The house at 1540 E. Terrace Lane was just plain ugly. It was built in 1949 by a man named Robinson whose plumbing supply business grew prosperous in the post-war construction boom. Robinson was a simple man and his architectural standards began and ended with the word sturdy. It was a narrow house, and unlovely from the start, but it became even less so with the later addition of aluminum siding. It was constructed in three stories, with a basement. The house sat on an oddly shaped lot, a sort of L, with the short leg, behind and to the side of the house, much thicker than the long leg. The lot itself was shaped by another trait of Robinson’s — parsimony. He started with a large square corner lot, but sold off the corner at a good price in the early ‘50s to a banker named Edwards. Its construction, and its narrow width, caused the house to look like a tenement, placed as it was between the banker’s Greek Revival on one side, and the rambling Colonial on the other. These two houses looked much like every other house in the neighborhood. Robinson’s house, on the other hand, looked like it had been trucked in from the seamier side of an industrial town in the Midwest. Over the years, the Robinson house came to look even more out of place, as all the other homes in the area, which featured broad lawns, became shaded by spreading oaks and towering elms. Robinson put up a short picket fence, which was not improved by the passing years, nor by its numerous layers of peeling paint. This barrier emphasized, rather than obscured, the treeless patch of weeds that embarrassed the adjoining lawns. In 1963 Robinson moved with his wife and three teen-aged children to a more distant suburb. He kept the house, though, which he divided into one very large apartment and one much smaller one—one up and one down, with the second floor shared unequally between the two. The basement was a mystery, locked and off limits. Robinson remained the owner of record, and the rent was paid in his name, but a daughter pretended to manage the property. By the time I moved into the upper apartment, in 1976, it had long since become apparent that the house was not aging gracefully. The floors were uneven and the walls had sagged out of plumb—there probably wasn’t a right angle in the whole building—and doors would stick one day and refuse to latch the next. The exterior was just as bad; the aluminum siding did nothing to disguise the building’s decay. One thing which had not changed, though, I discovered, was the neighbors’ resentment at the eyesore and its occupants.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other. And with the exception of those at 1540 E. Terrace Lane, all the homes were owned by their residents. I was made aware of the ownership issue in my first effort to be friendly to Ron Martin, who had purchased the corner house from the heirs of Edwards, the banker.
Mr. Martin was in corporate sales, whatever that means, for a company whose name I gathered I was supposed to recognize. He was civil enough, just enough, but about all he had to say to me was his occupation and the fact that his was a neighborhood where residents owned their own homes. “And while they are not all architectural treasures,” he added, gesturing toward his own home, “with few exceptions,” he nodded toward mine, “they do tend to be excellent examples of the vernacular.”
The neighbors on the other side I never met, and I lived there for over two years. A middle-aged couple, apparently childless, I saw them only rarely, and only then either pulling into or backing out of their garage. Others made a point of ignoring my, and children skipped the house on their Halloween rounds.
My downstairs neighbor for all but the first few months of that time was something else entirely, a dramatic woman somewhere in her early thirties. I say dramatic because she was. She kept her hair a flaming auburn color, worn long, and dressed primarily in bright reds and lustrous blacks. She drove a Mustang convertible, also red and black. We rarely spoke, but I do know her name was Karla Knudsen and that I was fascinated by her.
Ms. Knudsen was, in my opinion, lovely. She had unusual gray eyes, a cupid’s-bow mouth over a squarish chin, and a decidedly feminine form. She had an active social life, to say the least. A secretary for a defense-contractor, she was out most evenings, and came and went with a succession of male companions.
Most notably, I remember one summer night when I chanced to return home late from my carrel at the library. It was after midnight, and a matched pair of young men—longish curly blonde hair and muscular physiques; they could have been twins—wearing what appeared to be identical white pajama trousers and neither shirt nor shoes, were being invited in. She was wearing a short, very short, red satin robe and quickly shut the door behind them when she saw me coming in the gate. I should mention here that Ms. Knudsen was quite vocal during sex, and the walls and floors of the old house were no barrier to her urgent cries of passion. Is it any wonder I found her fascinating?
My entrance was an exterior stair to the second floor at the back of the house, reached by negotiating a broken, uneven sidewalk that squeezed between the neighbor’s privet hedge and the side of the house in a gap so narrow that my shoulders brushed either the hedge or the siding. The alternative was to park around the corner and approach through the back yard, which was unfenced.
On the whole, I enjoyed my time on E. Terrace Lane. Having, as I did, little in the way of furniture, the small apartment seemed quite spacious. Its windows admitted plenty of natural light, especially on the upper floor, where I spent most of my time at home. My little portion of the second floor housed only the kitchen and a miniscule entry parlor. The living areas were on the third floor. All in all, it was a nice place to read, study and sleep, my principle occupations.
