Old Mrs. Higginbotham's House

I envy my friends who are widows. It could kill a husband, hearing his wife say that. A real stunner. Not if she said it to your face in a fight, but what if she said it calmly, when she didn’t know you could hear? What if she said, I knew I’d be sick of having him under foot all the time.

That bomb dropped on a Monday morning in September, shortly after Fred Curtis finished going through his Journal at the kitchen table and settled himself at the computer in his basement office. The light for line two flashed on his phone; he heard the telephone ring upstairs, and footsteps overhead as Elaine went to answer it. After a minute, something told him it might be their daughter, though she generally called on a weekend. He picked it up silently and heard Anne’s voice, saying, “You don’t need … well, whatever works for you, Mom. How’s Dad?”

“He loves being home all day.”

“Has that been okay? You weren’t sure …”

I knew I’d be sick of having him under foot all the time.”

The hurt would come later; this was only the shock before the hurt, the shock that deferred pain, a still frame in which he saw the neatly stacked annual reports on his desk, the inbox with bills accumulating until Friday, the transparent cube of paper clips with a magnetized hole through which each clip extracted would draw another to readiness. She didn’t mean that—sick of him?—couldn’t mean that. He felt the plastic knife in his hands. Semi-retired, it now free-lanced as a letter opener. In that frozen moment too short to think about what his wife had just said, he had time to wonder if this knife came from a take-out meal he’d eaten last week, or months ago. Motion and feeling returned as he rubbed his thumb along its serrated edge.

Anne said, “Why? Does he hover around you?”

“I just don’t like knowing he’s in the house. I need my space.”

This was Elaine, his partner in life, to whom he was bound intimately and contentedly? Now Anne, the daughter he’d adored, whose life he feared was empty, laughed. He studied a framed picture of the mother and daughter, a faded snapshot on the Statue of Liberty ferry, each with a hand atop her broad-brimmed straw hat, fighting the wind. Next to it was the one Anne had snapped a minute later, of Fred and Elaine. Looking happy. He was happy; he’d thought she was.

“Don’t laugh,” Elaine said. “It’s easy for you, you’ve got control over your life.”

“Mom, you hassle me about being alone, and here you are wishing you were alone.”

“Not all the time, but to tell you the truth, I envy my friends who are widows. Isn’t that awful?” And then she, too, laughed.

“That’s very nice to hear,” Fred said. It wasn’t awful, unless it was true. But it was, he realized as the seconds passed. True and awful. And a shock, although—somehow not entirely so. How long had she felt that way?

Silence on the line. Finally Anne: “Don’t take it literally, Dad.”

“Okay,” he said, wondering if there was another way to take it.

Elaine said, “How long have you been listening?”

“I picked up to see if it was Anne. I’m sorry I did.” He disconnected. When the red light went off after a few minutes, he waited for Elaine to come downstairs to explain, but she didn’t.

They’d lived in the house twenty-seven years. Old Mrs. Higginbotham’s house, the neighborhood called it, even after Fred and Elaine bought it from some people named Teller and installed their young family in it. Old Mrs. Higginbotham, whoever she was, must have been a vivid character. Mary Stevenson, who moved onto the street the year Kennedy beat Nixon, said she and Mrs. Higginbotham were then the only registered Democrats within three blocks. “She was a delight,” Mary said. “Every time a house came on the market she’d say, ‘Let’s find a Negro family to buy it.’”

Bob Teller had been the first to mention the son. He was taking Fred through the house, where he’d had the basement rooms paneled. “All the foundation walls were exposed concrete, painted dark red. And this little bathroom for the maid still had the original 1908 fixtures. But the owner before the people we bought it from had a son who lived down here. He wasn’t allowed upstairs.”

“Are you serious?”

“That’s what we’ve been told.”

Bruce Myers, their neighbor two doors down, also reported the mother and son’s vertical estrangement. Further corroboration came years later, from someone they met at a party in Highland Park. Learning where Elaine and Fred lived, the woman said she had grown up in Evanston, and it turned out she’d lived on their block. “Which side of the street are you on?”

“The north side—the brick house with the big cottonwood in front.”

“Oh, you bought old Mrs. Higginbotham’s house!”

