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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

The Halfway House


by Emma Sloley

This man, Tom Goodnough, looked guilty as he slunk along, but that was how he always looked even when he’d done nothing wrong. His facial features didn’t help: flatline of a mouth and a jaw like a badly-chiseled granite slab and eyes the color of overalls washed too many times. On this particular afternoon the wrong had yet to be committed but it was on its way.

He was walking home from work, a short day on account of its being a weekend and no one having died. He followed his usual route between the funeral parlor and home, a journey that took him along Main Street, ducking through untended yards that crumbled down towards the pebbly banks, past the long-silent bottling plant—every second casement window smashed checkerboard-style by exacting vandals—and through the grassland where the trail grew marshy and sucked at the soles of his boots. But then he took a detour, heading towards the grand old hotel that was now used as a halfway house. As he approached it, he glanced avidly from side to side with a nervous lupine kind of hunger, licking his dry lips. Hyper-aware that this was his one and only chance.

The hotel lay in a dip about half a mile out of town, a scooped green hollow with the river behind it. The waters were swollen now from the melted snows and gushing over the stones with a deep rumbling single-mindedness that sounded almost sentient to Tom when he stopped and pulled the earbuds out. There were no gardens anymore, just a vast scabbed-over expanse of parking lot. One ragged old decorative wooden bench remained, marooned at the far edge of the gravel, pointless as an unseaworthy raft.

He never took this route but he still knew that the eerie silence wasn’t ordinary, that the building would usually be pulsing with activity and terrible sounds. The old hotel been a halfway house for years, almost as long as he could remember, a temporary place for junkies and drunks and no-hopers and crazies, and all the many intersecting parts of that Venn diagram. Every time Tom caught a glimpse of the name on the lintel a tongue of shame would flicker in his chest. THE GOODNOUGH. The proud letters etched in plaster, even now a few gilded flakes clinging on for dear life in the crevices of the ‘U’ and ‘G.’ The building was as embarrassing as an incontinent relative, an elaborate wedding cake decorated with curlicues and turrets and flourishes, like some Northerner’s antebellum fever dream.

Nevertheless he had business with the place today—unpleasant business, but he was used to that. He took his backpack off and laid it down at his feet. He was panting slightly though the day was not very warm. He strode to the entrance on long legs, a slight paunch pushing out his blue cotton shirt but spine as straight as a broomstick, a hangover from being yelled at every day of his childhood to stand up straight or he’d get a belting. Slumping became a subversive act he practiced occasionally just to piss off the Sadistic Old Fuck, but the SOF won in the end really because the fatherly lesson stuck: the grown-up Tom had such excellent posture that people often remarked on it. But even now he sometimes found himself looking over his shoulder on a dark stretch of road, or flinching at a particular timbre of voice.

He knew there would be no one here today, he had read about it in the paper. The county had ordered the building shut down until they could send someone from Jamesville, a county over, to assess the damage from the fire. Boards had been hastily nailed over windows and the residents relocated to a safer place, or else they had slipped into or out of the world according to what felt right to them. They weren’t prisoners, after all. Tom’s own mother had ended up there for a brief time, after she got into the Oxycontin after minor back surgery. It had all happened so quickly, her rapid slide into a realm beyond any of their ability to help. The choking rage of the Sadistic Old Fuck had been something to behold back then, when it had sunk in how much more shame there was in store for the family.

He approached the Palladian windows on the left-hand side of the entrance, gingerly pulled away one of the thick wooden boards. The nails gave as easily as a knife sliding through butter.  He shook his head in disgust at the shoddy job, even though it made his own job easier. One of the columns holding up the portico listed cartoonishly to one side. The whole place was an accident waiting to happen. He pulled away three more boards, piled them neatly at the side of the portico. The windows were caked with a yellow-gray buildup of grime. He smeared a long streak across the glass with his forearm, cupped his hands around his eyes and peered in. The foyer came into bleary focus, empty but for a wooden chair broken beyond repair, two of its legs busted into sprays of lethal-looking splinters. There was a pile of something in one corner near the grand staircase, he couldn’t make out what, but it didn’t move in the few minutes he stood there painfully hunched over at the window, and neither did anyone appear, so he finally straightened his spine, satisfied, and strode back to retrieve his backpack.

