Fiction | ‘The Last House in Windhall’ by Carol Goodman

Rosland Windhall was worried about Hitler bombing New York City. John teased her about having a somewhat paranoid personality. 

“You mean practical,” she teased back, “like somebody I know who isn’t.” Yet it hadn’t taken much to persuade him to move away.  John had recently sold The Book Store on Madison Avenue.

He had sold it for a lot of money because it was distinctive. He had rare books and took chances on new authors. He put in comfy chairs for people to dip into the books and at the end was a coffee shop. “They should think of it as home,” he told his wife. 

John hadn’t been called to duty because of his flat feet and he was on the old side, thirty-five. He wasn’t disappointed. As for her, she was comfortable with her life the way it was, until the war haunted her more every day.  She had recently mourned with two of her friends whose boys had been killed.

He and Rosland had never had a serious disagreement in the twelve years of their marriage. Their arguments had been gun-shots in the air, little warnings; which were often accompanied with laughter at the ridiculousness of what had bothered them. The only disappointment was that they had tried to have children but never conceived. John was really the one who was most disappointed.  Rosland didn’t care as much. Her banker grandfather gave her grandmother six kids and her mother had had only one: her. More than one, she explained, was a sort of prison.  

She had always worked in the bookstore with John, or volunteered to read to prisoners, help in charity balls and when time allowed lunch with friends and dinner parties. The Windhalls were like them, of course, living in townhouses or Fifth Avenue apartments overlooking the park. 

Both of them grew up in the city, and attended the same private school in upper Manhattan.  That is where they met and they married after graduating from New York university. They knew lots of people, but now she wanted to get out of the city not only because of fear, but to satisfy a distant longing, some touch with the unspoiled. Back to nature. And he was always dreaming of adventures, light and colorful both,  as soon as the war was over. They confided in no one but each other, their emotions, longings, heartaches, though not similar in nature, he was more dreamy, a bookworm, and she was more about looking out towards the world.

“How about New England, I heard that houses were cheap in Vermont,” John said.

In Manchester, Vermont, where the train let them off, they stayed a few days in an inn and bought an old truck to wander into the villages. Gas rationing was on so they decided to look nearby. This whole idea was such a venture for them, not knowing a thing about country life.

As they wandered over the hills and into valleys, they came upon a tiny village that looked rundown and was not on their road map.  They stopped, glad to get out, from the jaw crunching muddy roads that hadn’t dried from the snow. It was May. ”I don’t think anybody lives here,” Rosland said.

As they walked slowly they realized the village consisted of one dirt street lined with twelve houses that had been abandoned long ago and were in disrepair. “A ghost town,” John concluded. 

One was about to crumble. Two houses were boarded up, others had torn curtains or shades drawn and a couple looked as if some windows had been smashed on purpose. “Maybe kids come in to have hanky-panky,” John said.

They walked in the front and the back where grass had grown knee high and tried some doors, all of which were locked.  

“I’ve never seen real New England Colonials,” she said.

“Beautiful lines.” John took some pictures. He climbed in one broken window and was able to open the door for her. Through the dank dust they found some furniture left, a sofa, some of the kitchen torn out and a mattress left on the floor of one of the bedrooms.  

“This is strange, a whole village abandoned? I wonder why?” she said.

“Such a nice location. Look how it cuddles in the valley, and the mountain views sure are spectacular.” He tended to be more enthusiastic than her. “What do you say we find a real estate office and try to know more about this place.” 

“What happened,” The real estate woman said,  “is that residents slowly moved away in the beginning of the Great Depression to look for jobs in the city.  And then, of course, some were drafted. The few that were left, I guess you might say, were lonely. You could probably buy the whole village. You would have to go to the tax office and find out.”

“But we only want one house,” Rosland said.

“You will have to talk to the tax office. The county owns the village since the people just left and didn’t pay taxes.”

