Wayne Conti

“There's nothing left of the old family. None of us live in that dark old house now,” said their driver, a mildly-inebriated young local, as he sat there in front of Josh and his girlfriend, Sally. Josh watched just a little hazily as the driver sort of aimed the car back toward their hotel. “Look at that place! It's a big, old mansion.”

Josh was only half listening, but he did look. The great house was before them—actually to the right side of the car—massive, Victorian, half-invisible in the night and the trees. The driver, who Josh had thought they'd been lucky enough to find at the pub, drove them slowly by. Josh remembered the driver's name was Chris. The guy had patted himself on his stubbly blond hair each time he tried to say something—“to make his brain work,” he'd explained to Josh back at the pub—but by then, rolling along in that old Ford, Josh was only vaguely amused by this guy's capacity to talk, and to talk as impromptu tour guide, although, Josh had to admit to himself, at least someone was saying something.

“This house was built by my great-great-grandfather. Cyril Carp, his name was. He was building stuff all over town in the eighteen hundreds. He built a big mansion for some guy—over where the Texaco station is now, and that station is huge. You seen the big retaining wall behind the restrooms? That was a part of the foundation. But this house, here, is one of the biggest houses left in Victoria—one of the biggest in all of British Columbia, probably. I haven't been in it in—in years, practically, but I remember inside, it's big.”

“Is it big?” said Josh, always ready to play what he saw as his default role as the snide, leather-jacketed New Yorker.

“Yep. It's big. And it has a big stained glass window at the top of the stairs. It's round, just like the one in Notre Dame in Paris.”

“In Paris,” Josh said. “Though smaller, I imagine.”

“Oh, yes, smaller than the one in Paris, but not too small. I remember ten years ago, my brother would give these wild parties for his hockey team. I was just a little kid, but our grandmother would let him. That was crazy. The guys would be so wasted they'd just stare up the stairs at the stained glass—God only knows what they thought they were seeing. Fights would break out. It was crazy!” Chris smiled sternly over his shoulder, mostly at Sally, after they'd passed the place. Josh found himself watching more carefully the path of the car. It was still in its lane.

Sally smiled back at Chris and said, “I love stained glass windows in old houses.” When Josh heard that, he looked at Sally from the corner of his right eye. Those were just about the first words she'd spoken in two hours. Back at the pub she'd kept twining her auburn hair around her finger, and rather glumly complained that they were lowly crew on his brother's sailboat in the Swiftsure race, why didn't he have his own boat back in New York, what were they doing here in the first place, why didn't he make more money to buy his own boat, round and round. Josh had grown accustomed to the fact, over the ten months that he had known Sally, that she got that way with him when she had been drinking, but here, in the back seat of this old car, things were different. She was talking. Josh wondered if maybe he hadn't been so lucky to find such a tall driver in a bar.

“If you're interested, I could show you the big old place,” Chris, the driver, said.

“You could show us?” Sally said, turning her face toward Josh, but looking toward the driver.

“Sure I could show you! Right now, even. I have the keys . . . well, really, they're hidden behind a board, right there,” he said, and pointed with his thumb back towards the house.

“But not tonight,” Josh said, dying to get Sally back to the hotel. What he needed was to have Sally, alone and in a bed, not in an old car, or an old house.

Sure tonight,” Chris said, patting his head. “And there's a full bar inside. I know where they hide the key to that, too.”

“A bar?” Sally said, leaning forward, her mouth very close to the driver's ear.

“Yeah!” he said and braked the car to a standstill. Behind them a horn blew from another car. By then, the house was well behind them, so Chris pulled a quick u-turn, knocking Josh into Sally to the sound of more horns, then Chris stomped on the gas and shot back on the other side of the road, until he slammed on the brakes, cut left across traffic so the car rolled right up onto the front lawn, before coming to a halt, the headlights shining through the overgrowth on the front of the huge place—at least three horns were blowing by then.

“Is my nose bleeding, Josh?” Sally asked. “You got me with your elbow.”

Josh cracked opened his door, and the overhead light came on. He looked back at her face. “Oh, don't start,” he said. “It wasn't my intention to elbow you.”

