Smart House

Maxine knows there’ll be trouble the minute she sees the black bear roaming her front yard, a shadow in the drab morning light. It’s small, a youngster, with a chest blaze, and it munches from an ash bush still laden with late fall berries.

Thirty-six years on this earth, in these mountains, and she can count on one hand the number of occasions bears have crossed her path. And every time, something bad has happened.

She cinches her robe tighter. That cold front promised by the weather forecast slipped in overnight from Tennessee. Snow stipples the hemlocks and the curled leaves of the rhododendrons. Flurries frisk in the wind, sprinkle the bear like confetti. Fall and winter are Maxine’s least favorite seasons. The sadness of short days diminishes her.

She stokes the wood stove in the living room and starts the coffee pot.

■ ■ ■

When she was six-years-old, living here in the cabin her grandpa built, tucked away in a hollow twenty minutes outside of Boone, a female bear with two cubs circled the house before heading to Phipps’s Creek, down the far property line in the back. She watched from the screened porch as they splashed in the pools below the rocky falls and thought they were the cutest things. That afternoon at school, she fell off the jungle gym during recess and broke her right arm in two places. The pink cast, speckled with glitter, stretched from her wrist to her shoulder. “Pink for a girl,” the doctor said, though Maxine had asked for purple.

When she was twelve, another bear, his face aged to a sterling sheen, came right up on the deck while Mama cooked supper, pressed his nose to the kitchen’s sliding glass door. He stared with moist, brown eyes, swung his shaggy head back and forth, then, after a while, lumbered on up the mountain. Maxine thought he seemed hungry and lonely, but Mama told her it was dangerous to feed wild animals. “He can take care of himself,” Mama said. The next day, her daddy packed his old green duffle bag and left home for good, taking with him 79 the two-toned F-100 Ford pick-up Maxine loved as well as her young heart.

Then, when she was fifteen-and-a-half, almost sixteen, and supposed to be working at McDonald’s, saving for the college education Mama was determined she’d have, she went out riding with Henry Barclay instead. Henry was twenty-two, and he knew things she didn’t. They came up on a huge male right in the middle of Shulls Mill Road, and they would’ve hit him if Henry hadn’t veered onto the shoulder toward a steep incline that sloped toward the Hound Ears Golf Course. Maxine figured they were goners for sure, shouted “Jesus,” felt a jolt of prayer coming on that God would forgive her sins and that she’d see her grandma in heaven. But Henry was a good driver. He swerved back in his lane at the last second and cruised on down the road like they were out for a Sunday drive. Maxine let her prayers slide away.

A couple of days later, she told Henry she was six weeks late and that a baby was surely on the way. She imagined they’d marry, set up an apartment in town. She could add shifts at work until Henry could get a job of his own. Mama wouldn’t like it, sure. Still, Maxine daydreamed about blue-flowered dishes and a yellow couch, a nursery papered with Disney characters. But she never saw Henry again. He up and joined the Army that next week and was killed on his second tour in Afghanistan when little Ethan was not quite two years old.

Yes, bear sightings mean tribulation, no question.

■ ■ ■

Maxine keeps her eye on the bear, glances out one window then another. She pulls on khaki pants and the white shirt with Maxine embroidered in red across the pocket. The bear saunters toward the house, stops near her blue work van 80 with “Mountain Alarm: Smart Homes for the High Country” painted on the side. He rises on his hind legs, sniffs the air, and Maxine is certain he winks one eye at her. Finally, he lurches across the road that runs close to the house and sets off into the woods. Tree limbs, a few brittle leaves clinging to their last hope, tremble as he passes. Then he is gone.

She searches once again for the earring she lost the night before. She’s sure she had it when she got home from work, but she’s already combed the kitchen, moving the knick-knacks Mama left behind when she moved to assisted living. They crowd the green Formica counters in little flocks. Maxine doesn’t have the heart to get rid of them, though tidiness is one of the few ways she keeps herself calm.

