|| Home :: Robert Fitton :: House Series Mysteries :: Exchange House|
The magazine ad said people could exchange houses for an indefinite period and enjoy the advantages of living far from home. Between an unfinished demitasse of espresso and the slow slender strokes of the artist's brush, Mattie shuffled beneath her studio's frosty wire mesh ceiling, and gently held the magazine's glossy cover. New England Life's photographs possessed depth and perspective. In her thoughts she approached the arched entrance of a red covered bridge in Vermont, as a fast moving stream gurgled below. But John was not with her as she pretended to amble through the bridge's darkened corridor to the yellow maples on the far side. She had come to despise John, dreading his return from extended business trips, his predilection with sports and gambling, and his simple neglect.
She lifted the slender cup to her thin lips and sipped the liquid perfection. With her long smooth fingers, smeared with okra and crimson acrylic, she turned the newly printed magazine pages; the articles read and reread. She had scrutinized each rural picture since the magazine's arrival yesterday afternoon and longed for a new perspective from parched, dry Arizona and her absent husband.
EXCHANGE HOUSE, an 1850's house with farmer's porch, restored to the simplicity of another era. Located in rural Rexford, Maine on twenty-five acres of spreading woodland, a rock cliff ocean view, and hiking trails. Owners will arrange house exchange for indefinite periods of time. Details to be arranged.
Mattie checked a New York area code and penciled the numbers across the envelope for John's subscription to Corporate Maneuvers, a publication he claimed was essential to his business activities. She smiled and shook her head. Sometimes she wished he were dead or at the minimum, gone. All the nights spent at home, anticipating his calls from some distant part of the country or the world, waiting for his infrequent airport arrivals, had accumulated into a heavy burden. Maine was light years from Phoenix and John.
She reached for the slim, white phone atop the wide screen TV, pushed her lips together and punched in Deborah's number in Tempe. Deborah would have an opinion about a trip alone to Maine. The line clicked and rolled over loudly as the Tempe line always did.
A young voice shot out a quick greeting through gum popping.
" Good morning, Blaze Cuts, a Unisex Hair Cutting Salon."
" I would like to speak with Deborah Raynes please."
The phone dropped, probably onto the white and black tiled floor, and loud bass pounded through the salon's speakers she remembered were above mirrored walls. Mattie's short, rusty hair was shaped perfectly by her college friend just ten days ago. Deborah said bright aqua eyes should not be buried in a dead bird's nest.
" Deborah Raynes."
" It's me."
" Well, I have to say you have perfect timing. I just finished six seniors ready for class pictures. In August, can you believe it? Did we have our class pictures taken in August?"
Mattie's upper lip curled as she thought back to a younger time before John. Her friend's animated manner, such a contrast to her own sedate ways, enlivened Mattie. " August, yes. It was August. But then again, that was fifteen years ago, D.R."
" Was it? Oh, God, we're becoming ancient. When are you coming back, Mattie? John must be out of town, again."
" He sent me roses."
" His calling card."
John was out of town again, a swing through northern California to open new corporate accounts, but promised to return for the weekend.
" John will fit me into his schedule starting Saturday morning."
" Drop him, kid."
" I took a break and was looking through New England Life."
" Another again. Mattie, why don't you just plan a trip to New England? You always wanted to go to the place. Hell, you've never been east of the Mississippi."
" True. There's a certain ad that allows you to exchange your home for a beautiful old house from the eighteen hundreds." Mattie looked down at the ad. " They don't specify a time period or limitation on the arrangement."
Deborah yelled something back to one of the girls in the salon and then her voice swung back in a higher volume. " I think that is a perfect arrangement. Go ... alone."
Deborah's words were exactly the words she wanted to hear. " I just might, but I worry about John."
" I'd worry, too. Who knows what he does on the road?"
" John is devoted to business or finding the odds on the next NFL game. He hasn't got time for women."
" A man always has time for women, especially if he's away. Forget about him sending you yellow roses. You go up to Maine. Stay there for a month if you have to. Maybe that will smarten him up. John is a self-centered pig."
" But how do you really feel about him, D.R.?"
" You call Maine and let me know how you made out."
" Talk to you later, Mattie."
