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Our usual summer stay at my grandparents’ place was cut short over some squabble about Nixon and The War. We left that night, Father’s Ford breaking down a half hour from home the following day in an expensive show of noise and smoke that was not so much the finale to hours of travel as an announcement that the day still had room for surprises.
We arrived home in a tow truck, with my brothers and me sitting atop our parents’ laps in a filthy cab, even though we were too old for such arrangements. The woods and meadow beyond our home ticked with heat. Out of place was an indigo Olds with tan interior parked in front of our house. It was then that our parents informed us that we had to stay out of our house; they had rented it for the entire month to a man named Morgan Lechz, and they had been renting it to Mr. Lechz for the past eight Julys. I suddenly understood the strangeness with which our house welcomed us home every summer on our return from my grandparents: that tang of tobacco in the air, the furniture posed not quite right, the glassware improperly organized. This phenomenon had a name. Morgan Lechz.
Father went up to our house and knocked at our own door, something I’d never seen him do before. A thin middle-aged man answered. He was bearded, bespectacled, and pulled a flat cap over his head as he stepped outside to speak with my father. I said he looked like Lenin and Mother shushed me and turned to me and my younger brothers and explained that the rent we collected from Mr. Lechz every July was something we needed and that Mr. Lechz was a model short-term tenant and couldn’t I see the dilemma we were now in thanks to my father’s idealism and would I please cut her some slack? Of course, I’d known that the house wasn’t really ours; it was the bank’s, all but a small sliver of it. But I had never considered the idea that someone would pay us to live in it, or that my parents would initiate such an arrangement, or that this arrangement was, right then, transpiring before my eyes.
Father shook hands with the man, then returned and beamed at us, suddenly. My mother answered the stranger’s wave in a cheerful way I’d never seen her wave to anyone before. “Well Dot,” my father said to me. “We’re all packed anyway. What about a camping trip?”
So began an arduous portage of our luggage from the car plus camping gear from the shed; first around the side of the house, through the yard where Morgan Lechz’s underclothes were pinned up on the lines, then into the woods, across the creek, and to the easement ten minutes away where young aspens and birch trees grew thin and crooked under the buzzing of the high voltage electrical lines far overhead.
“Here?” I said, while my brothers ran off exploring, as though the spot were new to them and not already a domain of carved trees and half-built forts and, in winter, sledding runs down from the rise where a transmission tower held up the electrical lines.
I listened to my parents whispering in their tent that night. “But over a month? They’ll go feral. What if you called her? Apologized.”
“No. Besides…no car.” Neither of them spoke again that night.
I longed for the house, for my things that were so tantalizingly close and, worse, in the possession of a stranger. To distract us, Father started a regimen of day-long hikes that took us in and out of Canada, he claimed, though I knew we were miles from the border.
One morning, while we were still rising, the man who now lived in our house came to us and said there’d been a phone call. He said a few words to our parents, who walked quickly to the house. Mr. Lechz, who still stood beside our tent, watched my brothers and me emerge, and seemed uncertain whether he should head back or look after us until our parents returned. He hesitated, then sat down in a camp stool. I climbed into the hammock and peeled an orange. I was already hot. He reached down into the grass and pulled a blade free and placed it between his thumbs and made calls: a loon, a red-tail, even a goose call that sounded like it was laughing, though he stopped abruptly, perhaps remembering what it was he knew and which my brothers and I didn’t yet: that our grandfather had suffered a stroke. Seeing my mother returning through the woods, the stranger rose. “Well, then,” he said and walked back to our house.
Mother gave us the news, then said that Mr. Lechz was nice enough to give our father a ride to town so he could arrange how to get back to his parents’ place. He would be away for a few days, maybe longer. I couldn’t do anything for Grandpa and his stroke, but I was sad for my father and for his having to handle this situation in addition to our homelessness, and, especially, for his having to take a series of buses to where the trouble was, instead of his Ford. I did not allow myself to degrade him to the point of imagining him hitchhiking. Or not for long. I suppose I should have also felt sorry for my mother, too, alone with us in the woods, but the thought did not cross my mind.
That same day, a girl who lived nearby, Grace, discovered we were camping. From that day on she would scarcely leave me alone. My mother was of no help and encouraged Grace to take me adventuring. Grace was a year older than I was and liked to tell me tales of what horrors awaited me in high school. She was a strange girl with a fatherless sense about her and she made me supremely uncomfortable. She tried to talk me into various schemes to occupy our July. That first week we were to sell flowers, or fireworks her uncle bought, or surplus bolts of fabric, wallpaper sample books, imperfect whetstones. All her ideas felt illicit, as though the items had been freshly stolen and we were called upon to unload them while they still retained some value. She was oddly precocious in her capitalistic ambitions, while I cared little for money, not having much to spend it on. But I understood Grace clearly: she was poor and wanted company in her endeavors so as not to feel alone with her poverty. I suppose what I feared was that I would grow poor by association. I had, at least, the good grace not to tell her we weren’t destitute, despite our circumstances. She wouldn’t have known what to do with the information that we were generating income by lolling away the day in hammocks wondering where all the electricity in the wires overhead was flowing to.
