Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by.
From the song “Stardust”
Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, 1929.
It was an accident, really, that dazzling splash of crimson light that appeared in David’s front room. If he were religious he might have called it a blessing. If he were superstitious he might have called it an omen. But as he was, a man firmly settled in the empirical world, he treasured it and regarded the mysterious effect as a glorious stroke of luck.
He remembered that three prisms placed together make a lens. It must have had something to do with the focusing of light in some chance circumstance: optic serendipity.
At the front of the house was a large multipaned window with a matching transom window above. In the outer corners of the transom window were deep crimson panes of stained glass, two inches square. Sunlight coming through the reddish pane on the lower right reflected through an antique medicine bottle, its glass pale blue, that David had set on the sill. The bottle’s wavy glass bent the light up and out and projected its rich color against the right half of the double doors separating the front and back parlors.
The red light began to appear in late March for short periods around noon, coming earlier and remaining longer each day. While the days of spring grew longer and the sun brighter, it increased in intensity. As the sun moved across the sky, the reflected red light spread across the floor, starting at the base of the right-hand door, reaching up nearly six feet and nearly spanning the door.
The velvety, blood-red light bathed the raised panels of the door and shimmered faintly in the heat. Intrigued by the effect, David was careful not to move the bottle for fear of disturbing the warm, glowing light.
One unseasonably hot May afternoon, David stood by the front door holding a cold beer in a Ball mason jar, watching the beam for a moment. He went outside and sat down on the porch steps, sipping the BarFly IPA he’d poured from a growler brought home from Barley Island the night before. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist
Paint chips smeared through his dark hair. He’d been on the ladder, stripping paint from the clapboard siding with a heavy, cast iron heat gun. The assortment of paint chips encrusting the hair on his head and arms told the story of more than a hundred years of paint jobs.
As a My Morning Jacket playlist cycled from his phone, plugged into an old, tattered boombox, he sat resting and surveying the neighborhood, deserted but for the endless sweep of anonymous cars passing down Cherry Street. He had bought the house a year ago that month and still knew little about his neighbors beyond their names.
Across from him were the Williamses, a retired couple who only came out to mow the lawn and sweep the sidewalk. They had a porch with a swing that always sat empty. Diagonally across the street was Jim, an overweight widower in his mid-fifties. He came and went from the driveway behind his house. His blinds were always drawn.
East beyond Jim lived a young couple named Wilkinson, whom David saw outside only when they were walking from the front door to their cars. He’d greeted them one day as they left. They initially seemed shocked, as if he had disturbed their personal space, but eventually made polite small talk. After that meeting they occasionally said “hello,” but always seemed in too big a hurry to talk. At night, he could see the flickering blue light of a TV against a white window shade that was never opened.
His neighbor to the west, Shelley Campbell, was a single mother with a teenage son. He rarely saw them, but he was intrigued by the house, which appeared to be a twin of his own, perhaps built at the same time.
Beside his house to the east was a little bungalow. The week he moved in, he was disgusted to see white vinyl siding being put on over a layer of asbestos siding that had buried the original wood clapboard. The window trim that once stood in prominent relief from the outer walls to capture the sun was now recessed behind the layers of siding that mummified the once charming house. The elderly couple who lived inside this cocoon left only in a small car, operating the garage door with a remote control. At night a halogen light burned on the gable of the attached garage, casting a harsh glare across the garage door and tiny, paved backyard.
He took another swallow and leaned back against the upper step, resting the jar on his belly. He mused about his very public seclusion in fast-growing Hamilton County, about all those nameless people in the malls, quickie-marts and grocery stores. After four years of hyperactive socializing in high school and another four in college, he found the isolation antiseptic. To take the edge off, he kept his TV on almost constantly, with the volume down while he played music. He spent endless late-night hours at his laptop computer or the iPad the school system had issued.