All her life, Mama collected chickens, roosters, too, and there must be a hundred of them, all shapes and sizes and colors, small ones lined up on the mantel, big ones holding open doors. Maxine boxed up a few and took them to the Mile High Senior Living Center where Mama’s been since her stroke, an event that left her confined to her bed or strapped in a wheelchair, one or the other.

A stroke sounds like a pen marking paper or the flick of a brush through hair. But this kind of stroke—it’s more like a complete transformation of a body, cells replacing cells, papery new skin slinking over the old, a heart that’s forgotten how to pine. This woman is a whole other person who isn’t her mama at all. Yet Maxine keeps her trinkets.

The Mile High folks allowed her to leave only one of the chickens, a wooden, blue-painted bird on a stick that looks more like a cartoon seagull standing on one leg. Maxine set it on the bedside table, and Mama lifted a hand to it. One side of her mouth hoisted into a smile, and silently, she moved her lips as if to say hello, chicken, I’m happy to see you, which is more than she ever does when Maxine visits.

■ ■ ■

The earring isn’t in her bedroom, not ground into the carpet or dangling from the red sweater she’d slung over a chair. She can’t find it in the bathroom, and it’s not in the living room, lost among the couch cushions.

If it were just any earring, Maxine wouldn’t worry so much. The little bit of jewelry she owns isn’t worth finding. But these were a gift from Ethan, his last gift. Truth be told, his only gift to her since the macaroni Christmas ornaments and watercolor Mother’s Day cards he made in elementary school, those things tucked away in a plastic box under her bed along with trophies from two years of Little League and report cards, kindergarten through twelfth. Ethan had shown promise. His teachers said so, right in the glowing comments typed after every grading period. But he hadn’t lived up to it, the promise. Twenty-years-old and he’s not once thought about college or much of a job, at least as far as she knows.

She scans the kitchen, looks for a flash of metal, moves chickens, pokes in the garbage. These earrings, beautiful and sparkly, are gold-plated with dangling chains, each holding a colored stone, turquoise, red, yellow. They gently bat her neck when she moves. Ethan brought them to her after being gone from home for three months, God knows where and without so much as a phone call. Oh, she’d looked for him, high and low. Called friends she knew of, checked at the Hot Cross Coffee Bar where he once worked, even asked a guy at the sheriff’s department if he’d heard anything. But, no. Just some mention of Asheville, possibly, maybe. Then, one night, late February, about a year ago, when she’d just about given up faith that he would ever return, he stunned her, crept through the front door, ambling in like nothing had happened, like he’d been out for a night in the bars or on the slopes with his 82 snowboard, plaid shirt filthy, mud splattered on his jeans up to his knees, his frizzy yellow hair twisted into mats. He smelled of liquor and cigarettes and, oddly enough, cat urine.

“A little present, Mama,” he said and dropped a silver box in her lap before turning around and walking right back out again.

She watched him fade into the night, get in the passenger’s side of a beat-up car, blue, maybe red. It took off in a spin of gravel, tail lights disappearing around the bend toward Foscoe. She didn’t get a good look at who was driving, and she stopped herself from running down the road flailing her arms after him. He seemed like a boy who didn’t want to get caught, especially by his mama. He’d come back when he was ready. She knew he would.

But he didn’t. That night was the last she saw her son alive. A college kid catching an early ride to class found him at a bus stop in Boone the next morning, frozen to death in a brutal cold snap, packets of crystal meth in his pocket, so the cops said. That’s the way it is with methamphetamine addicts, they said. When they come off a high, no matter where they are, they just sleep and sleep and sleep, a sleep befitting the dead. Where Ethan got the money for drugs, Maxine didn’t know. She was sure of one thing though. He’d stolen those earrings.

■ ■ ■

Maxine leaves the quiet of her cabin behind and drives her truck up the mountain to Buzzard’s Roost to her only job of the day. It’s a big one, setting up everything from Wi-Fi to video doorbells and various devices, all in one house, getting the whole place under control and impervious to intruders. Complicated work, and something she’s proud she can do. She gets a commission on everything she installs, a fat check for this project.