Mattie slowly set the phone back into the cradle and lifted the glossy magazine upward. A rural house with a farmer's porch, overlooking a rocky cliff in Maine was spread across the center pages. In another month, the trees would be vivid with color along those hiking trails and she could almost hear the ocean waves crashing against the worn rocky extrusions. She checked the long distance number, lifted the phone to her ear and dialed.
John arrived exactly when he said he would arrive, at nine-thirty on Saturday morning. His red tie, gold initialed clasp perfectly in place, matched his suspenders, and was flawlessly looped over his unwrinkled white shirt. The early breakfast meeting in Bakersfield must have left him chipper as he strutted boldly up the terminal ramp. When he caught sight of Mattie, he swung the overnight bag over his right shoulder, tightened the cheek muscles and broke into a run.
The routine was the exactly same at every arrival. She would tuck her head quickly into his chest and he would tell her how much he missed her. Yet, within forty-eight hours he would be back to his pugnacious world of new accounts, budgets, and sales quotas, and reachable only through voice mail. Mattie had left the magazine on the front seat of her sports car, but unsure when she would tell him she was going to Maine alone.
* * *
She resented the way he would take over her car, racing onto the freeway, while she listened to what great things he had accomplished during his trip. The magazine, open to the Exchange House ad, was gripped tightly within her sweaty hands as John wove her car through the sparse freeway traffic. He alluded to playing a few rounds of golf when they passed the luscious, eighteen hole spread. The club only represented more time away.
" I painted a magnificent sunset this week. Over the desert. I modeled it after the Frederic Church's painting, The Twilight in the Wilderness."
" Had a good week, did you? I know some corporate people who have connections to market art work. I'll make a call when we get in." He handed her a wad of bills from his pocket.
" What's this, more money from a poker game?"
" I always say it doesn't matter where money comes from as long as you have it in your hand."
Mattie winced and squinted her eyes over the city buildings, bright in the morning light. Again, she looked down over glossy page, adjusting for the glare. As John talked on the cell phone about betting on some preseason game, she wished things were different. In another realm she fancied herself in bed with him at this distant house, looking out the window at the heightened fall leaves near the blue ocean. At the same time, solitude in the exact same setting meant no complications or demands.
The car jolted and tire rubber scraped the concrete. Mattie hoped he had not seen her wince. John pushed the remote and the front bronzed, aluminum gate electronically swung open. He shifted and moved along the fabricated stonewall garden. Everything was precisely where he had planned it and the landscapers had placed it. When he stopped abruptly at the terrace garage, Mattie knew exactly what he would say next.
" Good to be home. Damned good to be home."
* * *
Mattie opened the bathroom's pastel green louver door. In his blue boxer shorts and propped on several pillows, John clicked the remote between a fast paced soccer game and a lazy West Coast night baseball game in Seattle. He slowly turned, exposing his straight bright teeth, as she tightened her white silk robe. " You were great, Matt." Then he switched to a preseason football game.
" Thank you." Mattie glanced at a red tailed hawk in flight over the starry early morning skies on the back cover of New England Life. She shared the bird's quest for the open space freedom, pursing her lips slightly as John channel surfed past three movies, an interesting older classic and ended back at Seattle baseball game.
" These guys have a damned good team. I like them."
" No, Mattie, where have you been? Baltimore ... The phone rang and he picked it up immediately. " John Summers. Yeah, no, no, you're not disturbing me, Harland." He stood and walked the phone over to the side table near the slider drapes.
She rolled her eyes and removed her robe and slippers. As she slid across the soft sheets, he flipped on the hanging wicker shade lamp and sat down. He never got away from business. She watched helplessly as he plugged in his laptop and data sheets soon filled the screen readout. Company figures and statistics stood like soldiers at attention across the screen as the sportscaster's velvet voice spewed forth colorful stories and a rundown of major league box scores. She grabbed the remote and found the black and white film noire from forty years ago.
" No, Harland. I see a fifty-two percent gain in that account. Right, we've got the bastard."
Mattie furrowed her brow, slapped the remote on his side of the bed and stood. She crossed the plush alabaster rug in her bare feet and retrieved the magazine. Once in bed she stole his pillows and lay down with her long legs over the folded quilt. She propped the magazine on her stomach. For fifteen minutes she visited every brightly colored New England shot and stopped at ocean pictures of lighthouses photographed against inflated cumulus puffs along Maine's rocky coast. Her anger and resentment whirled out of control. She clenched her fists at sound of John's clicking keyboard and slapped the magazine against the sheets.