Like graduate students everywhere, of course, I lived meagerly. My diet consisted largely of rice with steamed vegetables, that and grilled cheese sandwiches, for I was never much of a cook and rarely dined out. My clothes were bought cheaply and worn longer than they should have been. Happily, an aging sweater can make a shirt in poor condition appear respectable, provided their holes do not coincide. My car then was a used Volkswagen—badly used, but it got me back and forth well enough.
Anyway, my point here is that I got by. Between my TA duties and part time work at the library, I was paying my tuition and covering the rent and groceries, with enough left over to buy books, my only luxury. So I had no reason to turn to crime, even if I’d had the temperament for it.
When I think back on that time, oddly enough, what I remember most vividly is that house, my home. I do recall my career as a graduate student, of course. The seminars, the rarely acknowledged but ever present sense of cutthroat competition with the other students in my department, even a sort of unstated rivalry between me and my professors. And I remember, almost gauzily, the endless hours in the library and at home absorbed by mid-Victorian literature and the challenge of finding something new to say about it. (Also, the nagging fear that I should have specialized in the Edwardians.) At the time I imagined that I was discovering previously unrecognized nuances in my chosen field, and that my penetrating scholarship would soon be widely recognized and rewarded by a comfortable sinecure at some prestigious institution.
But, as I say, my memories of that time are dominated by the house at 1540 E. Terrace Lane. I particularly recall the morning light that streamed through the four twelve-paned windows into my sitting room, situated at the front of the dwelling and enjoying a southern exposure. Whenever possible I spent entire mornings there—reading or musing, ensconced on a disreputable chaise lounge I had discovered at curbside four blocks away, and carried home on my back—remaining until direct sunlight no longer lit the floor. I also had a floor lamp, Salvation Army-issue, beside the chaise, and I spent many, many evenings—and sunless days—reading there beneath it.
My bedroom then was almost as pleasant as the sitting room, leaving aside its horrid floral wallpaper, but I spent most of my time there asleep. And I slept a great deal in those days, taking long naps between intervals of reading or study. Indeed, I wonder now if perhaps I was not suffering from depression—that’s how much I slept. And I must confess, I would probably have slept even more, had Ms. Knudsen not had so many visitors, nor been so exultantly vocal at their service. Her bedroom was directly beneath my own, and on those nights she entertained, I did not sleep until well after she fell silent.
I say now that I was fascinated by Ms. Knudsen, but in truth, one might say that I became obsessed. Each glimpse of her whetted my already keen interest. On one occasion, when neighbors were hosting a party and there was no parking available at the curb in front of the house, I arrived through the back yard. As I approached I saw Ms. Knudsen, stark naked, ironing in her back room. Her windows were curtained, but they had not been drawn, and I watched from the darkness of the yard as she ironed a pleated skirt, pleat by pleat. When she was finished, she draped the skirt across the ironing board and only then walked to the windows and drew the curtains, looking directly toward me.
This display left me shaking, and kindled a hunger that remains unsated to this day. I crept up the stairs and let myself in, careful to remain silent in case she did not know that I had been her audience. I was sure that the pounding of my blood must resonate through the floors, unmasking our shared secret.
She never mentioned this event when we chanced to meet later, if she was even aware of it. Certainly I said nothing about it, and it never happened again, even though I parked on the side street many times thereafter so I could innocently pass her windows on my way in. Still, that vision of her, so utterly nude, so absorbed in that womanly task, remained with me. My soul was inflamed, and each subsequent encounter with her—brief and mostly wordless though they were—made me certain that she must be as hyper-aware of me as I was of her.
My interest in Ms. Knudsen became almost proprietary. I was concerned for her welfare and began to look closely at her visitors, often observing their arrivals and departures from my windows upstairs, anxious that they should be good, honorable men and treat her as she deserved to be treated.
Obviously, though, I should have more vigilant. There came a day when I noticed her front door standing ajar as I was leaving for school. It was still ajar when I came home that evening. This concerned me, but I proceeded upstairs, where I passed a restless night.
The following morning, the door remained unclosed, and I felt bound to check on her. I went up onto her porch and knocked on the open door, tentatively at first, then firmly. This caused the door to swing open more widely. “Ms. Knudsen? Ms. Knudsen? Is anyone home?” But of course there was no answer, so I entered, leaving the door open behind me.