“Well, actually, she was two or three owners before us,” Fred said, “but yes. Did you know her?”

“Everybody knew her, she was a nice lady, went to our church and she knew all us kids by name. But she had this creepy son who lived in the cellar! You’d see him walking from the bus—never used her car—and he’d go in the cellar door by the side of the house instead of the front or back doors. Dunn-da-dunt-dunt! We used to skip that house on Halloween.”

Over the years, from time to time when Fred was in the basement, the story haunted him. He’d be having electrical work done and notice a bolt in the wall. Or a cluster of bent nails in the joist would trigger his imagination. What hung there? Fred pictured a sociopath living alone in this mostly windowless cellar, its walls not yet paneled, while his mother moved about overhead, coming and going, having ladies to tea, plotting racial upheaval. What did the boy think when the strains of “We shall overcome” filtered down? And the mother alone, too, with creepy sounds coming up through the floor—the bass and percussion of a hi-fi, the laugh track of TV. Did she explain to her guests? Or did they all pretend not to hear the subterranean murmur?

As his own children ripened, Fred could see merit in old Mrs. H’s arrangement: When Paul was fifteen or sixteen, he would gladly have relegated him to the basement. But Paul was thirty-four now, divorced, and Fred worried about him. The former daughter-in-law had remarried and moved to Maryland. Paul said his kids would turn out fine. “They’re happy to see me a couple times a year,” he insisted.

Fred said, “They’d be happier to see you more.”

“I’m not so sure they would, Dad.”

“Well, your mother and I would like to see them more. Diana won’t send them to us outside of a visit with you.”

“I know,” was all Paul would say. He burrowed into his work as a financial planner and investment manager, and when he wasn’t working he dated women who looked like younger versions of the ex-wife: petite blondes with big hair, bleached at the tips. His parents never saw him with the same one twice.

His older sister, Anne, had managed to let all her men go without marrying any of them. She called reliably every week and they saw her two or three times a year, when she came to see a client in Chicago. She was a software project manager, which sounded successful. “You think she’s resigned to being single?” Fred had recently asked his wife.

“She says she is, why don’t you believe her?”

“I don’t know what to believe, our relationship is so superficial. We’ve never even seen her apartment.”

“That doesn’t mean she’s unhappy,” Elaine had said. “She’s good about calling.”

Fred didn’t blame Elaine for the fact that both their children were maritally challenged. She’d been a devoted mother. But Elaine had struggled when her children reached adolescence. The Curtises’ marriage nearly fell victim to her wrath back then. Her temper could erupt out of nowhere. It still happened occasionally, years after menopause—hormones didn’t explain it. He saw her as two women: the flexible, generous one who tolerated a degree of unreliability in others, who could be counted on for pragmatic wisdom as well as a wry sense of humor; versus the evil twin who invaded his wife’s body, lashing out with bitter invective at the closest people in her life as though punishing them for personally failing her.

One time, she threw her sewing machine down the basement stairs, table and all, when Ann wouldn’t wear a pair of pants Elaine had hemmed. Instead of apologizing, Elaine cited the incident for years as an example of the girl’s ingratitude. Fred had learned to take such explosions in stride.

Gradually, as Elaine got used to the empty nest, marriage became more comfortable. They rarely fought any more. “One has to take the bitter with the sweet,” he would say, and for the most part, life was sweet. With the mortgage fully paid and houses on the block going for nearly a million, Fred liked to remind Elaine of the fears they’d had when they bought the house. It had seemed such a stretch: payments of over nine hundred a month after a down payment that consumed every penny of their savings. The only extravagance now was the work it took to keep the place up, with just the two of them rattling around in it. They stayed because inertia and comfort overruled practicality. Fred said of the overstuffed bookcases and the boxes stacked along the basement walls, “Let the kids worry about disposing of all this crap after we’re dead.”

“We should call Waste Management Corporation to haul it away,” Elaine once said; but Fred would like to see the waste manager who could part her from those boxes or the stuff she collected in the rooms upstairs. There were sewing projects she insisted she’d get back to some day, puzzles the grandchildren might want in a few years, a box of all the photographs not selected for her family albums, and half a ping pong table covered by stacks of table linens that didn’t go with the dining room curtains but that she said—illogically—she might want if they ever decided to downsize to an apartment. She said he was a worse packrat, with boxes labeled only Files and Investing. “I at least know what I’m saving,” she teased him.