The tax office wouldn’t be open until the next morning. They both agreed to go back to the village to look at it again. They broke into other houses and found bits and pieces left, an odd mirror on a wall, a picture of a snow scene, a few utensils, but most of the things had been vandalized, cupboards torn out. The wooden stoves that must have heated them were mostly untouched and the fireplaces made of marble were left. One had an old oriental rug curled into a corner and stained from what looked like dog or cat urine. Yet the walls had plaster, the roofs slate, and the wide worn maple floors.

“Let’s spend the night,” he said. 

“Spend the night? How do we do that?”

They had bought sleeping bags, back in New York.  “We could spend the night on that mattress in the house with the broken windows.”

Though a little frightened, Rosland agreed after looking around and finding no signs of mice or bats. That night they zipped the bags together into one large one. They were consumed with excitement and made love that night and once again in the morning. 

The tax office told them that yes, most of the owners had not paid for these from all years leading from 1935. “Actually you could buy the whole village for the sum of the taxes.”

“We just want one house. The one on the left side in the middle,” Rosland said.

“You would live with all the rest crumbling around you?” The tax lady asked.

“Wait, so what would the whole village cost?” John asked.

The tax lady began looking up the owners and adding them up. “Thirty-one thousand.”

Rosland said again,  “We only want one house.”

“We’ll talk it over.” John took her outside.  “That is great. Let’s do it.”

“What would we do with a whole village?”

“Maybe we could renovate them and sell them.”

“To whom?”

“Maybe some of our friends.”

John and Rosland had possession of the whole village in the next week and  moved into the house in the middle of the village. They had stayed up all that night after the talk with the tax lady to decide on a plan. She figured their friends in the city, with husbands and sons enlisted overseas, would want to get out, just as they had, to be safe and they might even have other friends interested to spread the word.  

“After the war they might use them  as vacation homes or retirement homes,” John said. 

They took a picture of each one with the layers of green mountains behind and the fields of wild grass, caught in the wind, swaying like rippling streams with a lone farm in the distance. The friends came to look soon enough. John met them at the train station. Within a few months they had promises for all but one. Nine in all. And one was in such bad repair that John would have it taken down.  He sold them for very little amount in fact, explaining he would hire people to renovate them, leaving all the lines and any good parts, and they could pick the paint colors with payment in the end. 

They all wanted John to be in charge though. John had hired men who were either too old or too unfit for the army, and he helped wherever he could, learning on the job. He had never held a hammer.  Rosland did the outside painting with two teenage farm boys and cleared the land for her first garden. They had never done anything this physical before in their lives, and the most gruelling was a horseback ride in Central Park a while ago. Their arms and legs ached terribly at night. They painted their house a soft red. Rosland said, “Like Vermont barns.”  And inside, he chose pine paneling for the dining room and she preferred a colonial print of tiny flowers for the living room. In seven months they were all finished. 

But there was one last house not sold, down the hill way at the end of the village almost a mile away and not far was a small town hall. 

After all their hard work they both were thinner and oh, they showed those muscles proudly to each other. He already had had  a face with submerged cheekbones, but now they had appeared and made him seem more handsome, his lips seemed more sexy on the thin face and his gray eyes looked larger.

Rosland retained her sumptuous body from the younger days, and now had stronger legs that would probably serve her well in old age. She wore blue jeans mostly, to fit into the country life. No more powdering or lip stick. Everyone agreed she was beautiful no matter what she did.

The nine houses were occupied before fall and John and Rosland had a welcome party in their house. Six of the women were already known to them and three were friends of friends. This time they came in their cars, ready with all their things. One brought her elderly father who turned out to know a lot about plumbing in case someone needed help. Six out of the nine brought children,  all seven but one were high school age and would get bused to school.  One was in college. They voted on what the town should be named and decided on Windhall since the Windhalls had started it. That brought tears of happiness to Rosland’s eyes.

John was bothered that the last house had not been sold. He only fixed the roof and left the rest for later when it would be sold.

That spring, Rosland started work on her first garden, as did many of the others. Victory Gardens, they were called and encouraged by the government as a promotional environmental concern as well. She was thrilled with the idea of perhaps canning and maybe making a root cellar for the carrots, potatoes and maybe even turnips, although John never really tliked turnips.

