Every now and then, we have the pleasure of publishing a piece by someone from the NDQ family. In NDQ 88.1/2 we published the first fiction publications by our non-fiction editor, Sheila Liming. It’s Gothic with a distinct New England vibe and an almost perfect way to celebrate her (relatively) new position at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. But more than that, it’s a great story. The perfect short read for a summer afternoon. Check out “Kept Company” below.
This essay appeared in NDQ 88.1/2 and you can read more of that issue by clicking the link.
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Calvin is dead and she is standing in his kitchen. Of course, it isn’t his kitchen anymore—it’s hers, for the time being, and the new owner’s in all other respects.
“This is the kitchen,” the new owner says, with endearing obviousness.
With his back turned, she begins to hunt for traces of Calvin. The kitchen has been redone, painted over in bright, gleaming white, fitted out with new cabinets, given a face lift that comes courtesy of some newly installed track lighting. So it is a little difficult at first. Calvin makes zero sense amongst this new arsenal of Crate and Barrel effects. But still, she thinks, a mere suggestion of him persists, shimmering through the newfangled veneer of the place, hauntingly palimpsestic.
“And out here’s the porch,” the new owner says, releasing a bolted door.
Like the kitchen, the porch has been cleansed of its former trappings, but the sight of it summons a remembered inventory of Persian carpets, ashtrays, beaded pillows, red-smirched wineglasses, piled newspapers, Mexican blankets, framed black-and-white photos, candy wrappers, and cracked Wedgewood saucers.
“Calvin used to sleep out here,” she says suddenly, and then pauses with a blush stuck to her cheeks. “The guy who owned it before, I mean. He had his bed here.”The new owner looks at her. “You knew him? I didn’t realize.”
“A few summers back. Another time I was up here.”
“Oh,” he says.
The estate was as old as the presence of the family in the country. The main house was a sturdy affair built in the sober manner of its predecessors over in Salem, with a dark and very plain face designed, it would seem, to void the possibility of mirth occurring within its walls. Through a jumble of uncompromising architectural angles, it spoke of long, lean winters attended by fear and pervasive worry.
There was a caretaker’s cottage located a few hundred yards away and separated from the main house by spindly ranks of apple trees that bore, every other year, a profusion of impossibly sour fruit. The cottage compared to the main house in style if not in size: it retained the dark wood, the cross-hatched windows and the regional aspect, though on a less grand scale, being composed only of four rooms arranged circuitously around a massive stone hearth.
The main house had once teemed with generations of children, back in the day when having fewer than ten to your name was deemed a kind of treason. An army of servants tended them, just as an army of laborers had tended the land. But that was then, and the modern world had shown itself to be a very different place, for Calvin as for the rest of the family. The land and the people, they went together, emptying out the estate, rinsing it of life and viability until all that was left was a measly three acres containing the main house, the apple orchard with its unpalatable products, and the caretaker’s cottage, vacant for generations until Calvin moved in following the near-simultaneous deaths of his parents.
The summer that she met Calvin was also the summer that he had decided he was leaving the area for good. Having never been anywhere of consequence in his life, he chose his destination somewhat arbitrarily.
“I’m moving to the Dominican Republic,” was the first thing he’d said when he met her.
“Congratulations?” she had responded, with a note of politesse that was more than he was used to getting from girls like her—girls half his age, drinking cider alone at the only good bar in town.
The next night, she had gone to see him at the caretaker’s cottage. He was dispensing with all his worldly possessions in anticipation of his move, and he’d mentioned that he had some stacks of old books that she would be welcome to paw through. He was looking for someone to miss him when he left, and he thought that she didn’t yet know him well enough to object, or to know any better.
For her own part, she had simply been in the market for company. She’d come to the area in connection with a research project and was spending her days studying the letters of dead people, learning to decipher the loops and tangles of their ancient handwriting, developing the knack for quieting her eyes so that the words might shine through all on their own. She’d become so used to her ongoing conversations with the dead, so comfortable with that particular form of conviviality, that her interactions with the living had begun to suffer. She had begun to fear for her ability to occupy a room with another living person.
She hadn’t really liked him at first. She had thought him arrogant and annoying and spoiled. He would talk about the Dominican Republic to anyone who paused long enough to listen, but he didn’t seem to be packing very earnestly for his relocation. She had thought that his issues probably boiled down to a common enough ailment: a marked disinclination towards work. He did not appear to relish the empirical bonds of wages, hours, and quotas.
She had received a detailed report to this effect that night at the cottage, as he had steered her gently about the place and showed off his hoard of begrimed antiques and fed her tumblers of rum. She’d left with a couple of books tucked under her arm—nothing fancy, some Everyman’s Library reprints with bendable gilt edges—and she’d made up her mind to avoid him from then on.