With the end of the century and millennium, they’d eclipsed old Mrs. Higginbotham as the longest occupants of the house. Elaine had transformed it: the bathrooms and kitchen gutted and modernized, new landscaping, roof, downspouts. She’d had the whole place painted three times, the floors re-sanded and the upstairs re-carpeted twice, and now they were on a second new furnace.

They’d even added a room: the basement office for Fred when he retired from Morgan Stanley. Elaine had been a little uneasy about the idea at first. She told everyone, “I don’t know if I want him home all day. It’s been nice these past years, having the house to myself.”

“That’s why I’m putting in a first class office,” Fred explained. “I’ll hide down there out of her hair.” He had the Tellers’ faux wood paneling and industrial ceiling tiles replaced with drywall, added carpet, electrical outlets, and a fast Internet connection to keep him up to the minute on the market. He had the old frosted windows replaced with thermopanes that let in more light and a view, at grass level, of the yard. There was a couch on which to read or nap, a wall full of photos and plaques from his career, and another with pictures of Paul’s kids.

It was mean of her, and untrue, to say he hung around the house all day. Three mornings a week, he swam at the Y. He ate lunch out every day, either with one of his retired friends or alone, reading his magazines. Afternoons, he often worked in the yard. He’d go back down after the market closed and spend a little time thinking about trades he might make the next day. All in all, he was completely out of Elaine’s hair. They did make love during the day a few times, including once on the couch in his new office, but Elaine said this was just what she’d feared: He would occupy her day. He pointed out that having him at home was useful. When he went out, he’d ask if she needed anything at the hardware store, dry cleaning dropped off or picked up, a package mailed. Sometimes she did.

He couldn’t get past sick of him. To be irritated with one another occasionally, to still have differences and get on each other’s nerves: He reckoned that was part of any marriage. But sick of him? All those times when he’d come home from work to find her mad at him or at one of the kids (and at him for not being there), he managed to put it in perspective. The market had good and bad days, his customers had their ups and downs, his personal stock rose and fell with the tides of politics in the office—and vicissitudes at home. Until today, he had thought of their present life as a reward for having pulled off many more good than bad days. He and Elaine were healthy, financially secure, fond of each other (he had always believed); Paul and Anne were independent, capable adults. Really, there was no excuse for her to be miserable. Freedom from the fetters of employment at the young age of sixty-six meant they could now enjoy the life they had built together—not merely the traveling they’d always done, the friends they’d had for years, but a quotidian serenity he had long looked forward to with the woman who appreciated him.

How could she envy her friends whose husbands were dead?

Three hours after Elaine shared that sentiment with their daughter, they sat out on the deck and finished a gazpacho she’d made the day before. A pair of yellow finches were flitting in and out of the serviceberry trees that Elaine had planted years ago to attract them. The late summer sun had fallen behind the neighbor’s elm. The soup was cold and peppery. Elaine showed no sign of remorse. He waited for her to bring it up. She appeared to be watching the little birds, but her face in profile looked tired. The shadows accentuated pouches and age lines around her eye and across her neck. Finally she said, responding to his unspoken hurt, “It’s just that you took it upon yourself to retire and invade my space.”

Your space?” He looked over his shoulder at their house.

“You had your space at the office.”

“I didn’t take your space, I made my own space downstairs.”

“I can’t go down to do laundry ...”

“Who says you can’t?”

“… without you calling out hello, or wanting to tell me something.”

He tried to take this in, to make some kind of sense of it. Of course he would call out a pleasant greeting, instinctively. “That’s bad?”

“If I’m not expecting to have a conversation with you, it is.”

“I don’t understand you at all,” he said.

“That’s right,” she said. “That’s the problem.”

Fred wiped the red puree from the bottom of his bowl with a piece of sourdough bread. In forty-three years of marriage, he’d often been bewildered; the best policy he’d found was to let it pass. Arguing about the ridiculous only made matters worse. He didn’t talk to her for the rest of the evening, but instead of trying to make up to him, she acted the victim. She had a way of knocking about with extra force. Not quite slamming doors, but closing them audibly. Not throwing things, but putting them down with a message.