Father called once a day and left messages with our stranger. We found the transcriptions in the morning on little slips of paper that were placed under a rock on the card table that served as Mother’s outdoor kitchen. Father said he was here or there, en route; or had arrived; or that it was worse than he feared; or that he might be away a week or more before he could start heading back, but that he would use his own father’s car to do so. Underneath some of the notes, or scribbled on the backsides, were little phrases that didn’t sound at all like father, and which mother said were poetry.
Pardon this crude jumble of words
Even after the nest falls to pieces
the cowbird still lives
Mr. Lechz was a poet—hadn’t she said?—and he was just being nice. Or perhaps reusing notepaper. In any case, Mother said we mustn’t bother the man. This wasn’t a vacation for him; he was working, and that was all she really knew, or all she thought I needed to know about him.
And so, naturally, while my mother and brothers slept at our campsite under the thrumming rivers of electricity, I crept through the warm summer woods as mosquito-proofed as I could make myself and, from afar, through my father’s binoculars with the old imitation leather that sloughed off on my palms, I watched a poet work.
Morgan Lechz mostly read, though not once the newspaper, even though it was still being delivered to our house. A stack of books sat on one of the window sills and it only seemed to grow in height. I watched Mr. Lechz sit in Father’s chair and write for a bit, too, using one wide flat arm as a desk. I worried that the ink would seep through his paper and stain the wood. Sometimes I could hear a radio playing that wasn’t ours; we’d taken ours with us into the woods and the batteries had died. Now and again Mr. Lechz would disappear into the kitchen and I’d see only a tight portrait of him in the small window there as he rinsed a plate or washed a glass or sometimes cooked a late meal: spaghetti once, or something else that made the window steam instantly when he emptied boiling water. A finger suddenly met the fogged pane, like he was about to draw something across the glass or write a message. But he withdrew his finger, leaving just the print bleeding with water. Morgan Lechz slept in my parents’ bedroom. I never saw him in my bedroom, or the room my brothers shared. I spoke his name softly in the dark from my hiding place among the trees. Lechz Lechz Lechz; it sounded like my tongue had been cut out, and for those nights of my spying, it became my word for exile.
A few nights before my father returned, the poet was not at the house, which was dark when I arrived for my reconnaissance. I was patient. Eventually, Morgan Lechz’s indigo blue Olds came up the drive, looking black and newly washed. He stepped out with two women. One said, “If I’d known you were holed way out here…” and the other said, “Hurry, I need the powder room.” He fumbled with our house keys, then they were inside and his radio came on and soon I saw them dancing, the two women—not Mr. Lechz, who went outside and smoked his pipe. The night was warm and one of the women popped open two of our windows, raising the sashes higher than we normally would—there to the point where they usually stuck themselves and wouldn’t come down without a mixture of prayers and curses and sustained effort coaxed them down. One of the women said something to Mr. Lechz and he said, “Is that so?” He tapped his pipe empty, kicked the glowing dottle off our porch, then went back inside, closing the door behind him.
I was shocked, not only by these two strange women in our house, but at the sight of Mr. Lechz now dancing as music poured from the windows. It wasn’t slow dancing, or dancing with the women, or dancing in any way I’d ever seen before. Instead, he was doing a kind of tight all-by-himself dancing. The radio went to an announcer and they shut it off. Instead, I heard our piano being played by one of the women, and I was again startled; I had only ever thought of the piano as knowing classical music or show tunes or maybe an old Joplin rag when really, that was simply all my mother and father could play. What I heard now sounded too good and too modern to be coming from our out-of-tune instrument. I felt strangely betrayed. Our poet-in-residence went on dancing by himself while one of the women—maybe the one playing piano, maybe the other—sang. But I was focused on Mr. Lechz, who was all arms and shoulders and quick turns, wrapped up in his own choreography of joy.
After almost an hour of spying on their revelry, I spotted Grace slinking up the driveway a bit like one of the hyenas I’d seen in a nature film in geography class. She didn’t stop until she was up beside one of the windows, peeking in. My hands shook at the binoculars as one of the women stepped outside for air. Grace didn’t seem to notice at first. Maybe her eyes were closed and she was listening to the music. I couldn’t hear what words were spoken next, but the woman caught Grace by the arm and then pushed her into my house, into rooms where Grace had never been before. The piano stopped.
It was almost unbearable to think of her inside my house, and I strained to hear her called out for snooping. But then the piano started up again, and I saw Grace’s arm a couple of times, swinging past the window as she danced. I heard a piano duet next, and the poet singing something that made them all laugh. I worried that one of Grace’s relatives would come marching up our drive at any moment, catching them all in some indecorous act—perhaps all down to their slips, Mr. Lechz in only a T-shirt. There would be demands to know what in hell was going on, perhaps a threat of violence—or its delivery. But no one came out. Only the moon. After a while they left our house, all of them still fully clothed. They piled into the Olds and away they went: the poet, the two women, and Grace.