He took one last look around before opening the creaking front door, the padlock dangling loose as if someone had decided there was nothing inside worth protecting. He slipped inside and closed the door behind him. If the foyer smelled of an admixture of damp ashes and rank decay he didn’t notice it, having long ago transcended olfactory distress of any kind. Yet he fancied he could feel some malevolence in the heavy atmosphere, like a held breath before an atrocity. He didn’t intend to stay any longer than was needed.

He knelt as though in prayer on the cool floor, taking a moment to marvel in spite of the situation’s urgency that at some point someone had attempted to dislodge pieces of the marble slab, perhaps with a crowbar. He drew out the box of matches and the bottle. He didn’t drink, having been terrified since he was a kid of the addictive genie lurking in his blood, so he hadn’t really known what to buy, in the end choosing the cheapest kind of brandy in a flagon bottle. He shook it dubiously. It looked flammable enough. Of course it would have been smarter to use proper fuel, lighter fluid or gasoline, but he needed it to seem like a logical continuation of the earlier fire, just another accident brought about by some drunken bum.

He scrambled to his feet again, went to the corner where the dark shape lurked. It was just a tangled tumbleweed of debris, spiky leaves of dried grass and junk that had blown into the foyer or been left there. He fetched the alcohol and the matches, shaped the debris into a neat, high pile. He muttered moral support as he worked. Get it done, son. He sprinkled the kindling with the brandy—just a few drops at first, then emptying the entire bottle with a reckless shiver of the wrist—finally lighting a match and throwing it on the pile. Overcome by a dread that had all the surreal lucidity of nightmare, he hurried out the door, his back prickling with the childish sensation of being pursued. Then he sat on the splintery bench at the edge of the parking lot, and he waited.

~

A shiny unfamiliar red car pulled in, the type of tiny useless thing beloved of car rental companies. Tom observed its approach without moving his head, but his heart knocked against his ribs and he berated himself silently. He should have disappeared as soon as the job was done, lit out as he’d intended to do. But something had made him stick around to see it through. A desire to bear witness. As the car got closer he quickly pushed the magazine back into his pack, a spasm of irritation rippling down his vertebrae. Not only did the vehicle’s appearance threaten to complicate his afternoon of arson, it had also interrupted his one secret pleasure, reading the glossy shelter magazines he had delivered to his home each month. He got a voluptuous thrill from poring over the spreads populated by glamorous thin strangers posed like self-aware mannequins inside their designer homes. He secretly knew his Mies van der Rohe from his Eero Saarinen, could recognize a Delft tile or a Doric pilaster at a hundred paces, although he would rather have died than admit that to anyone in town. He sensed that within those pages lay a formula for living the correct life.

A tall well-dressed stranger unfolded himself like a jack-in-the-box from the red car. The man brushed his pants down fastidiously as he walked, aiming the remote over his shoulder to lock the car with such careless suavity that Tom felt a shiver—of what? envy maybe—course through him. Tom subtly prepared himself for the man’s approach, looking but not looking, pulling his shoulders even squarer, a curiosity rising up even through the dread as he tried to remember the last time he saw someone with such dark skin. Maybe that guy down at the DMV who had shared a brief joke with Tom once about license photos, something about how they tended to capture your very worst self, and how it had made Tom feel understood in some oblique but treasured way.

The stranger sent a high-beam smile—a little forward scout of civility—in Tom’s direction.

“Hey there! I didn’t expect to find anyone here. You one of the staff at this place?”

This insult didn’t even seem worth acknowledging.

“Name’s William,” the man said once he was within conversation-striking distance. He extended a taut muscular arm in all confidence of receiving a warm welcome. “I’m the insurance assessor from Jamesville. Wasn’t supposed to get out here until tomorrow, but I happened to be out for a drive and thought I’d take a look. See what kind of damage we’re looking at.”

He should have known, there had been something official about the man even before he had emerged from the car. Typical of his bad luck. Tom let his hand be shook without getting up from the bench. But in spite of his trepidation at being caught he felt new invigoration coursing through his veins, as if the man had brought a different, more oxygenated atmosphere with him.

“You from around here?”

“Yep. Since before it was fashionable.”

