The Painted Lady
by Harris Lahti
The snow—a heavy blanket smothering roofs, roads, cornfields, pasture. But Vic Greener’s main concern, the roofs. He’s brought along his son, Junior, to save his back and shovel off those of his rentals before they collapse under all that weight. But first, a pitstop on the way.
The call came unexpected that morning. From the sister, Inga, one-half heir to a Canadian timber fortune. Is Vic still available? Does he still have the plow? Turned out the bank didn’t foreclose on their place after all. Left to sit for nearly a decade, she and her brother still owned it: The Painted Lady. The one just up past Sooner’s Orchard. Remember?
Junior rubs a porthole in the window to watch the orchard pass. The apple trees, a collection of gnarled, black cages on the hills.
Even with chains on the truck’s tires, the driving is slow. The road yet to be sufficiently plowed and salted.
“Are you even listening,” Vic says to him. “I’m trying to teach you. Something important. The customer doesn’t buy your work. They buy you. You need to sell them. These people are rich, crazy. The best kind.”
“I thought they only called about a plow,” says Junior.
His breath pulses across the frozen window.
Vic lowers his head to peer through the slot of visibility provided by the muttering dashboard defroster. “Never mind the plow. That’s just getting your foot in the door,” he says, and begins an outline of the work he’s done for these people. The Olsen twins—Inga and Otto. Mythical people Junior has only heard of.
“Carpentry, painting, yard work, gardening, you name it. Didn’t matter,” he says. “Back then I was willing to do anything for a buck. Wanted me to work from the outside in but disappeared before I could get to the inside part. Vanished. Still paid the down-payment on my first rental property, though. Hell, they paid for your diapers. If you play your cards right, they’d pay for yours, too. Your first fixer-upper. These people really are crazy with money—at least when you could catch them….”
Through the porthole, Junior watches the apple trees drop off into seamless white horse pasture while his father talks. The top rung of the fence riding above the snow alongside the road. Bobbing and snaking with an unevenness accentuated by the flatness of the snow. And his father talking still. Talking, talking, always—until an incomprehensible sound issues from Junior’s mouth.
“Don’t interrupt,” Vic says.
“But the Sooner’s barn—” says Junior.
“This is important—”
“Collapsed,” continues Junior. “Completely gone. I wonder if Sooner did anything with the horses—”
“We’re almost there and I’m trying to teach you—”
But then Vic sees it, too. Or, better yet, doesn’t. Sooner’s barn. Where it should be—where it isn’t—has been replaced by a small mound of snow porcupined with jagged boards. He makes an incomprehensible sound himself, a clipped window of worry slamming shut.
“See,” says Junior.
“I do,” says Vic, already turning back to the wheel. “But I’m sure Sooner put those horses up somewhere.”
“Sooner doesn’t even put up the dogs,” says Junior.
“Never mind about the horses, never mind about the dogs,” says Vic, and blinkers. “Look alive. We’re here.”
With a mechanical whir, he engages the plow.
About half a mile off: The Painted Lady burns yellow against the snow. Toward which Vic works his way along the driveway whose bounds he must guess at with small bites from the plow. Swath after swath, he crushes the snow into berms. The distant farmhouse lurching higher with every bite. Into a sheer cliff of tri-colored peaks. A spectacle at which they need to crane their heads. The detail: truly something to admire. Its variety of shingle shapes—tears, spear-tips, hearts. Each painted a different color. Ornate molding, still somehow well-defined as if milled yesterday. Even after all these years. The intricacy of trim, especially. Vic’s handiwork. The way it snakes the yellow body with clashing colors of Viridian and Midnight Blues, Regal Purples. Each shot through and incorporated into one another. In conversation with the Victorian Yellow. Each nook, every cranny, every façade.
“It’s called a Painted Lady,” Vic says, shifting the truck into park.
“You’ve told me a thousand times,” Junior replies.
At wit’s end, Vic opens his mouth to say something. About how he should be more grateful. That Vic didn’t need to plow these people out, he didn’t need their money. Not only was he doing Junior a favor, he was sacrificing a good man. He couldn’t justify paying Junior the kind of money these people could. Didn’t Junior realize? If only he thought for just one second—
But then the porch’s screen door shrieks open and a woman in a neon snowmobile suit steps blinking into the light. Through the porthole, Inga Olsen wades toward them through the snow, arms flailing for balance. A reflective patch on her arm glints in the morning light. And in one hand she’s waving something madly—a rubber-banded billfold—as if she might miss them.
Vic rolls down Junior’s window to greet her with about as much haste. “Inga, it’s been too long!” he says as she thrusts her red-chapped face into the truck.
Breathless, with wide, lidless blue eyes, she says, “You lifesaver! This snow. So unexpected. My brother and I. We were only passing through. We never intended to stay. We shared a sleeping bag on the floor.”
“Not a problem,” says Vic.
“Not at all,” says Junior.
Inga removes her head from the truck, slips off a mitten. Pinching it between her neon legs, she snaps off the rubber band from the billfold and begins unfurling money. Not after a second, however, she pauses. The idea of counting already seems to bore her. She holds out the entire wad.
