Charlotte Holmes’s second collection of short stories, The Grass Labyrinth, was published by BkMk Press in 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared in many journals, including The Sun, The New Yorker, Epoch, New Letters, The Woven Tale Press, and Narrative, and her poems in American Poetry Review, Radar, Tar River Poetry, and other venues. She is at work on a collection of lyric essays that includes Open House. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Penn State, where she also directs the creative writing program.
"Open House," by Charlotte Holmes
For decades, the church owned the house on the corner. We called it the monastery, and knew that Franciscans lived there. We didn’t know them. Occasionally I saw a priest walking across campus whose robe looked like burlap, ankle-length, with a knotted rope cincture. The robe added to his girth. In summer he wore sandals, and always sported a full black beard, like priests in the sixties who demonstrated against the war. Sometimes he traveled with his hood up. When I saw him on campus, in his robe and sandals, for the first instant he wore an expression I’ve seen on women wearing flamboyant hats—defiant, as if expecting me to laugh. Then when I smiled, he smiled back—a jolly, beaming figure. I figured he had something to do with campus ministry. The football coach and his wife had recently given a couple million dollars to build a Catholic student center off campus. One afternoon when I was out with the dogs, I saw the friar walking around outside the house on the corner, talking on his cell phone, wearing his brown robe. Finally, it clicked for me.
The monastery is a three-story, ten-bedroom, eight-bath twenties Tudor revival on the National Register of Historic Places. Sometimes I saw the friars, singly or in pairs, in sweatpants and tee shirts, washing their communal Japanese imports in the driveway in front of their three-car garage. It was the only three-car garage in the neighborhood, as big as a house. You can tell from the street that it has an upstairs. Including the asphalt driveway, the garage took up the backyard. The short front yard ended with a four-foot drop down to the sidewalk over the retaining wall. Someone in a ball cap took care of the yard. He arrived in a red pickup with a mower in the back, and in a few passes leveled the grass. He kept the barberry hedge along the stone retaining wall trimmed, and in spring, he mulched around the bushes in the front yard. In autumn, he blew away the leaves. Someone planted daffodils beside the front steps. In spring, I can see them from my front yard, a bright splash against the gray concrete.
The friars always kept a welcome light burning in a third floor window facing my house. I stay up late most nights. Often when I took the dogs out for their last pee before bedtime, lights burned in the monastery’s upstairs rooms. I wondered if these friars still kept to the Horarium, which allowed them no more than three hours sleep at a time—in bed at midnight, up for mass at three—or if they modified the practice so they didn’t have to stumble around like the parents of perpetual newborns.
I can’t say how they lived. I’m not Catholic, or even religious. Their house is three houses down on the other side of the street, on the next block. I had no particular reason to cultivate them as neighbors. I tend to steer clear of the overtly religious, figuring that eventually they’ll try to convert me. For a while on weeknights the friars seemed to host Bible studies. When I was working in my front garden sometimes I’d see my one of my neighbors, a single man, walk over to the house, and for a few hours there’d be a line of cars parked at the curb, and lights on in the downstairs rooms.
For a long time, the friars were there, and then suddenly, they weren’t. Soon after, the state attorney general announced that fifty “predator priests” had been identified in the diocese. Hundreds of children were reported to have been molested over decades by these priests, and the abuse covered up. Some of the abused children lived in our community, and were abused at Our Lady. Some were abused on mission trips. Three Franciscans were charged with allowing the sexual abuse of more than a hundred children by assigning a known sexual predator to the Catholic high school. Their photographs were in the paper, three file photos, all of them smiling. The one I used to see on campus was positively beaming.
Without a single “for sale” sign, the church quietly sold the house to a couple of flippers for a little over six hundred thousand dollars. The flippers put in a state-of-the-art kitchen, with Carrera marble countertops and backsplashes, gas double ovens, and in most of the eight bathrooms, they added marble showers with glass enclosures that are probably a pain in the ass to keep clean. I’ve looked at the photos on Zillow. The house went on the market last spring for $1.2 million, but in the months since, the price has dwindled. Now it’s listed for only a couple hundred thousand more than the flippers paid for it. That’s still a lot of money, but renovations of the kind they did are expensive. Not that I care if they make a profit. On election day last fall, they put a Trump sign in the front yard—the only Trump sign on our street—and left it up for a week afterward, which seems hostile, given that they don’t even live in the neighborhood.
The real estate agent scheduled an open house from one until two-thirty this afternoon. Usually when there’s an open house in this neighborhood, cars start arriving before the scheduled time, and neighbors show up to gawk and speculate how this house translates to the resale value of their own vintage property. At two o’clock, I took the dogs out, and there was no sign of an open house, only an old woman creeping around the first floor windows, peering inside. She looked at me sheepishly, but kept walking from window to window, cupping her hands to the glass. Finally, she got into her little white car and drove away. She didn’t look like the kind of person who could buy a house like this. I imagine she was just curious.