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A Home for the Winter
By Albert J. Manachino
Copyright ©2002 by Albert J. Manachino

Mr. William Squarrel of the realty firm of Squarrel, Bonzaq Berkowitz and Arrowsmith appraised his visitor from behind his desk without appearing to do so. Tentatively, Mr. Harlan James was allocated the twenty thousand dollar slot. The real estate agent generated his famous twenty thousand dollar smile and extended his hand for the twenty thousand dollar handshake. A thirty thousand dollar client was accorded the distinction of Mr. Squarrel's arm about his shoulder In man-to-man negotiations and the intimacy of, "Just call me 'Bill'."

"Good evening, Mr. James. May we be of assistance to you?" He used the twenty thousand dollar voice.

Mr. James seemed ill-at-ease. A tongue darted quickly between lips that were perhaps a trifle too broad.

"Yes," he answered quickly, "you might be able to. My wife and I are looking for suitable quarters."

Mr. Squarrel manufactured a face that expressed just the proper mixture of regret and wistfulness that was calculated to arouse anxiety in a potential buyer or renter. "Housing is very scarce now but perhaps we can find something for you."

He lied with professional aplomb, Then he asked, "Do you have any children?"

Mr. James assured him they had not. An uncomfortable foot exchanged places with its partner on the heavily carpeted floor.

"I know it sounds callous but most of my clients are adamant on that one point. They simply do not want their properties rented to families with children."

Mr. James already was aware of this. He forestalled the agent's next question by volunteering the Information, "We have no pets either."

Nervously he ran a hand through hair that was too heavily pomaded. A single strand broke free and kinked itself Into a series of very tight waves. Mr. Squarrel smiled knowingly.

Outwardly his expression remained as bland as the surface of a melon. "That Is very helpful, perhaps we can accommodate you. What exactly is it that you have in mind? A nice modern studio apartment? A condominium? A private home? We even handle trailer park rentals."

"A house! It has to be a house. Preferably an older one, well secluded. Privacy Is very important to me. The fewer inquisitive neighbors the better. I'm a writer working on a novel and I wish to be disturbed as little as possible."

Mr. Squarrel's face assumed an expression of sympathy with the ease and expertise of an experienced stage hand substituting one small stage prop for another. "I know exactly how it is. I'm an amateur writer myself it's almost impossible to find a place free from distractions. What is your novel about?"

The question, evidently, was an unanticipated one, and it caught Mr. James unprepared. He fumbled and then, rather lamely, "I prefer not to reveal anything about it now. It's too premature. I don't want to give anything away yet."

"I understand, can't be too careful." Mr. Squarrel doubted his visitor had ever written a line in his life or ever intended to. "Ah well, good luck to you." An abrupt change of topic, "What price range were you considering?"

Mr. James mentioned a figure that was relatively conservative. The realtor was not perturbed at all. This was merely the first step on the bargaining ladder. There were many more rungs to climb. He reached for a display album - the green one. The middle-priced rentals were housed in the red album and the expensive rentals in, appropriately, the gold one.

He beckoned Mr. James to a chair beside him and opened the book at random. "An older house, you say? Secluded?"

"The house needn't be a very large one; there are but two of us."

"In older houses the rents are pretty much the same regardless of size, especially in out-of-the-way areas. They lack modern conveniences and aren't actively sought after. Mind you, this doesn't mean they aren't comfortable or habitable." That was exactly what Mr. Squarrel meant they weren't. However, he had formed a conclusion that his visitor would be happy to accept anything short of an atom bomb test site.

"Hmm." His fingers stopped at a photograph of a turn of the century brownstone in the last stages of delapidation. It was surrounded on two sides by factories and in the rear by an abandoned brewery. "You might be able to rent this one. The owner is a man of advanced years who now lives with a son. Should be no problems as far as neighbors go, the factories close down at four. In fact,,I don't think there even are any street lights."

Mr. James made an expression of distaste. The photograph failed to conceal a squalor that was above the acceptable level. Windows were smashed and the roof was on the verge of falling in.

"I don't think so. What else do you have?"

"Well, for the price you mentioned ... " Mr. Squarrel turned a few more pages. "Here's a place you can buy outright." The picture was of a farmhouse that looked, like the proverbial house of cards, as if it was falling in on itself.

"There are several detached buildings which could be put to good use with some minor repairs. Now, if you're handy with tools ... "

Mr. James assured him he was not. One of the detached buildings was a toilet that leaned forward precariously in the manner of a drunk searching for a fallen coin. He refused again.

"No, I'm sure that's unsuitable."

The realtor exhibited his trump. After this, they would graduate to the red book. "This one is for sale also and very reasonably priced."

The last page revealed a sinister looking gingerbread house which had been built between the Civil and Spanish American wars. The mailbox had fallen, the porch showed signs of following suit. Starkly silhouetted against a late afternoon sky, it looked haunted. Trees and shrubbery had overgrown to the extent they threatened to engulf it.