In bed, he reached out his hand for hers. He wasn’t trying to initiate anything, just to reassure them both that all was forgiven and her disparaging remarks forgotten. Elaine pulled her hand away.

“What are you mad about now?” he said, almost shouting. “I’m not the one who said I can’t stand to pass the door of a room you’re in because you might say hello, for Christ’s sake!”

Elaine jumped out of bed and rushed to the bathroom, slamming the door. He heard her running water full force into the tub: pretending to try to mask her sobbing. What was he supposed to do, apologize for retiring? Feel bad about managing their investments well and working forty years to make them financially secure? Apologize for expecting her to share his own house with him? The more he stewed about that, the angrier it made him. He turned over and pulled his pillow over his head. He’d be asleep, unperturbed, when she returned to bed.

Half a minute later, he got up and put on his robe and slippers. Let her find him gone. Downstairs, the street lamp through the dining room windows painted long, irregular quadrilaterals across the white tiled foyer floor. At the basement stairs he switched on the light. The Labrador, Reebark, rose from his rug and stretched, then followed him down. At the bottom Fred switched off the light, his office sufficiently lit by the glow from the front window. He curled up on the couch in his robe. Reebark settled on the floor beside him. Fred kicked off his slippers and covered his feet with an afghan his mother had knit when one of the children was born. Having napped here many times, there was no reason he couldn’t spend the night.

Except it was narrow, and a little too short for him to stretch out full length. Although the three cushions invariably turned his afternoon reading into a doze, now he found they were no substitute for the king size mattress in the bedroom. They were too soft, and the one in the middle was lower so he couldn’t lie on his stomach. On his back, his left arm had to squeeze up against his body while the right hung over the edge to the floor.

So it was that he came to know the ghost of old Mrs. Higginbotham’s son. Between fitful patches of sleep, every time he tried to turn over he would wake, and the picture kept coming to him of a man living down here like an outlaw. He, Fred, hadn’t committed such heinous acts as whatever put the young man out of grace. Yet he could identify with him now as never before. On the other hand, Anne’s words came to him: Don’t take it literally. Perhaps she was right. But Elaine hadn’t recanted.

When he got up to urinate, it was 3:30. Reebark lay stretched out, his eyes picking up light from somewhere and flashing it at him. Something made Fred shiver as he walked back through the basement. He kept a night light in the bathroom, but now he stopped and switched on the full set of lights for a moment. Stacked boxes, Anne’s old bicycle, Elaine’s ironing board. If there was a ghost, it could only be the Higginbotham kid. Although the story had stayed with him all those years, he’d never thought about what became of the mysterious boy, where he lived, whether he had any normal relationships. “You still down here … George?” he said, conjuring a name that seemed right. “Is it true your mother made you live in the basement? I know how you felt, pal.”

He turned off the lights, patted the dog’s head and remarked, “She didn’t even come looking for us, Reeb.” He could have gone back up to the bedroom then, but he didn’t. He woke at six, got his clothes from his closet as usual—Elaine didn’t stir—walked the dog, and started his day.

She said nothing about last night’s misunderstanding. His funk didn’t go away. In the evening she said, “I’m making a salad. Would you like something else? A piece of fish? An omelet?”


“Want me to nuke a potato?” That was Paul’s word.

“No,” he said. He could nuke his own potato, and did—seven minutes. He didn’t offer to share it with her, though it was a large one. Nor would he take any of the salad she’d made for two. He put his plate in the dishwasher and sat down again at the table. He picked up the paper as Elaine puttered around. Her mean streak wasn’t anything new; she’d always had her insufferable side. But why should he stand for it? He wondered how it had affected the kids. Did Paul and Anne shrink from marriage because they thought their mother bitterly regretted hers?

He got up from the table and took the dog’s leash from its hook. Reebark stood up quickly, always ready. Usually Fred asked Elaine if she wanted to join them, and sometimes she did. This time he pointedly didn’t invite her.

