From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1950 –
The House that Jim Built
By Norma Wrathall
A cozy little white cottage, with blue shutters, and with a chandelier of Chinese chimes that tinkled when the porch light went on, would be the last place you’d think of as a haunted house. But that’s what it was, after Jim Hawley’s pretty young widow and that new husband of hers, Brick Saunders, came to live in the house that Jim built.
Jim had built the house several years before he’d even started going out with June. He was a landscape gardener, and his yard was beautifully arranged. By hobby, he was a sort of inventor, and he had devised more gadgets than you could shake a stick at to make the work easier around the house. Sometimes, when I went there to help June, I thought it harder to learn how to use some of the inventions than to do the work in the ordinary way. But June was mighty proud of her things, and took pride in showing people how thoughtful Jim had been.
Right now, it should be explained that I – Mrs. Merkely, christened Mathilda, but generally known as Mattie – can’t help knowing quite a lot about people in Oaks Junction, because I do most of the housecleaning for the better families, and also ironing. Oaks Junction is a suburb of Junction City where the big mills and smelters are. Not that I go around telling things, of course; sometimes I wish I didn’t have to worry so much about other people’s troubles.
I saw June the day they returned from their honeymoon in California, and she looked radiantly happy. She’d always been a pretty girl, with a knack for wearing clothes, and it struck me that day that her tall, red-head husband had good cause to be proud of her. He had a grin that spread all over his face whenever he looked at June. Later, I learned that his temper matched his hair.
It was a few weeks later that she called me on the phone and said she would like me to do her ironing. She said she had been up most of the previous night, washing in her automatic washer. Something had gone wrong with it, and she hadn’t wanted to disturb Brick. I thought her voice sounded sort of muffled, as if she’d been crying. “Please hurry, Mattie. I’m at the end of my rope –”
Even though June’s mother and I have been life-long friends and neighbors, I had to finish putting Mrs. Ames’ curtains on the dryer before I could leave. Then I went on over to June’s house, which is quite a walk from where I live.
June had never been very neat, because her mother had always picked up after her and waited on her at home. But this day, I could hardly get into the kitchen, what with the screen door hitting me in the back with that rapid-door-closer of Jim’s, stumbling over a basket of wet clothes, and nearly falling into a pan of cold starch in the middle of the floor.
“I haven’t nearly all of it hung out – there wasn’t room,” sighed June. “Jim practically always did the washing, Mattie, you know he did, because he was so proud of the little bell he invented that would ring whenever a batch was done, and the light that flashed a different color for the varying temperatures of water. Something went wrong with it last night, and the spinner started reversing. I couldn’t call Brick because – well, he wanted me to send it out in the first place –” She let her sentence trail off into dejected silence.
“My goodness, June,” I said. “Seems to me you’ve got a lot of clothes, even for a two-weeks’ wash. I saw your lines all full as I came in.” I thought to myself that it was a poor way to end a honeymoon, as you might say.
“Yes – but Brick wears at least one clean shirt every day. And there were a lot of tablecloths and towels and things I didn’t wash when we first got home. I don’t know where half of it comes from, myself.” She pushed back a strand of soft brown hair from her damp forehead; there were circles of weariness under her large blue eyes. “Listen, Mattie, I hung out all the ironing first, and I guess I’ve let it get too dry. Maybe you could bring that in and sprinkle it down to suit yourself, and hang out some more things.” She limped into the dining room, and sat down at the uncleared breakfast table. I saw her staring moodily at the toaster.
She certainly did have a lot of ironing. It was late afternoon before I was through with it. She gave me a radiant smile as I was ready to leave, her gloomy mood of the forenoon apparently vanished. “Look, Mattie, at this wonderful roast –” She opened the oven a crack.
“M-m-m-m–” I sniffed, “and dressing, too! You always were a good cook, June. They say that’s the way to make a husband happy.”
“Oh, Brick will be happy; I’m determined that he shall. But sometimes I don’t think he fully appreciates this lovely house Jim built. He tried to get me to rent it, and move into another house. Imagine, with this place already mine, and paid for. Why, only this morning, Brick grumbled that he couldn’t turn around in this house without some gadget hitting him in the eye. Just because he forgot, and stepped on the automatic shower button in the bathroom floor, and got his clothes wet. I try to tell him, it wasn’t only Jim’s inventions, it was his kindness and thoughtfulness as well.” She was stirring up some quick rolls, and paused a moment to stare out the window, her eyes misty with her thoughts.
