The first time the house yells at them, it sounds like her husband. Eileen Ulmstead-Barris springs up in bed and looks at Preston lying next to her, motionless in his favored sleeping position—on his back, with his head buried under a pillow that should have smothered any sounds rising from his mouth. The shouts become louder and louder, then stop. Moments later, another cry fills the room.
He must be having an awful nightmare, she thinks. When he is awake, Preston rarely raises his voice for anything. Eileen, half-asleep, shifts the duvet atop her, reaches for the pillow, and pulls it from Preston’s face. He looks peaceful, eyes shut, bathed in the green light of the digital alarm clock.
More shouts follow. Preston’s voice is echoing across the walls.
But his lips aren’t moving.
Why isn’t he waking up? She stops herself from nudging him, reminded of warnings she’s heard about not waking a dreamer. Or is that a sleepwalker? She hesitates until a piercing shriek rings out and Preston shifts in his sleep and speaks to her.
“Eileen,” he mutters as he rolls over, his back now to her, “turn off your damn alarm.”
Years later, Preston Barris will feel compelled to explain his comment from that first night—”Eileen does that a lot. Hits ‘snooze’ in the morning a dozen times before she gets out of bed. She’s a hard sleeper, and not exactly considerate of the person next to her. I just heard noises and assumed it was her clock going off.”
The next night, he isn’t so lucky. The shouts sound like Eileen, and they both sit awake until morning.
All this happened over a decade ago. Remember that time? Before the housing bubble burst? Homes appreciated in exponents associated with Vegas slot machines or near-mint Silver Age comic books. Everyone—from retirees to new college grads like Eileen and Preston—was urged to get in on it.
Hindsight is never 20/20. It’s purblind and tainted by the present’s dominating hues. In truth, most of us ignore bad omens in times of plenty, and what we think of as the good old days never seem that great as we live through them. What happened to Eileen and Preston screams “Bad Omen” to anyone willing to believe it. Questions will go unanswered, morals will be left cloudy, as their story proceeds. It’s not an urban legend or This American Life podcast. The house didn’t have seven gables or gingerbread sweets beckoning its purchasers inside. It was just a mock Tudor in St. Louis, Missouri, an upscale, milquetoast neighborhood in fly-over country.
Things get weirder. Eileen and Preston talk things over. (They talk everything over. Preston insists on consensus decision-making.) They review the details.
She wants to hire a plumber just in case it’s something in the pipes. He wants to banish whatever spectre has obviously invaded their home.
See, Preston’s a magician. Not the kind who does card tricks or saws ladies in half onstage. He’s a wizard. Or warlock. Eileen isn’t sure which he prefers and, truth be told, he changes it on her. She’s heard people call the stuff he does Wicca, although he shuns that term and says his rituals are completely different. It mostly involved him building a small worship space in an armoire—filled with candles, incenses, and trinkets that looked like an antique jewelry store display—and sitting in front of it irregularly, an act with all the outward appearances of daydreaming. On specific nights of the year, he meets a group of friends somewhere and they’ll daydream together. It’s not Eileen’s thing, but she gets it.
In the end, they just can’t blow a hundred bucks or more on a plumber. At least not while she’s working at that rinky-dink radio station. (Maybe Preston doesn’t say the last bit aloud, but she knows he thinks it.)
Eileen runs programming at the local public FM station. The volunteer deejays think Eileen is yuppie scum infiltrating their cool, community radio scene. Only she and the General Manager actually get salaries. She also gets a battleship grey credenza in the corner of the entry room. She doles out the shifts. She generates the programming logs that go to the FCC. When something breaks, she explains why they can’t fix it. Every day, something breaks.
Deejays come in to her office, demanding new headphones, better mics, shinier toggle switches on the control board.
No, she says.
She knows the budget, they don’t. It doesn’t matter. She still feels like a fraud.
Every now and then, someone sneers at her, something like “Oh, that’s right, you’re the music programming director who doesn’t even like music!”
“That’s me,” she says flatly, but feels her face reddening as she goes back to running things.
The only deejay who talks to her like a person is Len, a retired St. Louis county firefighter, father of four, grandpa of nine, who plays jazz on Thursday afternoons but comes in daily and makes a pot of coffee for everyone. He’s a good listener, and Eileen confides in him.
