My Dead Friend's House
written by Alan Green
written by Alan Green
It's a haunted house. Or, rather, it looks like a haunted house. Like an illustration out of a kid's storybook. Two stories, white, with white curtains. White on white. Weird. In fact, the sky behind the house is white, as well. There's no grass -- it's covered by something white. Not snow, though. Just whiteness.
It has half-round tiles of wood that trim the eaves. The windows are arched. The door is like one you'd expect to see on a castle. The shutters are very thick. Eerie. I wouldn't want to live there. Wouldn't want to live next door.
Speaking of next door, there are no neighbors, no sidewalk, driveway, mailbox, fence, yard, bushes or trees. There isn't a road that passes. No address.
There's no sound. No Planes, cars, birds. Not even the wind.
It's my friend's house. Jimmy. He's been dead for twenty or thirty years. I don't know how long. I haven't seen him since a few years after high school. That's where we met.
Back in school Jimmy was always lazy. Unreal lazy. He would call and ask what the homework assignment was almost every night. He really didn't want the assignment, he wanted the answers, the work related to the assignment. I'd help him out most times. At first, that is. Then I told him he'd have to do his own work.
Jimmy had a lot of problems, but I'm not sure how they made him the way he was. Everybody has problems at that age. Right? In high school? You deal with them. Most people ignore them, brood about it decades later. See a shrink. But, Jimmy, he seemed to do a slow crumble under their weight. For instance he had zits. His zits had zits. You could hardly keep a straight face when you looked at him. You would either wince or look away. One or the other -- sometimes both. You had no choice. It was that bad. Never seen another person with such bad pepperoni face. Sometimes, one of them would crack open, leak. A milky liquid would trickle down his face. I was surprised he couldn't feel it. I'd sort of point to my face to give him a hint, and he'd dab the goo up with a tissue or run the back of his hand over it.
It bothered him. He got emotional about it. His voice trembled and strained when he asked me this one time, "Do you know what it's like to have zits with whiteheads!?" Still, most kids had acne. Some had it bad. They didn't turn out like Jimmy. He made such a big deal out of it.
Maybe that's not fair. It wasn't just the zits. His dad died when he was a kid. Liver disease from drinking. Jimmy never knew him. Yeah...that's sad, but, again, lots of people have stuff like that happen to them. Doesn't wreck most of them. Jimmy was a wreck.
He just cashed in as a kid. Did nothing. Lazy beyond belief. I swear, given a choice between being burned alive and mowing the lawn he'd choose being burned. His mother mowed the lawn while he sat in that chair in the living room reading. His mother took out the garbage while he stared at TV and sipped sweet iced tea. His mother cooked. He'd eat. 'Pass the flavor,' he'd say, meaning the salt. After dinner he'd plop down in the chair while she washed up. She even did his laundry.
He wasn't despondent, like mental. Just adrift. Not interested in doing anything, or becoming anything. Never connected. When we'd watch TV he would force a hollow laugh when I chuckled or when the show's laugh-track cued him. He didn't get the jokes, didn't care. Sometimes, his laugh was so fake I'd have to glance over to see if he was being sarcastic, you know, commenting on how dumb the joke was. He'd have this big fake smile, eyes glued to the set, forcing laugh after laugh. He wasn't being sarcastic. That was just his best approximation of laughter. An imitation. The best he could muster. I guess he based it on something he had seen in a movie. Nobody in that house ever laughed for real.
I'd come over at night and we'd shoot the shit and smoke. A lot of times he'd burn a joint and get stupid. We couldn't talk if he smoked pot. When he did I'd just leave. There wasn't a reason to stay. He started smoking weed more and more often. After a while he'd take a couple hits off a joint between every cigarette. Was always buzzed. Stupid and buzzed. I'd talk about some movie I'd seen and all he could do was laugh because he couldn't think of anything to say. It wasn't shooting the shit anymore, it was just sitting there listening to Jimmy laugh nervously. I quit going over except on the weekends. We'd play poker until his mom went to bed then he'd want to go outside. I knew he'd be buzzed within a few minutes so I'd just go home. He'd wave bye and sit in the backyard and get fried by himself. Sit out there until first light then go to bed, sleep till five or six in the afternoon, get up, have dinner, do it all over again.
He got his GED when I was in my senior year. That made his mom happy. She thought, and I did too, that it meant he would finally go out and get a job, do something. But, all he did was take advantage of not having to go to school everyday. He'd wake up around five, sit in that chair for hours reading or watching TV, sipping iced tea with lots of sugar and smoking cigarettes. All night.
His mom would come home from work and there he'd be in that chair. When she asked what he'd done the answer was always, "Nothing." After a year or two she stopped asking. He stopped looking up from his novel or the TV when she came in.
While I knew him he never had a job, never drew a paycheck, never paid taxes. Hell, he never, not one time went on a date. Just sat in that chair.
