FICTION

Above Santa Cruz

ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR JUHASZ
From the author of Maggie Brown & Others, a new short story involving a dilapidated mansion, Lizzie Borden, and a feeling of existential loneliness.

I remember the nights in Santa Cruz as darker than nights other places. I’m sure this has to do with my state of mind when I lived there. Even so, I remember that I could feel just below the surface of the town’s smug self-satisfaction an undercurrent of seething resentment. It had, I believe, to do with money. How a number of people in and around Santa Cruz had unimaginable amounts of it while everybody else, including people with good-paying jobs, or what used to be considered good-paying jobs, like professors and chiropractors, were living paycheck to paycheck. And yet there seemed to be this unwritten edict that those who had somehow managed to hang on were expected to fall to their knees every day and kiss the ground for the privilege of living in Santa Cruz. It is true. The beaches are wide, are glorious, but this sort of obligatory genuflection cuts to the bone. Not that I spoke to a soul about any of this. I lived in a shoebox off Soquel Avenue for 10 months, and aside from my students, who’d vanish so fast after class I’d be left standing there wondering if they’d been there at all, I don’t remember having a single conversation with anyone. As an adjunct, I was so far down the food chain I didn’t exist. I’d go and get my hair cut, I was so lonely for some fingers.

They weren’t paying me enough to live, but I had to sleep somewhere. For the first two weeks of the term, I stayed at the Capri Motor Inn. The drain was clogged, and every time I took a shower, I’d stand ankle deep in water that reeked of urine. I hoped at least it was my own. I’d lived in worse places. The room came with a mini-fridge and microwave. But that year I had hopes. I was teaching at a genuine accredited university. I answered an ad on Craigslist for a cheap, one-room rental. It was up in the mountains, near a place called Bonny Doon. Sounded cheerful. Bonny Doon, a place you could dance to. For some reason, I drove up there at night. The darkness around Santa Cruz is heavily populated. You never knew what your headlights were going to pick up on those mountain roads. Around one curve, I lit up a couple humping, happily, violently, on the edge of the trees.

It turned out to be a room in a mansion on an old estate. The house, which I learned later dated back to the Roaring Twenties, was dilapidated and had been chopped up into multiple apartments. On the side of the house was a sagging veranda and an empty, cracked swimming pool. I found a door, not the front door, there didn’t seem to be a front door anymore, and I followed a set of handwritten signs to “the office,” where I met a high-heeled, sunburned woman who introduced herself as Charlene. She opened a cabinet and, after some deliberation, chose a key, my key. I trailed behind her along dimly lighted hallways that echoed with odd thumpings. We passed room after room. In the shadows of half-opened doors were men. Men in white T-shirts and saggy underwear. Men cooking dinner. Men standing not quite in their doorways. Men who coughed. Men who cleared their throats. Men grinding their plates clean with a fork. Charlene called the room an efficiency, and there may well have been a hot plate and small refrigerator, but the light in the room, like the hallways, was so diffuse I couldn’t make much out. A single low-watt bulb dangled from the ceiling.

“Is there a bed?” I asked.

“Is there a bed? Didn’t you read the ad? The room comes fully furnished. Is there a bed!”

ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR JUHASZ

The carpet underfoot was damp and squishy. If there had once been a window, it had long since been covered over with a piece of plywood. “Not all our tenants are on public assistance,” Charlene said. “I’ve got a restaurant manager and an ex-lawyer.”

Though I could hardly see a thing, I’m certain that I watched tiny bits of Charlene’s skin flake off her face and float slowly to the carpet. I felt myself falling toward her without falling, if this makes any sense. I stood there blinking, only wanting to kiss her to stop her from disintegrating.

It may have been then that Charlene told me factoids about the estate’s history. When it was constructed, how many rooms. That it was originally built by an actor named Robert Montgomery. That he was Elizabeth Montgomery’s father. That the estate stayed in the family for a few decades before falling into ruin. Until now! She said in the last incarnation, before the new owners divided it up into these cute apartlets, the place was a group home for folks with (mild) psychiatric disorders. “Some of the residents have stayed on, and I have to say you aren’t going to meet a nicer bunch of guys.”

“Wait,” I said. “Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched? Samantha?”

“Right,” Charlene said. “She grew up here. Such a beautiful woman. You know she was Jeannie, also.”

“That was Barbara Eden,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Few things I’m sure of, aside from who played Samantha and who played Jeannie. One wrinkled her beautiful nose, the other slept on a couch in a bottle. My life and reruns after school—”

“But Elizabeth Montgomery was in something else, right? What was—”

“The Lizzie Borden TV movie,” I said.

Charlene shouted. “Now that was creepy!”

“My mother is from Fall River,” I said.

“Where?”

“Fall River, Massachusetts, where Lizzie Borden—”

“Took an ax!” Charlene shouted.

“Forty whacks!”

ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR JUHASZ

For a moment, we both shared the ecstasy of those whacks. And when she saw what she had done—be honest, who hasn’t wanted at some point to swing an ax at someone and then at someone else?

“Elizabeth never came back here after she got famous,” Charlene said. “Usually how it goes, you know. Why come home if you don’t have to? I only mention her because, like I say, she’s an interesting factoid.”

I didn’t tell Charlene that in the ’60s and ’70s my mother was sometimes stopped on the streets of Chicago, she looked so much like Samantha on Bewitched. I’ve come to see that other people are immediately bored by what you consider an amazing coincidence. Elizabeth Montgomery, who could have been my mother’s twin (and who also played Fall River’s own Lizzie Borden in the movie!), grew up here, in this house, and now look, look, here I am about to move into a room in the same house! Isn’t that insane?

Not really.

But seriously, you should have seen my mother when people stopped her on the street.

Hell, she was prettier than Elizabeth Montgomery, a lot—

“Why don’t you take a few minutes to get a feel?” Charlene said. And she left me. I didn’t see her walk away. She just vanished from my field of vision. You know how it is? When you’re so alone even the corner of your eye can no longer hold your latest scattershot desire? No quick, dry kiss, no sudden clutch. I remained standing, motionless, for a long time under a bulb that gave so little light. And I remember thinking, Right. Yes. Eventually, I’ll wash up somewhere. Why not here? And there are nights, still, when I wake in the dark and I’m in that room in the mountains above Santa Cruz, in that warehouse of men coughing and cooking their dinners.

Peter Orner’s memoir, Am I Alone Here?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he has twice received a Pushcart Prize. He is a former member of the Volunteer Fire Department in Bolinas, California.

Excerpted from Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner. Published by Little, Brown on July 2, 2019. © 2019 Peter Orner.