“So, Preston thinks the house is…” Len asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “But he’s sort of into the freaky stuff.” Preston would die if he heard her put it that way. “He’s more willing to accept the… supernatural.”
“Well,” Len says, “Such things aren’t unheard of around here, you know.”
He means The Exorcist. Supposedly, the events that take place in the book and movie are based on something that really happened in St. Louis back in 1949. Sure, they’ll tell you, the movie is set outside Washington, D.C., and that’s where the actual possessed child was discovered. But the exorcism itself? That happened downtown in the old Alexian Brothers Hospital on Osage Street, just a few blocks off fabled Route 66. You can’t bring up anything supernatural in that town without someone mentioning it, as if they’ve been waiting the whole conversation for the chance. They’re like Texans with the Alamo.
“You know who’s into that kind of thing? Retro Roddy. The guy who does Saturdays. Have you talked to him?”
“No. Preston’s already got a friend coming by to give the place a once-over.”
“Hmm.” Len says, sipping his coffee. “A supernatural once-over.”
The house isn’t them. That’s the problem.
Couples less than five years out of college don’t own homes in Webster Groves. These old Tudor houses with brick and ivy and vaulted wooden doors straight out of Sherwood Forrest, the curving sidewalks lined with boxwood and towering sycamores—they belong to the older St. Louis-area residents. Lawyers, pediatricians, aerospace engineers. The guy who’s an advertising agency VP. The gal who owns a chain of organic grocery stores. They deserve these houses. Not Eileen and Preston. Not yet.
But they could afford the house, despite its coveted location. They’re both only children of well-situated parents. Preston’s folks had him late, died young, and left an inheritance, and Eileen’s parents gave her a smaller chunk of cash when they moved to Phoenix, and still call regularly to remind her of their largess.
Their regular phone call comes during the aforementioned Supernatural Once Over, as Preston pours herbal tea for a pretty woman. His friend Greta is skinny, perky, and prone to halter-tops, sheer batik skirts, and mounds of bone-and-turquoise jewelry.
“We have to soothe it,” Greta tells them. “You don’t give orders to powers like this. Once it feels relaxed, the creepy stuff will stop.”
Greta explains how they should temporarily treat whatever-it-is like a roommate, someone who has as much right to live there as them. Then she begins talking about her current live-in boyfriend, who recently stiffed her for two months’ rent.
Eileen feels some relief when the phone rings.
“So, how’s our Eileen?” her father says.
“Still stressed out at work?”
“We’re okay,” she says.
“Yes, Dad. Last I checked ‘okay’ means nothing’s wrong. Did someone change that without telling me?”
“I can just hear it in your voice. You don’t sound happy.”
Her parents put a high value on happy. When she was a child, the two of them stayed happy by smoking copious amounts of marijuana on the couch while she made them peanut butter sandwiches. They weren’t complete burnouts, but they didn’t have long-term goals until Eileen hit middle school. Suddenly, they worked more nights and weekends. Dad got promoted to head of maintenance for several commercial office buildings. Mom got her real estate license. They transformed.
Weeks later, Preston and Greta are neck deep in talking to the house, but the house keeps shouting. They light candles that smell like burnt hair and cinnamon. Eileen can’t help but question if this aromatherapy is what the house really needs. She holds back from speaking the thought that never leaves her mind—Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
Then, one night she arrives home early hoping to get a nap and finds Greta alone in the house running the vacuum cleaner over little piles of salt sprinkled all around carpet. Apparently, Greta now has a key. Greta has a milk crate full of toiletries and an overflowing rucksack by the door. Greta herself oozes gratitude for Eileen and, especially, Preston.
“You’ve got yourself quite a guy there, Eileen Barris,” she says. “You’re a lucky gal.”
“Thank you,” Eileen replies automatically.
That night, Eileen tries to understand.
“Greta jumped the gun. I told her that you and I would talk about it,” Preston says. “But, look, this thing is taking a lot of time. Greta says maybe weeks. She’s on the outs with her roommate, and it makes sense for her to stay with us.”
“Things are crazy enough around here.”
“She’s doing a lot of work—unpaid, mind you—and here’s a nice way to thank her.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, she needs to be here. You don’t understand how these things work.”
