The Dream House, a short story by Michael Fine

By Michael Fine

© 2020 by Michael Fine

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Shirley Menard was taking a wash out of the washer when she heard they hit Powerball.  The phone rang but Shirley’s hands were wet so she couldn’t answer right then. The phone was only a few steps away, but by the time Shirley dried her hands and answered, the caller was gone.

“Impatient ass,” she said, and she lit a cigarette.

The morning sun brought brilliant light into the shabby yellow kitchen. She opened a window. The daffodils were in bloom next to the old wooden fence behind the house, just beyond the swing set, but the kitchen still smelled like frying oil and stale cigarettes.

 It was Thursday. Her only morning off. 8 A.M. and the first load was already in the dryer. She deserved a smoke.

The phone rang again.

“Powerball,” a voice said.

 It was Steven.

“What?” Shirley said. She had heard the “ball” but wasn’t sure about the “power”.

“Powerball. We won Powerball.”

Who won Powerball?”

We won Powerball. Ernie and me. You and me. Me and Ernie split it two ways.”

“How much Powerball? Fifty? A hundred? Two-fifty?”

“Turn on the news. The whole fuckin Powerball. Two hundred and fifty-eight million dollars. Two hundred and fifty-eight mill. Split two ways. We just won one hundred and twenty-nine million. Put my truck on Craigslist. I’m coming home.”

“April Fools?” Shirley said.

“No April Fools. It’s April, but no foolin’. Turn on the TV.”

 Steve quit his job. Then he bought himself a powder-blue Jaguar convertible and started driving to Newport every day to play Jai Alai.

Steven was Shirley’s number three, the best of a pretty sorry bunch. Not bad looking for fifty-two.  Good around Shirley’s kids and grandkids. Sometimes, maybe once or twice a year, Steven brought her breakfast in bed after he had been out drinking and hadn’t come to bed by the time Shirley had to get up for work. Every so often, while Shirley was washing the dishes, he’d come up behind her, put his arms around her waist, rub his chest against her back, nuzzle her neck, put his tongue in her ear, and feel her up until she turned and made out with him.  In those moments Shirley though she might actually love him some.

Steven came by the nursing home two weeks after he bought the Jag, on the first warm day of spring, just as Shirley was getting off shift. He parked next to Shirley’s old Honda and waited until she came out. He was wearing a new black leather driving cap, a gray leather driving jacket, and a silk blue-and-gold scarf. The way he looked made her laugh a little. Steven. The same man. Just not the Steven Shirley knew.

“I am taking you for a ride,” he said.

“I got work to do!” Shirley said. “At home!”

“A ride,” Steven said.

They drove to Newport, top down. The breeze blew through Shirley’s hair. Shirley barely remembered any other life, or all the crap she had lived through.

Steven drove through Newport to Castle Hill. They sat on lawn chairs outside, smoking, each with a whiskey — and watched sailboats come in and out of the harbor. When it started to get cold they went in, sat at the bar in a bay window, and watched the sun set. Steven had three more whiskies, got himself more than a little drunk, and talked about doing incredible things. A trip around the world. A penthouse apartment in Manhattan. A ski trip to Vail. All this money has gone to your head, Shirley said. We have a good life here. Everyone we know is here. A new house. All I want is a new house, a place by the beach, a place where I can see the ocean and hear the waves at night.

Shirley drove the Jaguar home, top down, and man could that car move, fast and incredibly smooth, more like flying than driving. The new car smell was rich and moist, even with the top down – like honey in your coffee instead of NutraSweet, leather and wood, not the plastic and leaking-oil smell of her Honda. 

Steven rattled on for a few minutes and then he fell asleep. Shirley felt weightless. She drove a little faster, just to see what the Jag could do. She remembered the dreams she had in childhood, dreams in which she floated above the telephone wires and glided from place to place, weightless, riding the air. I don’t want to change one thing, she thought. There is no better life. We come from the world, but we live in memories and in dreams.

The tree frogs were out when they got home to the house in Buttonwoods, singing and chirping in waves.

Shirley kept her job. She worked every day except Thursday and Saturday, first shift. It took eight years to get first shift. You don’t give that up. The old people were used to her. The home had faint yellow cement block walls and smelled of disinfectant and toast.

