The house sat high on a tiny lot on Highland Street, which ran atop a hill that bordered a long expanse of grass and trees. It looked like a small, sloping park, but it was actually a cemetery, the old graves scattered across the rise. Unless you were squeamish about graves—Sam wasn’t—the sloping green hill was quite pretty. Highland itself offered a wide view of downtown. You could see the steeples of churches, and you could see how the small city was in a valley surrounded by hills. You could even see the kidney shape of Onondaga Lake, although it was often partly obscured by low-hanging clouds. If you turned your head to the left, or if you looked out the side windows of the house, you could see Syracuse University up on another hill. You would locate it by the quilted low white bubble of the Carrier Dome (named for the nearly absent Carrier corporation—all that remained were a handful of jobs, the dome, and Carrier Circle, a treacherous traffic roundabout that Sam hated). Soon after you spotted the dome you would notice the various spired and turreted campus buildings.
The decision to leave her husband—the act of leaving, really—began the moment she made an offer on the house. It was a Sun-day; Sam woke up at five a.m., unable to continue sleeping. She attributed this unnecessarily early waking to the approach of menopause. Her period still came each month, but odd things had started changing in her body, even her brain. One of which was suddenly becoming awake at five a.m. on a Sunday, her mind shak-ing off sleep with unnegotiable clarity, as if she had already drunk a cup of coffee. And just as with coffee, she felt alert, an adrenal burst, but she could also feel the fatigue underneath it all, the wea-riness. That morning the wood floor was cold against her bare feet, but she couldn’t find her slippers. It was still dark. She tried not to wake her husband. She used her phone to illuminate the way to the bathroom. She peed, flushed, washed. She brushed her teeth without looking in the mirror. She pushed up the blinds to peek outside. The sky was gradually lightening with the dawn, and half a foot of snow had fallen overnight. It was one of those Syracuse March snow dumps. Everyone complained because it “should be spring,” but why say that when it never was spring in March in Syra-cuse. Besides, snow in March was often spectacular because of the spring light. The sunrise that was creeping up now cast a pink-and-gold glimmer, and a little crust of ice on top of the snow glittered from the sky and from the streetlamps. The trees, the roofs of the houses, even the salt-crusted cars looked beautiful. And like most spectacularly beautiful effects, it was almost too much, too dra-matic, nearly lurid. Sam loved the drama of a March snow. March meant the sky would be bright, blindingly bright, not the cloudy darkness of January or the dingy gray monotony of February, the worst month. As the day progressed, sharp shadows would be cast across the snow crust, your eyes would squint from the bright-ness, and, with no wind, you might unzip your coat. Syracuse in these moments could be a Colorado ski slope. March was differ-ent because the light brought the promise of spring, and the snow made everything lovely, freshly covered and pristine.
But here was the important part: Sam figured that she was the only person on earth who thought March snowstorms were won-derful, and this made her feel a bit proud of herself. Always she liked to imagine herself as subtly different from everyone else, enjoying the tension and mystique of being ordinary on the surface but with a radical, original interior life. For example, back when Sam used to shop the sales at the Talbots in DeWitt with the other subur-ban ladies of her class and age, she separated herself. Sure, Sam had discovered that the classic A-line or sheath dresses made of solid-colored ponte knits were so forgiving, so flattering (“flattering,” that tragic word) to a grotesque midlife misshapenness—a blur-riness, a squareness, really. But despite being there and shopping because of an “insider” email-blast notification of a super sale, Sam believed that she was different from the other women. Inside she was mocking the calibrated manipulations, mocking herself, not-ing the corporate branding and lifestyle implications of the preppy styles and colors. The classic plaids, the buttons on the sleeves, the ballerina flats evoking a tastefully understated sensibility. It even occurred to her that the other women could be having the same in-terior thoughts and that the idea of conformity—at least in modern America—was never consciously sought after. No one older than a teenager thought, I want this because everyone else has it. No, Sam knew that you were sold the idea that you could be independent-minded even as you bought what everyone else bought. You were allowed to keep a vain and precious sense of agency. This was the very secret to consumerism working in a sav vy, self-conscious cul-ture. Her sense of resistance was as manufactured as her need to buy flattering clothing. Nevertheless (!), Sam also believed that her having such self-critical, self-reflexive thoughts as she shopped set her apart from the other women. Surely. So she still believed herself to be (however stealthily) an eccentric person, not suited to conventions of thought or sensibility.