Eileen understands that Greta is broke, has been kicked to the curb by her boyfriend, and now has a free place to crash for a few weeks.
Before she can protest, several gunshot-like pops come from the kitchen. A pool of red covers the linoleum. Eileen traces the liquid up the side of the counter, where six shattered bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sit in the wine rack.
Then the laughter starts. It is a sarcastic, staccato tittering punctuated by snorts.
“That’s your laugh,” Preston says, backing away from the spill and out the kitchen door. “And that was my wine.”
It is. Their house is laughing at her with her own voice.
She gets a mop and a bucket and starts to clean.
Eileen leaves for work the next morning without waking Greta, who is immobile on the couch, and without talking to Preston, who will, she knows, take this as her tacit approval of his plan.
The next day, she searches Human Resources files for Retro Roddy’s number and—upon discovering only an empty Manila folder—asks Len to help contact him.
Retro Roddy agrees to meet her at Uncle Bill’s Pancake and Dinner House, off Kingshighway Blvd. He shows up late. Eileen takes a syrup-sticky booth in the back, near the window facing the parking lot, a long path of corners, wooden beams, and ugly carpet between her and the other patrons.
Although he has effectively been her employee for two years, Eileen has never met Retro Roddy. He deejays midnight to 2 a.m. on Saturdays and skips all organizational meetings, but always submits the mandatory log sheet of songs he played, handwritten in red, felt-tip ink with letters so crisp and legible they’d make a typewriter envious. These lists mean nothing to Eileen. As long as the songs are free of profanity, as long as they garner a listenership, and as long as those listeners free their bank accounts of discretionary income during pledge drives—and they do, Roddy has a following—she doesn’t care what he plays.
Although he’s a stranger, she knows him instantly. A faded red vintage automobile—a 1965 Ford Falcon, she later learns—pulls into the parking lot, taking up two spaces. A man stumbles out, the bangs of his gray-tinged mop-top spilling over the edges of his Wayfarers. The black t-shirt under his red velvet sports coat is a size too tight and reveals the thinnest white line of beer belly where it rises over his even tighter striped pants. His shoes are snakeskin, narrowed to Keebler-elf points at the tip.
“Smokin’ section!” he bellows when he sees her, nodding to the other side of the restaurant, the one filled to capacity.
Eileen relinquishes her privacy, joins him at a smoking booth, and tells her story. Roddy waves his Lucky Strike like an orchestra conductor as she talks. He fiddles with packet after packet of sugar. Some even get poured into his coffee.
“Well, amiga,” he says, “what I can’t do is tell you why it’s happening, if you’re cursed or unlucky or paying for crimes of your past or someone else’s. Give that up. If you need that, I’m not your man. What I can do, is get rid of it with a little time and some money.”
The figure he asks for is low. Very low. She agrees instantly.
“I get paid when you get your house back. First, I need to come by your place and have a look around. Will it get ugly?”
“No,” she says, “Preston and Greta are pretty reasonable. Just stubborn.”
“I meant the house. Is it throwing stuff off the shelves? Slinging cutlery or plates around? Is there any gunk or goo dripping? Any bloooood?”
“Don’t worry about your guy and the witch. They’re fellow travelers, so to speak. We may do things differently, but we should see eye to eye. I can be diplomatic as hell when I need to be.”
That night, she gets to see Roddy’s brand of diplomacy firsthand. As anticipated, Greta and Preston feel slighted, even betrayed, that she has brought him. Beads of sweat form on Eileen’s temples, doubts made tangible by the Midwestern humidity.
“Here’s how it works,” Roddy explains. “I set up my stuff and see if the house responds. When I get a sign, we’ll all know. Then I’ll be able to tell if this will take days or weeks.”
Eileen clenches her teeth in a wave of despair—weeks?—but Roddy doesn’t pause for questions.
“I need until 10 o’clock tonight to test things. After that, you can decide if you want to see this thing through. If it don’t work, you never need to see me again.”
It is apparently the right thing to say. They agree he’ll leave by ten p.m.
“Okay,” he says. “Let’s hit it!”
He steps back, crosses his legs and spins around on his heel, like something from a Four Tops routine.
Over his shoulder, he shouts “Anyone want to help me fetch my stuff out of old horse?”
“Horse?” Greta says.
