The Crawl Space
by Joyce Carol Oates
Art by Mark Evan Walker
Please. You make us uncomfortable.
You are always watching us. Like a ghost haunting us. . . .
Though her husband had died seven years before, the widow still drove past the house in which they’d lived for more than two decades.
(To lacerate a scar, that it might become a raw-throbbing wound again? To lacerate her conscience? Why?)
She was in a new life now. She was no longer in the old life.
He could not know. He had died, his ashes were buried in a proper cemetery. All that was gone. In her new, safe life, in which she lived alone.
Yet: Sometimes she drove past the old house deliberately, and sometimes she found herself driving past without (quite) realizing where she was. Then, it was something of a shock to see—where she was . . .
Often when she was driving she would instruct herself Maybe no. Not today. And yet when she approached a crucial turn she found herself unable to drive onward as if doing so would be a betrayal of her husband whom she had loved very much.
As he had loved her. Very much.
She felt the same way while driving through the small town in which her husband’s ashes were buried—in a cemetery behind an old red-brick Presbyterian church that dated to the mid-nineteenth century.
She could not not stopat the cemetery. Could not.
Just us two. No one else.
Of course, she understood how mistaken this was. No force was compelling her to drive past her former house, or to stop in the little town that was losing population and becoming derelict since an interstate-highway bypass opened close by.
Its sad Main Street, with vacant stores. For sale signs. The small cemetery in need of mowing, at this time of year festooned with dandelions gone to seed.
The widow parks at the cemetery, she visits the husband’s grave. It is only my own mind. It is not another’s mind that is making me do these things.
Still, she clears away leaves and other debris from the grave. Sets upright the ceramic pot containing the (artificial) wisteria with its sinewy vines and lavender blossoms she’d brought to the grave, that has been surprisingly durable through winter months. Almost, you would think the blossoms were real . . .
A small enough gesture from you, my beloved wife. But thank you.
She did not like it: They were watching her.
She was certain. The new owners of the house. For she so often drove past the house.
At more rational times she thought no, of course not. The new owners—(whom she’d met: They were nice-seeming people)—would have to be standing at the front windows of the house and looking out at just the time she drove past. They would have to recognize her car.
Yet, approaching the house she begins to feel her heartbeat quickening. A visceral alertness of the kind you might feel approaching the edge of a great height. Vertigo, it is called. A sensation of dread, and yet yearning. You dare not approach—yet, you are drawn to approach. Almost, you feel an opened hand on the small of your back, gently pushing.
Come here! Come forward.
Yes! You know exactly what to do.
The new owners had assured her, out of sympathy for her widowhood (she’d supposed), that, any time she wished, she could come back to visit the house. They’d been very friendly, very kind-seeming, but she’d never wanted to return to the house in any way that involved them. Though she knew better she could not help but think of them as intruders whom she resented, and whom she knew her husband, who could be unreasonable, would most bitterly resent.
So many years she’d driven this route: returning to the house on Linden Road which was five miles from the small suburban college at which she taught English; turning her car into the asphalt driveway; feeling anticipation as she approached the house, unless it was apprehension—for she never (quite) knew what her husband’s mood would be.
Nearly always, the husband was home. For the husband did consulting work in applied mathematics, working from an office at home.
Not wanting to think Like clockwork for, living our lives, as our bodies live for us, we are not at all clockwork; we do not feel ourselves to be clockwork; each second is new to us, quicksilver and unexpected, undefined.
Unexpected: that day she’d returned home, not from the college but from the medical clinic. With the news that had shaken them both.
Him more than her. For he’d been the one who’d most adamantly not wanted a child.
In his family, mental derangement. (As he called it.) Not mental illness, insanity, or psychosis—nothing that could be clinically diagnosed, or treated. Just—derangement.
She, the wife, a young wife at the time, had not wanted to inquire too closely. She saw the pain in her husband’s handsome thin-cheeked face. She saw that he was distressed, and anxious.
He’d carried himself with a sort of sinewy muscularity, a physical obstinacy that didn’t express his scrupulosity, his fastidiousness. He’d been a perfectionist, and had driven himself very hard in graduate school; from rueful remarks he’d made, she understood that he had come close to a nervous breakdown, or perhaps had actually had a nervous breakdown before he’d met her, and he did not want to risk anything like this again.
What is manliness, masculinity?—she felt sympathy for her husband, for whom imperfection was a kind of shame. She did not like to pry into his personal life, which he called “private.”
Still, she’d thought that, possibly, mental derangement might not be such a risk. . . .
He’d reacted almost violently: No.
No pregnancy. Must terminate. We can’t. Can’t take the chance. What if. No.
No. I’ve told you.
Even if the child is—is not—abnormal. Even then—
Our own lives. Must come first.
What we mean to each other.
She’d done as he had instructed. Or rather, as he’d demanded.
Thinking—It is what I want too. Of course.
Emotionally, the husband was the center of her life. Her professional career was not very challenging to her: She had no wish to compete strenuously, and to excel; she was highly competent, reliable and well liked. At her small suburban college it was not difficult to be promoted to the highest professorial rank and to decline (when, more than once, it was offered to her) advancement into administration. Her salary was not high but it supplemented her husband’s salary to a degree that made them financially secure.
We can afford a child. Children.
She did not say. Did not risk.
(Perhaps) (she was thinking) it was a mistake to have moved into a place not far from the old house when her husband died. She’d had to sell the house—of course. Soon after his death which had been an unexpected death after a brief, virulent illness. In a state of grief and exhaustion she’d looked at a number of possible places in which to live nearer the college yet somehow she’d found nothing quite right, and decided to rent a condominium hardly a mile from the old house on Linden Road.
