The Real Story Behind Real Estate

          He came home to an empty house and found the divorce papers on the kitchen table. She had set them on his place mat like a serving of something stewed for so long it had lost its flavor. No rancor or blame, just the bland legalities. Her signature was larger than usual, looped with bravado or buoyancy.

          You won't be surprised to learn that he wooed her home with promises, though in his heart he believed everything was her fault. They made a little ceremony of burning the documents in the crystal punch bowl someone gave them as a wedding gift. Then, they danced to the old tunes he had listened to incessantly while she was gone. Of course, he held her too tightly and whispered all the wrong things. And he drank too much, insisting finally that they mix a potion with the punch bowl ashes and pledge themselves to one another. When she refused, he marked his forehead with a paste made of the residue and scotch and told her just to shoot him there rather than leave him.

          Somehow, she lasted for another year before she fled for good. No papers this time, just the empty house to resonate with the records he played and finally shattered when he heard the hopelessness wailing in their worn-out grooves. She wasn't coming back, and he didn't care. He was glad, in fact. Whatever happiness they lacked was not his fault. And who has the right to define happiness? The more he thought of it, the more his misery felt good.

          Perhaps you bought their house, or one just like it. They come on the market all the time, split property or lopsided settlements. Probably, the Realtor showed you the sunny breakfast nook or the cozy den, the fireplace where you might bundle with a book on chilly nights or simply cuddle. She intuits the best approach, studying the way you lean against a doorway or cross your arms when looking out a window. She may have made the same pitch to the couple who lived there before you, playing to their fantasy of romance and happiness.

          You couldn't say the house is haunted, even if a sooty spot bleeds through every time you paint the kitchen ceiling. So the Realtor was under no obligation to tell you this story, even if she knew it for a fact. And if she had filled in the human details while leading you room to room, showing where he pounded her locked door as she wept onto the windowsill, you would still have bought the place. Sadness is that thing that looms in someone else's house.

          Of course, no one wishes you anything less than harmony and love. Even the former residents would will you an inheritance of happiness, if they could. Sometimes, one of them drives by, not so much to monitor your life as to remember the place. Working in the yard, you may look up to see a face just as the car pulls away, no one you recognize, a stranger with the wrong address.

Carried Away by Carry-Out

          Sincere apologies to the couple whose carry-out order we were accidentally given one night last week at the Chinese restaurant. The bag seemed too bulky for our simple soup noodles, but we took it home without looking inside and then were too embarrassed to return it. Anyhow, the dinner seemed more a gift than a mistake--each little box tucked shut on its surprise

          Inside were only a few things we recognized: sweet and sour soup, egg rolls, rice. The rest was fragrant mystery, hints of seasoning, wisps of combinations we had never tried. Like finicky kids resisting anything new, we sniffed each carton, took a balky bite. Miraculous! Our homely order had been conjured into an exotic dinner for two.

          As we ate, we thought of you, the strangers who understood our tastes so thoroughly. Such incandescence of ginger, subtlety of sesame. Half-a-dozen times we toasted you with our hot tea and wished you well, wondering if you had packed off our two waxed cups of noodle soup, wishing you could be here to see how much we appreciated your choices.

          Probably, you were disappointed with us. Bland is the word, or predictable. No surprises in our sack for you, just the oriental version of mulligan stew, everything except the back-lot dandelions. You would laugh to know we wonder every time how the cook keeps the vegetables from going limp in such hot broth. Your talk is probably of some little restaurant in Seattle where they serve a dish the owner refuses to name for fear of losing his secret recipe. Perhaps you've been guessing his ingredients for years.

          We wouldn't blame you if you made a scene, accustomed as you are to the nuance of plum sauce. We thought of you arguing in impeccable Chinese, chastising the manager in a manner both stern and polite, a mixture you perfected as diplomats working for the British Foreign Office. Rather than wait for your true order to be prepared, you probably went home and made your own, starting with rice flour, flourishing all your culinary skills to create something stunning enough to purge the thought of us and our sack spotted with slopped out soup.

          Meanwhile, we grew happier with each bite, our routine lives transformed by chance. Knowing we could never replicate the meal made it that much more delectable, like eating an original work of art. Even if, by trial and error, we could name the dishes in the months to come, the moment itself would be gone, the giddiness of receiving an unexpected blessing. In any case, we could never order such things for ourselves. We needed you.

          Please don't be angry when I tell you that we phoned in noodles again this week, at exactly the same time, hoping for another mix-up. For a while, we couldn't open the bag, stood anticipating the unimaginable. Then, there was our soup, which we dumped into twin bowls and ate at the end of a weary day, trying to be content being who we are, thinking of you.

Job Interview at the Glass Factory

          List the ways to disassemble a pane of glass. Tell which tools you might use. Is a brick a tool? Is a diamond? Does it matter that the procedure, regardless of the tool, is irreversible? Is it better, then, to do it quickly or to take your time? Does it bother you that there are no other options? Do you find a hidden agenda in these questions?

          Have you ever shattered a window by accident? On purpose? If you were locked out of your own house, would you smash one to get in or call a locksmith? If you have broken a window, did you think of the fragments as pieces or parts? What did you do with the pieces or parts?

          Does the sound of falling glass remind you of anything? Little bells? Tense laughter? Something else that flew apart? Standing amid the slivers, are you inclined to (a) blame yourself, (b) blame someone else, (c) think of it as bad luck, (d) think of it as fate? Are you still focusing on glass, or is your mind wandering?

          If you cut yourself on one of the pieces/parts, would you spontaneously put your finger into your mouth? How soon would you look at the wound? Would you prefer to hand your hand to someone else? Do you find a satisfying wholeness in the relationship between pane and pain?

          Consider two unshattered windows in an abandoned house. The house is far out in the country and no one is around--just you and a ditch filled with stones. Would you aim for both of the windows? How many throws would you permit yourself before giving up? Would you imagine a line you could not cross when throwing? Are the rules clear to you or do you make them up as you go?

          At any time, during this interview, has glass made you think of sand? If so, did you envision an hourglass? How many grains in a minute? How many minutes in a single pane of glass? Develop a simple equation and convert your age to glass. Do you really think you would fare better with an ink-blot test? What if all the shapes are merely splatters on a windshield?

          Do you regard "looking glass" as an old-fashioned term? If you look in the glass just before smashing it, whose face do you see? Is it your own face looking back or another face looking out? Can you imagine any circumstances under which they could be the same face? Given the choice, whose face would you put beneath the brick?

          Does it bother you that the smallest chip of a mirror gives back a whole reflection, that every chip repeats the whole, as if the world were infinite? Are you unhappy that the space remains where a window was and opens to the same view? That the only way to remove the space is to go away?

          If you and a pane of glass leave town at the same time, traveling in opposite directions, how many miles apart will you be when one of you breaks? How long have you had this obsession with glass, this compulsion to break things?

Neal Bowers is the author of  Loose Ends: A Novel. Other books include Out of the South and Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist. The recipient of the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, he lives in Ames, Iowa, with his wife, Nancy.