"This place is part of an estate. The late owner died several years ago under mysterious circumstances. We haven't been too successful in renting or selling it. Of course that's all atmosphere, there's a large cemetery abbuting the property on three sides. I neglected to mention the bones of a tramp who had broken in were found by one of the heirs during an inspection trip." Mr. Squarrel smiled roguishly, "Privacy will be no problem at all.."

Mr. James was staring at the picture with a hungry concentration. "We'll take it."

The agent's smile fell and was lost amidst the desktop clutter. He began to renege. "Really, my conscience would trouble me if I didn't warn you the place is utterly beyond repair. Stairs are falling ... no plumbing ... no electricity. No way of heating it in winter. The fireplace has collapsed. There's no running water ..."

"Is the roof sound?"

"The roof is sound," Mr. Squarrel admitted reluctantly.

"Are the windows intact?"

"There is no glass but the shutters are undamaged and nailed from the inside. Ventilation is poor ... the kitchen stove is broken... "

"Are there holes in the walls?"

"There are no holes in the walls."

"We'll take it."

Mr. Squarrel expended his final card. "Strange lights have been sighted moving around at night. A dog, which no one has ever seen, has been heard howling when the moon is full."

"We'll take it."

"Don't you even want to look at it first?"

"No, your representation is adequate. Atmospherically it sounds ideal. I'm working on a horror story."

"Once the lease is signed, you won't be able to back out."

"We'll take it."

"OK, it's your funeral."

On that cheerful note, the negotiations were concluded.

***

Mrs. Janice James surveyed their new domain with no special enthusiasm. She was a trifle darker than her husband. Mr. Squarrel might have exaggerated but not very much. The stairs did not sag. Cobwebs hung everywhere like Spanish moss. Ropes of wallpaper clung desperately to the walls with the final vestiges of their strength. There was physical damage, Harlan had neglected to inquire about holes in the ceilings and floors. Over everything lay an incredible thickness of dust, there was a heavy odor of staleness and dry rot. The shutters were still closed and the only illumination came from a kerosene lantern he was carrying.

"I suppose it's better than nothing," she finally decided.

"We're very lucky. No one would rent to us if they suspected."

Mrs. James, understandably, was bitter. "That's the unfairness of it all. We have to pretend to be what we aren't to get something others take for granted. If they think we're like them, they fall over themselves to cater to us at the first display of cash. If they knew what we are you couldn't pay them enough for a room much less an apartment. Why? They can't differentiate by looking at us between what we are and what they think we are."

Mr. James had endured this many times. He merely accepted the situation as it existed. "They say we depreciate property values and I suppose we do. That's why I stipulated a place that was outdated and isolated. If we had neighbors and they suspected ... well, you know."

"A lot of our friends live in established neighborhoods. There's George and Marion and Ken and Harriet," she reminded him.

"They're engaged in the great American game of passing, crossing the line, whatever you want to call it. It never lasts, sooner or later someone makes a slip and they got to get out fast. They never learn from experience."

"Do you think Squarrel suspects?"

"He suspects something but he's not sure. He tried to argue me out of taking this place but his greed won out. As long as this property produces a revenue and there are no complaints he'll let things ride without looking too closely. He can always plead ignorance if something backfires."

"I hope you're right."

"I hope I'm right too. It's winter and that isn't a good time to be looking for another place." Mr. James held the lantern up higher. Its feeble light revealed an assortment of ramshackle furniture and abandoned odds and ends. The dust was so heavy in places that often what lay beneath was suggested as an outline.

"This is a housecleaning chore even grandma wouldn't tackle."

"The important things are the four walls and the roof," he reminded her.

"I suppose so. Come on, we may as well explore the place."

He preceded her with the lantern. Each room was worse than the previous one . The kitchen stove was a mass of rusty iron. A few sticks of wood were still stacked beside it. "A fire?" he suggested hopefully.

She vetoed the idea. "There's too much danger, the flue is probably clogged."

"You're right," he agreed regretfully.

They left the kitchen and went upstairs. An ice-cold wind had been rising steadily. It moaned and shrieked in the ruined eaves.

"Supposed to be a blizzard tonight," he tried to speak in a matter-of-fact voice.

Janice shivered. "I guess we are lucky at that."

They paused before the bedroom door. Sadly she reminisced. "Remember our wedding night? You carried me into the bedroom."

Harlan smiled. He tugged at the knob. "It's warped shut. We'll need tools to open it."

"I suppose it really doesn't matter. Shelter is the most important thing. Are you certain Squarrel doesn't suspect?"

"You never can be absolutely sure. I tried to create an impression I was a light-skinned negro."

He extinguished the lantern and set it carefully on the floor. Then he lifted her in his arms and together they passed through the wall.

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