Shadowy reflections of drooping banana leaves haunted the dirt-smudged windows of the old house. It made me think of the hidden memories of people and a past long since gone but still trapped within the walls of the crumbling structure. The roof of the front porch sagged as if weighted with the gravity of the experience of people who had once passed through the corridors before exiting through the doors and windows forever.
I stepped up onto the porch, my fingers brushing the rainbow-hued Mardi Gras beads dangling from the handrails and next to empty spaces left by missing porch spindles that lent a grinning-pumpkin look to the front of the house. Creeping vines from the overgrown front yard claimed most of the three guillotine windows that lined the porch adjacent to the front door, completing the abandoned air and haunted look of the Creole cottage I'd already set my heart on buying. This dilapidated structure was a symbol. A call to arms for me. A new place to start after an impressive and unexpected stumble and a complicated knot of bad decisions, stupidity, and an alarming amount of unwarranted confidence that had almost derailed my life. And all despite the family whose love and support I wasn't convinced I deserved.
"Nola . . ."
Despite the worry and caution in my stepmother's voice, she stopped. We had both learned over the last six years that I needed to make my own decisions. And accept the consequences.
I slowly hopscotched broken boards and patches of termite-chewed wood, the lacelike sinews as dangerous as thin ice. Spots of faded fuchsia paint clung to the front door and corbels of the porch roof, contrasting with the inevitable blue paint of the ceiling and lime green of the clapboards. A line of dusty blue bottles sat atop the sash of one of the windows, a precarious position for something so fragile. Maybe whoever had placed them there believed in taking chances.
"It needs a little work," I said. "Mostly TLC. And maybe a few gallons of paint and linseed oil." I looked down at the sidewalk where my stepmother, Charleston Realtor Melanie Middleton Trenholm, stood in her high heels-despite my warnings about New Orleans sidewalks. Her face wore the expression of someone who'd just witnessed a train wreck. I would have laughed, except she was looking at the house I wanted to buy.
She muttered something under her breath, something that sounded a lot like Oh, no, not again. Louder, she said, "You know, Nola, speaking from experience here, I'd say this house needs more than paint and linseed oil. A wrecking ball or flamethrower might be more appropriate."
To distract her, I pointed past a cluster of debris piled on the porch, including a discarded surfboard-not completely out of place in the eclectic Faubourg Marigny-in the direction of a tall oleander plant, its clusters of white funnel-shaped blooms drooping drunkenly in the heat. "The front and back gardens are a little overgrown but contain lots of gorgeous plants. I can't wait for Granddad to come visit and offer his expertise."
I said this with a grin, trying hard to transfer my need for her to see what I saw, the possibilities and hope that I imagined both the house and I required. The beauty and life that existed just under the surface and would emerge if we were given the opportunity to shed our old paint. I looked around again, determined to be honest with myself. Maybe it did need more than TLC and touching up. But whatever it required, I was up to the task. I straightened my shoulders and returned my gaze to Melanie. One thing I was sure of: Our foundations were strong. The house and I were survivors.
"Nola . . ." Melanie began again, but stopped. She met my gaze, her eyes warming with understanding. She'd inherited a historic house in Charleston despite a lifelong dislike of old houses. It wasn't the houses so much as the restless spirits of past residents who hadn't left and had insisted on communicating with her-a gift she'd tried to deny for most of her life but seemed to have finally come to terms with. Through the years, as the "goiter on her neck"-as she'd once called the architectural relic she'd inherited-had become less of a burden and more of the warm and welcoming home where she lived with her husband, children, and multiple dogs, she'd developed a grudging admiration for old houses. I'd even heard her describe one to a client as "a piece of history you can hold in your hands."
Now, as she looked at me with dawning perception, I knew she was seeing this house as I saw it. As a chance for me to move on with my life, much as the inheritance of her own house had pushed her forward. Kicking and screaming, for sure, but with a forward and positive trajectory. The light flickered in her eyes, and I hoped she wasn't hearing the sound of a cash register ringing in the back of her practical mind.