She started with Mountain Alarm in June, gave up her longtime job as day manager at the Meadowbrook Inn and Spa for something more lucrative. After four weeks of training, she’s the best installer they have, and she’s usually the tech who gets sent on the trickier jobs. She turns houses into smart homes. A lot of times, sketchy cell service makes installation impossible. Those folks have to settle for regular service through a regular phone, nothing smart about it. The nooks and crannies of the Blue Ridge block cell towers and houses below a ridge can just about forget it. Reception at her own home is weak at best though it’s all she’s got now. She ditched her landline to save a few bucks back when her mama first got sick.

Out on the road, light snow flits on her windshield. She throws up her hand at a passing car and broods on the bear. An adolescent, she decides, not old enough, maybe, to be away from its mama. It should be snuggled warm and sheltered in a den, waiting out the winter cold, like nature intended. But what does she know? She hasn’t studied the habits of wildlife, no more so than anyone who lives with the understanding that animals are just part of this territory. Youngsters like him, she figures it’s a he, might be hard-headed, might steer his own course, forgoing the safety that seems so obvious to her. That might be what bears do.

The house, once she sees it, is even bigger than she’s heard, an immense, glittering structure, brand-new, all glass and metal, perched on a cliff overlooking the valley and Grandfather Mountain beyond. It’ll take her the whole day and then some to set-up cameras and thermostats and alarms, all the technology controlled from a phone app that makes a house secure. But pre-wired, like most new construction. That’s easier.

 She skids on a patch of ice as she inches up the winding, asphalt drive, corrects herself just in time to avoid a stone wall encompassing a bank of hemlocks.

It’s a vacation place, thank goodness, no one here during a cold week so near Thanksgiving. She’ll not have some skinny brunette, dolled up in her supposed-to-be mountain wear, hanging over her all day, asking questions, making suggestions. As if she, Maxine, isn’t the expert.

She pulls out the house key she won’t need once everything’s installed. When she’s finished, the homeowners can unlock the door from anywhere in the world and let in her or the FedEx guy or the house cleaners, all the time watching on camera. It gives her the creeps, thinking someone might always have an eye on what she’s doing. Still, she doesn’t blame folks for wanting that peace of mind. It’ll keep the bears out for sure.

Inside, the house is spectacular. Gleaming wood floors, a massive fireplace, soaring ceilings, a blue-lacquered stove that’s the size of her kitchen. She opens her iPad and gets started.

■ ■ ■

Maxine finishes up at 4:30, long before she expected. She’s that good at what she does. She chooses the long way into town, glimpses peaks glossed with snow, trees swaying in a light breeze. She contemplates the way the evening haze settles into hollows, creeping down into crags. Another freezing night, and sleet, if the weatherman’s right. She imagines the bear from the morning, resting in the security of his den, fat and full of berries. She hopes that’s where he is.

She ends up like she does every afternoon, where her mama lives—the Mansion, Maxine calls it, what with the big white columns out front and the curlicued Victorian benches on the porch. They’ve cleared the sidewalk, but snow still dusts the Fraser firs that flank the front door. A light sleet pings on the pavement.

The center isn’t depressing at all. In fact, Maxine pictures herself here, being cared for, cooked for, not a worry in the world. The front desk always has a cheerful seasonal flower arrangement, and the nurses wear brightly colored scrubs and smile a lot. Now that she sold off her grandfather’s hundred acres to Blue Ridge Development, she can afford the monthly charges. She hated to see the property go, but she’s made herself satisfied with the cabin and the plot of land next to the creek and the good care her mama gets. She could buy a new car with what’s left if she wanted, a nice four-wheel drive, good on mountain roads, or fix up the house, new paint, a new couch. But she doesn’t really want new things, not anymore. Every now and then, she remembers the bear and the deer and the mink that live in those hills she sold and wonders what might happen to them when houses start going up. But she had Mama to think about, so what else could she do? Even with her good-paying job, Maxine could never afford this place.

“They got her out to the day room this morning,” Robert, the custodian, tells her when she walks in. “I don’t think she liked it much.”