Sally looked into his left eye, then his right, then his left again, and raised her eyebrows. When they got out, Josh found that the car, perpendicular to the road, was straddling a narrow sidewalk.

“I don't know about this,” Josh said, looking up at the driver, who, he saw then, wasn't just tall, but very tall, what Sally would call “the limit” in tall. Josh had gathered that she'd had an inclination to enjoy such a condition in men in her past.

“Ah, it's all right parked like that. Everybody knows my car. Let me get the keys to the house,” Chris said, then staggered somewhat drunkenly as he waded hip deep through the shrubbery against the house. “Come on over here behind the bushes,” he told them. Down on one knee, Chris smiled up at Sally, as he felt under the clapboard just above the foundation. He slipped his hand up further and smiled more, making big eyes. Sally laughed a little.

“Ah, where is it? Is that . . . no . . . no. Ah, it doesn't matter.”

“Just as good,” Josh said, taking Sally's wrist and turning back toward the car.

“Not yet. Follow me around to the other side of the house. Maybe one of the windows to the back parlor is open. They leave it unlocked a lot.”

Sally started to follow Chris around to the back side of the house. Incongruously, Josh still had her by the wrist, so he found himself following her. The sounds of the street subsided. She pulled her hand away.

“Let me try this one, too, 'cause it's time to party!” Chris said, but though he tried each window, not one opened. “Don't worry. You don't think this will stop us? Oh, hell, no,” he said and with the same big eyed smile on his face he lifted his foot up high, placed it against the window, and pushed his heel through a pane. “I'll just have to fix it myself in the morning. Now, let's paaar-ty!”

Sally started laughing and she couldn't seem to stop herself—she's just getting worse and worse, Josh thought.

“Imagine breaking into my own family's old place! Don't worry, there's probably nothing worth anything in here, anymore.”

Half gasping, Sally said to him, “You're crazy, Craig!”

Chris, my name is Chris, but you're probably right.” He stuck his arm into the space he'd broken open in the window, reached up and unlatched the window and pushed it up. Then he put a hand on each side of the frame, and he jumped and hopped through—almost by magic, it seemed to Josh—then from inside the dark room he reached back out, and he grabbed Sally around the waist. She made a startled snort as Chris, with the skills of a teamster, hoisted her in as if she were just another 118 pound sack of potatoes. Her laughter echoed from inside the house.

Josh crawled in behind them, wary of broken glass. He eased himself slowly into the dark room. He felt his feet touch some sort of carpet, just as a brilliant light burst down upon him from what he saw above his head was a huge and sparkling chandelier. Leaning against the window frame, Josh just let his eyes adjust.

The room he saw before him only disoriented him further. It still retained some kind of strange, late-Victorian style, with oak wainscoting, plaster moldings, a few plush chairs—the only furnishings—pushed here and there against the walls, but that enormous, glinting chandelier hung over them like some kind of crystal explosion and dominated everything.

“Oh, that's something,” Sally said, staring up at it.

“Yep, and it's from France,” Chris said, leading them across the long room. “Crazy old family pictures back here. You think any of these guys look like me? The bar's up there,” he said, and conducted them through an open doorway in the oak paneling.

The light of the back parlor faded as they crossed what seemed to Josh an endless Persian carpet. They were in almost complete darkness by the time they reached a massive oak table by the banister of a large, curving staircase.

“I used to be scared to go up these steps to see my grandmother, they're so spooky,” Chris said, leading Sally by the hand up the staircase. “Now, there's no one and nothing up there but the liquor cabinet and,” he added, making his wide eyes back at her, “some empty beds.” Sally laughed out loud. Sometimes, when Sally had been drinking, Josh just hated her laugh.

Then, as Josh climbed up the curving stairs behind them, he noticed the round stained glass window. Beams from the moon, escaping the clouds, shown through it. The imperfect blue and red glass formed a great dazzling disk floating in the darkness of the upstairs. When that glowing disk seemed to him to rotate, Josh felt he himself still had plenty of drink in him from back at the pub.

“And, voila, the bar,” their host said. The light of the moon, tinted pale blue and red by the stained glass beside Chris, shined on his square back, as, to the left of the great window, he forced opened a wooden cabinet with brass fixtures. Sally and then Josh stepped into the colored moonlight.

