No Use Crying Over Spilled Coffee

By Andrew Sharp

We had a wonderful house before the Stranger moved in.

Well, I remember it that way. I guess it wasn’t perfect, just a modest brick house with plumbing problems. It had a couple of bedrooms and a nice yard the kids would play in someday. When we had them. We had one, I mean, just a baby, but we planned for more.

My wife’s flowerbeds probably doubled the value of the property. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which got more nurturing from Maria — the baby or the flowerbeds.

Life could be stressful. Despite working long hours, some months we almost didn’t make our mortgage payments. Our neighbor called the police on us when he thought we were being noisy. Once he got drunk and drove through Maria’s daisies. She almost killed him.

The morning the Stranger came, my day wasn’t going too well. Maria and I got into a fight over who was going to cook breakfast, one of those arguments you laugh about later but at the time leads you to conclude that you were misled about the beauty of marriage.

I stomped down the stairs. I was not in the mood to make scrambled eggs and coffee, so I was definitely not in the mood to find a man I had never seen before, seated at my table, eating bacon and eggs and drinking coffee. I was especially irritated because Wednesday is not bacon day. Thursday is bacon day.
The Stranger jumped when I came in and spilled coffee all over the table. It dripped down through the cracks in the table onto the carpet. Ha, I thought, I told Maria we shouldn’t have carpet in the dining room.

“What are you doing here?” the Stranger shouted.

“This is my house,” I said. “How did you get in? How can you just sit there and eat our bacon?”

“The door was unlocked,” he said, “So of course I just assumed I could move in.”

“No,” I said.

He seemed troubled, and sat for a bit, thinking. I tried to decide whether to try to throw him out, or offer him some more coffee while we figured things out. I couldn’t tell if he meant us any harm.

He was lean, with a gaunt face and eyes that stared a little wildly. His face was clean-shaven except for a sudden beard on the bottom of his chin. He didn’t look like he laughed much, or maybe that if he did laugh it would be the wrong kind. I didn’t care for the way he was sizing me up, and looking around the room, as if he were trying to figure out where we kept the silver. Luckily, we did not have any silver.
I finally decided to offer him another cup of coffee, to get the conversation going. He ignored me. “Can you produce a deed from the United States that gives you ownership of this house?” he asked.

“This is Canada,” I said. “I have a Canadian deed.”

He seemed relieved.

“Well that’s all right. You don’t have one from a real legal system then. That means there shouldn’t be any problem.”

He produced a yellow folder filled with papers. “I have here a blank deed from the United States authorizing me to write in the property of any house I want in this whole neighborhood, as long as I fill out the appropriate paperwork. I will live here.”

There really is no good way to respond to such a statement. I turned over several options in my mind, but none of them seemed to carry just the right tone.

“Now don’t just stand there gaping at me,” he cried. “I’m too busy for that. Come on, come on, what’s the trouble?”

Before I could answer he said, “Oh, yes, of course, I guess it must be some inconvenience to you, the short notice. There are lots of other nice places around here for you to go; maybe some of the neighbors can take you in. You’re all family after all.”

I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. I didn’t have a single relative in town, except for Aunt Connie, and she lived 10 miles outside town limits on a farm. I had the feeling I was falling behind.
Then my wife came in. “Glenn, are you going to start breakfast or —”

The silence that followed was welcome, insofar as its lack of further discussion of breakfast, but I felt I ought to clear things up a little.

“Maria,” I explained, “this man has made a mistake of some kind and ended up in the wrong house. I’m sure we can get it cleared up though, and I’m just going to make some more breakfast for us all. I’m sure Mr.” — I turned to the man. “I don’t even know your name …”

“I do own the house,” he snapped. “Your claim is not valid anymore — basically, you’re just squatting here. I have all the paperwork right here.” He slapped the yellow folder.
My wife looked at me, incredulous. She mouthed “police.”

He looked back and forth between us. “Oh, I think I know the trouble. You’re all settled in and you like it here.” He sighed. “I don’t have to do this, but I’ll be generous. Is there a pen anywhere?”
Neither of us rushed to offer one, so he looked around and grabbed one from the desk by the front window. He wrote for a while on one of his sheets of paper. Then he looked up and cleared his throat.
“Considering that you lived here before,” — I resented his use of verb tense — “I agree to let you stay here in part of the house, but we must establish ground rules. Stay out of the kitchen. I need my privacy. You may use the living room when I am not using it, but whenever I need it, you’ll have to clear out. I get the master bedroom” — he peered around us, trying to see where it was — “and you can sleep, um, upstairs somewhere. We can work out more details as we go along.”