David sighed, set down the empty jar, and got back to work. Sweating already in his Noblesville Millers football T-shirt, torn blue jeans and work boots, he climbed the wooden ladder with the heat gun in one hand. Balancing at the top, he pulled out a putty knife, flipped on the heat gun, and held it close to the faded paint. It bubbled and blistered; he scraped it away and exposed the greenish poplar wood nobody had seen since the house was built in 1891.
As he worked, his neighbor Jim stood looking out the tiny window of his front door, watching him. He took David’s efforts as an insult. In the past twenty years he’d done the opposite of restoration, gladly torn the bric-a-brac off the front porch and removed the turned posts, proud to replace them with wrought iron. He put aluminum siding on and just this past year installed replacement windows. Everything was new and maintenance free
When Jim had vinyl replacement windows installed, David crawled into the dumpster where the old windows had been thrown and unscrewed the hundred-year-old locks from the sashes. During the winter, Jim peeked out his window and saw David stripping the paint from inside the multi-paned front window on his home, replacing the cords and reattaching them to the weights so that the sash would move up and down for the first time in forty years. The crowning insult was when he put those locks, the ones Jim had thrown away, on the window. David had stripped the paint on the locks down to the cast, floral pattern and repainted the bases in their original glossy black, polishing and lacquering the brass thumb latches on top. To Jim they were crusty old hunks of metal. To David they were archaeological finds. The intricate floral patterns he found—the vines and leaves standing in bold relief—were to him like runes from an ancient people, the imprint of their long dead, hieroglyphic language.
He went on scraping. The sweat ran down his face and dripped off his long, narrow nose. A text message chirped on his phone, briefly dimming the music volume. He looked down at the phone and replayed the odd events of the previous day
He’d gone inside to check his e-mail, using his phone as a Wifi hotspot. The sun was bright and the red beam was warming the right-hand double door. He plugged his phone into the charger, and when he activated the hotspot app, rainbow-colored shards of light pierced the crimson beam, flowing up and disappearing like bubbles in a glass of champagne. He quickly unlatched the door and walked through the newly colorful beam in wonder. An effervescent lightness rose through his body as he disturbed the flow of color and warmth. A second pass through, then a third, and on the fourth he was startled at the apparent distant sound of a woman’s voice
Had he imagined it, the way wind or machine noise can confuse the mind into constructing sounds that aren’t there? Perhaps, but the house was silent. He was sure he’d imagined the voice. Plunging his head into he beam, he cocked it side to side and got the faint hint of static electricity, but no voice. And then! A finger grazed his face as he withdrew.
Did it? He jerked back and examined the beam of light with wide eyes. Then a cloud passed overhead and the beam evaporated.
After graduating from college David took a job teaching American history at Noblesville High School. He saved graduation money from his grandmother and any other cash he could get his hands on and tracked repos and short sales that looked like good restoration candidates. The previous spring, he had found the house on Cherry Street.
It was one and a half stories. The upstairs rooms had sloping ceilings that followed the roofline. His favorite feature was the double-hung front window, which, like many from the 1880s and 1890s, consisted of a large, clear pane surrounded by small stained-glass panels, divided by mullions. The two front doors looked to be original, but the porch had been enclosed with cinder block, windows, and aluminum siding.
David intended to turn back the clock, to resuscitate the house and reveal its hidden beauty. He took so much pleasure in working on the house that little else could hold his attention.
The front door David used opened up into what he called the “front parlor,” a square room graced by the multicolored window on the south wall. A plastered chimney protruded into the room in the center of the north wall. To its left was a large pair of double doors that could be opened to connect the front parlor to a matching room that David called the “back parlor” but intended to use as a dining room. When he moved in, the walls in both rooms were covered with horrible wood-printed paneling, dark and dreary.
Upstairs were two modest-sized bedrooms, one facing north toward the backyard, and the other south, with a window onto Cherry Street. On the stairway landing was a small leaded-glass window, a flower-like medallion of blue and sea-green glass. It was buckled and warped from a century of weathering. David promised himself to repair it soon.