"Well, then," she said, carefully stepping onto the porch's bottom step, "let's have a look inside."
Relief unclenched my chest and allowed me to take a deep breath as I reached inside the rusted metal mailbox nailed to one of the square columns holding up the porch.
"Is that really a good idea?" Melanie asked. "I mean, anybody could just walk in and steal everything."
"Uh, yeah. That. Luckily, there's nothing left to steal. Anything of value has been long since stolen or otherwise removed. Anyway, Ali said it would be a good idea for us to have access."
"Who's Ali? What happened to what's-his-name?"
"Frank? He resigned as our agent. Something about how he wouldn't show me another house if you were going to be there. I'm sure it's because he recognized that you're an accomplished real estate agent and that I didn't need both of you." I spared Melanie the adjectives Frank had used to describe her-pushy, overbearing, officious, and anal retentive. The rest of his descriptions weren't repeatable in polite company.
"Good. His presence was completely redundant. I'm glad he was gracious enough to admit it."
I hid my smile as I stuck the old-fashioned iron key into the lock and jiggled it the way Ali had instructed me over the phone. "She said the owner would stop by to answer any questions. Apparently, the owner's made of stronger stuff and can't be cowed by a labeling gun." I bit my lip as I continued to jiggle the key, hoping Melanie hadn't noticed my slip.
"Excuse me? Did you look inside Frank's briefcase? It was a disaster. He should be thankful that I organized it for him."
I was spared from responding by the door opening on its own, despite the fact that I hadn't felt the turn of the key or any release from the lock. I felt Melanie's gaze on me. "That was easier than I thought it would be," I said brightly. "Ali said the lock should be the first thing I replace because it took her forever to get it open. Guess I just have the right touch."
I stepped across the threshold, hearing the delicate tap of Melanie's heels following me inside, her gaze boring holes in the back of my head. I shut the door, then turned to face her. "Remember our agreement. If you hear or see anything while we are touring this house, please keep it to yourself. I'm not the one who can talk to dead people. Except for that one time in Charleston, they don't have a reason to bother me, and I can remain blissfully oblivious if they're around. If I feel a connection to a house, I won't care if there is an army of wandering souls in its hallways-I won't hear or see them, so it won't keep me up at night. Besides, there are no old houses in New Orleans without at least one lingering spirit. It's a given."
Melanie smiled tightly. "Of course."
We turned our attention to the interior of the house, neither one of us speaking. Either the pictures Ali had e-mailed me had been taken a decade or two earlier, or someone was very skilled with Photoshop. Without furniture to hide behind, the scarred cypress floor glared up at us like an unbandaged wound. Colorful splotches of varying sizes stained the old wood, and I promised myself that I wouldn't look too closely or try to identify the sources. Especially of the ones that were definitely not water- or pet-related.
Like a woman in the throes of labor trying to imagine the happy outcome after the agony, I said, "It could be worse."
"How?" Melanie walked toward the remains of a fireplace. The woodwork had been removed with what must have been an ax, judging by scars in the surrounding drywall that were deep enough to show the studs underneath. "Nothing that a match and some lighter fluid couldn't fix."
"Oh, come on. I know you don't really believe that. Not anymore, anyway. Just think of our house on Tradd Street. And your mother's house on Legare. You helped saved them both from the brink. Even you have to admit that in the end it was all worth it."
"I might. But they were only on the brink. This one has been completely pushed over it. And then trampled on. I think it would appreciate being put out of its misery."
"Look," I said, sticking my fingers through one of the holes in the drywall. "Imagine how beautiful these walls might be if we removed all the drywall and replaced it with plaster. And refinished the floors and fixed the woodwork around the windows and doors. Just look at these high ceilings! Imagine the history in these walls."
As I spoke, her gaze traveled behind me toward the stairs with the missing balustrade, her eyes following something. Or someone. I didn't turn around. She forced her attention back to me and gave me another tight smile. "Are all the bedrooms upstairs?"