Marie began backing up, and I saw she was moving toward the drawer where the steak knives were.
The stranger beamed at us. “Now I think you have to agree that I am being more than fair. Just sign here and I will send everything to my lawyer. It’s the best way to protect your rights. In fact” — he stopped and wrote again — “I’ll even give you a monthly stipend, since I’ll be using your car and you won’t be able to work.”

I tried to signal Maria to consider more ethical means of eviction, but that is a complicated thing to convey by means of surreptitious signal. So I turned to the man to try the ethical means myself.
“Listen,” I said sternly. “I don’t know who you think you are, but this is outrageous. I don’t want to call the police, but I will if you don’t leave.”

There was a pause. The man’s face turned red, which I took as evidence of a lack of enthusiasm for my proposal.

“Now,” I added helpfully.

The man’s expression got sourer when my wife came up and stood beside me, holding our largest knife.

“You,” she said, “you had better leave now.”

The Stranger pulled a pistol out and held it in front of him, not pointed at anything in particular, but troublingly ready for action.

“I would hate for there to be any unpleasantness,” he said. “Now are you ready to sign, or not?”
The clock ticked in the living room. Outside, a garbage truck clattered the dumpster. The baby began to fuss upstairs. A drop of coffee splatted on the carpet.

Halfway convinced I was dreaming, I picked up the pen and signed. I had no choice, and anyway, what did it hurt, signing a crazy man’s paper? We would get it all straightened out as soon as I could talk to the police.

I should have made him shoot me.

 

When the Stranger drove off in our car that afternoon, I did call the police. The voice that answered had an American accent, like the Stranger’s. That was puzzling, but I explained the situation and asked for an officer to come out so I could press charges. The dispatcher said it didn’t sound like there had been any crime committed.
Outraged, I demanded to talk to Chief Richardson. There was a pause.
“He’s not the chief anymore,” the voice said. And hung up.
Desperate, I called back several times, but the dispatcher always hung up on me.

 

The monthly stipend was nice, I guess. We couldn’t understand how the Stranger got the car with the house, but then, we couldn’t understand how he could claim the house either. After awhile, we started to get used to the arrangement, which I guess shows you can get used to almost anything. It was hard to remember what life had been like only a few days before.

We always used the back door now, and tried to avoid the Stranger whenever we could, although he was usually polite. He made a great effort, in fact, to be nice. My wife and I had many discussions about what to do. She wanted to stab him in his sleep, but as satisfying as that option sounded, I talked her out of it. The Stranger slept with that pistol on his — on our — nightstand. Besides, the police were on the Stranger’s side, I pointed out, and we would just end up staying in a prison cell instead of our house.
“What do you mean, our house?” she asked, crying. “Unless we do something, it’s not our house anymore.”

 

Without anything to do, or a mortgage payment to worry about, I just watched TV all day. Anyone who has tried this knows there is nothing worse than watching TV all day, unless it’s not having anything to do but watch TV all day.

Whenever the Stranger came in to the living room after work, he was irritated if he found me there.
“Is that all you ever do, watch TV all day?” he would grouch. One time, he even said, “No wonder you lost this house. I work hard all the time and all you ever do is sit around.”

I just stared up at him. Was he joking? I could never tell; he never told a traditional, guy-walks-into-a-bar joke, but sometimes I wondered if his presence in our house wasn’t some massive joke in poor taste. So much of his behavior would have been absurdly funny if this were a sitcom instead of our real life.
A sitcom never makes you want to grab someone and squeeze his neck until his eyes bulge out and his hands slowly stop twitching.

Good thing for him, he always carried his gun.

 

When his friends started moving in, we had to move to the attic.
When we needed to use the bathroom, we had to sneak down and try not to run into anyone. If we did happen to meet someone, we pretended not to be there, like servants passing an English aristocrat in the hall. It got harder and harder to avoid other people. We often could hear hammers pounding and the ripping sounds of drywall and framing giving way as the Stranger and his friends remodeled below.
One morning we were coming back from a walk around the neighborhood — a daily walk kept us from going crazy — when we met the Stranger coming out of the attic. He looked uneasy.
We slipped past him without saying anything. Inside, piles of boxes stacked three or four high filled up half our living space. We heard the Stranger come in behind us. We didn’t turn around; we just stood there, looking at those boxes.

