The real estate agent texted me to say the sofa wouldn’t fit through the front door, so the clean-out crew just left it. One of its legs gouged the doorframe, then gave one of the auction guys a splinter so thick and deep he had to go to urgent care. I should have known right then something weird was going on, but I was mostly just glad someone else was there to deal with it.
By the time I reached my late parents’ house, the truck was gone. The nicotine-streaked walls were white now and all you could smell was paint. Every four-poster bed, buffet hutch, and bric-a-brac stand had been hauled away, along with all the autobiographies of 70s actors and all the books about wars. The rings and bracelets too tiny for my fingers and wrists had been boxed up and shipped out with the china figurines I spent my childhood trying not to break. Maybe I should have kept something? I don’t know. There was just the lone camelback sofa standing in the middle of the living room floor.
My back ached from driving all day, so I lugged my air mattress up from the car and inflated it in the dining room. I knew the agent really didn’t want me crashing here, but I was newly single, unemployed and broke. Nothing to do but wait things out until the place sold. A pale square in the middle of the dark broadloom, my air mattress looked like a life raft.
The door chime sounded early the next morning while I was still sleeping. I think nine a.m. is early, although I know most people don’t. A professional-looking couple in their forties was peering through the pane of beveled glass in the front door. Both were crisply dressed but looked a little wilted in the August heat. They didn’t seem like the kind of people with time to waste.
I was barefoot, braless, and in sweat shorts. Enough to send my poor mother spinning in her, um, urn. Had I missed a voicemail from the real estate agent? Was it normal for people just to turn up? I didn’t trust my sales abilities so I told them they could show themselves around. I ducked into the kitchen, pretending I had something going on the stove.
A few minutes later, quick and heavy footfalls shook the ceiling above me. It was like a pair of Clydesdales had gotten loose. Then I heard someone book it down the staircase. The front door slammed.
When I got to the living room, the camelback sofa was standing at a skewed angle by the front door. It looked even sadder and shabbier in the daylight than it had the night before. As I pushed it back across the room, its claw feet rasped against the floorboards and its springs groaned. There were tiny tears all over the upholstery with bits of fluff and horsehair poking out. Its humped backrest was shiny with wear and I could still make out the two saggy indentations where my parents always sat. I threw a sheet over it.
I got to thinking I should probably check on things upstairs. I went to my childhood bedroom first because it’s right above the kitchen, where I heard all the noise. Nothing to see there, just the built-in shelves my father put up for my trophies and diplomas: always empty, never filled. Haha. I moved on to my parents’ bedroom, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary there either. Just some scuff marks on the floor where their bed used to be and a lingering medicinal smell that clutched at the back of my throat.
My phone buzzed. It was the real estate agent. “Jessica! It’s Peggy.” Her voice sounded cheery but strained. “Those people who came today….did anything, uh, unusual happen?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think they tried to steal the couch.”
After that, Peggy kind of ghosted me, although a trickle of potential buyers continued to show up. A pair of newlyweds in their twenties—about my age—who admired the little stained glass windows, but admitted the house was out of their price range. A couple in their sixties who took one look at the bathroom and said they couldn’t stomach another remodeling project. A family of very tall people who kept laughing and calling the place Snow White’s Cottage after the teenage son bonked his head. It started to occur to me that maybe nobody would buy this house.
Then one night I was lying awake on the air mattress. It was crazy hot even with the fan on and I was fighting the temptation to call my ex. It’d been a few days since we’d last spoken. Even when we were first dating I always had to be the one to initiate things, to put stuff out there. Maybe I should check in? I was scrolling through his Instagram when I heard a loud crash.
I ran to the kitchen. One of my empties lay shattered on the tile floor. I figured the mice were back. “Sorry, guys,” I said, though I didn’t see any rodents. “Pickings are pretty slim these days.” I grabbed a broom and started to corral the broken glass.
I heard a thumping sound coming from the pantry. First quiet and ignorable, then loud and insistent. The door was halfway shut and it was too dark to see anything from where I stood. I reached my hand in and flicked on the light.
The camelback sofa was standing inside, upended. Tipped into that position, it was over six feet tall. The bedsheet I’d used to cover it was slung across its length like a toga, its top legs jutting out like arms. I sucked in my breath and poked one of its cushions with the broom. Nothing happened. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but I was pretty freaked out. I closed the door then grabbed my little folding chair and wedged it under the knob, the way they do in movies. I didn’t sleep much that night.
Next morning, I jumped into my Nissan and drove all the way to the other end of town. I hoped the sporting goods store where I used to shop was still in business, and yep, it was. I bought a pup tent and pitched it in the back yard. I figured I’d try sleeping in the house again in a day or two.
I felt at home under the stars like that. The scent of honeysuckle wafted from the neighbor’s garden and I could hear the back-and-forth chittering of tree toads in the elms. It was going to be fine sleeping here. I might not be as educated as my parents were, but I’ve always found a way to figure problems out.
I came late to them after many years of waiting. A surprise in more ways than one. Loud, big-boned, energetic. I think at that point in their lives they could’ve dealt with a teacup poodle of a child, but I was more like a Border collie, digging up the lawn and barking myself hoarse instead of riding placidly in my mother’s purse. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. We just weren’t the right match, I guess you could say?