Lately this desire to be contrary to convention had taken on a new urgency well beyond clothes or matters of taste. An unruly, even perverse inclination animated her. It had been looking for a place to land, for something to fasten on. So now (not before), this odd inner state pushed her toward a highly destabilizing wildness (a recklessness) that she couldn’t suppress any longer.
She pulled on the same clothes she had worn the day before: stretched-out jeans and a black cowl-neck sweater. She no longer wanted to open her closet full of clothes. Why did she need so many, so much? In the last few months, things that used to capti-vate her no longer did.
She crept downstairs and made herself a coffee.
It was Sam’s habit to check out the real estate listings online. She had the bored-housewife pastime of attending open houses. She knew many of the other people there also had no intention to buy but had come to snoop into other people’s lives or to calculate land values or to imagine a fantasy life brought on by the frame of fresh architecture. This last impulse made sense to her. She had even wanted, at one point, to study architecture (and history, and women’s studies, and literature), but she had talked herself out of it and, in what she characterized to her friends as a retro move, she had gotten married and then pregnant instead. She settled for becoming an architectural amateur. And a “stay-at-home mom” (a term she found degrading, as if she were a prisoner under house arrest).
Unusual old structures (Syracuse had many) excited her: they were a visible-but-secret code, the past rendered in materials that could be seen and touched. For example, the abandoned People’s A ME Zion Church on East Fayette Street. Its tiny perfect form sat on a sturdy, intact limestone foundation. Paint-peeled crumbling white brick rose into a modest bell tower next to a large Gothic-pointed stained-glass window. But the building was lost in the con-crete dead zone around I-81, grown over with box maple saplings and covered with graffiti, the windows long boarded up. It belonged to the oldest Black congregation in Syracuse, built a hundred years ago to replace a structure at another site that dated to the 1840s, when it had been a part of the Underground Railroad. Sam had seen old photos of this church when it was a thriving center of the Fifteenth Ward, before the neighborhood was destroyed in the name of urban renewal. Yet it sat stranded and forgotten. Syracuse had so much history that it could neglect wide swaths of it. When Sam saw a building that no one else seemed to see anymore, she would stop her car, get out, walk around the perimeter, and even lay her hand on a brick as a form of communion and respect. Fasci-nating old buildings and houses, empty or still in use, called to her from all over the city. She sometimes drove out of her way just to glimpse one of her favorites.
But open houses gave her the rare chance to go inside, which was a much more intimate experience. As soon as she crossed the threshold into a house’s space, she could feel it shape who she was—or would be—in some deep way. Whenever she had a chance to walk inside one, she did, which always worked as an act of imagi-nation, an act she loved. What would it feel like to live here, wake up here, argue with your husband here?
This open house intrigued her because it was cross-listed on an Instagram account for architecture nerds:
Unique Arts and Crafts bungalow designed by Ward Wellington Ward in 1913. For sale for $38,000! Intrepid buyers only—needs complete rehab. Most original details intact. 110 Highland St., Syracuse, 11am–2pm Sunday. See link in bio for more #cheapoldhouses#saveoldstuff#bungalow#restoration #casementwindowsforthewin
She was the only fantasy lurker attending the open house at 110 Highland Street that Sunday morning.
The house was falling apart. The house was beautiful.
It had leaded glass windows, built-in shelves, and hidden stor-age benches. Two of the benches were framed by wood-beamed closures (“the inglenook”) and sat at either end of (oh, what she longed for!) an elaborate tile-lined fireplace (“Mercer Moravian tiles”). Sam imagined sitting in the nook, gazing at the fire, reading a book. The tiles were dirty with layers of dust but still intact. She could pick out a narrative in the relief images. (“Saint George and the Dragon,” the agent said.) The clay finish was a rustic, uneven glaze, the colors pink, green, and white. She touched her fingertips to the tiles and felt an undeniable connection. Someone on some podcast had talked about “grounding.” It was when you walked outside with bare feet and let the earth connect with your body. It was supposed to right you, your circadian rhythms or something. Help you get over jet lag. Or maybe it was to mitigate the endocrine disruption of chronic toxic exposure. Or to counter EMF, the low-level but constant electromagnetic waves from Wi-Fi and cellular towers. Or maybe all of that, grounding promoted as a systemic cure-all. Sam scoffed at the idea, even despised it as New Age crap, yet as her fingers touched the tiles, she felt grounded. There was no other word for it, as if a corrective current flowed from the house through the dusty tile and into her hand and, truly, her whole body.