Maxine finds Mama sleeping in her room, feet poking up the covers like the twin mountains outside. She kisses her forehead and sits in the chair beside the bed to watch her for a while. Having seen the bear and all, she decided that her mama might die today. But here she is, breath still in her, heart still beating. Maybe the bad news was just the never-found earring.

“You have a good night, Mama.” She cuts her visit short, hopes to get home before the storm starts in earnest. “See you tomorrow.” She straightens the chicken, who gazes at her with a suspicious eye.

■ ■ ■

The last stop on her way home is the spot where Ethan died. It’s become a ritual. Somebody hammered a wooden cross into the ground nearby and hung trinkets on it—a silver locket that glints despite the slate clouds, a string of purple and gold Mardi Gras beads, a bunch of fake yellow tulips. She sits in the van for a minute and lets the grief rise, and just as quickly, she shoves it away. She thinks of herself as a member of her own private club, AA for the Sorrowful, a place to acknowledge her pain, commiserate with herself. She admits she has no power over heartbreak then promises herself each evening when she’s here not to indulge it. If you can make it through the day without a tear, then the deluge can’t engulf you, she decided early on, and so far, it’s worked. Mostly.

Her cell on the seat beside her rings.

“You coming tonight?” It’s Raymond, one of the friends she joins every Tuesday and Friday at Bob’s Beer and Bratwurst.

“Nah. Long day.”

“Change your mind, we’ll be there.”

“Probably not.” Maxine peers at the cross, jabs at the lump rising in her chest.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Sure. I’ll see you Friday if not tonight.” She hangs up and nudges the truck onto the street, snatches one last glance 87 in the rearview mirror at the cross and its decorations standing tall and alone.

■ ■ ■

Maxine takes the turn off 105 and heads east toward darkening sky on Poplar Church, a winding, but newly-paved road, with a hairpin curve that always sprays fear up the back of her neck. A grungy Toyota Corolla, red, parked on the shoulder pulls behind her and follows her van for a quarter mile before turning off on an uphill gravel lane. The car seems familiar, but she can’t think where from.

Coming up on her house, Maxine keeps a watch for the bear in case he’s decided to return to polish off the berries, but all she sees are a doe and a mostly grown fawn grazing in the horse pasture next to her property. The horses eat right alongside the deer, a happy conclave. Maxine enjoys imagining what kind of conversations they must have.

Inside, she flips on the TV to the local news, starts warming chicken stew for supper. The wind picks up. Another long night ahead. She thinks about the dead sweetgum off the porch and jots a note to remind herself to get somebody to take it down before it falls this winter and splits her roof. She’s about as far away from a smart home as she can be, making notes on paper. When it comes down to it, she’s old-fashioned like that.

She calls the Mansion, giving Mama one last chance to be the fulfillment of the bear sighting. Maxine lives on the edge, always expecting some trial even without bears. But Mama’s fine. She’s resting comfortably, they say. Ate a nice dinner. Tucked in for the night.

There’s a knock at the door just as Maxine finishes washing up the dishes. She never gets unexpected company so she 88 peeks out the window before letting in whatever riff-raff is stalking these hills at such a time. A car sits right at her front steps, the Corolla she saw earlier, and a man standing there, shuffling from one foot to another. To her surprise, she recognizes him.

“Johnny?” She opens the door to a boy who was her son’s best friend since first grade. “What in the world?”

“Ms. Johnson. Just passing by.”

“Well, come in out of the cold.”

Maxine pulls him by a scrawny elbow. She’d know him anywhere, the eyes so like his Filipino mother, tall like his American dad. But he’s thin, spare as a spindle, and that’s different. He used to be fleshy and round, and if the kids teased him, it was for that, not for his sad puppy eyes.

“What in the world?” she says again.

“Hadn’t seen you in so long. Thought I’d just say hello.”

Johnny drifts into the living room, collapses on the couch without being asked. He has a pungent smell, a whiff of ammonia, and the acne that plagued him as a young teenager taints his skin like scabs on an apple tree.