This proved to be difficult, though. He was something of an institution in the town and so could usually be found sitting in various approximations of repose in front of one of the local establishments. She still saw him everywhere. And then, one night, she saw him in her kitchen.
Kitchen, during this era of her life, had usually also meant bedroom, owing to the size of her apartment. When she had awoken and found him standing there, he had been very close—close enough for her to see the white-blond hair snaking down his back, the carved clavicles jutting through the material of his shirt, the pointed teeth, the unfalteringly severe hypotenuse of his nose. The man, like his house, was all angles.
Then the sound of her own voice in the blank, blue vacuity of her kitchen. Get out!
He kept coming, though. When she got back home to Virginia, the visits continued. She would awaken, alone in her apartment, and feel him in the room with her, feel the way the darkness seemed to pool and condense on the opposite end of the space as though it, too, sought to avoid him. She would hear him breathing at her back. Sometimes he would set to rustling about in the kitchen, unsettling spices in the cupboard or stacks of plates in the sink. He never said anything. And she eventually stopped telling him to leave.
This went on for months. He pursued her nightly as she traveled toward a long-foreseen dead end. Her thesis project was due in August, but she could no longer convince herself that she cared about it. She mourned for her research and loathed the finished product that sat huddled up on her hard drive because it had put an end to all those conversations with the dead. Whenever she opened up the chapter files on her computer, she encountered not dead people, boisterous and chatty and speaking her language, but dead words, reams of them: anaesthetized, inert, framed by the electric white of the page and reeking of chemicals.
And then he stopped coming.
She did some Craigslist snooping, made some phone calls, and found a sublet back in Massachusetts that was more than she could afford but sounded modest enough to justify the price. The ad hadn’t included pictures. She didn’t know until she arrived, following the new owner’s painstakingly detailed directions, that she had been there before.
The new owner, it turned out, lived in New York City. He had bought the place in the hopes of turning it into a summer home, but with the main house needing so much attention and care, he’d started with the guest cottage, thinking that he’d generate some of the money for the repairs through rental income.
“You’re the first to stay in it,” he told her.
After he leaves, she continues her search for signs of Calvin. If she squints, she sees rum bottles cluttering the shelf above the sink and strains of smoke threading their ways skyward from unseen ashtrays on nonexistent end tables. She senses that he will come to her, if she is patient, if the terms of the invitation are made clear enough.
A few days pass, and though he does not come, she can feel it all building. The house, she thinks, is readying itself for his arrival in tiny, unseen ways, smoothing and straightening and preening, an air of expectation attending its every creak and sigh. At night, when she moves about from room to room, she can feel it tense at her approach and then sink slightly afterwards, as though in disappointment, like it had been expecting someone else. And then, when at last it starts, it starts slow.
One evening, as she sits alone on the back porch, sipping red wine from an old glass, a flock of wild turkeys wanders into the yard. She eyes them through the screen, noting the way they bow their heads in gentle supplication each time they take a step towards her. Their postures exhibit both familiarity and deference, and she decides that they, too, know Calvin, or have known him. Perhaps they now mistake her for him. The thought pulls her up and out of her chair and she ends up knocking her wineglass to the ground. It shatters into a billion angry edges, and the turkeys, in a jumble of feet and feathers, flee into the shadows. The next day, though, the wineglass is back in its place among the others in the cabinet, fully intact. She takes this as evidence that Calvin is not offended at her having broken it.
And then there are the cigarettes, cold and half-smoked, that start showing up right after the ashtrays begin to appear. For the ashtrays had to come first, of course. They aren’t quite right, she knows. She bought them at an antique store in Sheffield. Hoping to unearth some legitimate family pieces that might have been sold off in the estate sale, she found only substitutes, hypotheticals, lookalikes. But they play the part convincingly enough. Calvin, apparently, thinks so too, since he has no qualms about using them.
The final sign is the toilet seat, left up one evening. She discovers this in the middle of the night while stumbling to the bathroom in a somnambulant haze of necessity. Now she knows. He will come to her. She has rented the house for two weeks, but she can wait longer, if need be. He will ease himself out of the darkness some summer night, shake himself free from his shadowy holdings, and stand at the foot of her bed in that old accustomed way. He will speak her name and she will welcome him into her house, his house. They will smoke cigarettes and drink rum on every other night, in every other life that might follow from this one.
Sheila Liming is Associate Professor at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. She is the author of two recent books, What a Library Means to a Woman (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and Office (Bloomsbury, 2020), and also serves as Nonfiction Editor of NDQ.