Sheila Bali
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Oakwud Has Done Me In

It was a frosty spring afternoon in 1995 when Dave and I visited the antique homestead known as Oakwud near Foxborough, Massachusetts. By Foxborough’s standards, this Georgian Colonial, built around 1745, was prestigious, a historic spot in the National Registry of Massachusetts. Gazing beyond the red brick house, we were awed by a meadow of early blooms: Muscari the blue of the sky, golden daffodils, scarlet tulips. This carpet of colors was bordered by rock walls laid long ago. To the right perched a gazebo on a boulder the size of six elephants. A staircase spiraled its way to the top of this wooden structure, handcrafted from saplings harvested from the local woods. Oakwud is a name from Old English, and this was the estate of our dreams—until Dave let out a shout: “I’ll die in this place. The renovations will do me in.” His eyes had become moist in the cold wind.

“We don’t have to make an offer,” I yelled back. “We can walk away.”

“You mean run for the hills, don’t you?” He laughed and I shuddered, thinking he might be right. “Now’s the time before it’s too late.” We seized each other’s hand, locked fingers and sighed.

“Can you weed, dig and prune?” Dave was egging me on.

“Sure,” I volleyed back, “but can you cut grass with a tractor mower, haul away branch debris, perform masonry, carpentry, plumbing, electrical?” I was breathless just thinking of the tasks that lay ahead of us.

“This is a money pit, you know,” he said, squinting his baby-blues at a soaring flock of sparrows. “But Oakwud has great features, fine cheekbones.” He began to count on his fingers. “Carved moldings, five fireplaces, a beehive oven, an expansive sun room, a library, two walnut staircases, plus an attic where the grandchildren can play.” Then he winked. “And a ballroom on the upper floor, to serve as a master suite.”

I buffed my icy hands, blew into them and said. “Ditto, and Martha Stewart would fall for the ballroom hook, line and sinker. Don’t forget the sinker. Bad omen.” I poked the toe of my boot into a pile of soggy leaves. “I feel rooted, as if I’ve always belonged here.” I cleared the leaves, as if to clear my mind, and noted crocuses spearing their heads through tufts of grassy browns, smelling of fungus and old-world history. “Imagine. We’ll belong to ancient times, when slaves took refuge in the underground railway, when canons were hauled through the mud to Boston. We can’t say no to the past.” I cupped my hands to my ears. “Can’t you hear the call? Can’t you hear them saying, Buy this bloomin’ house!”

“Your mind is running a marathon. But you’re right.” Dave jutted his chin and puffed out his chest.

“Let’s place an offer, one the owners can’t refuse. I’ll be glad to lie down and rest here in peace—once the house kills me.”

“What a morbid thing to say.” I cast him a disapproving glance. Silence floated between us like a rainy day.

 

* * *

 

Suffice to say, we bought the house. After the escrow had closed, I packed my car with cleaning paraphernalia and motored to the property. Mature rhododendrons, the tall sort that can only be appreciated from the vantage of a second-floor window, graced the graveled driveway with their lavender blossoms. I drove uphill, around a giant black walnut tree, and parked right behind a Sotheby’s van. “What’s going on?” I muttered, and then noticed a metal dumpster blocking the garage. I climbed out of the car, grabbed my mop, bucket, rags and detergents, and knocked on the weathered front door. All seemed quiet, except for the cawing of the ravens and the scraping of bushy tailed squirrels. I noticed the cracked white paint and the hole in a window pane. A woman with frizzy auburn hair and an expression that screamed irritation opened the door a sliver. “Wondahful, yuh finally heah,” she said in a perfect Bostonian accent, dropping her r’s like a Kennedy and slurring her ah’s. Blue jeans hugged her shapely hips, and an oversized, Harvard sweatshirt hung over her flat chest, nipples protruding.

I introduced myself and said, “I’m ready to get grimy.” “Oh,” she said, rather standoffishly, “you must be the cleanah lady.”

“Actually, I’m the owner. Perhaps you didn’t hear my name.” I waited on the top step, bluestone pitted by rain.

“You must be mistaken.” She gripped the doorknob, strumming her cracked lips with her fingertips.