Only Eileen follows him out.
By the time she reaches his Ford, he has retrieved what looks like a battered suitcase from his back seat. He stands before her with a stoic frown, something like a gunslinger holding his Peacemaker. But then memories of the area’s favorite horror flick arise, and Eileen pictures old Max Von Sydow in the movie poster, with his suitcase, hat, and trench coat, standing outside, that house that creepy light shining down from little Regan’s window. Darn Len and his St. Louis folklore.
Roddy opens the car’s trunk, which holds a tangle of red and white wires and some electronics equipment, and many, many wooden crates filled with old records.
“Grab an armload,” he says.
Eileen remembers her father crouched near the living room floor, rubbing his chin, as he tested his hi-fi system. Fiddling with speaker wire. Turning knobs. Moving speakers inches to the left or right.
When she got older, she chalked up her father’s pursuit of what he called “Optimum Sound” to mild stoner paranoia, figuring the subtle differences in aural quality were figments of his marijuana-laced imagination.
Yet, here’s Roddy doing the exact same thing in her living room.
He makes patterns on the ground, geometric shapes of speaker cable, twirling them like a lasso as they fall onto the carpet. The cords all feed into his amplifier, rivers emptying into a Mississippi delta, flowing directly to the New Orleans basin that is Roddy’s record player, which looks handcrafted from many other machines.
Eileen winces, recalling her father’s eccentricities and realizes she’s already invested too much into Roddy. She needs him to succeed. She feels Preston and Greta’s growing contempt as they watch Roddy twirl and backstep.
He begins to play the music.
“Now it’s gotta be loud, you understand,” Roddy shouts over the song.
He sits down on the couch, puts his shoes on the coffee table, and shushes Preston when he tries to speak. For hours, Roddy plays an array of things. One record is old blues music with clicks and scratches, the next is a pristine-sounding rock record with violins and French horns. Sometimes he plays just one song, other times a whole album side. By the end of the night, album covers litter their floor.
Sometimes Greta covers her ears or furrows her brow, frustrated by the strange sounds, until Roddy plays a piano solo.
“That’s ‘Clair de Lune,’” she says, shocked to recognize something.
“Yeah, Debussy’s occultism is well documented. I’m pretty sure he composed it for just this kinda thing.”
As the music ends, the house begins to vibrate.
“Moooooooore. More, pleassse,” it croons.
Roddy rushes to switch the record to a 45 single.
“Don’t change it if that’s what it wants!” Greta says.
“That ain’t how it works. Just listen.”
They hear violins and a chorus of oohs and aahs.
“ ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ by the Skyliners,” Roddy whispers proudly as the house stops jiggling. “Works like a charm. It’s basically ‘Clair de Lune,’ but with more teenager.”
The house sits quiet and still.
Roddy nods. “OK. Here’s how it works,” he says. “This song’s just enough different from the one I played before it to make the Whatever-It-Is in your house uncomfortable without makin’ it mad. We gotta convince it to move on by changing the music. Gradually. We can’t just throw music it hates at it all of a sudden. Just over time play crazier stuff. Harder stuff. Spiritual stuff.”
Crazy, hard, and spiritual, Eileen thinks. Sure. Why not? She has grown tired of waiting for Greta and Preston to get results.
“C’mere and take a look.” He motions them towards the record player. “We’re gonna keep this song playin’ for the rest of the night. The song will replay when it finishes as long as this here lever stays put. Do not touch the lever. And let it keep going when you leave for work. I’ll come by tomorrow, bring more records, and we’ll see if we can stop it once and for all.”
“So we’re supposed to sleep while the song repeats?” Preston says.
“Well, yeah. It’s pretty mellow. Be glad the house didn’t respond to speed metal or something.”
A Spanish dancer exposes her bare breasts in a sepia photograph.
Two businessmen shake hands as one of them ignites into flames.
Four men inside a large television set run from an enormous cartoon space villain.
A shaggy dog-thing jumps a racing hurdle.
These are but a few covers in Roddy’s record collection, strewn out like an illusionist’s deck of cards across her living room carpet. To her surprise, Eileen recognizes some faces—Prince astride his purple motorcycle, Springsteen leaning on his Cadillac convertible.