And so, approaching her former house as she’d approached it for so many years, sometimes alone in her car, sometimes beside her husband in the driver’s seat—(for always Jed drove when she was with him in the car: He would never have allowed anyone else to drive), she could not overcome a sense of apprehension though she knew, of course she knew, that the house belonged to strangers, and that (probably!) these strangers were not standing vigilant at their front windows waiting for the widow to pass by. Yet still, her heartbeat quickened as she approached: In her mind’s eye she parked her car as usual in front of the garage, and made her way from the car into the small flagstone courtyard, and opened the front door which was painted a deep ruby-red, and stepped inside—Hello? I’m home. . . .
The husband had not liked it if, as she’d done sometimes, she entered the house without announcing her arrival. Hoping for a few minutes to herself, private time, to catch her breath (she might’ve said), put a few groceries away in the kitchen which she’d picked up on the way home, before calling to her husband—Hello, Jed. It’s me.
Sometimes, if Jed was home, and he’d heard her, he would come to greet her; more often, she would seek him out in his office, which was a large, comfortable room at the rear of the house on the second floor.
Once, when a late-afternoon meeting was canceled and she’d returned to the house earlier than Jed expected her, the door had been locked against her. The doors.
She’d tried the front door—locked. Thinking it was just an accident, she tried another. Locked.
And another—also locked.
Of course, she should have had a house key. What was the reason she hadn’t had a house key?
He was nearly always home. His car was in the driveway now. She’d lost the habit of taking a house key with her and so, after a moment’s hesitation, she knocked on the door, not loudly, not rudely, for she did not want to disturb the husband if he was in deep concentration at his work, but still there was no answer and (so far as she could see) no movement inside the house.
She walked around the house, peering in windows. “Jed? Jed?”
Had to be upstairs. Maybe playing music, wearing earphones.
(Why was she so agitated? Her underarms stung with perspiration, a rivulet of sweat ran down the side of her face like an errant tear.)
(But he was alone, she was sure. He had never brought anyone to the house in her absence. She was sure.)
“Jed? It’s me . . .”
Each of the doors was locked. Pride prevented her from checking the windows.
The solution came to her—I will go away as if this has not happened. No one will know.
It was an era before cell phones. But if she’d called, she had the idea that her husband would not have answered the phone.
She went away. She returned hours later, at the expected time. All the doors were unlocked. Interior lamps had been lit. When she entered the house he was awaiting her with a little bouquet of Shasta daisies, carnations, and red rosebuds.
“For you, dear. Missed you.”
She was touched. She was relieved. She smiled happily, as a young bride might smile, sweetly naive, trusting. She kissed his cheek and asked, as it would have been natural for a young bride to ask, “But why? Today is not a special day, is it?”
“No day with you is not a special day, darling.”
He had shaved, his lean jaws were smooth and smelled of lotion. His white cotton shirt was fresh. The sleeves were rolled to the elbows as he rarely, perhaps never wore them.
Later, when the husband was elsewhere and would not discover her, she’d examined his office. His closet in their bedroom. Their bed.
Cautiously lifted the bedclothes to stare at the lower sheet that (so far as she could judge) was smoothed flat as it had been when, that morning, she’d briskly made up the bed.
What on earth am I looking for?—she was ashamed, she had no idea.
What has he made me into, how has this happened? How is this person—me?
In marriage, one plus one is more than the sum of two. But sometimes in a marriage, one plus one is less than the sum of two.
He was correct: It would not have been worth the risk.
She’d come to agree. Their very special feeling for each other, their unique love, would have been irrevocably altered by the intrusion of another.
Seven years! The time has passed quickly; or, the time has passed very slowly.
There have been few changes to the house, that she can see from the road. But there had been changes.
When she drives past the house she finds herself slowing the car, to stare. Her heart quickens in anticipation of seeing something that will upset her.
She hates it, seeing changes in her former house that upset her!—thinking how these changes would upset her husband too.
For some reason the new owners removed the redwood fence which the husband had had erected at the front of the property, for privacy. (Why on earth? Had the fence become rotted? She didn’t think so.)
Then, they’d had the house repainted: a dull beige with brown shutters so much less striking than the original cream with dark red shutters.
Once, seeing that the new owners had had a large oak tree removed from the front lawn, she’d felt weak with indignation. She’d happened to drive past at the time of the tree’s demise, chainsaw rending the air into unbearable shards of sound. Screaming.
He had not screamed at his fate. Rather, he’d been medicated, unable to protest. He had not even known (she’d wanted to think) what was happening in his body. That sequence of small, inexorable surrenders.
In fact, yes: He had screamed at his fate. He’d screamed at her.
Not that he’d known who she was, then. Not that he’d hated her.
Slowly she drove in the tense delirium of approach. For it seemed to her—Of course, I am going home. It’s an ordinary evening.
(But why then was she so frightened? The ordinary does not provoke fear.)
He hadn’t been comfortable with the ordinary, in fact. His work had been a highly refined mathematics applied to the manufacture of digital equipment which she hadn’t understood even when he’d tried to explain to her in the plainest speech.
He hadn’t been comfortable with resting. He hadn’t taken a vacation in the more than twenty years she’d known him. At one time he’d worked as many as one hundred hours a week as a consultant for (rival) companies. She felt a thrill of horror that, now that he’d died, he could not ever do anything meaningful again. That would have hurt him, stung his pride.
How surprised he’d have been to see a stranger so comfortable in his house. At his worktable, a long white table, wonderfully practical, useful. What is this? What has happened? In his bed.
How like science fiction our lives are, she thinks. The alternate universe in which, innocently, ignorantly, we continue to exist as we’d been, unaware that, in another universe, we have ceased to be.
Without knowing what she has done, the widow has parked the car on Linden Road. In front of the house. . .
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The Crawl Space by Joyce Carol Oates, Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author.
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