”

Arthur sits with his back straight and eyes closed, taking measured breaths.

“Mother, the strangest thing —”

“Arthur, dear,” his mother says, interrupting. “I do enjoy our calls, but I’m afraid I will be traveling for much of this week and quite unavailable. You remember Mr. Bendermann.”

Arthur opens his eyes and stops breathing.

“Mr. Bendermann?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Mother, I really —”

“I’m sure you will do just fine, Arthur,” says his mother. She bids him a good evening and hangs up the telephone.

Arthur walks to the kitchen and opens the cupboard. He eyes the strange glass, now clean and in its proper place. He picks it up and turns it in his hand, holding it up to the light. No trace of lipstick remains.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Arthur says, and laughs forcefully.

§

The next day, Arthur’s windows gr”ow smudges and fingerprints appear on the blinds.

“Looks like I’ll have to wash my hands more effectively in the future,” Arthur says aloud.

The day after that, the bathroom towels produce moisture and the grout spawns mold.

“I must be showering far too long,” Arthur says.

Dishes appear on the counter, flakes of mud in the entryway and dribbles of mustard on the refrigerator shelves. Each time, Arthur smiles and scolds himself for being so careless and absentminded. He keeps himself busy cleaning mess after mess, expelling all other thoughts from his mind.

At four o’clock on the third day, Arthur telephones his mother and leaves a message on her answering machine.

“I worry about you, Mother,” he says. “Traveling at your age. Perhaps I should join you and Mr. Bendermann. To look after you.”

§

That evening, Arthur prepares his dinner: cubed potatoes, chicken breast, and twenty-one peas. His computer lies open on the counter, displaying two million search results for Marta Castelle. None of them appear to the Marta Castelle who once lived in the house Arthur now occupies. The world, for all its knowledge, appears thoroughly ignorant of the woman.

Arthur sets his plate on the dining room table. He hears music in the back yard. He pulls back the curtains and finds the boys who ran off with his money, along with several friends. They are climbing his trees, traipsing across his grass and lounging on his steps. Arthur opens the window and calls through the screen.

“What are you boys doing in my yard?”

“Checking the perimeter,” one of the boys says.

Arthur reminds the boys that trespassing is against the law, and tells them to leave at once.

“You going to make us?”

“I may,” Arthur says. “I will. I’ll come out there and make you leave.”

“No you won’t,” one of the boys says. He is the shorter of the two he met previously.

Arthur opens his mouth to speak, only to close it again. The boys laugh and turn their music louder. Arthur shuts the window and draws the shades.

Arthur returns to his dinner, doing his best to ignore his rattling silverware. Boom-boom-boom-boom. He can hear it over the running water as he cleans his dishes, and in the bathroom while he flosses his teeth.

When the music finally stops, Arthur is sitting in his armchair staring at a book. He lifts his head and listens to make certain the boys have gone. Convinced, he sighs deeply and smiles. He leans over and switches off the lamp beside him, plunging the house into darkness.

Arthur walks slowly toward his bedroom, arms outstretched in front of him. A ringing persists in his ears.

As he reaches the hallway, a floorboard creaks in the darkness and he freezes. Something like the hem of a skirt or a sheet in the breeze flutters into the bathroom and disappears. Arthur claws for the light switch and the hallway fills with light; empty.

It is at that moment that the bathroom door slams shut.

Arthur cries out. He runs to his bedroom and locks the door. He undresses quickly and leaps into bed, pulling his blankets tight across his body. Wild thoughts ricochet through his mind like pennies in the dryer.

He hears the sound of a woman crying softly in the bathroom.

§

Arthur is startled awake by the doorbell. Only his straight-jacket sheets keep him from tumbling to the floor. The delivery man is calling his name from the font porch. Arthur rubs his temples and tries to recall how the calendar could possibly have landed him on Friday without first making its way through Thursday. Or Wednesday, for that matter.

“Mr. Neville,” the delivery man says when Arthur cracks the door. His eyes widen at the sight of Arthur disheveled and half-dressed. “Rough night?”

“Leave the packages on the porch,” Arthur says. The man nods and hands him the receipt. Arthur signs without giving the packages his usual scrutiny and begins to hand back the clipboard. The delivery man shakes his head.

“You look like you seen a ghost, Mr. Neville.”

Arthur’s eyes go wide. He pulls his hand away.

“My God,” he says, waving the clipboard at the man. “You!”

“What’s wrong?” the delivery man says. He gestures toward the packages. “They’re all here.”

“You think —” Arthur says. “You think you can scare me?”

The delivery man looks over his left shoulder, then his right, and back at Arthur.

“The dirt,” Arthur cries. “The mustard!”

“Just a minute, Mr. Neville.” The delivery man wrestles the clipboard from Arthur’s hands and takes a step back. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, but I won’t be spoken to like some kind of thug.”

“The cup… That’s when it started. Your last delivery. I will call the authorities, sir. That is what I’m going to do.”

“Mr. Neville,” the delivery man says, his cannon-ball voice bouncing across the cul-de-sac. He throws up his hands and dumps the packages off his dolly. Arthur watches them scatter across the floor and reaches out for him to stop.

“I’ve been kind to you,” the man says. “But I’m leaving now. You can pick up your own damn groceries.”

Arthur looks up at the delivery man and blinks.

“I —” he says. “I may have been mistaken.”

“Don’t bother, Mr. Neville.” The delivery man shakes his head and stomps down the steps. He climbs into his truck. “I’m no thug,” he says, and drives away.

Arthur closes the door and slumps against it with his face in his hands.

“That’s it,” he says. “That’s the end of that.” He pounds his fist on his thigh, again and again.

“That’s it. That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.

Arthur begins to cry and the house joins in. Lights flicker, cabinet doors open and shut. Faucets run and water groans in the pipes. Arthur squeezes his eyes closed and puts his fingers in his ears.

“No,” he says. “No!”

The house grows quiet. Arthur feels a cool breeze on his face, though no windows are open.

After a few moments, Arthur opens one of his eyes and the other. A woman stands before him. She has short black hair and sad eyes, with a glow Arthur isn’t sure he truly sees. He doesn’t look away, fearing she might be gone when he looks back, or that she might still be there.

“Marta?” Arthur says. The woman says nothing. She puts her hand to Arthur’s cheek and places his hand over her heart. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Arthur is aware of the curve of her breast and his own heart quickens.

“Do you like the house?” Marta asks, leaning close.

“My house,” Arthur says. His own voice sounds hoarse and distant.

“Yes, of course it is,” she says. Marta kisses him, her fingers in his hair.

Her mouth is sparkling clean.

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