After a few years I left town. Moved to New York, continued school when I could, waited tables and did odd jobs, dated around, had as much fun as I could, settled down after a while. Jimmy stayed. Stayed in that chair, I imagine. Over the years I thought of calling him but didn't have a clue what we'd talk about. I couldn't stand the idea of him being unable to come up with trivial small talk. Me listening to long pauses, then saying bye and hanging up. So, I didn't bother. Then, I stopped thinking of calling. We had officially lost touch.
One day, just a few weeks ago, I knew he was dead. Nobody told me. Don't know how I knew. But, I did. He took pills he had gotten from a small-time dealer. Sat in that chair all day popping them one at a time until he was real woozy then chased a handful with a couple tall beers, smoked a joint, and passed out. When she came home his mother thought he was asleep and made dinner. She didn't find out he was dead until the table was set and he didn't make a beeline for food. She knew something was wrong then. He didn't leave a note or anything.
Maybe I felt guilty for not calling. I'm not sure. But, I knew I should talk to Jimmy one last time. So, I decided to pay a visit. I go up to the white on white house. The door was unlocked so I walked in and closed it behind me.
There were fine hardwood floors. The dark grain had a swirl pattern that seemed to move if you looked at it long enough. There were stairs, but they led into blackness that hung like fog. A dark red carpet with an intricate pattern running the length of the entry hall. The pattern would wiggle and squirm after a few seconds. The hall led to a single very large room. There was Jimmy. Sitting in the same chair from his mom's house -- a beat up pea-green lounger. Ugly.
"Hi," he said.
"Hey man," I said. He hadn't changed at all. Was the same as in high school.
"How's it going?" "Not bad." He lights a cigarette. The same brand he smoked when he was alive.
There were no pictures on the walls. The thick curtains kept the light out, but there was plenty light to see by. Where it came from I don't know -- there were no lamps or light fixtures. "Nice place," I said.
He looked around, shrugged. "It's alright. I guess."
There was a large lump under the carpet. "What's that," I asked.
"My dog," he said. The lump moved and there was a sad strange whimpering.
"What's its name?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said. "I've never seen him. Don't know where he, or she, I guess, came from. He stays under the carpet," he said. "Never comes out. I never pet him, feed him. At least, he doesn't shed or poop."
"How do you know it's a dog?"
"Just assume. Be scary if it was something else."
It was a funny joke. We laughed. It was the first, and only, show of any emotion worth mentioning.
Lined up next to the wall were cans of paint. From the labels you could tell it was yellow. Dozens of cans, stacked up, forming a wall.
"What are those?" I ask.
"Cans of paint. Yellow paint," Jimmy says.
"Well. I can see that. What are they doing there?"
"I think I'm supposed to paint the walls, or something."
"Why don't you?"
Now that he's dead, he's still lazy. "How you doing," I ask.
"Okay. I said that, didn't I?"
"No. I mean..." I didn't know what I meant. "How long you been here?"
"Feels like a hundred years. Fuck. A thousand." He snubs the butt in an overflowing ashtray and lights another.
"You just sit here all day?"
"Yep," he says blowing a huge plume of smoke, staring into the distance. He knew it was a shitty answer. It was on his face.
I just stood there. We had reached that point. There was nothing else to say. This, this silence, this was why I had never called. I felt like telling him that but it seemed irrelevant. Hell, it was about as irrelevant as it could get. So, I stood there. There was a thud from upstairs. "What was that?"
"You never went up there to see?"
"Nope," exhaling smoke. "I think it's a woman."
"Yeah? What makes you think that?"
He shrugs. Snubs out the butt. "You want one?" He holds out the pack. Could I take a cigarette from a dead guy?
"I quit. Thanks." He nods, lights another. "Why'd you kill yourself," I asked.
He becomes thoughtful. The smirk fades. "You know. I don't know," he says. "I've thought about it. That's all I do, really. Can't come up with anything. Was tired of my life, I guess."
Okay. Fine. That's as good an answer as you could expect. Right? I look at the cans of paint. Put two and two together. The guy was lazy when he was alive. His job, his mission if you will, was to paint the walls. To do some work. "Dude. Jimmy. I think your job here is to paint the walls."
"Yeah. I know."
"No. I mean, I don't think you can leave until you paint the walls."
"You don't like it here, do you?"
"Not really. Creeps me out. That thing under the carpet. The lady, or whatever it is, upstairs."
He is still staring at the wall. He hadn't looked at me for some time. "I know," he says. I stand there a couple minutes. In silence. We both know I have to go. Visiting time is over. I just want to be polite. "Well. I better get back," I say.
He looks at me. There was such a sincere look of gratitude. "Thanks for coming."
"No problem. It was good to see you. You were a good friend."
"So were you," he says.
"See you," I say, stepping backward.
"Take care," he says, saluting with his lit cigarette and smirking like a character, maybe a fighter pilot, in a movie.
Jimmy is probably still there in that house. He'll probably be there a long time. I'll probably live and die a thousand times before he paints those walls yellow.