The stranger laughed with appreciation at this wit and Tom felt himself thawing under the rare warmth of attention. Never mind the warmth that was likely building up in the halfway house, or the inevitability that this stranger, this assessor, would understand the situation as soon as he saw the first curl of smoke. It didn’t even occur to Tom to try to throw the man off the scent, to divert his attention in some way from the soon-to-be-smoldering wreck. He had never had a talent for deception or disingenuousness.

William proceeded to ease himself down onto the bench, sighing with pleasure as if the journey across the parking lot had wearied him and he was finally sinking into a luxuriant stuffed armchair. He certainly cut a singular figure. His skin tone rare enough, sure, but also the way he held himself, a cosmopolitan confidence and ease that wasn’t quite swagger but was too cocky by far for this place, where status was measured in time served. Tom clocked it all carefully: the crisp yellow polo shirt; the expensive watch; the fingernails buffed to a pearlescent shine, like half-moons of plastic.

“Lovely example of Greek Revival and Neo-Gothic architecture here.” The man placed his palms flat down on his knees with an appreciative smile. “Even if it looks a little unloved. Shame about the fire.”

Tom just grunted, but William seemed not to expect or even desire responses to his unsolicited statements. He radiated complete, uncomplicated contentment. Tom had never met anyone like that, had never expected to encounter their like outside of his magazines. They both looked across the parking lot to the hotel. Tom was ready to flinch at the smallest sign that the fire had taken, but apart from a golden glow limning the window frames—a trick of the afternoon light—there was no appearance of anything amiss inside. He shifted his weight from one bony buttock to the other. How long did he have until the flames appeared and the jig was up? He could of course have simply stood up, walked to his car, got in and driven off. But he felt caught in the inertia of the moment. And something else: the subtle, suicidal desire of the criminal to be caught.

William seemed in no hurry to actually enter the building, and while this should have brought relief, it only made Tom more twitchy. He wanted it over with, one way or another. Instead William took a stainless steel case from his blazer pocket and plucked a business card from it with a subtle flourish that suggested pride, perhaps in possessing a life that justified printing his name on a rectangle of pricey paper. He handed it to Tom but before Tom could even glance at it the man put a hand on his shoulder.

“You can call me Will if you like, all my friends call me Will. You know what a defense attorney is?”

“Of course,” Tom said, wounded. “Jesus Christ.”

William raised his hands, palms open wide, in a versatile gesture that might have meant I’m sorry or Don’t be so sensitive.

“That’s what I’m trained to do. But last year my father got really sick and my mom couldn’t look after him on her own, so I decided to move on up to Jamesville to take care of them. Not much call for defense attorneys around here, but insurance seems to be a booming business. So. You know the biggest mistake I used to see my clients making?”

“Well I have a feeling you’re going to tell me,” Tom said, but grinned to remove any sting from the words.

“The biggest mistake people make is thinking they can clear their name later on. They think there’s going to be a chance to explain everything, to prove their innocence in the courtroom. When in fact by the time they’re on the stand it’s usually way too late. People are making assumptions right from the start, you see, so it’s crucial that a suspect proclaim their innocence up front. Shout it from the highest hill, I always say, scream it from the rooftops.”  Will opened the fingers on one hand wide and began ticking them off—”The arresting officer, bystanders, family and friends, the prison guards, the milkman. Everyone. I’ve spoken to jury members after a trial, a losing trial, and you know the number one reason they give for bringing back a guilty verdict?”

Will shot Tom an expectant look, dark eyes alight with the dopamine kick of being permitted to deliver his favorite lecture to a willing audience. Tom shrugged as if he didn’t really care about the answer, but the stories were like fuel for a car that only gets out of the garage once or twice a year.

“The accused didn’t say they were innocent. I’ve had clients who’ve been piss their pants scared, do anything to prove their innocence, but they take the stand and they’ve got these poker faces. Or even worse. Had this one client, murder trial, prosecution had no case. My client, he gets up there, you know what he does? He smiles. Now I know it’s really a nervous tic. Completely involuntary. But you can guess where he is now.”

“Boy.”

He could sense the poignant yearning in William to dwell in a former time whose successes more accorded with his secret idea of himself. Not that Tom would know anything about that.

“What do you do for a living, Tom?”

He didn’t hesitate as in old days, even pulled himself up taller. Important to own it, for some reason he couldn’t necessarily articulate.