Preston is at work. Greta is elsewhere. Roddy will be back soon. Alone inside her strangely-behaving house, still in work clothes, Eileen has only one thought—
I should be more scared.
But she’d been scared before. Managing a station full of radio renegades who see right through her “by-the-book” façade—that is scary. Her last semester of college, facing graduation alone, searching for a first job alone, before she met Preston—that was scary. Raising herself, arranging rides to Girl Scouts and schedules for her homework due dates, while her Mom and Dad played parental hooky—that was scary.
She hears Roddy’s Falcon pull up and goes to meet him. He wears a jean jacket covered with buttons with band names, a wide-lapelled paisley shirt, and bell-bottoms.
“Need help unloading your trusty horse?” she asks.
“Did you say horse?” he says. “Like Trigger or Silver? You misheard me.” He shakes his head and runs his palm across the car’s bumper. “His name’s Horus. Like the Egyptian sky god, son of Osiris. Some of those designers at Ford knew what they were doin’ back in the 60’s. Same thing Hitler’s bozos did with the scarab back when they designed the Volkswagen.” He slaps the car’s hood. “This here is two tons of rolling V8 talisman. No black magic in the world that can contend with this.”
Inside, he examines several records like a Japanese gardener pruning a bonsai tree, head tilting, nose an inch away from grooves. “So you’re not into the witchcraft stuff like your husband?” he asks, barely looking up.
“No. I’m not anything.”
“I’ve known a few guys who practiced the old craft. Most of ‘em were in covens. Said it really got them in touch with their feminine side. Sounded like they spent a lot of time standing around naked watching candles burn.”
“I don’t think his worship is like that,” Eileen says.
All the things she doesn’t know about Preston’s beliefs, his other world. The gaps in her knowledge are immense.
Roddy raises his palms defensively. “Hey, I’m not belittling his faith. I just do things kinda different. Hell, I was raised by heavy duty born-again Christians. Way weirder than any pagan-types I ever met.” Roddy took a sip of beer and gestured at the jumble on the floor. “They weren’t too happy when I took to rock ‘n’ roll. Called it the Devil’s music. But, hey, sometimes you can’t control what speaks to you, y’know?”
Neighbors watch the blood red car coming and going each afternoon, just as they had seen the wispy woman in flowing dresses moving in, one cardboard box at a time.
A few neighborhood dignitaries stop by one night to make sure they aren’t prepping to sell the place.
Where else would you want to go?
This is a great place to raise kids, when you’re ready, of course.
People here look out for one another.
If you ever are tempted to sell, please be sure to start well above appraised value.
Many assume it’s a ménage a quatre, just another case of suburban polygamy springing up. But who’s buggering whom?
The neighbors aren’t the only curious ones.
Eileen’s mother calls one night while Roddy is playing records. All goes fine until her mother asks to say hello to Preston.
“He’s not home yet.”
“But I heard music in the background. Are you listening to…?”
“No,” Eileen says. “We have a guest. A guy from work.”
“While Preston’s gone? Oh, honey….”
“It’s not what you think.”
“You know, if it was, I’d never tell Preston.”
“No. Mom. How could that possibly be okay with you?”
“I just want whatever’s best for you. I can sense that you’re unhappy. Your father says he hears it in your voice, but you never share details. Talk to me.”
A tiny earthquake ripples across the floor, shaking a stack of coasters from the coffee table. The music has stopped.
The armoire filled with Preston’s talismans and charms tilts on the wall, its door swinging forth and dumping all its contents onto the floor. Not good.
Eileen groans, too exhausted to panic. “I have to go, Mom.”
“My bad,” Roddy says. “I’ll pick ‘em up and put ‘em back.”
“No,” she almost shouts.
As she begins gathering talismans, she realizes that, even if none of them are broken, there is no way she can put them back exactly as Preston had them. He’ll know. And that means she’ll have to tell him this happened. And he’ll be petulant and smug.
Eileen watches Roddy hunched and frantic, turning EQ knobs ever so slightly this way or that. Roddy is not the kind of man Eileen could ever see herself leaving Preston for. Too much like her dad.