Obviously, a large sum of money, Vic pushes her hand away. Laughs. “Don’t insult me. Consider this a favor. I gave up plowing years ago. I just plow out my rentals now. Honestly, I just wanted the chance to show my son your place up close.”
“How gracious of you,” says Inga. “What a shame not to have finished!”
“Isn’t it? Haunts me every day,” says Vic.
“I’ve always imagined what it’s like inside,” says Junior, chiming in like they’d talked about.
“I always try to explain the grandeur,” says Vic.
“I’m afraid we ran into family troubles up north, and never had the time,” says Inga.
“A crying shame,” says Vic, shaking his head.
“A crying shame,” says Junior, shaking his after.
A perfect mimic of his father, Junior, when he wanted.
Then Junior is digging a path toward the Painted Lady while Inga brings Vic up to speed.
Of course, she explains, inside it’s only bones. Nothing new. Just like the day they had to let Vic go. Does Vic remember? She’d finally given him the tour that day. Yes? Like it was yesterday? It was so hard to leave things unfinished like that. Six-thousand square feet of nothing, atop fifteen acres. A daunting task. Over a century old. Would make a great bed-and-breakfast, though, if they could ever finish the inside.
Of course, Vic remembers her spiel. He’s heard it all before. Seen it, too. And knows full well any renovations wouldn’t be cost effective. Nevertheless, entering the house, he oohs and ahhs, makes such goals seem feasible.
The screen door slaps shut behind them. And they stomp about the four-season porch, cleaning their boots. While Junior leans his shovel against the wall, Vic shakes his head at the woodstove standing in the corner, large and black as a freight train. “Someone should be warming their toes,” he says.
Junior clicks his tongue in agreement as Inga calls into the house, “Otto, you’ll never guess who stopped by for a visit,” then beckons them to follow through a dark door. And sure enough, there’s Otto at a long oak table. Bald and thick-headed. In an identical snowmobile suit to his sister. An egg held to one eye.
At first, he doesn’t seem to notice them. As they stand there without much else to look at—save the clouds of water-stain floating on the walls, the quiver of the dented copper ceiling in the camping stove’s light. Or the stove itself. On it, a pot of water boils. And in the pot, a rolling egg, a moist pupiless eye.
Otto drops the other egg into the pot to warm before removing the other. He pinches the hot egg to his eye like a monocle. Then looks up, squinting the egg into his eye’s hollow. Unaffected by the heat, his exposed eye bulges a kind of greeting.
“Otto!” Vic says. “Looking as fine as ever.”
“God damn sties,” Otto says to no one in particular.
“The Greeners popped in for a visit, dear,” Inga says. As if he might not have noticed them yet.
“My son,” says Vic.
“Junior,” Junior says, holding out a hand that Otto ignores. “You have a wonderful home.”
“Not myhome,” says Otto.
“I was trying to convince Vic we haven’t forgotten this place, dear,” says Inga. “That we’d turn it into a bed-and-breakfast sooner or later.”
Otto adjusts the egg. “Pipe dreams,” he says.
“I hope not,” says Vic. “B-and-B’s? A very lucrative business.”
“Very lucrative,” says Junior as Inga grabs his hand in her mitten.
“I promised I’d give this one a tour,” she says, pulling him toward a wall of tall doors. Before which she stops a moment as if not knowing which to choose. She eenie meenie miney moes. Then swings one up. Plunges inside. And as their footfalls fade away inside the Painted Lady, Vic takes the seat across from him, a silence taking hold.
And up from the silence, the moan of rusty door hinges. The burble of boiling water, a cauldron between them. The collision of their icy breaths.
Just being here—how easily the memories come back to Vic. How easily he can picture the arboretum, its domed glass ceiling withered with vines. The cavernous dining room and chandeliers, the sweeping stairwell and crown moldings. Almost as if he were with Inga now instead of Junior. Room after room, the interior ones windowless and dark. So dark at times Inga had to use a flashlight. The house still with no electric all those years ago. “Six-thousand square feet of nothing,” he can almost hear her telling him. As she is surely telling his son now. The dim shake of her flashlight on the wall, the creak of the floor. Empty and unfinished, every room. Full of possibilities.
Not much later, they’re back on their way. Vic and Junior. On route to the rentals. To deal with the snow. Same as before. Behind a service truck now, laying out salt that crackles across the windshield. Otherwise not much else, save the mutter of the defroster.
Vic lowers his head to peer out. He steers in silence. And all this time, Junior silent, too. Withholding. Vic waiting for the account. Waiting, and waiting. And finally, unable to take it anymore, saying, “Well? How did it go?” And for a moment, still, nothing.
Just Junior’s breath’s heartbeat on the glass.
“If you’re still worried about the horses….” Vic says.
“It’s not the horses,” Junior says. “And it’s not the dogs.”
“Then what?” says Vic.
“You’ll never believe me—”
“Just tell me. I’m your father—”
“I saw something,” Junior says. “An old woman. I saw her. Inside the house.”