In front of Harold’s Videos on Central Street, Fred tied Reebark to a parking meter and went inside to browse. Elaine had dubbed Harold “the film geek.” The Curtises traded anecdotes about him with their neighbors, citing his one-line movie reviews and the constant bickering with his wife. Although Harold and the plump woman they knew only as “the film geek’s wife” were each pleasant enough individually, any time you were in the store with both of them you’d hear him tell her “stop yammering,” or you’d hear her rail at him: that he was lax with his young employees, lazy, relied on her to manage everything, bought titles no one would ever rent. She seemed to have all the financial responsibilities, and no respect for her partner’s business acumen—the reverse of Fred and Elaine.

Harold always wore a white button-down shirt, clean and starched; yet his jeans were seldom washed. He appeared to shower every day without ever running a comb through his long white hair; he kept the store windows sparkling but didn’t often vacuum the floor; and his glasses were crooked. Although he’d often tell you more than you wanted to know about the film you were about to see, people humored him; they liked his earnestness and independence. And the neighborhood scoffed at the competition down the street, a franchise with an appallingly limited selection.

At the moment, the only other customer was a mother with two young children, browsing not the Family section but Drama. Harold was behind the counter, absorbed in a black and white movie on the screen above him. Notwithstanding the wife, he fit the type of a recluse. His passionately idiosyncratic knowledge of movies could only have been acquired by being his own best customer, night after night. The movie playing on the TV monitors above the shelves was Psycho. Fred decided to rent it—the DVD, for once, instead of the videotape. That meant he'd have to watch it on his computer, with its small screen, down in his room. Heaven forbid that his use of the video player upstairs should annoy Elaine. Let her see how she liked being alone.

Apparently Elaine liked it all right. She expressed no surprise at his spending the whole evening downstairs. Eventually she went up to bed without saying goodnight. When the Hitchcock film’s denouement came, Norman Bates’s cellar naturally led to more thoughts about “George” Higginbotham. How might it affect a boy, to have his mother banish him to the cellar? Fred noticed for the first time how dungeonlike were his retreat’s low ceiling and small windows.

The next night, he rented Gaslight­. Above his head, his wife walked back and forth in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards. When he went up later to take Reebark out, the house was already dark. They walked to Central Street. Placing the movie in the night return slot, Fred saw a light at the back, behind the half open door to the storeroom. He imagined Harold, another solitary refugee from a wife who was sick of him.

Later, on his couch in the dark, agitated, he couldn’t decide whether he was angrier at Elaine for all those years of temper tantrums and shutting him out while she sobbed in the bathroom, or sorrier for himself, driven to sleep down here like a homeless bachelor, communing with the spirit of poor “George” Higginbotham. “What do you think?” he asked the dog. Reebark didn’t appear to think much either way. Nor did the dog react to George’s sudden appearance in their room, an unkempt young man in the shadows, wearing a torn sweatshirt and oversized jeans. “How come you’re still here?” Fred asked.

George made no reply, but the dog sat up alertly.

“What is it about these women and their space?”

The dog scrambled to his feet, certain now that Fred was trying to communicate something.

“It’s okay, boy,” Fred said. “Just talking to a ghost.”

The next day, Thursday, Elaine marinated a couple of salmon steaks and asked Fred to grill them outside while she prepared cous-cous and a ratatouille, dishes she knew he liked. He knew it was a gesture, but for once he wouldn’t let her off so easily. He wanted an explicit apology. That night he returned to Hitchcock: Vertigo. Elaine passed through the basement a few times, running a load of laundry, without stopping to inquire what he was watching.

On Friday, he checked out Notorious. Still no explicit overture from Elaine.

On Saturday, he took Double Indemnity off the shelf. He’d seen it years ago, and vaguely recalled Fred Macmurray bumping off his wife. The summary on the box corrected his memory: It was the other way around. He put it back and chose Reversal of Fortune instead. At the register, Harold was expounding on something with a young couple. “Women!” the film geek said with mock scorn. The couple’s amusement looked forced, as though they thought the man inappropriately chummy. Fred smiled reflexively at Harold’s doubtful expertise about women.

As he took Fred’s three dollars, Harold suddenly said, “Don’t look at me like that!” Fred jumped—but the man was addressing his wife. “Pain in the butt,” Harold explained, handing the film to Fred.