A throaty caterwauling startled me out of my daydream. I unzipped the tent and looked around. It seemed to be coming from somewhere high in the house. I knew raccoons can make some strange noises. Maybe I had some in the eaves?
I picked up my phone to Google raccoons, but the noise stopped, so I just started randomly scrolling. There was a picture my ex had posted today. Nothing big. Just a shot of the bowl of pho he had for lunch. I thought of texting him a selfie of me in the tent. I mean it’s funny, right? I took a few shots but gave up.
I don’t really know when things began to end. Did we break up because I was too late to get to my mother’s bedside? Or was I too late to get to my mother’s bedside because we were breaking up?
The howling started up again. The neighbor’s back porchlight flicked on and I could see him standing in his bathrobe, phone in hand. “It’s okay, Mr. Truax, I’ve got this,” I called over the hedge, hoping to preempt any impulse he might have to phone the cops. I had no choice but to go back in.
The air inside was hot and still. I switched on every possible light fixture downstairs, even the little nightlight in the powder room. All the while, the howling continued. I grabbed the broom.
I knew I had to go up there. My parents’ bedroom. I climbed the stairs, walked to the end of the hallway, and stood in the oak-trimmed doorway. I could see the sofa huddled in the far corner, its dark shape highlighted against the chintz wallpaper. The hammered copper pendant lamp swayed overhead, casting swooping arcs of light across the room.
I stepped a little closer.
The sofa let out a low growl. I clutched the broom. I moved closer still and it growled again, this time extending one of its claw feet towards me. As the lamp swayed, I saw a glint of metal flash between the sofa’s toes. I froze. The sofa stuck out its foot again, this time retracting its talons. I saw that there, jammed into the splintering wood, was my father’s Phi Beta Kappa key.
I put down the broom, yanked out the key, and quickly stepped back. The sofa shuddered and launched itself out of the corner.
Frisking like a colt, it chased a dust bunny around the room, then took off galloping down the hallway to my bedroom. There, the sofa stopped and lowered itself on one side, then raised itself, repeating again and again. It was doing push-ups! It grunted huskily, its dovetail joints creaking. It took off on another sprint down the hall but then stopped, panting.
The sofa loped back to my parents’ bedroom and nuzzled against me. It smelled like a blend of my mother’s perfume and my father’s pipe tobacco. To be honest, there was a whiff of stale urine in there somewhere too. I started to cry.
The sofa also began weeping, tears soaking its hump. It let out a sob and thrust its cushions towards me. I dug my hands between them. Deep inside, the space felt raw and sinewy. Warm and throbbing. The horsehair stuffing gave off a musky funk.
A stream of small objects began to spew from the poor sofa’s crevices: a paperclip, a single earring, blood pressure pills, a tube of orangey coverup makeup, parking tickets, a bottle of Viagra, my old report card from seventh grade. A crazy pile began to form on the floorboards. A baby tooth, a cat’s whisker, a lone birthday candle, a seashell, a pacifier, my First Communion crucifix, a champagne cork, a hypodermic needle, a deflated balloon. I was wracked with sobs. A Sailor Moon temporary tat, a vial of morphine, a tube of zit cream, a guitar pick, anti-anxiety meds, a handmade Valentine. I might have missed a few items. It was impossible to keep up. When the spewing finally ceased, I stopped crying, and the sofa stopped crying too.
We both sat on the floor and took the moment in. Slowly, as though reluctant to disturb me, the sofa glided over to the leaded window, then tapped its foot on the latch. I clicked it up with my thumb and swung the hinged pane open. The sofa turned itself this way and that until it lay balanced on the wide windowsill. It sucked in its width until it could make full clearance, then slid out and landed silently on the moonlit grass. I half expected it to start galloping again, but it was walking slowly now, and I could see it wobbled a little as it went. It crossed the lawn and collapsed behind a hedge.
There wasn’t much of it left for anyone to clear away. Just wood and wool and horsehair easing their way into the earth. I closed and latched the window of my parents’ empty house.
I had a different premise in mind for this story when I first began to write: a woman running an Airbnb, whose guests come to bear an uncanny resemblance to her late parents. I sketched out a few paragraphs. Then I began to describe her sofa, and the narrative galloped away in a new direction.
Once I found the first-person voice, I entered the heart of the story. It felt important that the main character should have experienced deep loss, and be facing imminent, existential questions, but at the same time, not take herself too seriously or be too cerebral in her outlook. Similarly, I felt the house should have dark wood, stained glass, and other solemn Gothic trappings, but, at the end of the day, be just another suburban home in need of bathroom remodeling.
I wrote about a character who had compartmentalized her feelings until they literally manifested themselves in one of the objects in her limited environment. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time of writing, but I can now see lockdown conditions were an influence. Jessica, like so many of us during the pandemic, is mostly confined to the small, interior world of home. It is at times like these that the furnishings and memorabilia around us can take on extra emotional heft.
One of my favorite authors as a child was Joan Aiken. I was drawn to her short stories especially and loved her dry humor and the brisk matter-of-factness she brought to magical events. I try to keep some of that same lightness and sense of wonder in my own writing.