“An old woman?” Vic says with a laugh. “Probably just their mother. Inga said she was sick. Didn’t she—”
“I knew you wouldn’t listen—”
“I am listening,” he says. “Go ahead. Have at it.”
And Junior does. He turns to him. For the first time all day. Eyes wide and animal scared. “Fine, alright. Inga was giving me the tour. I was really working her. Really, I was. Oohs and ahhs. Just like you said. You’d be proud. She must have gotten turned around. ‘I haven’t been here in years,’ she said. Something wasn’t right. But we continued. We continued and cobwebs brushed my scalp. The ground dipped soft beneath our feet. Rot crept into my nose. The house, a maze. We were lost. Inga must’ve threw open the wrong door. Obviously a mistake. The way she reacted. She didn’t want me to see. Slammed the door shut. But over her shoulder, I saw. An old woman. Like I said. But maybe not how you imagine. Older. Dressed in a thin night gown. A ghost, I thought at first. Goose pimples broke out. Then I heard the beeping of machines. I felt a tropical warmth of the heaters. The radio played scratchy classical music. A bedpan and a wheelchair. A hospital bed. Insulated windows. I know what I saw. I saw her face. A mosaic of wrinkles and fear. Dead but still alive, this woman—”
“What are you even saying—” says Vic.
“Aren’t you listening?” says Junior.
“And all this is one glance?”
“Yes, all at once. But what’s more? The worst part—”
“Let’s hear it—”
“A chain. A chain running from her wheelchair to the steam heater. I saw it. They were keeping her there. I’m positive. Those freaks—”
“The way you talk. God. You have some imagination—”
“You said you’d listen—”
“I never said I’d believe you—”
“They’re keeping her hostage. I’m sure of it. That old woman. We need to do something.”
“First Sooner’s horses? Now this? Give me one good reason. Some real evidence.”
“Money. Inbreeding. Who knows!” says Junior.
“But they don’t even have electric, son. I worked there for years. Years and I never saw and old lady. It’s just a spooky old house. Your imagination has just run wild—”
“Go back and check the electric box if you don’t believe me!” says Junior. “Go back and check!” But Vic’s heard enough. He isn’t going to waste his valuable time on these theatrics. These conspiraciesof an adolescent mind. Still, it’s so early. Still, there are roofs piled with snow. Obviously, there must be some reasonable explanation. Some misunderstanding.
Junior will talk himself out soon enough, he thinks.
And sure enough, Junior does. After so long, the truck falls back into a silence. Just the crackling of salt. The dashboard defroster. The freeze creeping fingers across the glass. The silence growing louder by the mile.
In the paper the next week, there’s a news report: Sooner’s horses have been killed. Three Clydesdales. A mule. “I told you,” Junior says. But this proves nothing to Vic. Nothing about an old woman, anyway. No scandal in their small town. No car that visits the Painted Lady at night, bringing food and meds for the alleged captive. No reason to suspect aside from what Junior couldn’t have seen. No proof. Vic never stops to check the electric. Refuses. There isn’t even an investigation into the Sooner’s neglect of the horses. The humane society doesn’t even take the dogs. After a while, Junior stops bringing it up altogether. And eventually, he goes off fixing up his own places somewhere. Has his own rentals. Upstate. Out of state. Gone.
Then years trail away in a white flurry.
The Painted Lady languishes deeper into decay. From the inside out. The Olsens never do call about the work. Even from the road, it’s obvious. On the way to the rentals. Now it’s just Vic who passes. On his way to fix a faucet. To patch a cracked wall. To keep up with appearances and collect the rent. Shovel snow. But in silence now. No one to talk to. The Painted Lady slipping fast. Like him. Once so glorious. But now more and more into oblivion. The balusters rotting. Four-season porch bowing deep. The paint shivering off into the weedy gardens. His master paint job, all for nothing. The colors falling out of conversation now. Almost unrecognizable. Festering in ways only the rich and crazy can allow, such grand decay. Such that, a part of Vic wants to fix the place up for free. Put things back into order. Where they belong. If only his back were better, he thinks. If only he were not so old. Each time he passes, it’s the same. The daydream. In it, he stops, shoulders open the door to save the old woman inside. From her captivity. Junior was right, it turns out. All those years ago, his teenage son. More attentive than him. Vic bolt-cuts the chain then carries the old woman out the door draped in his arms. A hero. An apology. She’s nearly one hundred now, but still alive. Summer, Spring, Fall, regardless. In the daydream, it’s always snowing. Always, a news report, an article in the paper. Vic’s a hero. The Olsens had been keeping their mother there, it explains. To drain her money. A dispute over the inheritance. All that wealth, a corruption. The incestuous couple rotting in prison now because of him. The town will hold a parade in Vic’s honor. And when the day comes: Junior’s there. They clap each other on the back, reunited on a float. After all these years. Father, son. Among the waving people. The bugle of a brass band. The raining confetti mixing with the snow around them, leeching into it, dying it colors. So much confetti someone will have to plow—
Then, as always, the daydream ends, the road twists away. The Painted Lady disappears. And another work day steadily approaches. Without fail and never ending.