“You can’t eat movies,” she mocked him. “You’d starve if it wasn’t for me.” Fred saw what he’d never realized before: Their bantering was affection. This woman wasn’t one bit sick of her husband. She loved him all the more for his faults.

“You know,” Harold continued, gesturing toward the computer screen on which he had just pulled up Fred’s account, “I lived in that house. About forty years ago.”

“My house?” He wasn’t sure now whether the man was talking to him.

“Yep. And fifty years ago, too. In June it’ll be my fiftieth high school reunion. I went in the service, spent seven years in Germany. Then when I came out, my old man had died, I moved back in while I was in college.”

“Your name is …”

“Higginbotham,” Harold confirmed. Fred immediately wanted to verify the story, but he didn’t have to; when Harold got started, he didn’t need encouragement. “Fixed up a kind of apartment for myself in the basement and lived down there through four years of Northwestern.” He laughed. “I stayed downstairs and made my Mom stay upstairs. She wasn’t a bad soul but she was a pain in the butt. Even a bigger pain in the butt than you.” This last was to the wife.

“She had you to contend with,” the woman retorted.

“Would you believe,” Fred said, “I’ve seen your ghost down there.”

Mr. and Mrs. Harold Higginbotham caught each other’s eye momentarily and both turned to look at Fred as though he had just made the strangest remark they’d ever heard.

“In the basement. See, I have my office/den down there, all drywalled and carpeted and everything, in fact it’s where I watch these DVDs. Anyway, your ghost has made a few appearances. I didn’t know it was you, I mean I knew it was Old Mrs. Higginbotham’s boy, but …”

Harold shook his head. “You have to be dead to have a ghost.” His wife’s sober nodding affirmed this truth.

“Well, I guess this is the kind that … I called him George because I didn’t know …”

“Must be from some other family,” Mrs. Higginbotham said with conviction.

“No, I’m sure it’s you, I just made up the name George, see …”

“Can I help you?” Harold said to a young couple who were approaching the counter. As Fred left the store, he glanced back and saw the Higginbothams exchanging a raised eyebrow look of concurrence as to his mental state.

He didn’t immediately share his discovery with Elaine. That night, appraising the actors’ portrayals of Claus Von Bulow’s cool pomposity and Sunny’s suicidal addictions, Fred regretted the trap he was in. He had no desire to spend another night as a refugee, but he’d thrown down a gauntlet of some kind, and he couldn’t go back as long as she was on record as envying her widowed friends. It was no longer about whether she’d been expressing essential feelings or merely in a grumpy mood. It was about her not caring how her words affected him. He needed her to feel bad about that, to apologize and ask him back into their bed and the life they had, for better or for worse, until death do them part. Yet he knew she would never do that. This fight would end, like a hundred others, by simply putting it behind them. There would be no resolution. Indeed, the nature of the problem—his wife’s inherent unreasonableness—allowed no possibility of resolution. Well, he thought, even though Elaine would let him rot down here before she’d apologize, for once he wouldn’t be the one to cave in.

Again he slept poorly on the couch, but when he woke and looked at his watch it was after eight, and Reebark was gone. Elaine was in the kitchen, and had already walked the dog when Fred came upstairs.

“Hey, Cellar Dweller,” she said. “You slept late. How long are you planning to make your home down there, like old Mrs. Higginbotham’s son.”

“Funny, you bringing him up.”

“You’ve been bonding with him all week.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Forty-three years of living with you. Let’s face it, you don’t understand me and never will. I understand you perfectly and always have.”

“I know something you don’t,” Fred said, and reported how the old film geek turned out to be the former denizen of their cellar. “And it seems they got along all right, it wasn’t like we thought.” He didn’t mention the ghost.

Elaine said it was a real coincidence, Harold’s happening to identify himself just this week. “But you haven’t answered my question, Fred. Are you going to stay down there permanently, or what?”

Her half smile was more affectionate than sarcastic. Fred knew that little smile of Elaine’s. It was all the reconciliation he was going to get. “Just for a change,” he said, “do you want to go out to a movie tonight?”

© 2007, Ken Kaye

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