In retrospect, we might have asked a few more questions about the house on Evangeline Drive. There were hints. There were clues.
Jake and I followed the agent around during the showing. She read from her clipboard and pointed out the ceiling fans, the garbage disposal, the picture window. It was a 1963 split-level, with the front door leading into a large open living room. From there, you could turn right into the kitchen and dining room, or left up a small flight of stairs into a hallway and row of bedrooms. But when she gave us a chance to wander freely, we discovered small rooms extending off some of the bedrooms, and branching hallways we only noticed the third or fourth time around.
We asked the agent how many rooms, exactly, were in the house.
She looked at her clipboard. “Twelve.” She said. “Or thirteen, I think.”
The rooms held unlikely collections of objects. A pink fainting couch next to a massive granite coffee table. Flouncy floor lamps in one room; modern chrome and leather chairs in the next. In the kitchen, a heavy glass blender sat alongside one of those ancient orange juicers that nobody has anymore. There was rust around its rim.
A pile of dolls filled one of the bedrooms.
“How can this be priced so low?” said Jake. “It’s enormous.”
“I know,” said the agent. “It’s an amazing price and it won’t last. I just don’t think the Robinsons realize the value of what they have here.”
She looked at us. I guess she already knew she’d made the sale. Maybe she knew before we did.
For years we’d been squeezed into a tiny townhouse in the center of Gladstone, between a row of university fraternity houses and the busy town square. Our son had nothing but a foyer for his room, and poor Jonah, eleven by then, hated this. We hung a sheet from the ceiling to make it more private – “like a secret hideout,” I said – but he was miserable. The noise of town, too, was grinding us down. Students from the frat houses crossed over our lawn after late-night parties, dropping plastic beer cups and cigarette stubs. We’d been sucking it in for so long; we wanted to exhale deeply, to spread out into this spacious, quiet, wall-to-wall carpeted world. We pushed aside our embarrassment about living in the suburbs. We knew we wouldn’t fit in. And still, it was our turn to stake a piece of the American Dream. Giddy from sprawling space, we made an offer on the spot, and within one hour the deal was settled.
Jake pulled the orange U-Haul right up to the house and we jumped out. His brother Thom was helping us move.
“Hey,” said Thom, “I think I know this house. Isn’t this where they have that huge Bible meeting?”
“Well,” I said, laughing, “not any more. Only atheists and sinners here now.”
Thom looked at Jake but I wasn’t interested. I unlocked the front door and crossed the threshold, anticipating the glory of clean empty rooms, but was surprised to find lots of things left behind. The pink fainting couch was still there. The blender was gone, but the rusty orange juice maker sat on one of the kitchen shelves and the shelves hadn’t been wiped down. There were a few scattered dolls left in that one bedroom.
I walked around and around, discovering more and more space. In fact, I discovered an entire suite with a full bathroom that I didn’t remember from when we viewed the house. I was irritated about all the dolls and things, but there was a beautiful oak bunk bed in the suite, and I thought it would be a dream room for Jonah, especially when his cousin came to visit. They would have their own little boy-world. We can make this work, I thought.
And so we poured the contents of our life into the house, and the house swallowed them all up. There were too many rooms; some of them sat empty, or with nothing but an odd, left-behind floor lamp. I pushed the pink couch into Jonah’s room, just to fill it up. In our old townhouse, every square inch was utilized, nothing was empty. Here, we could hear our voices echo, “look at this room, did we notice this one before…”
After two days of unpacking, I decided it was time for a real room count. Okay, there were six bedrooms, three bathrooms, two sitting rooms, a family room, sewing room, laundry room, kitchen, dining room, pantry, and office. The next count, however, included a big side room for storage, with a few dusty chairs piled up in the corner, and a tiny bedroom with carpeting on the walls. I counted again, but I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the little carpeted room anywhere. I gave up on counting. I enjoyed the chaos, to be honest, but I was worried about losing Jonah, who periodically disappeared.
We found things and lost things. Jonah called to me on the second night and I followed the sound of his voice into the family room. There he sat in front of a square plaid record player and a milk crate of faded rock records. I was positive it hadn’t been there before.
“These are records, right?” he said. “Look at these, Mom.”
We flipped through. Cream. Bread. “Why are these bands named after food?” he said. I pulled out a Bob Dylan record and played him “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He listened; he didn’t move.
“Mom,” he said, “what do you believe in?”
“I can’t really say I believe in anything,” I answered.
“But,” he said, “My teacher taught us that without belief there can’t be sentences. And without belief and sentences there can’t be truth.”
“Are you positive that’s what he said? What does that even mean?”
“It’s logic,” said Jonah.
I wasn’t sure about this teacher.