“Heard you’d moved to Asheville.” Maxine takes the recliner she usually sits in when she watches TV. She can’t think why this boy is here, now, when he didn’t even show up at the funeral. She mutes the sound on an old episode of Law and Order.

“Don’t let me keep you from anything,” Johnny says. He’s snatching at thick black hair that hangs rough to his shoulders, balling it in one hand and twisting it around his fingers. He rubs at a boil on his neck, and it starts to bleed.

“You okay?” Maxine wonders where she left her phone. She hasn’t seen Johnny in two years, maybe more, and he’s changed. She’d heard he moved for a job, and somebody said something about drugs. “You hungry?”

 “Nah. You got money selling land, right?”

The stark question about money stuns Maxine, but Johnny’s got the look—skinny, unwashed, desperation twitching the corners of his eyes—signs she should have noticed in Ethan but didn’t.

“Some.” She wonders if he plans to rob her or if it’s just a handout he wants. “Mostly goes to paying for Mama’s assisted living. You at your daddy’s?”

The wind howls, and Maxine hears sleet pelting the tin roof. She considers shoving Johnny outside, handing him a twenty-dollar bill, which is all she has on her, and being done with him. But, he’s pitiful, his brown eyes swollen and glassy, the blood and pus from the boil seeping into his shirt collar.

“You got a beer?” He wheezes, like an old smoker, his tongue licking the corners of his raw mouth.

“Sure.” Maxine walks in the kitchen, eyeing Johnny all the while. He’s stretched out with his sock feet on the coffee table, still plucking at his face and hair. Her phone isn’t on the counter, not in the pocket of her jacket that hangs on a chairback, not on the windowsill where she sometimes puts it so she knows where to find it. She must have left on the dresser in the bedroom after she called the Mansion, but she can hardly go searching for it now, what with this kid lolling in her living room and her not wanting to alarm him. She notices the useless landline phone.

“Brought you some peanuts, too.” Maxine hands Johnny the Heineken she buys when she has a little extra cash. “Eat something.”

Johnny takes the beer and ignores the nuts, gulps long and loud. A snarl grinds from his throat, somewhere between a belch and a growl. He sets down the bottle and picks at his face, and now that’s bleeding too. He’s holding a pistol with a red grip in his lap.

“You got money?” Johnny clutches the gun and taps it on his leg. “You never did like me,” he says. Her chair is three feet away, and Maxine thinks if she can just get there, sit down, talk to the boy, reason with him, she can get them out of a situation that won’t end well for anybody.

“Sure I like you, Johnny. What makes you say that?” She inches away from him, hears a scratching outside and thinks for a minute the bear has come back, not safe in his den after all. But it’s just a tree limb scuffing at the window. All those alarms, all those smart houses she’s set up, and here she is with no way to contact anyone unless she can find her phone.

“This here?” He waggles the pistol at her, then points it toward her belly. “This here I got for protection. Now, sit down. You make me nervous.”

Maxine eases into the chair, focusing on his face. “You don’t need protection from me.”

“Sure I do. You always hated me.” Johnny leaps off the couch, starts pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace. Embers in the woodstove whip up in a blaze with a gust down the chimney.

“Aw, Johnny. That’s not true. You’re one of my favorites. Ethan said that, too. He said you were the one he could count on.”

Johnny whips around and stands over her, the gun aiming toward her forehead. “Liar,” he shouts. “You and my daddy too. He don’t want me.”

The breath has gone out of Maxine. She gasps for a bit of air, tries to quell the panic in her gut. She inches away from him, hears a scratching outside and thinks for a minute the bear has come back, not safe in his den after all.

“Let me help you with that sore. Your shirt’s getting all bloody.” Maxine thinks of Mama, her gaunt body warm beneath a fuzzy blanket, and is thankful she’s not here for this. She wishes she were there with her, snuggled close, under the covers, not a bear or a deranged boy in sight.

The sleet pings harder, tapping at glass and tin. She pictures the bear busting through the door, breaking up this mess.