“I think I’ll put an ad in the New York Times for the last house,” he said.

“Good.” She never liked things left unfinished.

A few days later, a woman answered the ad and wanted to come and take a look the next day. She knocked on their door and introduced herself.  Katie Browcall was a tiny, thin young woman, probably in her late twenties, frazzled looking with solemn smoky eyes. From her cushy lips came very few words. In the car, she also had her young children: two, four and five. “My husband was overseas and I hadn’t heard from him for a month.”  John got in the front seat with her and they drove to the house. 

When they returned to John’s house she quickly wrote a check and after the closing that week, a large moving van arrived. It was all done very quickly. When a few days later, she was more or less settled, John told her he would paint the house if she chose the colors. Rosland couldn’t help because she had done something to her shoulder from all the gardening.

After the first day John said, “For lunch she gave me a very delicious soup that she had made. She also asked me if I knew anyone to babysit once in a while. She wanted a woman, not a teenager. I told her about the farm over the hill, that they might know. I found out she had little income, had put it all in the house and so wouldn’t be going back to New York, ever. She’s going to live here permanently like us.”

“Huh,” Rosland said, wondering if the frail looking soul was up to this rugged life, cold winters and short summers. 

John went down the half a mile in the truck with the ladder and the paint. He told Rosland the children were taken to the farmhouse for half a day when John worked on the house. 

“Why is it taking so long to paint her house?”

“Is it longer than you took?”

“Oh sure.”

“Well you had two helpers and I didn’t. She changed colors after I painted one room.”

“Does she feed you lunch every time?”

“Oh sure. She is a good cook. She has cooked since she was twelve. Her mother was sickly and she had two younger siblings she made dinners for.”

“What did her father do?”

“He worked for the sanitation department, did a few odd jobs I think. Katie and her husband owned a small condo, and she sold it just to pay for her house.” 

“And after the war she and her husband will live here?”

“I think she might be separated, like for good.”

“So just her?”

“Looks like it.”

One day Rosland walked down to see the house. The door was locked. Odd, she thought. Nobody locked doors in this village. She knocked and knocked again. She heard rushing down the stairs and John opened the door. “Why was the door locked?”

“Well, I think it’s because of her living in New York.”

“May I see how it’s coming?”

He opened the door and called out, “Katie, Rosland has come to see your house.”

She didn’t appear right away so John took Rosland into the living room and then showed the dining room. “She likes blue,” he said, “like lying on her back and looking at the sky.”

Katie startled them. She looked distracted.

“You’re shaking,” Rosland said.

“It’s cold upstairs.”

“What colors are you painting the rooms upstairs?”

“Yellow, Lavender and Pink.”

“Sounds nice.”

“My five year old Charlotte and four year old Liz will sleep in the yellow room and my two year old, Debbie will be in lavender.”

“And yours is pink,” Rosland said, “very feminine.”

“I’m planning on painting a second coat, so the walls can be scrubbed. You know, children’s hands,” John said, smiling.

A couple of weeks later Rosland asked him why Katie never came to the potluck suppers that the whole village attended in different houses.

“She doesn’t want to leave the children and the sitter won’t come at night. By the way my next project is fixing and painting the deserted town hall.” The town hall was almost a half a mile farther down the road from Katie. 

“What for?”

“We can have our meetings there and even the potluck suppers, it could be a town gathering place.”

The next Saturday, Rosland was in the grocery store over in Manchester when she heard a commotion. Children screaming and crying. She looked around the corner where the canned goods were staked on the shelves and saw Katie with the baby in the store carriage and the other two girls pulling the cans off and throwing them on the floor and Katie trying to stop them but seemed to have no control. As Rosland went out of the store, she saw the store manager swiftly going down the aisle after them.

Winter arrived, Rosland had come to the end of her gardening days and told John she could help him on the town hall, her shoulder was looking okay now, but he said, “Don’t bother. Stay here and keep the home fires burning. Catch up on all that reading you complain you never have time for.”