And she knows that ultimately Preston is more likely to leave her. She’s avoided thinking about what could have happened between him and Greta while she was gone. The thought of Preston alone with another woman doesn’t make her paranoid. Their sex life stalled a while back, but that’s just how a marriage works sometimes. Right? His inattention. Her disinterest. It is hard to separate the two. Maybe Greta is satisfying him, and that explains it. Or maybe Roddy is right about magic getting Preston in touch with his “feminine side” and he will out himself in a few weeks or months or years and leave her for another guy. She can’t guess. The lack of emotion chills her.
Then, that night, Roddy leaves some old love song on replay—full of sad, majestic echoes. Even though she knows these sounds are probably just recording studio tricks, something about hearing it at that moment sends a fissure through her soul. She cries herself to sleep.
“I can’t handle this,” Greta says, hoisting an armload of dirty clothes on top of her sleeping bag and peering over the stack at Eileen. “Your friend is nuts. And his music stinks.”
Eileen, just back from work, watches Greta sashay down the sidewalk toward her car. She has to find out what happened before Preston gets home. Her story needs to be straight.
Roddy shouts over the music, which is indeed louder and faster than the previous evening. Today, he wears a powder-blue Nehru jacket with matching polyester slacks and white Converse.
“She’s just pissed ‘cause this is workin’, man. C’mon. You knew she’d have a fit like this, didn’t you?”
Eileen doesn’t answer.
“And I’m bettin’ you aren’t sorry to see her go.”
Roddy takes another sip of beer. At least he brings his own food and drink, which is more than could be said of Greta. Unlike her, Roddy leaves the space in shambles while tallying impeccably printed “billable hours” in a spiral notebook he keeps in his pocket. That’s a hundred times more forthright than Greta, who re-enters and checks under tables and behind doors, determined not to leave anything behind.
Preston enters. “Why’s your stuff out in the street?” he asks Greta.
“I’m sick of his music!” She points at Roddy.
Preston strides across the room and turns off the stereo, like a TV cop deliberately locking the interrogation room door behind him to intimidate a felon. Eileen knows this move. He’s going to sound rational, but he just wants to get his way. This will not end well.
Eileen can’t think. Her head feels like it could split open. She hears something ripping.
Across the room, Preston’s brown leather sofa begins shedding its skin like a snake. Each cushion spontaneously tears and vomits forth beige stuffing. They hear a disembodied voice—clearly Eileen’s—laughing maniacally.
Preston points to the deflated sofa. “You wrecked my altar, now my couch. This… this can’t happen again.”
“It won’t if we keep the music goin’, man. That was your bad, turnin’ off the stereo halfway through a song. How many times did I warn you?”
Roddy turns back to his record player. The music starts again, loud and angry.
“I vote we all go out for margaritas while Roddy packs up his stuff,” says Greta.
“Aye,” says Preston.
“He stays,” Eileen tells them. She begins picking up chunks of stuffing from the floor as Preston and Greta storm out.
Right then, Eileen understands two things.
1) Preston is upset because all this has hit him personally—his wine bottles, his sofa, his altar.
2) Everything in the house is his or theirs. She would never feel as upset as Preston because there is nothing of hers for the Whatever-It-Is to destroy. Nothing belongs to her. She just cleans up the mess when something breaks.
Then, she is just mad. Mad at a husband who cares more about a sofa and candles than he does about her. Mad at her ex-stoner parents who don’t care whether her marriage succeeds or fails. Mad at the whole damn city of St. Louis for being so weird.
The song that plays has some English guy yelping behind a wall of guitars. He sounds like he’s trying to bite off his tongue as he sings. He says he wants a “ride home.”
Me too, she thinks. But she is home.
“I want a ride,” she sings. “I want a ride. A ride home.”
“Not ride.” Roddy says. “Riot. ‘White Riot,’ man. You never heard the Clash? You really don’t know beans about music do you?”
That evening, he gives her a quick primer on musicians he loves. People with names like Sky Saxon, Black Francis, Exene, and Esquerita.
“These guys were badass,” he says. He raises a yellow album labelled “Bad Brains”. Its cover shows the U.S. Capitol dome being struck by lightning and cracking down the center like Humpty Dumpty’s shell. On the back cover, there is a picture of four black men with dreadlocks.
“Rastafarians,” he says. “Freakin’ rastas playing hardcore. That’s like, I dunno, a bunch of Mormons spinning whirling dervishes. That’s real magic, man.”