“Not much there,” Josh said, seeing only one half-empty vodka bottle that shimmered on a glass shelf. “Smirnoff's to boot. Just great.”

“Oh, let's have a round anyways,” Sally said.

“Yeah, you, there's bound to be something else around here, anyway,” Chris said, and he poured them each a huge drink in straight sided water glasses. “Drink up, you,” he said to her. “And you, too, little buddy. Here's to the old house and us being here, and . . . whatever. Yeah!”

Chris gulped down his own glass. Sally did, too. Josh felt he had no choice, he had to as well—and he nearly choked when he did.

“You said you two are with the boat races, huh? You folks like it here in Victoria? It's pretty historical.”

“It's all right,” Josh said. “Though we were noticing the historical part is about one block deep, then it's just a crumby industrial town.”

“Tell me about it. Let's just finish off this bottle and look for something else. If it wasn't for my family, I'd've split long ago. But then . . .”

“Here you are,” Josh said, finishing the thought.

“Here we are. Right, Nice-looking?” Chris said and smiled into Sally's face. Then he turned and clapped Josh twice on the shoulder and smiled down at him. “You OK little budd—but, oh shit,” he said, peering out the stained glass window. “Fucking flashing lights down there in the street. What are the cops doing around here?”

“Great,” Josh said.

“I don't know if they've just pulled someone over, but let's get out of here.”

“Just great.”

“If they happen to see the light we left on in the back parlor, we're fucked,” said Chris. He and Josh made for the staircase. Sally was well in the lead and heading down the stairs, when, suddenly, Chris stopped at the top of the stairs, blocking Josh's way. “Oh, hell, I just remembered, they'll know who I am anyways—because of the car!”

“But we can't hang around,” Josh said. “We've got to be back at the boat by 7 a.m.”

Chris and Josh just stood a moment at the top of the curved staircase. They watched, as, down below, Sally's shadow disappeared from the patch of light that shone on the floor through the door to the back parlor.

“Look at her go, Josh,” Chris said, outlined by the colored light of the stained glass. “She's already halfway out the window by now. The two of you—you'd both just leave me like this?”

“Why not, old buddy?” Josh said, and leaned a little into him, tapping him with his shoulder. To Josh's surprise the impact was enough, and Chris was drunk enough, that Chris toppled completely over backwards, slid over the banister and fell into the darkness. There was a crash. Josh, at once sobered and still drunk, stared over the railing. He could just barely make out Chris's form on the great table top. Josh let himself down the stairs, one vaguely dangling leg at a time. “You hear me?” Josh said, several times. When he got to the foot of the stairs, Chris still hadn't answered, but seemed, maybe, to be moving.

Josh turned away. As he approached the light from the main parlor, it shone painfully in his eyes, and he couldn't remember that he'd ever given Chris their last names, or the name of their hotel, or the name of the boat they were on.

Josh dangled his legs through the window, and found himself being helped down to the ground by Sally. They ran, the two of them, in an increasingly breathless state, leading themselves between the houses and the shrubs of that foreign town. They evaded fences and barking dogs, patio furniture and clotheslines until they popped out onto another wide, empty street. They were both gasping for air. Sally looked into Josh's eyes and she started laughing.

“Our great escape,” she said.

Josh looked at Sally. He laughed, too. He took her hand, lightly.

As they walked back to their hotel, Josh was saying, “And he fell over the railing.”

And Sally said, “Really . . . ? What an idiot.”

And Josh said, “After he'd broken into a house in a place where everyone knows him.”

“What an idiot,” Sally said.

“And he drove us there, drunk,” Josh said.

What an idiot!” she said.

“And was he hurt or was he killed?” Josh said.

“What an idiot,” Sally said softly, kissing Josh. “What an idiot.” It became her refrain for the rest of that beautiful, moonlit night. She didn't stop saying it, not during the boat race, not even when they got back to New York.

Wayne Conti is a Contributing Editor of Anderbo where his stories, “Brooklyn” and "Dings" also appear. He has also had stories in The Brooklyn Rail, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood and Pindeldyboz. Wayne lives and works in New York City, where he is the proprietor of Mercer Street Books & Records.

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