"Yes. Just three, but because they have to fit under the pitch of the steeply gabled roof, they're tiny, according to the floor plan. I noticed two dormer windows outside, which should at least let in a lot of light. I might have to knock out a wall to enlarge both bedrooms, as well as make the one full bath bigger. And more functional."
I tried speaking too fast and too softly, in the dim hope that she wouldn't hear me, and would be too embarrassed to ask me to repeat myself. She was highly sensitive about her age, for no reason except the fact that she was a few years older than my dad. This meant I should be safe from further scrutiny regarding the condition of the house and my sanity. "Ali mentioned that the toilet was missing. As well as a sink. But at least there's a half bath down here. Although I believe the toilet doesn't actually flush."
"You do realize that despite my advanced age I have perfect hearing, right?" Melanie moved toward the stairs, turning around to take stock. "So, this room runs the length of the house and doubles as entryway and living room."
I followed behind her, smelling her rose perfume-something she'd started wearing my freshman year in college, when I'd moved back home. "Right. The other front-facing room is the dining room, and behind it, facing the fenced-in backyard, is the kitchen."
"Which I'm sure is just as functional as the upstairs bathroom."
"No," I said, hating to admit she was right. "The kitchen has a sink."
Melanie glanced over her shoulder at me but didn't say anything.
As we climbed the stairs to the second level, the temperature changed as if the thermostat had abruptly dropped thirty degrees, despite the hot sun streaming in unimpeded from one of the dormer windows. Except there was no air conditioner. Or thermostat. Melanie didn't say anything, but I saw her shiver.
We both ducked at the top of the stairs to avoid hitting the pitched ceiling, Melanie rubbing her arms as she looked around at the laminate wood panels covering the walls. Dust motes floated in front of the filthy windows, the musky scent of old house-an oddly appealing mix of dust, ancient fabrics, and furniture polish-making me a little homesick.
This room was as long as the living space beneath us, but far less functional because of the ceiling slope. Still, it held a lot of charm, and it had the same cypress floors as the first story. While getting my master's degree in historic preservation at the College of Charleston, I'd done a lot of floor rehab, and my fingers itched to see what a little sanding and linseed oil might do to these.
Melanie's gaze focused on a closed door at the top of the stairs, her mouth opening and then shutting immediately. I walked past her and turned the knob. "It's locked, and there's no key in the keyhole. I think it's just a closet. We can ask the owner."
"Do you smell that?" She stuck her head forward, sniffing the air. "It's pipe tobacco. It's like someone just blew pipe smoke in my face."
"I don't smell anything. Just the house." Which wasn't exactly true. I had caught a whiff, but just a whiff.
She nodded, her eyes remaining on the closet door. "I think . . ."
"You promised." I gave her a warning glance before going through an open doorway that led directly into one of the small bedrooms. There were two other doorways, one to the second bedroom and the other to what must have been the bathroom.
I stuck my head into the bathroom, and immediately pulled it back. "I don't recommend you look in there." I was grateful for the lower temperature sparing us from the scent of heat-baked whatever had been left in the plumbing. I looked at the tall, sloped ceiling, at the original wooden beams and dormer window surround, and a fireplace like the one downstairs, with its mantel intact. "I think if I just reposition these walls, we could have two decent-sized bedrooms. And . . ."
The familiar notes of "Dancing Queen" being loudly hummed behind me caught my attention. I shouldn't have been surprised. Loudly humming ABBA songs was Melanie's way of drowning out the restless spirits who wanted to talk to her. I assumed they found it as annoying as the living did, which is why it worked. It was one of Melanie's quirks-definitely weird but also surprisingly lovable.
I sighed. "Fine. I've seen enough up here. Let's go back downstairs." As I turned, I spotted an unhinged door leaning against the wall. The wood tone and the opaque glass of the top panel told me it hadn't come from the house, but it didn't tell me why it was there.