Skip to main content



On Turpentine Lane

What Possessed Me?
If I hadn’t been naïve and recklessly trusting, would I ever have purchased number 10 Turpentine Lane, a chronic headache masquerading as a charming bungalow? “Best value in town,” said the ad, which was true, if judging by the price tag alone. I paid almost nothing by today’s standards, attributing the bargain to my mother’s hunch that the previous owner had succumbed while in residence. Not so off-putting, I rationalized; don’t most people die at home? On moving day my next-door neighbor brought me a welcome loaf of banana bread along with the truth about my seller. A suicide attempt. . . sleeping pills . . . she’d saved them up till she had enough, poor thing. And who could blame her? “Strong as an ox,” she added. “But a whole bottle?” She tapped the side of her head.

“Brain damage?” I asked. “Brain dead?

“Her daughter had to make that awful decision long distance.”

I’d negotiated and settled with that very daughter. Sadder and spookier than I bargained for? A little. But now I know it was an act more logical than tragic ​— ​what a sensible ninety-year-old felon might consider the simplest way out.
I first viewed the property through rose-colored glasses on a sunny October day. There was a brick path leading to the front door, a trellis supporting what might have been August’s wisteria, and a gnarled tree that hinted at future fruit. Inside I saw gumwood that hadn’t been ruined by paint and a soapstone sink that a decorator might install in a Soho loft. The linoleum beneath my feet made me want to look up the year linoleum was invented.

The real estate agent, who said she’d gone to high school with my brother, had been Tammy Flannagan then, was now divorced. How was Joel? Divorced, too, she’d heard.

“He’s fine,” I said, somewhat distracted by the carved pineapple on top of the newel post, yet another harbinger of domestic tranquility.

There was hardly anything to see on the second floor, just a bathroom from another century, and two square, darkly wallpapered bedrooms facing each other, one with a view of the street, the other overlooking the miniature backyard. The bathroom had a claw-foot tub, its porcelain yellowed and its plug desiccated. The small sink had separate hot and cold faucets, which, Tammy insisted, were back in style.

I asked which one had been the master bedroom.

“Does it matter? They’re equal in square footage,” said Tammy.

“It might matter to someone who’d rather sleep in a room where nobody died.”

She pointed silently to the back room, then directed my gaze to a hatch in the hall ceiling. “When you open that, there’s a ladder you can pull down.”

“Then what?”

“The attic.”

“Have you seen it?”

“Me personally? No. Someone from my office did, of course. I’ve been told it’s empty and dry. Want to see the cellar?”

I knew cellars were important ​— ​their foundations, water heaters, boilers, pipes, mousetraps ​— ​so I said, “Sure.”

“May need updating,” said Tammy, “but everything’s in good working order. This is a little doll house. I’d buy it myself if I wasn’t already in contract for a condo.”

I thought I should add, hoping to sound nonchalant about the property, “I’m engaged to be married. This would be fine for a single person, but I really need a bigger place.”

She helped herself to my ringless left hand, then dropped it without comment. I said, “We’re not a very traditional couple.”

“Congratulations anyway,” said Tammy. “Do you want to make an appointment to come back with him? Or her.”

“A man, Stuart. He’s away.”

“On business?”

His absence was hard to explain and harder to make sense of, so I just said yes.

Whether it was the impulse to change the subject or sound less like the real estate novice that I was, I said, “I couldn’t even think of moving forward without an inspection.”

But I’d already made up my mind. “A little doll house” sounded exactly right to me. Two bedrooms would be plenty, and I preferred baths to showers. There was a gas stove, green milk-glass mugs hanging from cup hooks, a one-car garage, leaded glass in the china closet, and a price that seemed too good to be true. So on that day, like someone who bought and sold properties with abandon, whose profession was flipping houses, I offered two-thirds of the asking price.

Tammy said, “Well, honestly, I don’t even think I can take that offer to the seller.”

I reminded her that this was a one-bath cottage, surely uninsulated, with an antique boiler and a postage stamp of a backyard. I’d have to start from scratch. “The wallpaper must be from the 1950s,” I scolded, at the same time thinking, I love that viny wallpaper.

Tammy looked up at the ceiling fixture, a white globe that was not unhandsome, and said, “I suppose I have to present your offer. Expect a counteroffer if she’s not too insulted to make one.”

“Every inch of this place needs updating. It’s my final offer. And it’s not like I’m in love with the place,” I lied.

It took one phone call, a counteroffer that I spurned, a fax, a signature, a return fax, and a relatively small check. On the other side was a lawyer representing the uninterested daughter five time zones away.

My counsel added to the purchase and sale agreement a sentence that struck me as curious: that if the lending bank refused to close for any reason ​— ​unrelated to my finances ​— ​I could back out.

“Is this standard?” I asked.

“Boilerplate,” she answered.

Simple. I signed it.

A Different Man

The aforementioned fiancé was out of town for an indefinite period because he was walking across the continental United State. His purported goal was not necessarily the Pacific Ocean, but finding his own path in life. It wasn’t just his mission statement but how he talked, on the road or off, raising consciousness, searching for awesomeness in the everyday.

People often looked perplexed when I tried to explain Stuart’s expedition or what I saw in him. There was a time during the period I call Stuart 1.0 when his Instagrams almost exclusively chronicled our dates and were followed by a festival of hashtags expressing affection and devotion. There was a thoughtfulness that I saw as a predictor of husbandly attentiveness; there was a full-time job with the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance that paid for the tickets and trinkets he hid rather adorably around my apartment.

As for the arena I’ll delicately call “relations” ​— ​had I been dealing with amateurs before him?

But he changed ​— ​and “overnight” isn’t an exaggeration. He started using words such as potentiality and wholeness after an emergency appendectomy. During his recovery, he quizzed anyone in scrubs until a nurse confirmed, “Yes, it could have ruptured; yes, people can die from that.” He emerged from his hospital stay a different man. It wasn’t organic or neurological, but social, a rebirth inspired by the free soul in the next bed whose worldview sounded good to Stuart, post-surgically, supine, and dangerously close to turning forty.

I gave it some time ​— ​accepting the new, softer, vegetarian Stuart 2.0. When friends heard about his walk and asked me if he was a nonconformist or a nut, I told them that this was just a new lifelong goal, to find himself by crossing the country on foot, a sabbatical of sorts after his agency had closed its doors.

On Turpentine Lane
by by Elinor Lipman

  • Genres: Comedy, Fiction, Romance
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 1328745589
  • ISBN-13: 9781328745583