But every day at three, the moment her shift was over, Shirley thought only about her dream house. Let Steven have his Jag. Let him buy a leather coat and a silk scarf. Let him get $40 haircuts and fancy aftershave. Let him get himself a personal trainer. Shirley wanted only one thing. A house with a water view, with a private beach, like the houses investment bankers and movie stars have in magazines.

She looked at house after house, at mansion after mansion, but nothing she saw satisfied her. Agents showed her huge houses with big dining rooms and circular driveways, but Shirley wanted something different. Not more. Just different. Quietly elegant, not overwhelming, but solid as a rock and with a beautiful view. Shirley wanted a place on a hill, a place that let you see the sun rising over the ocean, where you could hear every wave break, and where you could see the sea birds flying along the coast at dawn and at dusk.

So, she decided to build. First she had to find land, to find the perfect setting. She walked all over Wakefield, Saunderstown, and Matunuck in black rubber boots for three months. Finally, she found the most beautiful place on earth. It was an old dairy farm off Matunuck School House Road. The farm once raised vegetables and poultry for the rich people in Narragansett and Watch Hill, and once upon a time sent milk to the Co-op in Wakefield, before the Co-op closed down. The house was a mess, just a rotting brown farmhouse surrounded by maple trees set back from the road, with an overgrown walkway made of purple flagstones, overgrown lilacs on both sides of the door, and a small red barn behind the house that had a sagging roof line and flaking paint.

She didn’t care about the farmhouse. It could be a guest house for her kids and Steven’s kids when they came to stay for a week. It could just sit empty, for all she cared. The farmhouse didn’t matter. What mattered to Shirley was the hill and the view of the ocean the hill provided.

To get to the hill you had to walk through two fields that been rented out to grow potatoes and climb over two stone walls.  The climb up the hill was rough going – the woods were thick with brambles and gnarled branches of the wind-twisted trees that spread out at waist and chest level. But you could hear the waves crash and sigh as you climbed, before you could see the water.  And from the top you could see a blue saltwater pond half covered by lime green seagrass that waved with any breeze; you could see the beach, and beyond that you could see Block Island. Standing on that hill; you could see fishing boats plying the waters of Block Island Sound; you could see freighters and cargo ships leaving Narragansett Bay for South Carolina, Europe and Africa; and sometimes you could make out the whales breaching as they swam with their calves from their winter feeding grounds in the Caribbean to their summer haunts in Buzzards Bay, and north to the Bay of Fundy, and to Greenland, where they fattened themselves on plankton, krill, and sea grasses.

Shirley bought the land for cash the day she saw it, right on the spot.

She hired an architect and told him to spare no expense. The house needed to face the sea.

Shirley had just gotten by for long enough. Now she wanted a house that was solid and tight, a house that would stand against the wind, a house that let her feel the sea and hear the sea at night, from the bedrooms on the second floor, a house in which she could feel the sea and hear the sea from the kitchen, during the day while she was cooking, when the kids came for dinner, and their kids chased one another from room to room. She didn’t want the floor to shake when some kid ran down the hall. She wanted to hear the wind blow around the house, but she didn’t want to hear the wind rattle the windows anymore, and she didn’t want to feel a draft or a chill when the wind blew in mid-winter ever again. You needed to smell the sea, and hear the sea, but the house had to be solid and tight so you could sleep soundly, without worrying, even when a nor’easter hit or when a hurricane came up the coast in September.

After the architects, came the contractor. Contractors. She fired a couple along the way. Contractors are like husbands. They tell you what they think you want to hear, until they get what they want. Then they fall asleep. Only the last contractor was any good, and that was only because Shirley was always there. He did whatever Shirley told him to do.

She came every day after work. Forty-five minutes down, forty-five minutes back. Traffic made the trip longer in the summer when the whole world went to South County at five o’clock. Shirley talked to all the subs, and she checked, every day, to make sure she was getting what she paid for. She had hopes. And dreams. And expectations.

They were going to have a perfect house. Simple as that. Simply perfect.

Steven drove his powder-blue Jaguar to Newport and to Twin Rivers during the day. He came down to Matunuck once when she found the farm, and another time after they cleared the land on the top of the hill. But he didn’t love the construction. The contractor bulldozed a long dirt drive out of the hillside which was brown mud when it rained and brown dirt when it was dry. Steven said he didn’t want to get the Jaguar all messed up, so he didn’t come again. He started getting his hair dyed black and going to the gym.

