Alan Gerstle ~ The Paradoxical House

When you’re desperate for money, money becomes an obsession. You’re walking downtown. You notice a pedestrian. You imagine how much money might be in his wallet. Or the woman with the sable fur coat. What’s in her purse? You see the gold glint of a wristwatch. Flashes of bracelets. How much could you get for them? You pass a bank, and think, “Could I pull off a robbery?” You peer into a jewelry shop. As the clerk rings up a sale, you conjure ways to clean out the cash register. You check for a security camera, signs of an alarm system. You consider whether you could smash in his head and run.

It was dusk.  Summer.  A small-boned man with slick black hair sat beside me on a bench by the park. What seemed to be a dark blue suit was a jacket and pants, colors a tad mismatched.   

“Good evening,” he said. His accent was odd. He spoke staring straight ahead, as blind men often do. He told of a far-fetched plan to acquire a horde of valuable coins. If he couldn’t see, I wondered how he could detect I’d be interested, or be confident I wouldn’t report him. He told me all I needed to know, including where to go and when. He scribbled the pertinent information in pencil on a piece of paper he pulled from a pocket. I would wait till night as he advised.

I had never been in that part of town. I didn’t recognize any landmarks. The air itself felt alien. Few people walked its streets, and there were fewer streetlamps to make things visible. As. I walked, packs of wild dogs paced where the road and sidewalk met.

The number on the dimly lit house indicated I had arrived. Strands of ivy hugged its stucco façade. I approached the door, turned the tarnished doorknob, and pushed. The door opened easily. Once inside, I faced a long hallway.

Mirrors lined the walls, but there were no reflections. Above was a vaulted ceiling where workers sealed cracks and fissures. They laughed and sang while clumps of dry plaster fell and disintegrated into powder as they hit the white-tiled floor. I reached a marble staircase, and climbed its steps, but my soles and heels left no traces of dust. On the second landing, a sign hovered in air: You are on the ground floor.

I was perplexed, but the blind man—I believe he was blind–had said to expect the unexpected.  Identical doors lined either side of a vestibule. I heard a metallic sound like someone throwing coins. The clamor came from a room to my right. I approached, and placed my ear against the door. I opened it. Inside, there was a queen in a white gown and golden crown, and rubies threaded through her hair. She was blowing bubbles.

“Where are the coins?” I said.

“Not here,” she said. And like many whose apparent wealth gives them privilege, she ignored me, took the plastic hoop she held, and dipped it in a sudsy bottle. With a narrow, steady stream of air, she blew through the loop.

I left the room, closing the door behind me. Out in the hall, I heard the sound of crickets. The chirping came from behind the opposite wall. I turned and walked across the corridor, and stood before the second door. I turned the knob, and marched in, but was blinded by a tower of glistening coins. On the far side of the room, sat an old man dimly lit by a lantern. He was pressing a tinny green toy between his fingers. He did me the courtesy of looking up.

“These coins are for you,” the old man said, pointing to the gleaming stack, answering my question before I could ask. Then he laughed.

“But first,” he said, you must ask me two riddles about this house.  

It seemed an impossible task, but oddly, the first seemed to glide into my mind. So I spoke.

“Why are things not as they seem?” I said

“That’s right,” the old man said. “And the second?”  At that, the old man returned to clicking his toy, indifferent to my response. The second riddle came as easily as the first.

“Why must you be in the right place at the right time?” I said.

“That’s right. The coins are yours.”  The man turned away from me entirely.

I walked towards the coins. They were brilliant, nearly blinding. I reached out to touch them, but froze in place. I struggled so hard to move that my hands began to shake. My fingers seemed to glide right through the metal as though the coins were simply beams of light. I turned to the old man but he had turned into a little girl with melancholy eyes.

I approached to console her when she held out her palm to reveal several gold coins that resembled those in the stack. I extended my arm and plucked one from her hand. I held it between my forefinger and thumb. It was palpable and real. Its hardness and heft convinced me it was valuable. Mesmerized by their apparent value, I hadn’t noticed the girl was transfixed by my every move. She had grown more sullen. I returned the coin to her, turned and closed the door behind me. Out in the hall, I stared at the door I had just shut.

I proceeded down the hall to the staircase. The floating sign had vanished. I stared at the descending steps. I saw powdered footprints left by my shoes. They pointed towards me. As I sprinted down the marble stairs, the sound of crickets grew louder, so loud I held my hands to my ears. I ran past the chattering workers, dodged the falling plaster, and managed to leave the house unscathed. I left that place and swore never to come back.

Alan Gerstle has published much short fiction in print and online journals. Some of these include Chicago Literati, Literally Stories, Halfway Down the Stairs, St. Ann’s Review, and The Scarlet Leaf Review. He has also published poetry and essays.  He received a Ph.D. from New York University and lives on the East Coast of the United States.

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