Her parents once told her that Rastas based their religion around pot. Well, Rastas believe in something. Like Preston believes in something. Like Roddy and her father believe in something. She’s spent her entire life standing next to believers, making silent excuses for their peculiarities. Where did that leave her? Unmoored. Unanchored. A human shell. Could some belief temper the swirling loneliness that fills her lungs and churns in her stomach? If wanting could make belief happen, she’d have it right now, but the moment passes and she knows that no amount of magic, weed, tears, or electronics equipment can fill her.
Preston doesn’t return that night. Eileen falls asleep to the sound of Rastas playing hardcore and wakes in the morning to find Roddy still on watch near the record player, sitting with his head inches away from the speaker.
When Eileen returns home that night, Preston is emptying dresser drawers into boxes. Most of the kitchen utensils are packed. More empty boxes wait.
“I want to protect my stuff. You’re listening to a mental case instead of me.” His voice never wavers. “And he’s taking forever.”
“Your way was taking forever,” she says.
He shakes his head like he’s ashamed for her. “It’s time to take care of what’s mine.”
“That sounds like Greta’s advice,” she says. Or my mother’s, she thinks. “So you’re moving out?”
“I don’t want to discuss that yet, Eileen.”
“Well… I do. Is this the end?”
“If you make me to choose now, you may not like my decision.”
Music swells downstairs, where Roddy stands guard. Guitars roar. Snare drums pop like firecrackers.
“I think you’ve already decided,” she says. “You just won’t admit it to yourself. You want to think it’s all my decision so it’s easier on you.”
He heads down the hall before she finishes.
Roddy flinches a little as Preston slams the door. He stands with an opened beer, wearing a lime green car coat and a black velvet shirt with airplane-wing lapels.
“Is he the kind that comes back in a day or two after he cools?” Roddy asks. “Or the kind that has his lawyer call you next month?”
“I don’t know. He’s never left me before.”
She could do a million things with this moment—go after Preston, throw Roddy out, go for a long walk to clear her head.
Instead, she turns off the record player. The floor begins to tremble instantly.
“You said something about pushing it out gradually. What if we played something that pushed it out now?
“It could totally destroy it.”
“The whatever-it-is? Or the whole house?”
“What’s the loudest, craziest, most spiritual thing you’ve got?” Eileen asks.
“Honestly, I’d go with Little Richard.”
“Play that,” she says.
The house convulses while he roots through an album pile. As he slides a record from its jacket, she understands that this is what he has probably wanted all along—to battle toe-to-toe with the house’s spirit—instead of the meager payments he’d requested.
Saxophones blare and piano keys clink in flurries. Little Richard starts singing.
Roddy stands still for a few beats before he jumps and does a massive, air-guitar windmill strum. Then, he whips off his car coat and waves it like a matador’s cape.
The needle bounces across the record and other voices—their voices, Preston and Eileen—rise in volume. She has to hear it all. The worst times of her life. Arguments they had. Arguments they refused to have. Shouted fragments overlapping, fighting to rise above Little Richard on a skipping record.
“If you would only…”
“Why do you always…”
A whomp bomp—a whomp bomp—a whomp bomp.
“You’re not making sense…”
“Just shut up and listen…”
Jumpback… jumpback… jumpback…
“For God’s sake!”
“For the Goddess’ sake!”
Bama lama—bama lama—bama lama—bama lama.
“I can’t take it!”
“Leave me alone!”
“Why are you always like this?”
The carpet rips in half, parting like the Red Sea in front of Charlton Heston, rolling into the walls and dragging furniture with it. Nails in the hardwood floor rattle in place, then shoot up—zipping past their heads—into the plaster ceiling. Anything made of glass in the house, from the windows to the dishes to the dial of Eileen’s watch, cracks simultaneously. Boards split. Doors fall from hinges.
Eileen scrambles out and across her front yard, leaping into the Ford Falcon’s passenger seat. She slides down, pulling her knees to her chest, expecting Roddy to follow her, throw the keys into the ignition, and get them out of there.
Roddy never comes.
She rises to look out the window, putting faith in both the Egyptian pantheon and the 1965 Assembly Line at Ford Motor Company that a single pane of glass will protect her.
