Short Story The Agoraphobe’s House
She drank a bottle of poison. It must have been household cleaner. His poem doesn’t specify.
I must have walked by the agoraphobe’s house hundreds of times. I stroll through here almost every work day, to get out for a while, circulate. His house is like many others on this block, a sedate beauty secured by the shade of old trees. I have a friend I walk with sometimes. He prefers to take the alleys. He finds the unmanicured backs of the houses more appealing. I admire the bright front doors and clean windows. I don’t know how they do it. Rarely is anyone home. Sometimes gardeners pull weeds and spread wood chips, or men on a roof call down in Spanish to their mates in a truck in the driveway. A long white hose sometimes gurgles in or out of one of these houses, spraying insulation or sucking out cellar rot. A carpenter may set up his saw on the front walk. Once in a while the sound of a vacuum cleaner meets the chirp of sparrows. I imagine what beautiful rugs must lie on the smooth wooden floors hidden in these houses. Soft thoughts must flow out of heads pillowed on curvaceous arm chairs.
The sign laid into the front garden of the agoraphobe’s house states that here lived a renowned poet. The house was built for him and his wife Charlotte in 1915. The thought of the poetry of 1915 chills me, dulling the mid-afternoon sun over my shoulder. The agoraphobe’s poetry, I think, must be full of ’twere and ’ twas. It goes on and on about the land and fraternity. O woe the ranked lines, their verbs reversed, thought I. Those archaic words, marshaled into antiquated forms, stank and sagged like a box of school records stored in a basement. The migraine that had been plaguing me lately let loose a tentacle, tightening muscles around my eye at the thought of reading those poems. I imagined the boredom and loneliness that would lead me to open the agoraphobe’s book. Names of foreign cities and Greek heroes spilled out. The dull, gray state I had begun in amplified, the clackety rhythm and persistent end rhymes purling off the pages, trailing fumes of headache and irrelevance. Even the agoraphobe’s name repelled me, so square and white and colonial and gone: William Ellery Leonard.
A revered professor who suffered from a crippling anxiety disorder, the plaque explained, Leonard had been forced by his disease to move from this house to one closer to his campus office. Yet he had been happy here, and described it in his poetry. He would have been in his office all day, while it was his wife Charlotte who polished the windows and potted the Boston ferns. Charlotte knew all the neighbors, and relayed the gossip to him. Sundays he sat in his study brushing dust off his blotter. “Are you hungry?” she called. Her sisters had brought some apples from the old farm. The steam of the pie had damped her cheeks. “Maybe later,” the poet answered, looking down at his blackening page. The secret alphabet of Greek released into homespun English; thrashing swords and locks of raven hair revealed themselves under his pen nib. Later, he put Lysander aside and called up the apples, cheek to cheek in their cool box. A breeze off the lake shivered the birch leaves. Tresses of goldenrod nodded over the back gate. The poet’s world dipped from silver to gold, brightness leaping out of the dark curls of ink. The thick vanilla aisles between the lines breathed possibility.
One day, the poet wrote, he’d heard footsteps below him. He paused on the landing, and saw through the bars of the staircase a head bent over a vase. A feather duster drooped from a pale hand. Keys bulged a tattered apron pocket. The waist the apron strings encircled boasted slim delicacy. Who is it? he asked his neighbors. “Your landlord’s daughter was in a madhouse in France,” the woman next door told him. “And before that, she threw herself in the lake, right off the dock here. Her daddy dragged her out by her hair.”
The water lapped the algaed poles. Minnows swam in and out of the shadows of the wooden planks. The whole structure had warped and twisted so its end flipped up like a snarl. One board had rotted away, leaving a gap that threatened to snag the poet’s foot.
Despite the neighbor’s warning, the poet took his landlord’s daughter out rowing. Her hair flew behind her, and her bare toes magnified beneath the water. Her father had been a diplomat. She had traveled to Denmark. “And France?” he asked. “There too.” He stayed near the shore, shying from the deep center of the lake, but she didn’t seem to notice. She read his poems, and then offered to type them on her father’s machine. The tap tap of her fingers on the keys sent him to sleep at night.