“No, I assure you. I picked up my keys from the realtor before I came here. See!” I clinked the keys against the bucket.

She stared in horror.

“You’re three days early! My packers are still packing.”

I stepped inside the musty, centuries-old entrance and dropped my things near a tower of boxes, avoiding the cardboard flaps. “According to our contract,” I said, removing my boots and coat, “this is possession date. I have cleaning to do before my movers arrive, at least the kitchen and bathrooms.” The woman crossed her arms as I continued to explain. “My movers are driving from California and should be here in a few days. They’ll be backing up a fifty-foot rig along this narrow driveway. Will we have to prune back the maple trees?”

“I should think not,” said the woman, dismayed. “I’m Marjorie.” Her eyes were bulging, and she placed her boney hands on her rounded hips. “You purchased the house from my parents, then? The Griepps? Right?”

“Correct.”

“But I thought we had agreed to a three-day extension.”

“I’m not aware of any extension, and I’m having a new mattress and linens delivered this afternoon.”

Flustered, Marjorie stepped backward, colliding with the wall. “I don’t know if I can move out in time,” she said. “How can we make this work? Naturally we’ll compensate you for the days we overstay.”

Then came the clankety-clank of high heels. In traipsed a woman, her ears adorned with sparkly studded earrings and her blond ponytail held in place with pearly hair clips. She tapped a red ballpoint against a black-lined writing pad and faced me, frowning through fire-engine lipstick. “Sorry, dear,” she said, “but you can’t be sleeping here tonight. As you can see, my staff are itemizing the owner’s collectibles for Sotheby’s catalogue and the auction in Boston.”

I interrupted her. “I can’t help but notice your accent. You’re not from Massachusetts? Perhaps New York?”

“Yes, and how astute of you to notice.” She scribbled red notes on her pad.

“It’s a nice accent and I . . .”

She dropped her pad to her side and cut in. “Perhaps you and your husband might want to attend our auction. But now we’re extremely busy, as you can see, and dear me, there are so many of us. We’ll simply be getting into each other’s way.”

“I promise to steer clear of you, but I’m here to spiff up what I can.” I snatched my things and Marjorie ushered me to the kitchen, dropping her ladylike r’s while spewing cuss words under her breath.

The house spoke of bigness—like, “I could get lost in here”—but the kitchen, with its solid cherry-wood cabinets, whispered intimacy. As I was washing the cupboard shelves of spices and flour residue, the Sotheby lady popped in for a soda. “Oh, do stop fussing with dirty crumbs, my dear,” she said. “You don’t have to do this. Our cleaners will gladly take care of incidental chores once we’ve finished packing up. You’ll spoil your beautiful manicure, dear. Besides, you might break a nail on the owner’s priceless artifacts and be held liable.” She sipped her coke, crinkling her nose into the fizz.

I counted to ten—and said, “My name is Ms. New Home Owner. You are either a guest in my house or an unwanted intruder. Please take your pick, dear.”

Lady Sotheby stormed into the dining room, almost colliding with Marjorie. I trailed with my sudsy sponge, dribbling water onto the hardwood flooring, and leaned against the doorway to give my sore feet a rest. Marjorie was removing silverware from a built-in cupboard. When she was finished, she strutted off into an adjoining room and dialed a long number on a rotary phone. She dashed back, panting. “I just spoke with Father in Malibu and he sends his best wishes and apologizes. He wants to know how we can make this up to you. After all, it’s been such an awkward imposition.”

“Just leave me to move about my work,” I said. “If you do your best to hurry, we’ll get along just fine.”

“Of course, of course, by all means,” Marjorie said. “After all, we are civilized adults.” Marjorie had found her r’s again and her formal ways, and the remainder of the day became a blur. After Lady Sotheby left, Marjorie stoked the fire and dragged a wingback chair to the hearth from across the spacious parlor. The evening air had begun to chill. She flicked on a nearby lamp and said, “Please sit. I have something for you.” She tugged out a wide drawer from an oak armoire and lugged it to me. “Let me at least give you these. They stay with the house, you know, for when you have time for a quiet read.”

“What are they?” I blinked as the flames crackled and cast their amber warmth.

