Fiction: Joe Baumann’s “A Paper House”

When we knock on your door only a week after your husband’s suicide, flashing our badges even though we don’t need to, telling you we’re here to check the walls for the girl’s body, the fact that you don’t even flinch makes us fall in love with you again. You step out of the way, holding the door open, and lead us into the kitchen. Reaching into a cabinet for a tumbler, you tell us you’re glad we’re here, that you’re tired of drinking bourbon by yourself. You don’t offer us any as you pull ice cubes from the freezer and the bottle from the liquor cabinet. Your smile isn’t so much coy or flirtatious as relieved and grateful, and we feel our cheeks flush when you drink the whole glass at once. We watch as you click your fingers on the granite countertop while we explain how this process will work as the crime scene investigators spread themselves throughout the house with their equipment. When we imagine those fingertips and those clean-painted red nails running up and down the hair on our forearms, we shudder and are plagued by erections that our wives and girlfriends will hardly satisfy. You shrug, tell us to tear the house down for all you care, pull all of the walls apart, destroy the whole thing so it collapses like a fucking paper house. Just find the poor girl that your son of a bitch husband holed up somewhere.

We know you’re innocent in all of this. That it’s not your fault. We say it over and over, but it doesn’t soften the look on your face, doesn’t make you coo toward us that we’re sweet, or thoughtful, or kind. A wave of relief, a break in the steady, guilty storm you’ve been put through, never materializes on your smooth brow. You don’t reach out a hand and press it against one of our chests, eyes wide and thankful and warm. You’re grateful for the company, you say as you pour yourself another drink. None of us move to stop you, though we trade concerned glances. It’s hard living in a house drenched in the smell of a murderer, you say, and you’re hopeful that the ghosts that have been haunting your hallways will finally disappear when we find the bones rotting somewhere in the walls. You shake your head and lean against the kitchen island, wondering aloud how you could not have known that a girl’s body was decaying in your house somewhere. We never wondered this.

Have we tried the bathroom, you ask. Harvey had it renovated, around the time when, you know, she disappeared.

We do know. Everyone knows. Her name was on the news every night, and we reviewed her case every day, poring over our notes as we rolled up our sleeves and ignored our hunger. Her photograph, a book bag slung over her shoulder and hair crossing her lips, was plastered on a whiteboard for weeks. She was youthful, innocent, brunette. She didn’t have your looks. We knocked on every room in her dorm, met with every one of her professors. Her parents cried across their living room from us and we shifted uncomfortably, adjusted our Windsor knots and told them that no, we didn’t have any leads yet. We looked away when we told them not to give up hope, that she might still be alive, knowing we were no closer to finding her than we were the day she disappeared, and that where she was and who took her there was still as misty and uncertain as the fog that settled in over the grass in the morning.

Except then you showed up, gripping your purse in both hands, standing at the front desk. We didn’t know until you later explained that you’d stood outside the station in the cold for what felt like an hour, biting your lip, tapping your foot against the sidewalk, debating whether to come inside, whether you should tell us what you knew, what you thought you knew, what it turns out you did know. Whether you could betray your husband, the man who, you would finally tell us, you hadn’t loved in years. This fact, more than any others, sent tingles down our necks.

But you did walk in. You caught our attention immediately, with your carefully brushed blond hair, the conservative-yet-expensive dress pants and flattering pea coat that, despite the heavy material, evoked the curves we see in your body when we stand in your kitchen. You bit your cheeks and then exhaled out that you thought you had information about the missing girl, the college student. Her, you said, pointing to the photograph under the missing persons list. You told us about your husband, the strange behavior, the locks of hair you found on his coat, the uncharacteristic reupholstering of his Buick.

As you drain your drink and reach for the bottle, you ask us how long this is going to take. We shrug, because no one has an answer. No one is sure how to speak to you, you who didn’t bother telling your husband about what you’d done until we came to arrest him, you who stood in the doorway with your arms crossed and eyelids almost closed as we put his hands behind his back and lowered him into the squad car, lights twinkling in the early dawn. You who didn’t appear at his arraignment, you who barely responded when we showed up at your door to tell you he hanged himself with his belt in his holding cell. You who only finally seemed to crack when we told you what his lawyer said about your husband hiding the girl in his own home.

When a shout comes from up the stairs, you stare in the direction of the voice and sip on your drink. We glance at one another before half of us leave the kitchen, the rest watching you. Instead of finding her, we discover the divots you’ve made along the wall and the holes you’ve put in the doors looking for her and the baseball bat you made them with. Later, when we do finally find her crammed behind the back wall of the master bath’s linen closet, flesh gone, cat litter sucking up the stench of death and decomposition, we won’t whisper about the missing teeth or the shattered skull. We won’t be haunted by the clothes your husband holed up with her, his blood-stained white Oxford and her ripped pencil skirt. No, we’ll remember the hollow look in your eyes, the steadiness of your knuckles as we ran to the second floor. We’ll remember that we stood with you until the sun started to set, you wobbly, arms shaky. That when someone finally yelled out that they’d found her you didn’t move, didn’t let the relief we knew must be deflating you show on your face. You just kept refilling your glass, never eating, never speaking, your glossy eyes focused on the dark countertop, any love you might have left burning a hole down into your house’s flimsy foundation.

 

 

***

Joe Baumann received his PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou and the Southwestern Review.  He is the author of Ivory Children, and his work has appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, and many others, and is forthcoming in Jelly Bucket, Lunch Ticket, and others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri.

Photo credit: truevalueprojects.com

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