I’d gone past the agoraphobe’s house many times without seeing the commemorative sign. I wondered what else I might not have noticed on my walks. Three chickens lived in a coop a few streets down. I called out to them, “Hey, ladies!” But once I’d found them, I lost them again. I spent months wondering where they’d been, turning always a block too soon or choosing the street above or below instead. I thought I’d taken every variation of path through this staid neighborhood. It didn’t have a shabby part or a pretty part but was all evenly clean and admirable, every house different but all alike in their upkeptness. An equitable love coated the wooded yards, and I lost the specificity of the one with the chicken coop. When I stumbled on it again, nine months later, I made up a complicated mnemonic to remember the address.
The agoraphobe was a well-known character in his day. Stories about him hit the front page of the local newspaper. I saw his striking white hair and cravat in the library’s crumbled reproduction of the State Journal . He looked exactly like a poet, and had been on the list, the paper declared, for the Nobel Prize. He was confined, the paper said, to a phobic prison of six blocks encompassing his home and campus office. This would have been where he moved to, leaving the house built in 1915 behind. For years he never breached this self-imposed boundary. He declined invitations from the president and board of trustees. He didn’t take his students out for a beer. If he broke a shoelace, he couldn’t replace it. Dear Charlotte would have had to go get him one.
Charlotte knew about the first wife, but pitied him. He should never have gotten wrapped up with that wicked woman. The bad wife’s mother had died in the county mad house. An older brother had killed himself by lying down on his bed on top of a chloroformed sponge. The girl had shaken his stiff corpse the next morning, complaining that his oatmeal was getting cold. Finding the body was said to have started her decline. A woman from a family like that should never have been entrusted with the lovely thoughts of the poet.
Charlotte listened to the ring of sledgehammers. Men were building a pavilion in the park. She sat down at the kitchen table and went over the accounts. The poet’s chair creaked in his study above her. She steadied herself until the sound stopped. In the silence she went on adding and subtracting. He left all that to her, to pay the maid, to buy the oil for the burner. Her hands were filthy from searching for a tape measure in the bottom of the tool chest. One day a young peddler had come to the door. His shirt was ripped in front, his bare skin showing through gaps in his filthy coat. He stank like a goat. One eye stared off, on its own track. The one that was left seemed like the surface of a pond, no knowing what was down there. She stood in the back door, one hand still holding it, while he rambled through the explanation of his wares. He didn’t have the exact names for the objects unwrapped from their cloth in his hands. Pins were “sharpies,” scissors were “pliers,” ribbons were “rat tails.” He didn’t seem to know what people did with these things. They may have landed in his hands, foreign and pointed, demanding that they be displayed. She gave him some money, more a donation than a sale. “You’ll regret this,” the peddler said, in the same tone as a thank you.
The poet wrote a book of sonnets about his first wife’s suicide. He had it printed privately, but when a leading press brought it out three years later, it sold like crazy. His readers lapped up his story, his wife gone slow and forgetful after the death of her father, hardly rising from her chair all day. The dishes went unwashed. She didn’t hem the curtains. He gave her little poems and lessons to memorize, called her “my child.” And yet to have a child of their own would have done them in, and he alluded to the difficulty of plunging into her but withdrawing at the right moment. The birches shook. The snow clogged the bottom of the hill, and was soon cleft black with the marks of students’ boots.
His dear Charlotte wondered what he would write about her. The apples slept cheek to cheek in their cool box. The goldenrod nodded over the back fence. The rattle of pans might have penetrated his study above, or the slamming of the oven door. Her husband hadn’t described her eyes or her hands, only their domestic tranquility. He seemed to enjoy the trace of her, the atmosphere she created, much more than her particular living entity.
One day, Charlotte thought, a young peddler came to the house. He stank like a goat, and his lip was bleeding. He asked her for a drink of milk. One eye wobbled off, turning towards the ceiling then trailing back. He lifted his arm to take the glass, and revealed a gash in his coat. A flash of pale skin seemed to call to her, quickly silenced by the dirty wool resettling. Her husband used to cling to her, startled by falling acorns or rasping voices. His first wife’s father had risen from the dead and cursed him. The poet had found himself on a narrow track in the mountains, heading one way while a mass of people came the other way, paying him no attention.