“Sometimes, it’s better to let the dead have their peace,” I muttered, but she started running the mixer, and didn’t hear me.
The next day, Mr. Saunders called me on the phone. he said he wanted me to do the laundry regularly, every week, in case June forgot to call me. “I don’t intend to do the washing myself,” he said, “I’m not handy man around the house, I can tell you that – so you come, will you?”
Things went on like that for several weeks. About the time I’d come to do the laundry, he’d be leaving for work. He was foreman at the mill in Junction City, and they say, a whiz for getting things done.
One day I was there when he had a half day free from his work. He was out in the back yard when I arrived, digging up a piece of ground, whistling away as the dirt flew from his shovel. After I started ironing, I could see him plainly from the open window. June was down in the basement, putting away some blankets, and as she came up onto the landing, she gave a little scream.
“Brick! – don’t dig that, darling! It’s where Jim planted all those imported Holland tulip bulbs. He used to win prizes at flower shows and things.” She hurried out into the yard.
I was waiting for the iron to cool to iron some rayons, so, naturally, I watched them. He didn’t turn around for a moment, just leaned on his shovel, sort of pressing it deeper into the ground. “Well, honey, we live here now,” he said slowly, “and I’m not much of a one for flower shows. I’m going to dig this up, and put fertilizer on it, ready for a vegetable garden next spring. I’ve always wanted to try my luck at vegetables.” So saying, he began digging again, and worst of all, whistling.
June just stood there watching for a moment, her face getting red and then white, by turns. Then she came running into the kitchen. “About through, Mattie?” she asked, in a brittle voice. She sat down at the work table and all at once, began to cry. “Oh, the sacrilege of it! Radishes and spinach all over the place where those lovely, lovely flowers were!”
I walked over and quietly closed the window, being careful not to get my head in the way of the automatic air-cooler, which sometimes came loose and fell out. That’s how it was I was standing at the window and saw Brick suddenly slam down his shovel with all his might. He stomped over to the garage and started to open it. But he must have stepped on the button that would open the overhead door without lifting a finger, because the door flew up and hit him in the face. It was his own fault, in a way, because he was standing too close. But I never heard such swearing. Pretty soon, he backed the car out of the garage, and shot down the driveway, and out into the street. June had gone into the bedroom and shut the door. I sighed; such a lovely, lovely little house. what had come over it to make two people so unhappy?
The next time I came, I asked Brick quietly to disconnect the automatic bell-timer and flashing light on the washer. It made me nervous and, besides, I was afraid it would get out of order again.
He grinned at me, and winked. “Don’t know as I blame you,” he said. “I had to remove the garage doors to keep from getting my head knocked off, and it keeps me broke having my clothes pressed from drenching under that shower, to say nothing of being hit in the small of my back every time I go through the kitchen screen door!”
But in spite of his joking, I noticed a growing coolness between them and soon he wasn’t even kissing her goodbye.
June’s mother and I talked it over one afternoon while we had some hot chocolate and cookies. June’s mother was a quiet, gentle little woman, reminding me of a dove. She didn’t want to interfere, but we agreed that something would have to be done.
Next morning, we waited until we were sure he’d be gone to work, and then walked down to June’s place.
She was still sitting at the uncleared breakfast table, just staring into space. I saw traces of tears on her cheeks.
“Don’t you feel well, dear?” asked her mother.
June didn’t answer at first, just pressed the wet ball of her handkerchief to her nose. When she spoke, her voice was muffled.
“Oh, I’m all right – I guess – but you might as well know. Everything – simply everything – has gone wrong –” She covered her face wit her hands.
I sat down on the window seat, and June’s mother drew up a chair close to June. “Oh, now, it can’t be quite that bad. Nothing is,” she began gently.
“Maybe I’d better go,” I suggested, not getting up.
June blew her nose. “No, Mattie. You’ve heard so much already. You might as well hear the rest of it.”
It seemed that the day had started wrong, for one thing. The alarm hadn’t rung, so they’d overslept. And, in her hurry, June had let his eggs fry too hard, and was called to the phone right in the midst of getting breakfast on. When she came back, there was a regular column of smoke coming from the toaster. Brick was just looking at it, a peculiar smile on his face.