On the evening of our third day, we gathered near the front door, organizing ourselves to go to the mall for house paint and drapes. We were almost ready to go when the doorbell rang followed by several loud, reckless knocks on the door. I looked out the peephole to see the driveway full of cars, and cars pouring down Evangeline Drive, and an army of about sixteen people standing by our front door, smiling, and more people moving up the driveway, streaming out of all those cars.
I gently pushed Jonah behind me, took Jake by the hand, and opened the door, standing squarely to face the crowd.
“Hey!” said a chubby guy in a white cotton sweater. “Where’s the Robinsons?”
“We live here now,” I said. “They moved. The Robinsons moved.”
“Oh heck!” said Chubby. “I should have known.” He turned to the petite fortyish cheerleader type by his side and she nodded.
“Just a sec,” she said, and she dashed to and from a powder blue station wagon. She popped a warm, orange casserole dish into my hands, breaking my handhold with Jake.
“Welcome to the neighborhood!” she said, charging into our house, right in between Jake and me, creating an opening for the group of now about fifty people to enter, clapping the kids on the back, singing – some of them – “Onward Christian Soldiers” in light, jovial voices.
“What’s this?” I asked a slim woman in a fitted grey suit. She stopped and stepped towards us, allowing the flow of traffic to continue. There had to be at least 100 of them now. They broke off into different directions. A little girl yelled, “Most of the dolls are gone!”
The grey suit woman said, “Our Bible group has been meeting here every Tuesday for years. I don’t know how many. Years and years. No matter who lives here.” She rejoined the stream.
“But wait,” I said. Jake stood speechless. Jonah had little tears in the corners of his eyes.
“Wait,” I said, to nobody, to all of them, young, old, cheerful, determined. “We were just going to the mall. We were literally just about to walk out the door.”
They kept coming.
“We’re not Christian!” said Jake, finally able to speak.
A skinny teenage girl clucked at him, “Sweet baby Jesus, that’s what they all say.”
I ushered Jake and Jonah into the kitchen and put the casserole on the counter. I lifted the lid. Pasta, cheese, and tuna. We were planning to eat Subway at the mall; this looked nicer. While I set the table, three women bustled around the kitchen setting up a gigantic carafe for coffee, which they pulled out of a cupboard underneath the sink, a cupboard I’d not yet noticed. There were other things in there: a silver platter, a tea pot.
“Is that yours?” I said.
They giggled. “It’s too old to be anybody’s,” said one of the women.
“It’s just here,” said one of the others.
During dinner, the house sang around us, feeling full and alive. There were two bedrooms of babies and a couple of older girls scooping babies up and putting them down. The little children had settled into Jonah’s suite, where they clapped their hands rhythmically, chanting “Jesus loves me yes I know/for the Bible tells me so.” Teens sprawled around one of the sitting rooms, talking abstinence, checking each other out, wearing promise rings. Men in the office shouted doctrine, women in the family room argued politely about a charity drive, and constantly Christians ran into and out of our kitchen for coffee or juice or lemon bars. Jake devoured a heaped plateful of the tuna casserole and then another, like he was starving. I admit, the tuna casserole was good. It was the way my grandmother used to make it, with crumbled potato chips on top.
There were mountains of lemon bars, and so we helped ourselves, and as we did so the clucking girl reappeared, clucking even louder: “I thought y’all wasn’t Christian.” She winked at Jonah. “These are Christian lemon bars.”
The lemon bars were exquisite. I could make a thousand batches of lemon bars and never achieve that level of perfection. Tangy, creamy lemon topping on a flaky shortbread crust. Not too sweet. Not too tart. A study in contrast, balance, and mouth feel. Jonah ate his slowly and in wonder. “Mom,” he said, “do you believe in lemon bars?” We smiled at each other. Jake’s mouth was too full to say anything. You’d think he’d never eaten in his life.
When nobody was looking, I wrapped a few lemon bars in foil and put them in the fridge.
After a couple of hours, a whirling cloud of girls and women swooped through the split level, tidying and clearing. Car doors slammed over echoing calls of “see you next week!” And then they were gone.
Late, late that night, the deep suburban quiet woke me up. What were the things I was looking for in a house? Maybe it was peace, maybe it was space, maybe it was some other thing. I felt my way to the kitchen, to the refrigerator door handle; I pulled it open, and there was light, and I unwrapped the cold lemon bars. I held one in my hand, staring into it.
Freda Love Smith is a writer, drummer, academic advisor, and lecturer living in Evanston, Il. She is the author of a 2015 memoir, Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir With Recipes. Her fiction has appeared in journals including The North American Review, Bound Off, and Smokelong Quarterly. She interviews musicians about food for Paste and blogs about lemon bars, among other things, at lovesmiths.blogspot.com.