“Documents, records, my mother’s handwritten notes, historic books and newspaper articles about the Sturbridge Village tunnel digs.”

“Tunnel digs. How wonderful. Thank you, Marjorie.”

“I’ve placed clean towels in one of the upstairs bathrooms. The tub is extra long for a deep soak. Looks like your mattress didn’t make it. I’ve also set fresh sheets on one of the beds. Help yourself to the fridge. There’s eggs, milk, coffee, tea, sugar and bread for tomorrow’s breakfast.” She paused, then said, “Watch out for the mice. We put things away, so don’t leave any food out. I’ve ordered supper. I hope you appreciate fine takeout, our town’s best—pizza. Oh, and Sotheby’s will return at six. Rest up. Good night. I’ll leave you now.” Marjorie grabbed her coat and dashed out of the house, leaving the fire burning bright. I was never to see her again.

 

* * *

 

Three days later, on schedule, my movers arrived. Within a week, the roof began to leak. It was repaired, but not before staining the bedroom floor a streaky black. “I’ll tackle the floor this weekend,” Dave said, and we ripped up the damaged parts, replacing them with new oak that didn’t quite match the old patina. Time for a sander. After another week, Dave said, “The floor’s sanded but now there’s wood dust everywhere. Yikes! I need tacky rags before I stain or varnish. Do we have any?”

“Right behind you.” And then I tossed him a shovel of teasing: “Aren’t you ecstatic that we bought this house? It hasn’t killed you yet.” But as I left I heard, “She . . . it! Friggin’ hell!”

I zipped back. “What is it, what happened, are you hurt?”

“Stop the twenty questions. I have a splinter.” Dave sucked his finger.

“You yell because of a splinter, to give me heart failure?”

“It throbs something fierce.”

I rushed for a needle and magnifying glass. “Show me exactly where.”

He thrust out his left pinkie. “Here, but be careful. It hurts.”

I examined the injury but saw nothing. “Well? Anything?” he demanded.

“Nothing, not even a pinhead of blood.” I let the finger go and turned away. “Big baby.”

After half an hour, he couldn’t bend his finger. It pulsed, it swelled, and truth was, it pained me to see it. “I’ll drive you to Norwood Hospital.”

“I’ll wait. I’ve got to finish this room.”

“You’re kidding me. You can’t move your hand!”

By the time we arrived at the emergency, the finger had doubled in size. We waited. After twenty minutes a doctor arrived. “I can’t find any entry wound,” he said, “but that doesn’t account for the swelling. I’ll send you for x-rays.”

Another hour slogged by.

“Can’t figure it out,” the doctor said, “but there’s definitely something in there.” He stroked his chin in a professorial sort of way. “I think I’ll send you for a mammogram.”

“A mammogram?” We stared at him.

“Precisely. Less costly, more effective. We’re dealing with soft tissue.”

“Show me the way, doc.” Dave barked a laugh of discomfort. “I’ve always wanted to bare my chest for a mammogram.”

“Don’t be a smart ass,” I said.

The technician did indeed find the splinter, the size of a toothpick, lodged near a bone. We rushed back to the doctor.

“Now what?” my husband asked, fidgeting in a squeaky plastic chair.

The doctor frowned, as if sucking on hard candy. “I’ve set you up in the OR. They’re waiting.”

“OR!” Dave croaked.

“Don’t worry,” said the doctor, nodding assurance. “They’ll give you a mild sedative to put you out. You’ll go home with stitches. You can’t leave that splinter in there, you know.”

Now it was my turn to be glib. “Honey?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“Still wild that we purchased Oakwud?” I couldn’t help but giggle.

“Be serious. Didn’t you hear they’re going to put me out? Oakwud has done me in, and if I don’t wake up, you’ll know where to bury me.”

“You, be serious and stop that nonsense! You’ll be fine. Now it’s your marathon mind that’s running loose.” I swatted his arm.

As they wheeled him away, he glanced back at me and said, “Oakwud is just what the doctor ordered. The best house in town, you’ll see.” He waved. “Be sure to plant me under the cherry tree and not the walnut.”

I blew him a kiss, and he reached out to catch it.