The Lake House
Jenny Blatz was ready when she finally hit her trifecta. The market crashed right into a fuel shortage and the skies wept for the lost profits. They kept right on weeping onto Southern Indiana until Lake Lenore leapt its seawalls to flood half the tasteful walkout basements and ruin all the manicured lawns of the pretty-lotted lake houses. It was a full-blown disaster, and like any good profiteer, Jenny was there to sell oars.
When Big Ed Duncan called to unload his dying mother’s aging cabin, she was ready with a lawn team to unroll fresh sod, with a contractor to assess the potential structural damage, and with artsy photos of the sheltered inlet locale. These steps were all standard real estate procedure, and she took them as a matter of course with the honestly selfish intent of maximizing her own profits by way of Big Ed’s grief. Then she had the dream.
The dream went like this: Jenny Blatz was visited by her younger self, Jenny Valley. They both sat on a dock, dangling their feet into Lake Lenore. Both sets of toenails were the same shade of pink. Jenny B had cuffed the hems of her tasteful grey suit pants, while Jenny V still wore the summer dress code of 1982: jean shorts and a halter that showed her upper thighs and lowermost ribs to best effect. They never made eye contact, only stared at the other’s rippling reflection.
“Ugh,” Jenny V said.
“I know, I know,” Jenny B said. “I use lotion every night. On everything.” “They look like driftwood.”
“They’re your feet too.”
“Unlikely,” Jenny V said as her tan pair rippled like trout.
“You’ll see,” Jenny B said, trying to remember a time when aging was as unlikely as a date-free Friday night. Jenny V gave the unconscious shrug her older self had worked so hard to eradicate. Beside the fact that it was unprofessional, she didn’t have the shoulders for it anymore.
“Nice place,” Jenny V said, nodding up at the old Duncan house. “Is it ours?” “No,” Jenny B said. “We’re selling it. We’re in real estate these days.” “Mmm,” Jenny V hummed. “Why?”
“Good money, honey. Small engine repair doesn’t pay the bills.” Jenny B shook her head at the quick young feet darting in the water. “You really shouldn’t let Wally buy you that ring.”
The shrug again, then silence but for the call of a big white crane standing at the inlet entrance, its lonely sound drifting across the water on a breeze that lifted the blonde hair from two identical necks before moving off into the trees.
“Why can’t it be ours?” Jenny V finally said.
“Real estate agents don’t buy the houses,” Jenny B said. “Why not?”
Jenny B paused, unsure. She could feel her younger self waiting for an answer, so she scraped up an excuse from atop the pile of gradually accumulated adult aphorisms. “It’s a matter of ethics.”
“Ugh,” Jenny V coughed. The famous “ugh,” so topped off with scorn it was flammable, capable of embarrassing everyone equally from her mother right on up to Chuck Bass, the Central High Principal. Now here it was, finally turned on herself.
Jenny B felt her face flush. “I have a reputation now. A different kind of reputation.” “Jesus god,” Jenny V said and stood. “If this is it,” and delivered the shrug as an ellipsis.
Jenny B enviously watched herself pull her top off and shimmy out of her jeans, revealing the same tan skin from head to toe and everything taut, proportional, golden. Her dive was graceful and long and hung in the late evening light. She went under without a splash and Jenny B held her breath with her younger counterpart, waiting for her to come up. She held it until she grew lightheaded, but the cool green water held no bubbles, no ripples proceeded reemergence. Before she faded to black, Jenny heard the crane, calling to no one in particular, one last time.
She woke up next to Wally gasping for air and flailing. He snorted and rolled, taking the tangled sheet with him and leaving an exposed Jenny sweaty and panting and reeling. She got control of herself as the realness of the dream faded and her breathing slowed. Like all dreams, the materiality of the thing unraveled before her eyes as they adjusted to the darkness of the bedroom. Jenny tried desperately to hold onto it just as it disappeared, but she was able to snatch a single thread: Lake Lenore, the Duncan property, the dive, why not?
She padded silently out of the bedroom and down the hallway to her home office. She crossed the room and switched on the green-shaded banker’s lamp, revealing walls lined floor to ceiling with photos tacked in evenly spaced rows. In every photo sat a house, snapped by Jenny herself. She called it the Hit List, and it featured every property in Albion and Lake Lenore that she wanted to sell. Here and there were blank spaces, little patches of deeper dark amongst the shadowy Tudors, faux-rustic post and beams, and luxury ranches. These pictures were on her desk now in a little SOLD binder, their spots left empty to track her victories.
Sitting down at the desk, she flipped open her dog-eared INDOT Real Estate Manual and searched the index for a relevant reference. There were over 100 pages of “Buying Procedures,” but she scanned page after page without coming across any reference to realtors buying the properties they were selling. Certainly, it mentioned “Conflicts of Interest.” That was right there on page two, and three, and four. But at no point, with the minutes stretching to hours, did Jenny find any passage that forbade realtors from buying their own properties.