She put the milk glass in the sink. Her thighs swept past each other beneath her skirt, two strangers on the sidewalk. Now they recognized each other as old friends and held a hurried conversation. The peddler yawned. Despite his disarray, his teeth stood neatly even.
The poet’s sonnet described a letter from his troubled fiancée’s brother to her father—he found it left open as if on purpose. “No need to tell him of her past,” the brother wrote. “This is a good alternative to Mendota,” meaning the insane asylum across the lake, where she had recently been a patient. His probable income was discussed, and his reputation at the college. The poet thought of breaking the engagement, but he had gotten used to her leaning against his shoulder. “So it is she who has been busy there, and ranged my papers, and pillowed me the chair,” he wrote. He was not strong enough to tear himself from such tenderness.
I went further down the street to end my walk, where the quiet neighborhood hits the north-south four-lane. The hospital sits here, and a billboard advertising the hospital’s services. An old man in a cap claims he belongs at home. Arms reach towards him, as from nurses off the border of the scene. Months earlier this ad had been an abstract drawing of a heart, and a statistic about the hospital’s coronary team. A few weeks later, a radiant family of healthy young people exulted beneath the hospital’s new acronym. Beyond the billboard, the shuttered windows of the television repair shop look down into their lap. The payday loan company gleams bright dollar signs. It’s hard to think anything could go wrong in a place like that, confidently red and yellow, with its cartoon dollars squeezed in an exploding cornucopia.
The agoraphobe wouldn’t have been able to make it to this different zone, the plush lawns and sober front walks abandoned for the commercial razzmatazz. He would have bounced endlessly against the walls of his self-imposed phobic cell, seeing nothing but the placid good cheer of his neighbors, until he and Charlotte moved onto campus. He then left Charlotte for a woman the newspaper dubbed a “blonde co-ed.” When this third wife left him, the reporters tracked her down to a hunting lodge fifty miles from town, and interviewed her about the state of her marriage. For the resulting story it was the poet’s face, craggy lines softened by the billowing cravat, that stared out of the newspaper. My research didn’t turn up a picture of any of the wives. “Her vision of life, its lures, its lies, Its garrulous people stepping to and fro,” he wrote of the suicide, “Was prismed through her own peculiar eyes, By light which through them from within would flow.”
His first wife’s family interred her in their own plot, her maiden name chiseled on the headstone. The marriage had lasted a little under a year. Her father’s fortune had gone to the poet, though, and with this money he had the new house built. He never said that her shade came after him, her feet bare, her nightgown sweeping the floor. Her death had been simple: She ran upstairs ahead of him, grabbed a bottle of poison, and drank it down. It must have been some household cleaner. His poem doesn’t specify.
Charlotte got up from the kitchen table and went to the sink. The bristly pad, the dirty rags, lay morose and expectant. All her sympathy and good cheer was wasted on the crusted plates and the oily pan the chicken had been roasted in. These, her companions, answered her ministrations only with soft clacks and thunks. The goldenrod leaned over the fence. A flash of movement drew her to the shed, door slanted open. It was her husband who would give life to these slivers of sensation. She was little more than an automaton, manufacturing domesticity to coddle the genius. In 1915 would she have minded, or would dear Charlotte have felt fortunate to be so near the great man, that is, up until he left her for the blonde?
“Hey ladies,” I called to the chickens. I was getting to know this neighborhood far better than my own.
“I’m sick of everything,” my friend said to me one time when we took a turn down the alley. He didn’t often walk with me, but would come out on a bright day. He liked the unpaved back ways, and the sound of our boots on the gravel. Our rhythmic pacing sent clouds of sand up around our ankles. He launched into a little story, his mother, his sister, the year he had mined coal. I didn’t see anything of the back porches and patios, the beds of impatiens gone to seed. I looked down, and sometimes at his collar. Possibly an Ecuadoran maid from Janitate watched us pass as she dusted the sills of an upstairs bedroom. More likely it was the curtains themselves that watched us, and the furled umbrellas sticking out of the patio tables. Such neat shapes, such polished surfaces. My friend talked, then coughed and blew his nose. We turned the corner and crossed the street. A crow sat on the highest branch of a pine, looking down on the regularly patterned shingles, the clean windows, the swept paths.