“Run the funeral home. Goodnough and Sons.”

Even now the name stuck in his throat like a stone in a crow’s beak. Will raised an eyebrow.

“Wait…any relation?”

“Not really. It was a hotel originally, then it became whatever it is now…a cesspool.”

He knew it was stupid, to admit to his own loathing of the hotel in front of a former lawyer of all people, but it made him want to spit. Rid his mouth of the shame, of what the building was then; of what it was now.

Will nodded as if he understood perfectly, but how could he? The ugly truth was that Tom had benefited if only obliquely, from the subtle status that went with the Goodnough lineage as well as from the parcels of land inherited before the family cleaved in two, then four, then eight, like bacteria multiplying.

In the end it was Will who noticed the smoke first. His eyes widened and he stopped talking mid-sentence.

“Oh shit, I think it’s on fire again. Look!”

Tom swiveled his neck, gaped in genuine astonishment at the tendrils of smoke snaking beneath the front doors of The Goodnough, at the windows softly aglow with a familiar gaseous light. He experienced a moment of utter disconnection. The smoke, the nascent flames—he understood intellectually that they existed at the end of a chain of events he had personally put in motion, yet they seemed alive with an alien purpose. For a second he forgot that he had touched the match to the kindling, believing instead that the fire had sprung purely from his own desire to see the place burn. He had dreamed it into being.

Tom fully expected events to speed up now, for William to snap into action and make all the requisite phone calls, but the man seemed paralyzed, caught in the same terrible dream-state as Tom. Perhaps he had just never expected his job would involve putting out literal fires.

“What are the chances?” Will said softly, as if trying to accurately assess the probability of lightning striking twice in the same location.

“The old place is a mess anyway,” Tom mused, emboldened now to try something out, probing to see how far he could go. “Kind of a hazard? Town might be happy to see it go.”

Will’s face registered shock, then settled into a kind of sternness. Tom should have guessed he’d be a rule-follower. A reporter of incidents. A follower of protocol.

“Oh no. We can’t just let it burn down. That’s a crime, failing to report a fire.”

“Yeah well, I wasn’t suggesting not reporting it. We should call it in.”

Trying to paper over his previous idea.

He coughed. The smoke had made its way over, an acrid thick stench with a chemical top note that coated the throat. They both reached into pockets for their phones, but Will got there first. Tom made sure of it. Will walked off a few feet, dialed 911, reported the fire. At one point he put the phone to his chest, called out to Tom to describe where they were exactly geographically. For a fleeting moment Tom considered feeding him bad information. But he chickened out. His only job now was to be present as events unfolded.

Will was frowning by the time he ended the call.

“They said there’s some issue with the fire-truck. They’re doing repairs. Said they’d be here as soon as they can.”

Tom nodded somberly but a flame of hope licked back into life. “Well now,” he said, drawing his thumb and forefinger across his jaw as if contemplating what to do next. He stood up from the bench so as not to appear at a physical or moral disadvantage to William, who was staring out moodily at the hotel, hand shading his gleaming forehead. After a while he turned back to face Tom.

“I feel so helpless. You must feel terrible seeing this. Your own family name. Do you think we should maybe look in the windows before the firemen and police get here, make sure there’s nothing worth saving?”

“Not on my account,” said Tom quickly, horrified at this new suggestion. “Nothing to do with me.”

He hated the way he sounded. That defensive tone of voice was like a dog whistle to bullies, he knew that, had spent years banishing it. Two thick columns of livid smoke now billowed from the chimneys into the darkening sky like a distress signal.

“You’re right,” answered Will, obviously relieved to be spared the opportunity for fiery heroics. “It seems foolhardy to run into a burning building. Wonder how it started.”

Tom fancied he saw a knowing look in Will’s eye. The man was a lawyer after all, no doubt an expert in detecting lies.

“Lightning maybe,” Tom speculated, hoping the desperation wasn’t seeping through his voice. “Maybe local kids. Troublemakers.”

Will nodded but appeared unconvinced by these offerings.

“Should you call your relatives? I mean, whoever owns the place now.”

