This is the house that Jack built. Wood house with basil paint, cobwebbed, darker than before, darker than when Jessie was here. Jack remembers when they first saw this property. It was a vacant lot then, a hilltop house sagging on its foundations. Remnants of broken windows were strewn across the weed-infested lawn, fist-sized shards turned to silver grit. A fixer-upper, the all-smiles realtor said, and that was just what Jack and Jessie wanted, a chance to build something for themselves. So they signed the paperwork and knocked down the walls and made a list of things to purchase: insulation and caulk and three-by-fours and carpets and carpet glue.
These are the plans that finished the house that Jack built: plans to remodel the kitchen, the foyer, the master bedroom. Jack and Jessie moved from one to another as a single entity, their arms working in tandem, Jack asking Jessie to pass the paint and Jessie asking Jack to toss her a Philips head screwdriver and Jack didn’t mind the long weekends of breathing in plaster and sawdust and primer so long as he could hear Jessie’s hiccupping laugh and talk with her and watch her pull her long amber hair back in a bandanna and smell her coconut shampoo. Scott Joplin played on a CD while they worked, and the ragtime soaked into Jack’s skin, and he danced without dancing, danced with Jessie as they fitted the windows with new glass and slotted bookshelves into the walls and turned on the faucet to feel cold, clean water gush over their hands for the first time. Jack imagined their future, a future of sitting together on the newly-purchased sofa every night, sharing a book, wreathed in warmth from the gas fireplace they’d installed. And it seemed for a little while that the future would come true and the house would be a home that would last for decades.
The problem began with the bookshelves and the books because the books were too heavy for the bookshelves. The boards supporting the books didn’t hold well and began to slant so that everything looked out of perspective and Jack and Jessie got to work again to fix them, but as they did so they noticed that the ceiling paint needed retouching, and after that, something went wrong with the water heater and they had ice showers for a month. Every day, Jessie flitted from one corner of the house to the other, trying to fix whatever was broken, and at first, Jack tried to help her but he didn’t really see the point. Jack hadn’t known that a house could decay so quickly. Jack wanted a night off, maybe just one, to sit and read and then of course they could continue fixing and building the next morning but Jessie said, No, we can’t relax yet, not while there’s more work to be done.
That was how the fights began – the fights that followed the plans that finished the house that Jack built. The fight after Jessie got stung in the nose by two wasps building a hive under the front porch. Jack hadn’t been there, Jack had been drinking a cup of coffee and watching television, and if Jack had varnished the porch like he promised, this wouldn’t have happened. Then there was the fight after Jessie ripped up their entire laundry room floor. She said there had been a tear in the vinyl, but Jack said she was seeing things. And then the fight when they found mold under that vinyl and Jessie tried to redo the rest of the floors and Jack barely managed to stop her because that would have cost far more than they could afford.
These are the cracks that stemmed from the fights that followed the plans that finished the house that Jack built. Cracks in the plaster. Cracks in the washers in the sinks. Cracks in the floorboards and a crack in the living room window after a baseball crashed into it just like a cartoon and Jack went out and yelled at the kids in the front drive, said, Why can’t you play somewhere else, and Jessie yelled back, said, They’re just kids, said, If you care about this house so much then why don’t you fix it, don’t expect me to do all the work myself, I’ve done plenty of work and it’s your house after all, the house that Jack built, and this was the first time they’d really screamed at each other, and it cracked the house a little more.
One winter evening, Jessie decided not to go to her night shift. She faced Jack with a sigh, and Jack noticed that her hair, once silky, was now frizzled and uncombed. We’re both tired, she said, and this house is going to keep cracking whether we try to fix it or not. She wasn’t sure but she thought they could try to bury the hatchet for the evening, and why not give it a try, so Jack put on a suit and Jessie wore her red dress even though they weren’t going anywhere and Jack found his recipe for Chicken Milano and they started making dinner. Jessie melted the butter in a saucepan while Jack sprinkled the chicken with salt and Jack asked Jessie to pass the pepper and Jessie asked Jack to pass the garlic and it was like old times with the paint and the screwdrivers but without all the fights and Jack yearned to hear Jessie laugh again so he fumbled a joke but all she managed was a weak smile and when they added the chicken to the skillet the stove clicked twice and then there was fire and the chicken was burned and the stove was broken and they didn’t speak to each other as they ate. That was the night the furnace cut out so they slept shivering but they didn’t turn to each other for warmth and in the morning they discovered that some of the ceiling plaster had fallen in the living room and no amount of cleaning could clear the dust.
When a storm blew through and the old dead tree out back fell on top of the house and crushed half the bedroom, that was the end of it for Jessie. She packed her things that night. When Jack asked her where she was going, she said she could built a better home on her own, better than the house that Jack built. It looked to him as though she wanted to say something else as she headed for the door, as though she regretted what she was about to do, as though she might run back to him and throw her arms around him and kiss him and he would hear her laugh again and they would sit on the couch together and read and speak in peace. But Jessie didn’t run to Jack. She only looked at him. And closed the door behind her.
Jack still can’t leave the house, not even now, not as the walls tremble around him and thick, tall weeds press up against the porch. He continues to live life drifting between lamps, changing light bulbs as a full hive of wasps buzzes under the front step and mold grows in every bathroom and tufts of insulation peek through the walls. But Jack can’t just abandon the hopes he had in this house, the wishes left behind, trapped in the cracks that stemmed from the fights that followed the plans that finished the house that Jack built.
Helen Coats is from Rock Hill, SC and is currently enrolled at Purdue University as a Liberal Arts major. Her work has appeared in Litmus and Visions Literary Magazine.
Artwork: Sarah Ann Loreth