“Good idea.”

Yet, one day after a light snow shower, she put on her boots and tramped down to the town hall with cookies for him.  She looked in the window, just before opening the door and saw something out of a dime novel, something she could hardly believe. There was John with Katie, their arms around each other, kissing. He slowly picked her up and laid her on the floor with him.

Rosland ran home, her breath pouring out of her lungs. She threw open the door, rolled onto her couch, each breath was a struggle. She took off her boots, climbed upstairs and washed her face and combed her hair and waited for John to come home. Think. Think. The strangest thing was that she knew he had never done anything like this before. Where do they find the time, they used to say to each other, when they heard of a friend who indulged. And rolling around in her mind was a free, wild, country life an influence? A life she loved so much. She thought, and thought some more about what to do.  But when he walked in she said nothing. They ate supper with her telling him how she had learned to can the tomatoes that she had brought inside in the fall to ripen on the window sill, just before the frost. And he told her the painting work was going slowly.

The next day while preparing supper so she didn’t have to look him in the eyes,  she said, “You know I’ve been thinking, why should Katie be living there alone with the small kids and hardly any money. Let’s ask her to live with us, save on fuel and food.”

John paused to think, “Really?”

“Sure, we have the room.”     

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, absolutely. And why should she bother paying for a sitter. “ 

“Okay.” He smiled.

What was he thinking? Didn’t men always in their hearts want a three-some? A Harem?

 He said, “I’ll ask her or would you rather?”

“No, you can ask her.”

“I’ll tell her it was your idea.”

“That’s nice of you.”

Katie came the next day with her carload of possessions.  John helped set up the crib, assemble her beds and he continued to take up piles of clothes and set toys in the hall and living room where she was with the children.

“She is glad to be here,” John said.

“Good,” Rosland said. “Good, and you like children,” trying to keep her voice neutral.

Bedtime: the two year old, she was actually called Pisser, four year old Bitty and five year old Prima were put to bed, one after another, all screaming. And this went on for more than an hour. 

John said, “Let’s go into the living room and shut the door.” But the noise came through the floor too. Rosland tried to read her book and John his newspaper, but neither of them could concentrate.

At around ten o’clock, Katie came down, looking like a scarecrow. “Pisser likes to pull my hair.”

“My, oh my,” Rosland said.

“Did you bring a book to read?” John asked.

“No, when I left NYC I left all of them to my neighbor.”

“Help yourself to the bookcase,” Rosland said.

Katie looked and chose a crime book but fell asleep over the first page. 

The next day at breakfast, Rosland cooked a pot of oatmeal. Katie set the children around their breakfast table, the highchair next to John. Prima threw her oatmeal on the table, saying, “I don’t like the food in this house.” Some fell on John and the rest on the floor as she screamed and stiffened her body.

“What does she want?” John asked. “Isn’t she a little old for this tantrum?”

Katie didn’t answer.

Bitty had a cold and wiped her snotty nose on her hands.      

John ate quickly and disappeared into the living room.

Rosland stood to clear up and wash the dishes while Katie superficially wiped the mess off the children and then told them to go play while she held Pisser who wiggled and whined to get down. Katie left for the living room, and it was for Rosland to clean up the floor.

John came back into the kitchen. He helped Rosland wipe the dishes to the tune of yelling children.

The next day breakfast was chaotic again, the baby screamed and stiffened in the high until her bottle was filled and the other two drooled, and spit out what they didn’t like, kicking their feet up against the table and toppling their milk.

Wow, Rosland thought, it is even worse than I had hoped for. After breakfast, when the wind and snow were roaring, Katie took the children into the living room with some toys, which they paid no attention to. Instead they jumped on the couch, rocked in the rocking chair until it hit a lamp and broke the bulb and all screamed together with joy, while Katie just watched the whole thing.

John asked Katie, “Could they be a bit quieter?”

“They have a lot of energy,” Katie said.

“Let them play all they want,” Rosland said.