Her house splits in half, cracked like the Capitol Dome on the cover of Roddy’s Bad Brains record. When the wave of plaster dust rolls by her, it takes a moment to realize she is staring into the exposed interior of her own living room.
There stands Roddy, doing Sixties-type dance steps as the music blasts—flailing his arms and pivoting on the balls of his feet, spinning and pointing, shaking his clasped hands above his head like a champion boxer celebrating victory. Some of the steps she even recognizes, things her father and mother did on those long-ago Saturday nights. The Frug. The Watusi. The Mashed Potato. She knows their names.
Roddy stomps and twists, barely containing a kind of glee the house had never seen while Eileen and Preston inhabited it.
She hears water, a sudden torrential downpour. She expects a deluge of frogs to splatter across the windshield. Instead, a rising carpet of red swells around Roddy’s legs.
Blood. They finally got blood. A geyser of it surges from the house’s foundation.
For a moment, Roddy seems to float with his chin raised just above the liquid and his fist high in the air. Then, the blood recedes, flowing out into the streets and downspouts, leaving clumps of masonry, broken furniture, and a faint pink tint to the concrete. Roddy stands, crimson head to toe, inside the house’s borders, no ceiling above him and only the barest outline of walls surrounding him. He waves at her.
Eileen exits the car, stepping around debris as she crosses the lawn. A deep crater fills the center, with other holes surrounding it. In some spots, mud has vomited out from the basement and over the carpet. Upturned furniture sits half-buried in the ground.
Roddy stands on the only area untouched by the disaster, along the rim of the largest crater, where his records, cords, and gear sit on a sliver of untainted carpet the shape of a crescent moon.
For a moment, he just looks at her without speaking, discerning her mood with what might be genuine empathy, as she surveys the rubble and debris.
“That’s never happened before,” he tells her.
“Well, there’s no way I’m cleaning that up,” she says.
All this happened over a decade ago. A year or two earlier, the entirety of Lake Chesterfield in South Saint Louis was devoured by a sinkhole overnight, leaving waterfront McMansions with panoramic views of a six-hundred-acre mud pit. Google it. The stories have cutesy titles like “Woe, Lake Begone” but the disappearance was real as real estate gets.
Maybe that’s why the firefighters and insurance guys didn’t blink when they tallied the damage with Eileen and Preston the next morning.
The only sign of Roddy was a circle of leaked oil where Horus had been parked. That weekend, he continued his Saturday night show uninterrupted. But the check she left in his office mailbox cleared in a couple of days, and he left one red-ink message on that week’s log sheet—I hope things are better.
By the time she got his note, Eileen had already quit. She gave the GM two letters—one resigning from her job and another recommending Len for it. She knew Len wouldn’t accept if offered, but hoped her good word would give him enough clout to get his request for a new soundboard approved.
Eileen and Preston consulted lawyers within a week of the house’s collapse, split the insurance money, and went their separate ways. Preston started staying with Greta before the month was out. It just made sense, he explained. They both needed a roommate.
Here’s the real crazy part—had they kept the house and stretched it out a few years, they would have seen their home reduced to half its value, below what they’d paid for it, in a recession that hit even sure-thing areas like Webster Groves. They would have been destitute, underwater, broke.
For anybody else, splitting a house is far more complicated.
Couples implode. They argue over who will get to keep the beloved cat, the sweet Jetta with only nine payments left. A few years pass. The cat dies of leukemia. The Jetta’s transmission blows and costs more to fix than to junk it. Even with music, the principle’s the same. How many couples ten years ago fought over vast compact disc collections full of box sets, bonus tracks, and hard-to-find rarities that turned valueless in the age of Spotify?
Maybe Eileen and Preston came out ahead.
Eileen doesn’t live in St. Louis anymore. If you met her today—today, right now—the woman you would see is older, heavier, but carries herself nimbly, with an irrepressible bounce that tosses her graying hair. She’s quick to smile at strangers, but not to reveal too much. Her silence doesn’t come across as shame but simply a desire to move on. (Only a small trickle of revelations from her over several years made this piece possible.) She doesn’t want to tell people where she moved, and rarely discusses the house, her failed marriage, or anything else about that time. Alone but not lonely, adrift but not scared, all she’ll say is this—she likes where she lives, in a normal apartment where everything belongs to her. Including all the records.