" John." John's head snapped away from the screen and he raised his index finger. " No, John. The conference call is over, damn it!"
" Mattie," he said, turning down the corners of his mouth. He shook his head at her as if she were some aberrant little schoolgirl.
" Harland, you're not disturbing anything. Right. Yes, we would enjoy having dinner with Mrs. Hynes. Let's set a date. Sure."
Mattie crawled over the bed like an annoyed lioness and swung around the table. She pinched the laptop's phone connector in her fingers and quickly pulled it from the jac. John's screen went blank. His eyes opened abruptly as if someone had died. She smiled, holding the connector in her hand. " Your plug has been pulled."
" Ah, Harland, I seem to have had some line problems here. Listen, why don't we check the Texas accounts in the morning. Sure. Say seven-thirty? Right. And you have a productive night now." He set down the phone and his strong facial muscles wrapped around his high cheekbones as he thrust out his jaw. His speech was stilted. " Just ... what ... the hell do you think ... you're doing?"
" You can pull the plug on the laptop, John or pull the plug on this marriage."
" That's a little extreme, wouldn't you say, Mattie?"
" Don't talk about extreme, John. You spend more time sweet talking Harland than you do me, although I have to be more convenient for you."
John stared at her and said nothing. Aware of his violent temper, she was not sure what he would do. He lowered his head, shot toward the liquor cabinet and poured amber liquor into a tall glass. He gulped most of it and looked into the glass as he spoke. " You enjoyed it."
" Yeah, I enjoyed it, but I have to plan for it. Stick it in your schedule. Pay attention will you, John? You're always away. Oh, you send your roses all the time, but that doesn't cut it."
He lifted the remaining liquor to his lips and poured it down his throat. Then he slammed the glass on the silver tray. " Hey, I support that studio of yours downtown. I had this spread out here built. You have the pool, Mattie, you have the grounds and the mega house."
" But I don't have you, do I?"
His body tensed, he lunged and squeezed her arm. The hatred in his steel cold eyes shook her. She had crossed the line with him and she knew it. Maybe she wanted to cross the line and provide herself the cover she needed for Maine. " Don't you ever interfere with my business calls ..." The tightness in his jaw eased, but he continued to grip her arm. " Or you will regret it, Mattie. I'll make you regret it."
He released her arm, leaving a red band of trailing pressure points across her skin. Seconds later, he had on his pants and had thrown over a jersey as he carried his sneakers downstairs. With moistened eyes and mouth open, Mattie shuffled to the bedroom window and pulled the louver back as John trotted down the slate walk to the lower garage.
" Go ahead, John. Bail out ... This is one account you've lost."
The garage door slowly rumbled upward and her car started. He skidded, probably deliberately, down the concrete, somehow opening the front gate, and then he spun the tires down the road. Mattie lingered at the open window for fifteen minutes, staring at the stars over the desert and the lights in the darkness away from the city. He would not return soon and she did not want him back. She moved back, her throat tight, and plodded down the cold back stairs to the kitchen. Goose bumps covered her bare skin and she felt as if his hand still encircled her arm. In darkness, she opened the lower sliders and turned on the pool's underwater lights. She removed her nightie and let it fall to the tiles. The cooler air invigorated her soft exposed skin. She walked over the concrete and placed her feet on the shiny blue tiles. This feeling of being alone was not so bad. Then she dove into pool's warm water, swam below the surface and cleansed her body as she tried to forget she had ever met him.
On a clear October day, designer sunglasses shading her eyes, Mattie drove a sputtering red compact with marginal brakes, up the winding two-lane highway near Rexford. A faint cigarette odor lingered, and although she found no ashes in the tray, she kept the window cracked. The engine did not approach the power of her Mercedes and any car complaints only contributed a creeping anxiety; the accumulated result of sleepless nights and a failed marriage. The barrage of color lining State Highway 102 to Rexford masked her somber mood, but the cooler air brought in a variety of new scents, including the lure of breakfast from roadside restaurants and pervasive chimney smoke, hanging in the burgeoning sunlight. Fog pockets sunk into glens across the undulating countryside's colored popcorn trees.
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