As she worked, dawn crept evenly down both walls illuminating the individual entries on the Hit List. She turned unerringly to the Duncan property, tacked at 90 degrees to her dominant right side, intentionally first in line. She clicked off the desk lamp and stared at the doorknob glinting in the first morning light. She stared at the little golden glow and remembered Jenny V diving lithely into Lake Lenore to never return. She thought of conflicts of interest, of ethics, of Wally, whose faint snoring permeated the room despite the closed door. For the first time in 20 years, Jenny Blatz shrugged.
Jenny hated her husband’s name. Wally loved it. “Blatz, like the beer!” he’d say, and then give you his trademark elbow nudge. Jenny hated the nudge too. She didn’t hate Wally, per se, but she did loathe his small engine repair shop, their modest cul-de-sac ranch, and her middle child, Fran. The first two she’d admit after three martinis. The last she’d take to her grave.
She loved, too. She loved her maiden name and her little red Miata and selling real estate. She also loved Baskin Robins and schnauzers and the smell of overripe oranges, which reminded her of her grandparents’ backyard in Sun City, Arizona. But she would trade it all, the schnauzers and the ice cream and the wafting citrus memories for a lot at Lake Lenore. Hell, she’d throw Fran in to cover the closing costs.
As one of the first big city slicks to buy lake property, Ed’s lot was one of the last of the modest cabins. He built it in the 80’s for his mother to spend her summers out from under his feet. If the cabin was small but tasteful, Big Ed himself was anything but. A fixture in Albion, he spent most of his time at the Crow Bar when he came south for a visit, throwing his asphalt- empire cash around and laughing like a tickled bear. He liked it so much he bought a second lot and built a much larger, much less tasteful estate so he wouldn’t have to sleep sweating on his mother’s screened-in porch. Big Ed was the boulder that started the landslide, until nothing was left for Albioner’s but the state campground and a rickety boat launch. That was about to change though, if Jenny Valley had her say.
The first step was to convince Big Ed to set the price way too high to scare off the locals, and Jenny did it in one easy phone call. He was grieving and greedy and ready to part with his treasured memories in exchange for cash.
Step two was to gently steer the yuppies away from the property. Given the cabin would be a teardown for all the metropolitans, Jenny emphasized the difficulties of finding reliable
contracting on the lake without breaking the bank. When she cited a few figures, Jenny watched their eyes widen behind their tasteful sunglasses. If she failed to mention these examples came primarily from the palatial Tuscan-style villa, so what? Her clients were just as happy to buy an already built monster and save themselves the trouble. Wally would have called that a “two birder” if he knew what she was up to.
Step three was to keep the Albion crowd out. At the list price, there weren’t many takers that could reach that price standing on tiptoe, but a local judge came sniffing around eyeing a fishing cabin and retreat from his wife for his impending retirement. Jenny reminded him of The Flood and offered up some pictures of the crawlspace and foundation sunk under four inches of water, and he decided a lake a little further from home might be a wiser choice anyhow.
Then there was a round of repetitive calls to Big Ed where she’d say they needed to lower the price (again), which she would then fail to advertise in any meaningful way beyond putting a “Reduced Price” rider on the original For Sale sign. If anyone called to check on the price, she’d say she’d have to check with the seller, and then misplace the phone number. Jenny bided her time in the longsuffering way her mother and grandmother and the whole line of Valley women had perfected over generations of stoves, creaking shopping carts, black eyes, used car steering wheels, and perpetually light purses. But unlike her mother, whose moment came on just the right drunken Tuesday when she finally brained Jenny’s father with a hammer, Jenny’s chance came with one last price drop, the start of fall, and a final apologetic phone call to Big Ed Duncan.
She made the call on a Thursday from her small office, formerly Fran’s bedroom, at 4
p.m. when she knew Ed would be getting ready to call it for the week. As she dialed, she fiddled with her sharp little quartz-handled letter opener. She enjoyed the weight of it, the brush of pink on something that was both practical and slightly dangerous, which she liked to think was not an unfair description of herself. When he answered, Jenny sat up straight.
“Hey, Ed,” she said. “It’s Jenny.” “Tell me good news,” Ed said.
She sighed theatrically. “I’m afraid not.”
“God damn, Jenny. I know you’re doing your best down there, but what the hell do I gotta do? I’m ready to knock the place down and cover the whole lot in asphalt. I could charge townies for parking.”
She graciously ignored the fact the she was one of those townies, but filed it away, folder name: Ammunition.
“It’s the season, Ed. Nobody wants to buy a house in October. They’ve got turkeys and Christmas presents and snow on the brain. If we wait until the spring, maybe come down a little more in price—”
“No,” Ed said, cutting her off. “This is rock bottom. I’ll keep the damn house myself before I go any lower.”
