Robert Haydon Jones
and Matthew Levine

Matthew Levine
“Where They Used To Live”
Inspiration piece

The Big House
By Robert Haydon Jones

Billy Sullivan had always enjoyed himself at wakes. There was plenty of good food and drink and a steady swirl of good company; Family members, friends, acquaintances, even strangers, all connected to the man in the coffin.

Billy usually got a little tipsy at a wake even long after he stopped drinking. He couldn’t recall having connected with a woman at a wake – but it felt like he had.

You stand there at the edge of eternity and talk like you are at a party. You talk about the dead man when he was alive. Not about him dead. About where he was when you were with him back in the day. Not where he is now. It is somewhat like watching artillery fire walk toward you. It really is not all that easy. Everyone at a wake qualifies for an oak leaf cluster on his “courage-under-fire” medal.

Billy believed there was solid wisdom in the adage, “If you don’t attend your friend’s wakes, they won’t attend yours.” But he was completely unprepared when he suddenly found himself in a situation that felt like he was participating in the preparations for his own last party.

He and Brenda were readying their beautiful riverfront house for sale. They had burned through their savings. They had planned to live together in their elegant, European style manor on five acres of meadow by the Aspetuck River until they died, but now, after forty years, they had to leave.

They were out of money. It had taken a good while – but when the needle hit “empty”, it clanged

Billy was struggling as it was with the long delayed realization that he had lived much, much longer than he had planned (and the experts had predicted). He had effectively retired 15 years back. But he and Brenda hadn’t changed their life style much at all.

For years, he was still collecting good royalties – and making a little more from his retirement account than they were taking. But then the royalties dwindled down to nothing. Over the last four years they had burned through the last of their savings just maintaining themselves in the style to which they had grown accustomed (the past two years without the usual sojourn to Europe in the summer and a trip or two to some place sunny in the winter.)

They both were terrified of the awful truth as the money dwindled down. But they never admitted it to each other and so the reality somehow had remained at bay. Early on, long before they had married, they had assumed their roles: Billy would manage the investments and Brenda would handle the bills. But Denial is an equal opportunity resident. Their plight didn’t become official until Billy solemnly told Brenda over dinner on the Tuesday following the family Labor Day reunion party they had hosted that their investment accounts would be completely depleted in six months. They would have to sell the house.

That was the first time either of them had uttered or heard those words out loud and their lives would never be the same.

In just a few days, Brenda had decided to retain Mary Priddy, an experienced real estate broker who headed her own Sales Team at a big national firm. Billy was shocked when Brenda agreed with Mary’s recommendation to hire a specialist group of Stagers to do the house.

Brenda had overseen the decoration all these years. Billy loved what she had done. For decades, all kinds of people had been telling him how beautiful the house was. Regulars like family members; clients seeing Jimmy on business; friends of their children; visitors from abroad; even deliverymen would tell him he was way lucky to be in such a great house.

Now Mary Priddy was insisting Brenda and Billy pay Stagers thousands of dollars to ready the house to market. Billy didn’t get it. Mary Priddy very patiently explained that tastes had changed over the years. The likely purchasers of the house were at least a generation younger than the Sullivans. Today’s ideas about style were much different. That’s why the Stagers were necessary. They could rearrange the existing décor to have it better match the expectations of today’s market.

The Stagers did a lot of rearranging. They took down all of the paintings and gathered them together in the cedar closet. (There were more than eighty of them.) They inventoried the furniture and put some pieces into storage. They tore down the window treatments. (Mary Priddy told Billy today’s customer is looking for more light.)

Mary Priddy suggested that they take a few days away so her crew could go full tilt into making the necessary changes. So Billy and Brenda drove to Bethesda to see the grandsons on a Wednesday and came back on Sunday.

When they entered the house, Brenda squealed with delight. She told Billy the décor was vastly improved. Billy didn’t know what to say to her. He did know things weren’t right. It was the same house – with the same furniture and art – but all the new arrangements gave Billy an eerie feeling. It was like it was being in his parent’s house after they were dead and Billy’s brother, Steve and his wife, Lilly, had redecorated. The same house and much the same furnishings – but a different place.

Billy kept silent. But he felt engulfed by a wave of sadness. They hadn’t sold the house yet – but it was gone. He would never again see their beautiful house. It was gone forever.

Later, he foolishly told Brenda that he didn’t much like what the Stagers had done.

“That’s because you have no idea of modern taste and fashion,” she snapped at him. “We’ll get a lot more money for our house because of the wonderful work of the Stagers – and all you can do is complain.”

Billy kept quiet from then on. The house was gone – there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t even complain out loud. So, he didn’t. He stayed on good behavior while Mary Priddy and her people finished prepping the house. He participated in the photo selection. He chimed in on the copy describing the house in the listing.

He worked hard on an extra segment for the listing, “What I love about this house.”

He didn’t have a drink. He didn’t get stoned. He did not try to bed one of the Stagers. He patiently waited for Mary Priddy to sell their house – so this ghastly wake would finally be over and he could sleep some place else in the comfort of his own home.


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One Comment

  1. Posted February 28, 2015 at 9:27 pm | #

    What a very nice story. i am lead into a very deep story, not knowing how deep it is going to be, because I think I’m just going to be attending a wake, and then comes the foretelling, that it is his own wake. Thank you for this story.