The tiles were set against patterned deep red brick topped by a mantel made of dark oak, also dirty but intact. Maybe it was Gus-tav Stickley or it was William Morris who wrote about the Arts and Crafts ideal, how the fireplace should be a work of everyday art. It looked handmade and warm, and its beauty was in its util-ity and simplicity: she was cold, she needed a fire. The hearth drew her in, invited her to sit. She now understood the fireplace as a form of secular worship. She imagined it would make her feel close to something elemental. (“Obviously, the chimney will have to be looked at.”) To keep her sanity over the long Syracuse win-ter, Sam needed this beautiful, old, heat-squandering open fire. At her house in the suburbs, they had a glass-fronted gas fireplace that gave off some regulated, efficient BTUs of heat and a low, exhaust-ing fan hum. The gas flame had a cold blue at its center.
“This house is on the historic register as the Garrett House. It even has a Wikipedia page. Designed by the architect Ward Wel-lington Ward.”
“Yes, I read that in the notice,” Sam said. “I’m familiar with him.” She had seen some of his house plans at the Onondaga His-torical Association. Meticulous, in colored pencil and ink. The three W’s of his name, the repetition of the “Ward”s at each end, the short-long-short look of it, all drawn in that distinctive Arts and Crafts lettering. Everything was a work of art, even his name.
“Oh good. So you know his houses are very special. Garrett had it built in 1913. After he and his wife died, it fell into neglect-ful hands, but none of the original details are ruined. Clearly it needs some TLC: a heating system, electrical updates, new roof, mold abatement. Possibly a chimney rebuild. Better drainage in the basement. Shore up the foundations. But it’s still a wonderful house, no?”
“Yes,” Sam said.
Later she drove to the big suburban Wegmans and bought some wild halibut, diced sweet potato, and triple-washed organic baby spinach for dinner. She also got Ally’s favorite fruit, mango, and her husband’s favorite cereal, No-Grain Vanilla Granola, and several liter bottles of that German mineral water she liked. She took the groceries to their house. No one was home yet. And then, instead of cooking, she got in her car and drove back into the city. It was nearly six, and the sun was starting to go down. The sky was backlit, iridescent, spring bright, and as she drove she watched the clouds close to the horizon glow pink and orange. She drove back to the city because she had to see the house in this dusk light, this ridiculous, almost garish light. She crested the hill. She pulled into the house’s tiny driveway. The roofline was steep, and the shitty asphalt tiles were coming undone. But. The front windows and the side windows faced the sunset. The city in all directions gleamed, and it looked as if an ocean lay beyond the clouds, some giant lake or shore. Ward Wellington Ward, this architect, he must have known. He thought of the sky and the trees as he designed his house; he knew how much you need those early-spring sunsets in Syracuse, even if they glisten off a foot of snow.
She retrieved the business card from her coat pocket and called the real estate agent. “I want it,” the words coming up from some reptilian (perhaps paleomammalian, limbic, sublimbic) area of her brain, some part of her she never knew existed. “I want to make an offer, I mean. Can we do that today?” It felt easy. She signed the papers and wrote a check for the deposit. Inner life had spilled out and become outer life. She wrote an X in the box to waive the inspection. As is.
What drew her to the house was its nature: the house was a par-adox, both rustic and elegant. It was contrived to be functional, but emotionally functional. After all, who needs a built-in bench by the fire? The huge hearth was clearly inefficient. Beauty was its own value, as was the experience of living. It felt hand-constructed, personal. Yet it reeked of artifice, “Arts and Crafts” meant to evoke home and nostalgia through cozy appropriations of English cot-tages and, oddly enough, some idea of a country church. Also, the state of the house. Dirty, falling apart, empty for too long.
It was wrecked. It was hers.
She got in her car, and she looked back once more at the house, maybe to imprint its image in her heart, the way you might look at a departing loved one. Sam noticed a white bit of paper tucked into the front door’s frame. She got out of the car and walked over to see what it was. She plucked a corner with two fingers, and as she pulled it, she felt a heavier paper stock than she was expect-ing. Almost like an index card, but smaller and more rectangular, palm-sized. She turned it over. It had letterpress printing, blue on creamy white:
BEWARE: NTE IS COMING
Sam shrugged. What was NTE? Was it an ad? A religious message? Or a sort of warning? But the production values of the message gave it weight and substance, so she tucked the little card into her jean pocket.
She drove back to her home in the suburb, and only then did she realize, as she drove, that she was leaving her husband. Matt. That she would go live in the broken-down house in the city, the unloved, forgotten house with the view of the unloved, forgotten city. Why? Because she alone could see the beauty. It was meant for her. She couldn’t—shouldn’t—resist. And saying yes to this version of her life would mean saying no to another version of her life.
Copyright © 2021 by Dana Spiotta. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.