“Ugh,” Jenny said, imbuing the single syllable with as much of her former Valley scorn as she could manage. The sound stretched luxuriously as it reemerged from her lips after so long in captivity. “And keep paying for the property taxes, upkeep, lawn services, snow removal, all that bullshit?”
“What are my options?” he said. “If you can’t sell it, no one can.”
“I understand, and I am truly sorry,” Jenny said, glowing a little with reluctant pride, and filed it away too. “You know me. If it’s got a roof and four walls, I can sell it. Hell, I even sold a house with three walls once. Owners called it The Teepee. True story.”
Ed laughed, and Jenny could picture him rubbing the back of shiny head sitting at a big oak desk in some Indianapolis high rise. She imagined him looking down at the little people walking by below, people like Jenny. She pictured herself blending a margarita in Bid Ed’s mother’s kitchen while in the next room the phone rang and rang. She steeled herself for the pivot.
“Listen, Ed,” she said. “There’s one other option.” “I’m listening,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about buying a place out there myself. A little retreat for me and Wally to get away weekends.”
“Isn’t there some legal issue there?” he said. “You being a realtor and all.”
“I checked,” she said a little too quickly. She forced herself to calm down and focus on the close. “There’s nothing illegal about it. And it would actually save you money on the closing costs because I wouldn’t take my fee.”
“Is that a fact?” Big Ed did everything loud, so Jenny could actually hear him thinking. She’d learned long ago that often the best tool in her sales arsenal was silence, so she fiddled with the letter opener and let his wheels turn.
“Not to sound indelicate,” he said. “But can you swing it?”
“You know what my fees are, Ed. And you know how many of your friends’ houses I’ve sold. You do the math.”
“Well,” he said, and Jenny felt her chest expand in foolish hope. She was caught in limbo, ready to pop or fly away. She prayed while empty air filled the telephone. Finally Ed cleared his throat.
“Fuck it,” he said. “At least you know what you’re getting yourself into.” Jenny could feel her chair float right up off the floor.
Jenny had hung hundreds of SOLD signs in her life, but she’d never felt the kind of satisfaction she received from hanging one in her own name under her own name. It was a perfectly closed loop, like a prayer answered with an immediate miracle. All the times she’d thought, “Sure is pretty, wish it were mine,” as she closed another listing, then gone home to remove a square from her Hit List in her fake office in their little ranch and felt vaguely empty. Now here she was, and it was hers, and it felt damn good.
There were some advantages to buying your own listing. For one, the paperwork was simple. Two, there was no need for additional appraisal or inspection. And three, she already had the keys. They jingled merrily as she walked up the little brick walkway from the frontage road, her little brick walkway, and let herself in for what must have been the fiftieth time.
In the depths of her scheming, she’d drive out to the lake house at the end of a long day and have a glass of wine, always sitting someplace different. She’d imagine herself hosting in the kitchen, preparing finger foods for her new and better acquaintances. She’d imagine sitting on the back deck reading a novel, something classy instead of the usual romance trash, and watching the sun take a dip in the lake. She’d imagine tasteful sex in the master bedroom, usually with Wally but sometimes not and that really got her motor running. She remembered some untraceable piece of advice she’d read in a self-help book or saw on TV that said, “Perceive and achieve.” She liked that, and it stuck with her even if the source didn’t. And so she schemed and frowned at perspective buyers and called Big Ed until she finally inserted the key and turned. The rasping lock sounded exactly like achievement.
The place would need gutted of course, but Wally was pretty handy and Jenny had a down line to all the best gently used furniture. As she surveyed her new domain, Jenny envisioned the house as it would be and felt the little tingle of pleasure. She could hear the knocking of ice in cocktail glasses, the hushed laughter of intimate gatherings, her new phone ringing with invitations to other, better parties. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Jenny V’s perfect face pressed to the kitchen window in envy.
She walked out onto the back porch and stared across the lake at the mansions cropping grass like splendid cattle waiting for their owners to return from the golf course or from a tasteful slalom ski. On the other side of her new little brown house, she could hear Wally backing his dinghy down the gravel drive, already eager to get fishing. She pictured her neighbors watching
him grilling freshly caught crappie in his “EAT MEAT” apron. As she sat in the plastic Adirondack chair, she started adding up the money she’d need to come up with in order to get some classier chaise loungers, to replace the weed infested pavers with a real patio, to knock her new house down and build something more appropriate. From the mouth of the cove, she heard the splash of a dive and a crane calling to no one in particular. She waited for the phone to start ringing.
Garrett Stack teaches and writes at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. His work was most recently published in Great Lakes Review and jury-selected for the 2019 Write Michigan Short Story Contest Anthology. He lives 39 miles east of Lake Michigan with his wife and twin boys.