The slope was steep on the way up to 2464 Timberview Drive and it had been snowing. In the midst of the coldest winter on record for some 20 years, the newspaper had sent me out to take pictures of a newly built country home 15 miles south of known civilization. I simply detested this assignment — I knew what it was before they sent me out: a prostitution of my pen. Sent to interview a couple about their newly built house on a newly settled street, I received orders to write an article, a fluff piece, on the house so the advertisers could get their hands on the names list of contractors I was to dutifully procure. Who did the window treatments, who put in the foundation, what was the price of being chained to a piece of government-taxed land: compile it into a list and give it to the advertisers so they can sell. Advertisers ran almost everything now. Everywhere I went, there they were, waiting like hoarding crack feigns fresh off a trip. The only value they found out of the written word could be calculated mathematically, dissected and studied, then birthed into some malnourished form of profit-driven culture change. The newspaper needed profit and the advertisers needed commission. So I was sent to invade a house and inspect a lifestyle.
I barely got up the hill. Too steep for the ignorant young or the cautious old; one too fast, one too slow. I am barely the third bear of this hill, just the right cocktail of the indifference of the young and the panic of the old. My tires spun a couple of times, but not enough to bother the cattle in what looked like a 40-acre pen to the right of my now parked four-door sedan. Brown cattle, the ones with the white trim over some of their faces and their hooves. I waited for approximately two minutes as the heat went out from the car. The winters are getting worse in Iowa, especially for the humans. Some poor bastard was beaten and shoved out of a car a city over in Cedar Rapids. The beating didn’t kill him, neither the collision at 45 mph with frozen concrete — it was the freeze. The humans couldn’t kill him, but he didn’t have the hide for nature. Neither do I, in earnest. Sitting in the car, watching my breath turn visible, I imagined dying 20 feet away from the cows and a driveway from my lower-evolved assignment. I brought an invisible cigarette to my lips and lit it with an invisible Zippo. I closed my eyes as invisible nicotine spurred my brain. The difference between placebo nicotine and electrical currents firing the synapses is invisible, like the difference between the frozen guy and me, sitting in the car.
The house looked like any house you could imagine copied and replicated on the outskirts of a metropolitan area. No country flair, no barn-style architecture, no shade of red; just a suburban house too far from a city. I saw the house and I forgot why I quit smoking. It looked like the beginning of something dark and insidious lurking around the outside of the structure. The outside was caked in a sad imitation, a sort of copy so saturated with artistic ignorance that was better labeled as mockery. Charcoal gray panel siding with a rock pattern shingled roof and double-paneled windows.The only redeemable quality to the house was that it was built into a hill with the front facing east and the back facing west. Large east and west windows make for apple mornings and caramel evenings: a feast of texture for the retinas. But the house still found my spine: people were building these houses usually reserved for suburban cages in undeveloped areas; moreover, people are wanting these designs, like a blind man wanting a blind fold. Humans are going deeper into cultural depression as the children of this depression are being born without a glimpse of the outside, compounding the side effects. I shuttered as the winter breeze punctured the holes in my scarf and I knocked on the door.
I’d never seen the couple I was supposed to meet and had only spoken to the wife on the phone. She sounded what could only be described as chipper: a condition in which the affected neglects negative emotions and focuses on only positivity. As her voice came through the phone, I couldn’t imagine her sitting, staring into space, drinking alone in that impressive dark, or getting high to dull the space where all the lecherous emotions go — I couldn’t imagine her seriously considering jumping from a bridge or yelling at her mother for passing on faulty genes. She seemed too eager to invite me, a total stranger bent on inspecting and publishing, into her private dwelling. People always seem too eager to their doors to slick entities promising fame or fortune or even the slightest sexual advance. My dwelling is a temple of self-loathing which frees a paranoid mongrel from worry about outside influences. It is the summation of an equation steeped in an overt distrust of all things human and cultivated by years spent marinating my brain in that cult called Catholicism. If fame and fortune in the form of an amateur journalist knock at their door, people always seem to answer.
Or maybe these are the ravings of some over-masturbated lunatic with sociopathic tendencies towards commitment. Even looking at the house, I could feel myself simultaneously overwhelmed with putrid hatred and lung-squeezing jealousy of unknown origin. To be settled in a place to call my own is the dream, the authorities told me. Truthfully, I’ve spent nights imagining idealized scenes in which I’m pulling weeds out of a tended garden or separating my perennials while my pregnant wife, with her hair in a pony tail exposing the cross necklace I gave her for Christmas, sits in the shade. The cerebral magic lantern shows typically end in broken mirrors and bleeding knuckles. The implanted memories leave with the blood but the brokenness stays.
A strawberry blonde woman with a freckled complexion named Alex opened the door and I walked in, apologizing for uncontrollable aspects of life like the snow on my shoes and cold air. The inside of the house was just as deplorable as the outside, but oddly I wanted to be there. The warmth of the inside deceived my distrust of new people, as I felt welcome and security in this new place. It disgusted me, as I knew the decorating was engineered to illicit this feeling. But emotions are slimy bastards designed to corrupt logical reasoning. Like the jealousy that pulled at my kidneys as the woman’s husband poked his head into the entry way. Get a hold of yourself, man, I thought.
I snapped a few pictures of the living room and asked a few questions about the open floor plan. I looked too long at the woman before diverting my attention toward the husband, I knew it. I examined the husband’s face for signs that he caught on. Ogling a man’s wife in middle America is grounds for loading a hunting rifle and aiming it with vengeful intent. Paranoia nearly took over as the three of us walked through the couple’s bedroom and into another small room littered with unassembled parts.
It looked to be the makings of a dresser or a wooden dog cage and Alex could see me trying to put the piece together in my head. It caused her some embarrassment, for which I felt sorry.
“We’re expecting,” she said feeling her belly with the tender part of her palm. “This is going to be the nursery.”
The piece came together immediately. Young couple, husband, wife, newly built home in the country, affection at the door, baby on the way: it all had an eerily familiar feeling, like deja vu in reverse. And then I stepped back and saw the assembled product. This was the summation to an equation parallel to the summation I was living. If only a few variables had changed in the past, this would have been my future or, rather, my present. Like some drifting spirit, I had been inspecting an alternate present in which I compromised and chose the magic lantern show instead of gambling on isolation and belief in self-reliance.
I had a considerable urge to put my hand where her uterous would be located, just to feel innocence in creation. I abstained, but with the strangest reluctance: in a sense, I felt the baby could have easily been mine, even though I’d never met the woman who was carrying it. The paranoia set in quickly then, awaking me from the implanted memory. Something needed to be broken as the rage and the pain set in. I left in a feverish pace, one that seemed to startle Alex and her husband, making me feel all the more pained. I found my manners and leaned on automation until I got into my car and drove down the hill.
I drove away fast, not caring about the snow. Comfort and implanted desire had disarmed my emotional defenses, hijacking my entire nervous system. A drop of compromise in the chemical ocean made the sharks come; a butterfly called home flapped its wings and my brain became a hurricane. I worried I didn’t have enough for the article, but I figured I could study the pictures later. The headline would read, “A home with a view,” or some such nonsense.
I slammed the car wheel with my palm and I tasted salt water from my lips. I drove on, fighting the lantern show and telling myself I didn’t believe in magic.