“Listen,” Maxine says. “The storm. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

“No, no, no, no.” Johnny howls like the gale outside, stomps and twists around the room. He swings the pistol in front of him, first toward Maxine and then toward the windows. “I’ll shoot every one of them out. I’ll shoot you.”

“Come on, Johnny. You don’t want to hurt me.” The chair seems to seize Maxine’s body. She couldn’t get up if she tried.

“I don’t, do I? I don’t want to hurt nobody.” The gnarl in his voice drops to almost a whimper. His frenetic march halts, and the spasms in his shoulders dwindle. Maxine thinks he might cry. He yanks at his hair again, pushes it back from his face. “I really don’t.”

“I can help.” Maxine’s heart pummels her chest and shifts toward her throat. “Ethan. He’d hate to see you like this.” Johnny flops onto the couch, the gun still hard in his hand. His eyes flutter like a sleepy baby’s.

“Ethan?” Maxine’s phone rings, the cheery chirp-chirp-chirp tone of crickets she never bothered to change. From the kitchen, it sounds like, lost amid a clutch of chickens. She moves to get it.

“Don’t.” Johnny flicks the gun at her, but she can tell his heart’s not in it, and so her own heart soothes, slides to her breastbone.

His head slumps, eyes barely open. “My fault,” he says. “Mine.”

“What’s your fault, Johnny?” Maxine scans the space between Johnny’s drowse and the limp hand holding his weapon. She edges out of her chair. “What?”

“Ethan.” Johnny squints. “I left him.”

“Left him where, Johnny?” She slips closer, finally sitting next to him. His body’s hot, like he has a fever, and the cat piss smell overwhelms her.

“At the bus stop. He got out of the car. Said he wanted to be alone. I didn’t mean to.” His words trail into gibberish, and he sinks, just like that, into sleep.

Maxine sits for a while, listens to the boy’s jagged breath, studies his wasted face, wonders what kind of demon could have left her son alone like that to such a terrible death. The sleet’s slacked off, but the wind continues its scream through the trees and roar down the chimney. Finally, she prods the gun from his hand and holds it, shelters it in her palm. She wonders if she could do it. Place the barrel to his side, pull the trigger, end his misery and appease hers in one furious rush. She strokes the grip. Who wouldn’t believe that she, a woman alone, confronted by a raging drug addict, was simply defending herself?

Johnny’s eyes quiver. He smacks his lips and throws one arm over his head, sinks deeper into the cushions. He breathes out a stench, the smell of dead carcasses.

Maxine watches him, doesn’t sleep. She listens to the mantel clock tick the night away. The events of Ethan’s life play in her head like a movie. The light outside brightens, and the new morning simmers in the eastern sky over Elk Knob, the storm passed into yesterday.

She stows the gun on the mantel behind a steely ceramic rooster, his tail feathers fluffed in a fan. She finds her phone, right on the kitchen table hiding beneath a dishtowel, and she texts a message to the office saying she’s taking a sick day. The flu, she writes, something that might keep her gone for a while. Those homes can wait to become smart.

She covers Johnny with blanket, puts on a pot of oatmeal, and settles in to wait for him to rouse. She’s read enough about meth to know his waking can go either way. Docile or angry. Pliant or aggressive. But she’s in it now, and safety for both of them is on her mind.

From where she sits, she can see yesterday’s bear return, rambling across the road, sniffing the brisk breeze. She worries he’s straying from the protection of his den, lured by the sweet berries, distracted from the shelter he’ll need to get through the coming months.

His presence doesn’t bother her today though. She’s not looking for trouble. She’s formulating a plan, securing a quest in her mind that she’s determined to win, something she could never do for her mama or her daddy or even Ethan.

Her earring’s gone, but Johnny’s here. And the bear. She’s made up her mind, for once, that finally, she’s the one who can beat the odds.

Kathryn Milam is a graduate of the MFA in Writing and Literature program at Bennington College where she studied with writers Alice Mattison and Elizabeth Cox. She is the founder and artistic director of Readings on Roslyn, a literary salon held in her home that has hosted thirty-eight writers and more than 4000 readers. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband and two dogs.

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