I did not yet possess the imagination to know what might befall Grace in the night’s remaining hours, other than to sense that it would undoubtedly involve some kind of intoxication and, possibly, fondling of some sort; things I imagined Grace might even wish for. And yet I also had a keen sense that whatever befell her would also be my fault, even though (and because), the events of the night had unfolded entirely without my participation. Whatever was about to happen, I was glad at least that it wasn’t taking place in my house.
After the Olds pulled away, I couldn’t quite bring myself to enter my own house, afraid I would be able to discern, in the rooms and furniture, how the house had changed its loyalties. I didn’t have more than a quarter hour to deliberate, though, as the Olds returned, this time with only the poet. I could see him inside the house, straightening things a little. He had trouble closing the windows, but managed, finally; then made a little trill on the upper notes of the piano before extinguishing the lights and turning in. I wondered if he was wondering, like I was, whether the whole evening had been imagined.
I caught a cold. At first just a sore throat that morning, then by nightfall a fever with chills. I remember my mother leading me through the woods by flashlight and then being in my bedroom again with a washcloth over my forehead. The fever broke by morning and I rose drained, yet also reborn, a more tender version of myself, thankful to be in my own home. My mother was asleep on the floor and Mr. Lechz was drinking coffee out front and watching my brothers in our broken-down Ford as they pretended to drive it. If my mother and Mr. Lechz had spoken during the night, I recalled none of it.
When my mother rose, Mr. Lechz told her he planned to leave that day, a week early, though my mother told him to stay, that I was fine now, just one of those regular fevers I suffered from—which was news to me. Perhaps it was the lost rent she thought of, or her inability to enforce their agreement. Or perhaps she, too, had heard the music from the house that night, a song of an unexperienced bohemian life of which Mr. Lechz would be her closest brush. He told us he’d be out by noon.
We went into the woods to strike our camp. When we returned with our first load we found that Mr. Lechz and his Olds had left. I discovered a slip of paper just inside my room. He must have slid it under the door before leaving, even though he could easily have stepped inside.
You may inform your mother
I sorrychipped a saucer and
a spill extinguished the back burner, left
Otherwise, I have so enjoyed
this feast of quiet and (despite)
your glintglints behind
It was the first time I’d found myself within a poem, albeit as a spy, and I sat heavy with that and (despite) and its meaning. It was better than despite (and) I reasoned. I tucked the note under my mattress. When my father returned late, after dark, I asked him about the poet. He laughed. Mr. Lechz wasn’t a poet. Where had I come up with such an idea? The man was a janitor and groundskeeper at one of the schools in the Pisquane district. He lived at the school, and saved up all year to rent a car and a place for the summer when the schools closed.
I wasn’t disappointed to learn this, only disappointed at my father’s ignorance. Here, in our home, surrounded by woods, Mr. Lechz had enjoyed his feast of quiet, his books, his poetry. A month of summer without students swarming about in that chaos of noise and filth he must have endured at work. Most importantly, Mr. Lechz knew I was watching him, even when he’d brought his muses to sing and dance and one of them had chipped that saucer, perhaps. I couldn’t help but wonder whether, when one of those women discovered Grace outside our house and pushed her indoors, he wasn’t a little disappointed to find out it wasn’t me.
Maybe it was the remains of the fever, or having lived out in the woods for over a week, but knowing a poet had lived in our home sharpened my senses: the cool slickness of a porcelain bowl while making an omelette, the tackiness of the eggs, the colder impenetrability of a stainless steel fork, the faint dry grime on the refrigerator handle, the soft papery feel of the egg carton as I put it back—was this the stuff of poetry? Sitting in father’s chair, did Mr. Lechz hear or deduce or imagine the echoes of us in the house: my brothers playing communist Monopoly, where every player gets a house, the government gets all the properties, and the game is immediately over haha Dot haha; or the weary rush of getting ready for school; the birds in winter, pecking at the swinging suet; the loose gravel or the crunch of snow as Father returned home from work, the car still running then and July ahead of us, all of us ignorant of the arguments and illnesses ahead, and I of the secret life of our home and its as-yet undisclosed occupant. Did all those vibrations save themselves for the poet’s tenancy, his eye, his pen?
I wondered why he never came back. Was it because he had seen us? Had we not measured up to his imagination, was he done with us, had we given him all we could and, if so, what was it we had given him?
When I told Grace I knew she’d been in my house the night of the party, she said one of the women had taught her how to dance and that the other one had let her sip a hard drink and that they had driven into town afterwards, the women laughing in the back seat and the radio on loud. It wasn’t until they arrived at the bus station and the women kissed Mr. Lechz goodbye and he climbed back into the car did he notice and remember that Grace was still in the back seat. He sat there watching the women disappear into the station, then asked her where she lived and how to get there.
“And he took you home?” I asked.
“Close by, yeah.”
“Did he ask about your house, about you?”
“Why would he?” Grace said. “Besides, he didn’t say a thing on the drive. He wasn’t exactly the life of the party, either. He didn’t even know how to dance.”
And I knew then, from my poet’s lack of curiosity into Grace and her home, that we had been, for a time, a family set apart.