I was in her living room, which was, I noticed, quite neat. Even in the dim light—for the blinds were drawn—I could see that the room was tastefully appointed, with an elegant sofa and two matching chairs, and magazines attractively fanned on a maple coffee table. I walked deeper into the house, pausing often to call her name, passing through a spacious kitchen, where the curtains were open, revealing appliances far nicer than my own, and, passing a stair, on into the back room. Here I found rather less elegant furniture, and the ironing board, still standing where I had last seen it. I caressed its silvered cloth pad a moment, then turned back toward the stairs.
At their base I paused, with my hand on the newel, my emotions aswirl. I felt at once thrilled to be inside her home at last, where so many visitors has preceded me, furtive as though I were a burglar violating her premises, and profoundly concerned for her wellbeing. Something surely was wrong.
Calling her name again—“Ms. Knudsen? Are you home?”—I ascended the stairs, which opened onto a broad hallway that ran the length of the building. I knew precisely where her bedroom was, and went straight to it, passing her bathroom. The bedroom door stood open and I could see the room was empty. I turned back down the hall and walked to the front of the house, where I found a sort of den, a room with windows identical to those in my sitting room directly above. Here there were two beanbag chairs, a daybed, and a low, red lacquer table. Ms. Knudsen was sprawled on her back across the daybed in a red slip, her auburn hair partially obscuring her face, which was turned toward the windows. Dried sputum trailed from her open mouth and stained the cushion beneath a face that was no longer lovely. Not at all.
Her tongue protruded past purpled lips and her eyes, half closed, were filmed over. There were several ugly bruises in the crook of one arm, flopped toward the lacquered table as though pointing at it. Her breasts, I saw, had spilled nearly free of their enclosing lace, but they, like her face, carried none of the beauty I so vividly recalled.
A syringe with what looked like dried blood in it lay on the table by the daybed, along with a bent and soot-blackened spoon holding a scummy residue and a tiny, yellowed cotton ball stuck to the side. There was also a matchbook, mostly used, and little plastic bags that looked to have been made by tying shut the corners of sandwich bags. There were three of these, bulging with a whitish powder, and two more which had been torn open and were empty.
I was stunned. I was almost overwhelmed by sadness but I was also conscious of a raging sense of disappointment. Ms. Knudsen had been a goddess, albeit lubricious and manifestly carnal. But this was so tawdry. So far beneath my love.
I did not even have to think about what to do next. I rearranged her on her couch, crossing her hands across the stomach, and brushed her hair—which alone of her features remained lovely—back from her face. I tucked her breasts back inside their sheath and tried to close her eyes, but they refused to close. I used my shirtsleeve to brush the crusted sputum from her face and resisted the urge to finally kiss her. Instead, I just said “Karla,” which I had never said to her before.
Rising from my knees I gathered the drugs, whatever they were, and the rest of the mess from the table, pulling out my shirttail to form a pouch to hold it all.
I hurried down the stairs and out the door, pulling it shut behind me. I went upstairs to my apartment, where I dumped everything into the trashcan in the entry parlor. After that, in a sort of fugue state, I trudged up the stairs to the sitting room, where I closed my own curtains and collapsed on the chaise in the shadowed room. I stayed there all day, directly above her, napping occasionally but mostly just staring at nothing at all, not even lost in thought, just lost.
Sometime late that evening I went out and drove to a diner near the campus where I tried to eat a hamburger. But it turned to sawdust in my mouth and I found it nearly impossible to swallow. This struck me as a metaphor, of course, for the whole sordid business, and I returned home neither less nor more hungry than when I left.
I slept fitfully and drove early to school where, for the second day in a row, I failed to appear for my classes, going instead to the library. There I simply sat in my carrel, not reading, just sitting there, paralyzed in mind and body.
Toward dark, I drove listlessly home, where I was grabbed by two detectives as I started up my stairs.
Someone had called to tell the police that there was a dead woman at 1540 E. Terrace Lane, and someone else, it seemed, had seen me leaving Ms. Knudsen’s apartment the day before—had it been just one day? The detectives suggested I invite them in, which I did, and once inside, asked me if they could look around. I assented to that, as well. They found their evidence almost immediately; the trashcan was, after all, right beside the door, and otherwise empty. Apparently I had left incriminating fingerprints, as well.
And so it was I moved away from 1540 E. Terrace Lane. I was easily convicted of manslaughter, and possession of narcotics (heroin, it turned out—heroin for my heroine—how poignant!) plus distribution and possession with intent to distribute. For my crimes, I was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
Later that year, a life sentence was added to the original penalty when I grew tired of being raped and managed at last to cut the throat of one of my tormentors.
This act of belated assertiveness turned out to be a pyrrhic triumph: now I am left alone by my fellows, but I will be left alone for a very long time. And so I pass the days, working in the prison library, and my nights remembering sunlight spilling across my floor and Ms. Knudsen naked in her window.