At last the house was done, and Shirley was able to get the long driveway paved. They laid down a layer of asphalt, so the surface of the road was smooth and flat as it snaked up the hillside. Then Shirley had them lay on a few inches of crushed gray-blue stone, and had that steam-rolled into the asphalt, so the surface looked like it was gravel, but it wasn’t. Nothing loose. Nothing that would kick up dirt or mud. A ribbon through the countryside, climbing a low hill between a farm and the sea. Like the long circular drive leading up to a country mansion, which this was, for them. Their country mansion. Their dream house. It wasn’t really very big. Nothing too showy. Picture perfect. Solid, classic, secure. Mansion enough for Shirley.

And then she got them ready to move. Cleaned out the garage, attic and basement. Threw out stuff she had accumulated for 30 years. Bought new furniture. Saved a couple of pieces – a divan from her grandmother, a sideboard from her mother, and a rocking chair from her first house and first husband; the one she nursed both her kids in.  But send the rest of the junk to Goodwill. Called the movers. Picked a date.

Steven called at ten-thirty from Foxwoods, boozed up but still sweet.

“I’m comin’ home,” he said, slurring his words. “Moving tomorrow. Comin’ home now.”

“Stay there. Get a room. Sober up and come home in the morning. The movers get here at nine,” Shirley said.  Here we go again, she thought. I’ve been down this road before. Same shit, different day. Déjà vu all over again.

“You need me. Home. Tonight. Promised,” Steven said.  Drunk as he was, he heard that Shirley was pissed.

“I need you alive.”

“Come get me?”

“Just sleep there tonight,” Shirley said. She needed this like a hole in the head. He wasn’t alone and she knew it. She had been down this road before. It didn’t matter. If she had to move into the house alone, so be it. At least she’d have the sea. “I got plenty to do. Go get some sleep, and just get yourself up in time, so you are here at nine.”

“Need to get home.”

“Go to sleep. You’re no good to me drunk, and it wouldn’t look good if you crashed the Jag the night before we moved in. Get a room and get here first thing in the morning ready to work.”

“G’night. Need to be there.”

“Get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow. Now good-night.”

Shirley didn’t sleep. She had a house. But here she was, sleeping alone.

That night the house filled her dreams, which turned into her nightmares. The Jag came through her window, only there was a shark where its front end was supposed to be, and the shark had its mouth wide open, its teeth made of metal and its headlights black and rolled back into its head. The Matunuck house was hovering in the air, and all the parts that Shirley had chosen — the cherry banister, the granite countertop, the stainless-steel refrigerator, the stone vanity — all the pieces were falling one by one through the floor and plunging into the sea. Artie, her wimpy first husband, now twice the size he’d ever been, and covered with tattoos, was standing over her, a big kitchen knife where his penis was supposed to be.

Then it was morning. Birds back from winter began to call and sing in the boxwoods by the back fence, next to the swing-set. There was misty blue and gray light in the window. Then trees, telephone poles, houses, and cars folded out of the blue mist.

Shirley fell back to sleep. It was a deep sleep, and she didn’t dream.

The blurting beep of a truck’s backup alarm woke her. Car doors slammed. There was a knock on the door before Shirley could push the covers back and throw on a robe.

It was Steven. He was here after all. Sobered up, sweet and sorry and ready to move.

A dream come true. They were moving together to the dream house. Shirley had worried for nothing.

Why had she worried? Why had she doubted him?

We come from the world, but we live in our memories and our dreams.

Winning Couple Perish in Fiery Crash. (Turn to Ten News) Just two weeks after claiming a half share in a Powerball winning ticket, a Warwick couple perished in a fiery crash on Route Four, just south of Wickford. The driver of the car, traveling at speeds estimated by police to be over 110 miles an hour, appears to have lost control of the vehicle at the Route 102 overpass. The vehicle left the roadway and flipped over before exploding. Both occupants of the vehicle were killed instantly. Identification of the driver and passenger is pending notification of next of kin.

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Dr. Michael Fine
Dr. Michael Fine

Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population of a place.

He has also recently been named Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket. Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.

Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and other health professionals.

He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’ Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.

He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.

Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.