He cleared his throat. “Listen, my friends brought a lot of stuff and we just didn’t have room to store it. I tried to tell them you needed this space, but they wouldn’t listen. I had to put it in here.” He paused, searching some deep part of his soul. “I’m … sorry.”

We still didn’t say anything. After a long silence he turned around and left, muttering something.
Once he had been gone a few minutes, I opened our only window. Then I hauled a box over to the window and wrestled it up onto the sill. It was extremely heavy and made some glassy clinking sounds. I pushed. The box hurtled down and profaned the afternoon quiet of the neighborhood like an artillery shell landing in a golf tournament. Shards of china sprayed out into the grass and a few chips launched back up toward me.

I wondered what sound a box of athletic trophies might make. Luckily, just such a box was available, so I tipped it over the sill. They didn’t shatter as well, but they made a very nice cracking wallop.
I was just balancing another box on the windowsill when the Stranger rushed out into the yard.
“What the HELL are you doing!” he screamed. “How dare you! You had better not push that one out.” He pulled out his pistol.

I contemplated briefly, then shoved the box. A baseball card collection plopped into the newly mulched flowerbed, leaving fluttering cards in its wake parachuting down.

The glass from the window shattered around me as the Stranger missed his shot. I jumped back into the room and we all cowered behind the rest of his boxes, listening to the bullets whack into the ceiling through the window. Drywall clods rained down after every shot. The baby screamed.
We waited for the Stranger to come in and kill us, but he didn’t. We heard loud voices downstairs, but that was all.

 

Late that night, I finally had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t hold it any more. As I was carefully opening the door to sneak back up to the attic, I heard a horrible wail. My wife. Then she screamed. I ran toward the attic stairs, adrenaline pumping, ready to kill this time. There were three shots, one after the other. My wife’s screaming stopped, but the baby kept on.

I burst into the attic and the Stranger swiveled his gun to me. “You stop right there,” he commanded.

 

Yes, I was very remorseful, I told the judge. I was full of remorse that I had only shattered the Stranger’s shoulder, wasting the golden opportunity presented when I had managed to wrestle the gun away. With more care, I said, I could have hit him right in the spine and dropped him where he stood. However, I respectfully disagreed with the prosecutor’s statement that there was no excuse for my actions.

“I haven’t shot a handgun in years,” I said.

The judge pounded his gavel. “You’re going to die in jail,” he said, with disgust. “It’s the best place for people like you, violent scofflaws who care nothing about contracts and agreements.”

 

Epilogue

A professionally dressed woman, whose brown hair had streaks of gray, walked along a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood, consulting a letter in her hand.

She stopped in front of a brick house where two children were playing in the yard and stood for a long time, just looking at it, like a child shrinking from jumping into a cold swimming pool. Then she straightened her jacket and marched up the sidewalk past the children, who stared at her as she went by.
She pushed the doorbell. After a pause, she pushed it again. There was no answer. She was reaching for it again when a woman opened the door and looked at her suspiciously.

“What do you want?”

“My parents used to own this house,” she said.

The owner looked uneasy. “So?” she said. “I’m sorry, we don’t do tours.” She started to close the door.

“Wait,” the woman commanded. “This house was stolen from my parents. I have papers here that show …”

The owner interrupted her, calling the children to come inside.

“Listen, it wasn’t us that took it away from you,” the owner said, angrily. “We bought it all fair and square.”

“Yes, but the people who sold it to you had no right to,” the woman said. “It wasn’t theirs.” She swallowed. “All I want is to make things right, to work out some sort of compromise.”

“I know who you are,” the owner said. Her voice softened a little. “Listen, I really am sorry about all that. Mistakes — terrible things — were done on both sides. But we can’t undo the past.”

“I’m not asking you to undo the past,” the woman said, turning red. “I’m asking –“

“Tell it to the judge. We have all the proper paperwork.” The door slammed in her face.

Behind her, a police car cruised slowly down the block.

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