Tom sucked his lips in, pinned them beneath his top teeth. The crisp spring night had turned smoldering, as though the hotel had created its own micro-climate, a simulacrum of late summer with its twitchy evenings and humid yearnings. All of a sudden he hated this man standing beside him. He had never committed violence but felt a sudden surging desire to punch his blameless new friend in his smug, successful face. A familiar gall rose in Tom’s throat, aged in the barrels of discontent over many years. How different might things have been if he had ever received signals that he was cherished and cared for? Not just from the SOF but either of them. Perhaps he might have gotten out of here too, sprung loose and gone to the city and become someone, like Will.

“Fuck them.” His voice a low growl as ominous as the cracklings inside the building yonder. His eyes stung and watered. “Fuck them all.”

“Am I missing something here?” came Will’s gentle voice, laced with anxiety now. It seemed to Tom that an inevitable freight train of consequences had been put into motion by his own outburst, and he felt a strong, almost overwhelming urge to run away. For all the good that had ever done him.

“You want to know the story of the guy this hotel is named after, good old Ambrose Goodnough?”

“Sure.”

There was hesitation in Will’s voice though. Perhaps he was reconsidering the wisdom of having engaged with this creepy white guy who now seemed on the verge of committing some reckless dark act out of which there would come no reparations. Tom stared straight ahead until the scene began to swim and shimmer and blur at the edges.

“They say he fled here after the war was over, in the eighteen eighties or whatever, start a new life with his family in the north. Built a big old house over on Main Street, ‘course it wasn’t called Main Street then probably. Basically founded the town. Anyway. He was my great great granddaddy. I think that’s right.”

Will tilted his elegant head to the side as he listened, nodding politely.

“Thing is, the story goes that he was a big-time plantation owner in the south, cotton or sugar or such.”

At the beginning the blaze had resembled something summery and benign, a bonfire they could gather around and swap tales, but as the minutes had passed with no fire truck in sight the conflagration had taken on a more sinister bent, more like a warehouse fire in a crowded ghetto, something perilous and out of control whose human costs would only be measured once the ashes had been sifted through. Gouts of black smoke billowed from chimneys and windows and door jambs. The flames were as tall as a young boy now, about the height Tom had been the time they dragged him to the halfway house to see her, left him there in her locked room while he screamed the place down.

“So the rumors are that he was a slave owner?” Will persisted, still in that diplomatic courtroom voice. “I suppose he wouldn’t have been the first to relocate outside of the south.”

There was no turning back now: it was as though Tom’s agency had been removed cleanly and painlessly. The story was telling itself.

“Not exactly. The rumor is he killed all his slaves before he moved out here. My dear old great great granddaddy. Murdered every one. Out of spite.”

The last part was important in understanding what his ancestor had been. That’s what you needed to know if you wanted to know about the fatal virus that lurked in Tom’s blood.

“Holy shit.”

Tom’s mouth twisted slowly as he turned to look at Will. He expected hatred, disdain, possibly fear. But all he saw on the man’s broad handsome face was pity. Tom knew then that Will knew what he had done. He knew and he understood, maybe even approved. In silent agreement the two men moved further away from the fire. It was only a matter of time before windows started exploding and fiery projectiles landing at their feet. The heat radiating out from the building had passed from agreeable to assertive to suffocating. It pushed up against their bodies like a solid force.

They leaned against the hood of Tom’s car, the air a little cooler and less stifling at that distance, and they stood sweating and staring into the darkening evening, captives in some liminal space that contained everything that was wrong about their history, their country and this particular moment, the fucked-up symbolism suggested by a black man watching a murderous slave owner’s home burn to the ground. Their inability to talk about it or relate it to current affairs. Their mutual failure, halfway between the shameful past and a shining future that was always out of reach. All this trapped within the sweltering moment like a scene in a defective snow globe.

They both wanted it now, Tom could feel it. In the excited strain of the man’s shoulders, in his transfixion, everything in the world blotted out but the blazing hotel. In a way, Tom thought, it was as though he had just been waiting for something like this. Not a fire necessarily or even a disaster but an event that would force a reexamination of everything.

But as the first fireflies blinked on in the hemlocks down near the river and he felt rather than saw Will hesitate then turn away, Tom heard a sound that told him this wasn’t it, son. This wasn’t going to be the event. The sound was the high-pitched urgent wailing of the fire engine’s siren coming at last, rounding the last bend after Main Street.

Header photograph © Heather Wharram.

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