“You’d think he’d have at least taken the bread out, or something,” she wailed.
Then he had started muttering. “Oh, he couldn’t leave it the way the manufacturer made it. No; he had to improve –” And then he had yanked the toaster from its moorings and flung it across the room, bread and all. His face got fiery red, and June said it frightened her, the way he looked, his hair standing up on his head, and his eyes sort of narrowed.
“He said he was sick of living in Jim Hawley’s house, and with Jim Hawley looking over his shoulder all the time, even when he shaved,” sobbed June. “That’s on account of that double-duty shaving mirror that folds up into a bathroom tray. He said he couldn’t possibly be a model husband, and if I didn’t want him the way he was, well, okay then –” A shuddering sigh went through her, and she wiped her eyes. “He said a lot of other things, too – that he’d always wanted a home of his own – he grew up in his aunt’s home, you know – but now he lived in a haunted house, with another man – imagine! –” She stood up suddenly. “I guess he meant he never wanted to see me again, either, because he stormed out, and I don’t know –” She ran into the bedroom and flung herself across the bed.
Her mother followed her, and I went quietly home to finish Mrs. Bemis’ ironing.
Things had come to a sad climax. June moved in with her mother and listed her house for sale. It looked lonely and forlorn with the sign on it, as if no one cared. I heard from some of my ladies, that Mr. Saunders was living at the workman’s boarding house over at Junction City, and it was rumored that he was soon to leave permanently.
June’s mother got thin and pinched-looking, from worry. She blamed herself; said she should have told June, plain out, in the beginning, to leave Jim Hawley’s virtues buried with him. And I felt that maybe I should have done something, or said something, before it was too late, and I scorched two of Professor Midgley’s white shirts, thinking about it.
So I was mighty surprised, one evening, when Mr. Saunders came to my kitchen door.
He came in and sat down. “Mrs. Merkley,” he said, looking at me steadily, “do you think you could talk to me about something, and keep it confidential?”
Then, as I started to answer, he went on, “Well, it doesn’t make any difference. everyone will find out, anyway. The thing is, I’ve been offered a big promotion by the company. But it means a transfer, to South America. What I want to know, do you think you can get June to see me? I just can’t leave without seeing her again. I – Mattie, I love her, and every time I go there, she refuses even to come into the room. Her mother can’t influence her, either.” He began to walk up and down the kitchen. “Hang it all, she’s my wife. Maybe I did say some things I – but there’s a limit to what a man can –”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I interrupted. “Now, you just sit down by the table while I make us some chocolate. I baked buns today.”
As we sat there, I was wondering what on earth I could do. He had only two days left, and June is of a determined nature. I didn’t know if I could do anything at all.
He was just starting on his fourth bun when the phone rang. It was June, speaking guardedly. “Mattie, I think I saw Brick’s car drive into your yard a little while ago. Be careful how you answer, I don’t want him to know it’s me.”
“Is it true that he’s going to South America? Mother heard it at the store, but I can’t believe it.”
“Mattie, for goodness sake! Well, do you think he’d think it odd if I should come over there?”
She hung up, before I’d said goodbye.
It wasn’t any time until she knocked, and then opened my door, peeking in. I saw that she’d put on her new dress, but her lipstick was smeared by a hurried finger.
“Mattie, my mother sent over this cake tin she borrowed – oh – I didn’t know – you had company –”
A deep blush began to spread up over her neck and face, as she handed me one of her mother’s own pie tins.
Brick started toward her, the grin trembling over his face. “June, honey, I –” his voice got sort of raspy. She couldn’t speak, either; they just looked at each other, a look that had everything in it. Her big blue eyes got misty bright, and he held out his arms.
Well, I saw that it was no place for Mathilda Merkely. I slipped out the door, and over to her mother’s with the pie tin.
Eventually Jim’s place was sold. A truck gardener bought it and planted the whole thing in cabbages, front and back. They say his six children swarmed over the house, and broke all of Jim’s inventions in no time. A good thing, too; Jim Hawley was a good man; he wouldn’t want to spend eternity haunting his old home.
Brick and June are still in Caracas. Her mother showed me a picture of their baby, yesterday.