“But the spring is in the couch,” John said.

“Maybe we can get a new couch anyway,” Rosland answered.

John rose, took his book and went up to their bedroom, shutting the door. But that night in bed he said nothing to Rosland and Rosland said nothing to him.

The next morning Katie asked, “Rosland, I have a favor to ask, do you mind babysitting now and then, so I can shop and so forth. I would like to go today. Maybe if John came we could do it faster.” 

“Babysit. Of course,” Rosland said, “but only if John is here as well. I won’t do it alone because they are so young and the responsibility is too much.”

“But if I could go help Katie, that way it would be quicker,” John said.

“Sorry,” Rosland replied, “I won’t sit them alone.”

When Katie left, John said, “What should we do with them?  

“Let’s try some games with them.”

They took them into the dining room. John brought games like checkers and monopoly from a cupboard. “Let the baby run free,” Rosland said. But the others wouldn’t sit still either.

“I am going to try some games like hide and seek,” John said. But Bitty said she hated games and her sister echoed that. They went into the living room where the toys were kept. 

“Stop racing around,”  John shouted. They stopped to listen for five seconds and began racing around again. This time, up and down the steps, chasing each other, banging on the piano as John raced to put the lid down and Pisser began to cry like she was being stabbed.

“Are all kids like this?” John shouted to Rosland.

“I doubt it.”

“You better fix a bottle,” John said.

“Sure, you hold the baby.” 

The baby pooped in her diaper. John ran into the kitchen almost throwing the baby at Rosland. 

“I can’t change her now. I am fixing a bottle.”

 All afternoon, it went on and they didn’t stop. John badly wanted to spank them, lock them up and he told this to Rosland who waggled a no-no finger at him.

 “I think kids like this should be put in prison and tortured,” John said.

 Rosland smiled.

Katie didn’t arrive until late afternoon. 

“What in god’s name were you doing all day?” John yelled at her.

“I just had things to do, bought some clothes for them, that sort of thing.”

“It’s okay, John,” Rosland said.

Right after the supper, in the midst of chaos, John went up to bed with a book and slammed the door.  

“Why did he do that?” Katie asked.

“Got me,” Rosland said.

The next day Katie said,  “I’m putting the snow suits on them to play outdoors.” After she got them dressed she said, “John, why don’t you come out with us. I know Rosland will be making lunch.”

“Go,” Rosland urged, thinking about the fact that Katie hadn’t once helped in the kitchen.

As they started outside, she heard Katie say, “Doesn’t Rosland go anywhere alone?”

John didn’t answer. He reluctantly went out in the yard while Katie tried to get them to make a snow man and Rosland peeked to find John trying to roll the first big ball, when Bitty picked up a big snowball and threw it smack into his face.  For a moment John stood stunned. He rushed back into the house. He said nothing and climbed the stairs with his boots and jacket left on. Rosland heard a lot of noise, turned down her casserole and saw John dragging down the disassembled crib. She heard him bringing down more, banging against the stairs and throwing some down.  

 

When Katie came in with the kids full of snow she said, “What are you doing?” 

“Packing you up.”

“Are we going somewhere?” Her face lit into a silly smile.

“You are going home.”

“But I don’t want to go home.”

“Yes you do,” he said, continuing to bring down her things.

Rosland said to Katie, “I’ll hold Pisser while you help him.”

“I don’t want to help. Why should I? I don’t want to go.”

Rosland didn’t answer. 

It only took less than an hour to have everything in her car even though she didn’t help, and she was gone, never saying a word of thanks to Rosland but it was Rosland who thought she should have thanked Katie. It had worked. It had worked. It had worked.

After John took his snowy clothes off and went into the kitchen she said, “Supper is almost ready.”

He washed his hands. She lit candles in the dining room and set the steaming beef casserole on the trivet. He turned to her. “I will paint those rooms they used by myself. You pick the colors.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I think all white.”

              


Carol Goodman went to Bennington College where Carol majored in writing. A recipient of multiple grants and fellowships, she first told a story when she was five.

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