After closing the purchase, he rented a dumpster and filled it with junk from the basement and garage, and the brown shag carpet that had covered the worn but beautiful oak floors. With school out and all summer to work, he began by jacking up the porch roof, temporarily suspending it with four-by-four posts.
Next, David spent a week removing the aluminum siding. With a pry bar and hammer and his old wooden extension ladder extended to the top of the front gable, he pulled the siding from the top and found what he had hoped to find: fishscale shingles. The shingles ended near the bottom of the upper window; the remainder of the face of the house was covered with common wooden clapboards.
When he had removed all of the siding from the front, he walked across the street and stood on the sidewalk in front of the Williamses’ house. He couldn’t suppress a convulsive smile as he looked at what he’d done. This was no piece of invaluable architecture; David knew that. But it was pretty, it was old, and it was his. He felt like an archaeologist uncovering some long-forgotten temple.
He found an abandoned house that was about to be torn down near the town of Fishers and salvaged the porch posts and ornate brackets. He spent the better part of that first summer re-creating his 1890s porch. He stripped the paint from the posts, brackets, and front doors, and built handrails and balusters. At a yard sale on Logan Street he stumbled across two old screen doors with scrollwork brackets; he spent a week stripping and repainting them and stretching new screen. By the time school started at the end of August, he had transformed the porch from a 1950s mess to a vision he had gleaned from old architectural plan books.
After reading a book about Victorian paint colors he chose a creamy tan for the clapboards, with deep green and rich burgundy for trim and decoration. Window trim and porch posts were green, and the exterior window sashes and some segments of the turned posts were painted red.
The porch was the place where David and his friends drank beer and listened to music. On many evenings, late that summer and through the fall, he pulled himself away from the TV and computer to listen to the birds or the rain and observe, with a jaundiced eye, his sterile neighborhood and rapidly growing hometown.
Whenever he had a date, they would ususally end up there, on the porch swing, talking. Since college, dates had been few and far between. Heather was his most recent girlfriend. That had ended painfully in early March.
His friends from college, Jeremy Wren in particular, would go to downtown Indianapolis bars and craft brewery tasting rooms almost nightly. Sometimes David went along, but he found bar small talk and the singles game tedious
He spent the autumn weekends of his first year in the house priming the newly bare wood. He decided he’d tackle the rest of the exterior next summer. For the winter, he turned his attention to the interior. He’d neglected it to pursue his relationship with Heather, but now he was back on track.
He stripped the wallpaper and paint from the lath-and-plaster walls in the front two rooms and repaired the cracks. When the front rooms were finished, he decorated them with bits of one hundred and fifty years of American history: an antique bookshelf and dining-room table, an angularly ornate Eastlake end table, and an oak rocking chair—all pieces from his grandmother’s attic. The 1920s upholstered couch and some chairs were housewarming gifts from David’s father and stepmother. Other odds and ends came from David’s mother and her husband. Latent divorce guilt, even after fifteen years, kept the gifts coming, but they helped furnish the rooms in a way that a teacher’s salary couldn’t. The only concession he made to modern design was a small TV that he set on a small marble-topped table.
David began working outside again in late March. Through April and early May he stripped paint with the heat gun, and on this sweltering Sunday afternoon he was nearing completion on the front facade.
He pulled up Count Basie on the Spotify app on his phone and climbed the ladder for another hour of scraping. His yellow tabby cat, Sophie, slept on the front windowsill. As he scraped his way across a row of clapboards, he replayed the strange change in the beam of light.
After dark, David sat on the floor of the front parlor unboxing a cable modem and Wifi transmitter. After he had spent a maddening hour on the phone with Comcast, connecting and disconnecting the cable and repeatedly restarting the modem, finally the lights on the front of the black box awoke and blinked in the prescribed sequence. Once connected, the Airport transmitter blinked to life and his iPad connected to the Wifi signal. David opened Google in a flash. No more tethering with his phone
He arranged the clunky black modem and the sleek white Airport on the walnut marbletop table, finding he liked the contrast between cutting edge and vintage. When he turned out the lights to head to bed, both devices flickered in the darkness.