The house should have meant nothing to me. She shouldn’t have mattered to me at all.
I had no real connection to her. Unless you count the hours I spent looking at the real estate listing photos during the 18 months she was for sale, and I think we can agree that this does not constitute a relationship. What this constitutes is what could best be described as stalking. It’s true that I had become smitten–maybe even obsessed–with her along the way: her age, her beauty, her history, her discretion. I had begun to believe–as stalkers sometimes do–that we did have something of a relationship, that we were, sort of, friends. That I could and should prevent–or at least warn her about–what was ahead.
It’s not like I was going to buy her or anything; it wasn’t like that. Her price was so exorbitant that even in a beach town flush with exorbitant prices, hers was astronomical. Her millions-and-millions price tag was far beyond what even she and her DuPont ties and graceful 1920s curves and shingled self-possession could command, Even for her, the price didn’t make financial sense; even for her, it was way too much.
This is how I knew she was doomed.
For she had been priced not for her established loveliness, not for the warm way she elled around a corner and welcomed you onto a square patio from a covered porch. Not for her swinging wooden gates and swimming pool and meandering brick garden paths, nor for the way her thick screened doors, as wide as your arms could reach, allowed you to look all the way through her to the dunes which kept her company. Not for the private dock on the lake where you could watch the ospreys return with their dinner or a heron take flight shadowed by the setting sun. Not even for the private ocean view, for the sweetness of a small and weathered gate just beyond the patio, right at the peak of the grassy dunes. Not even for the tony roaring-20s parties she had hosted, the celebrities she had known, the affairs she was rumored to have hidden within her walls.
No, she was priced for the land on which she sat—almost an acre of waterfront in a town of quarter-acre lots, on a strip of land between the ocean and the freshwater lake which sits impossibly close to it. Her land could be subdivided, developed and profited from, if only she would give up her ghost. The ghost of her gardens, of the paths that wandered between them, and of the walls that kept them all to herself. Everything would all be fine, if only she would get out of the way.
The listing photos had revealed a vibrant version of her, images of rich decor and elegant living, and for a while, I visited them almost daily, swooning at the wide plank floors, the painted paneling and oil paintings, the gravitas of an old-money beach retreat. I Google’d her again and again, typing in “Shell House”, or her maiden name, “Carpenter House,” and finding articles mostly about her sale—the “most expensive house for sale in Delaware”, a “Rehoboth house with DuPont roots”, an “acre of beachfront”—but sometimes about her past—photos of a charity event held on her patio, a society-page account of a family wedding reception. One article even included an oil painting of the house in her youth, from a time when she stood alone, the only house south of the boardwalk.
By definition, I guess, the constant research and captivating articles were gateway drugs to what happened next, which was that I found myself–literally–in her gateways. The first hit is always the best, I understand, and I believe it; I will never forget the first-time thrill of pushing the gate on the lane near the realtor sign and finding it unlocked; I was on the other side of it in no time, alone with her inside the fence. In time, as I got to know her better–as I got hooked–things escalated: I got bolder, I took more chances. I started using the nearly-hidden gate on her other side; my arms scratched with track marks from the brambles there that hid me from view, making me less likely to get caught. Sometimes I even tried to get my friends hooked, bringing them by to take in her majesty, see how amazing she was.
When the salvage guys started showing up, I knew we didn’t have much time.
But it was clear from the start of these illicit visits that something had happened since the listing photos; it was like the life had gone out of her. It seemed like no one ever came by to see her, and I wondered if and how everyone she’d loved her had given up on her. I wondered how things could have grown so sadly neglected in slightly more than a year since the pictures. The grounds, neatly manicured grounds in the picture, had become wildly overgrown. Through the wavy-paned windows you could see that the house was the only thing worse than empty, which was littered with oddly recent household items and baby things and board games scattered on the floor. Riddled with odd collections of personal items no one had bothered to collect.
I was worried when the cobblestones in front of the garage were collected. When her verdigris copper lights were removed and the wires left exposed, when paths that had been brick the week before became only sand and windows and doors were stacked in the backs of pickups, I knew the end was near. Eager–as stalkers often are– for even a piece of her, I tried to find out where the salvage was headed; I thought maybe I could buy something to remember her by, a memento of our time together. Approaching the open front door one day last week, I was greeted by a staircase with the banister and gracefully carved stair skirts in the process of being removed. “Hello?” I called into the open door, and listened carefully for a long time, but there was no response.
As is so often the case at the end of days, I had gotten busy this week, and I kind of forgot about her for a minute. I was walking on the beach this morning, thinking of other things, when I heard a strange sound that didn’t make sense; it was entirely out of place on a beach walk. It was pretty loud, and sounded like a train coming off the tracks, a grinding metal-on-metal groan. Even still, I didn’t think of her exactly; I just looked in the direction from which the sound had come.
At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Blue sky in a place there shouldn’t be blue sky. The old house. Something was wrong. Something was different—missing—between the chimneys. Blue sky. And then the sound once again, the awful screech and groan. A giant, ominous arm with a toothed bucket, rising into that same part of blue sky, cruelly presenting wood beams that looked like splinters like a cat presenting a dead mouse. It was her, and her whole middle was gone. From a horrible, fatal gash in her side, a single white curtain waved. Surrender. She was gone.
I didn’t even really know her. She didn’t belong to me or my family; I didn’t summer there, or even ever visit, not legally anyway. I can’t say that I remember when she was the only house south of the boardwalk.
But I do know that she was once beautiful and vibrant and that always she was lovely; they do not make them like her anymore. I know that she had been damaged by storms, but she had survived, and if you looked past her wood rot and her water lines and the broken parts of her that were most obvious, you could see her windows with wavy glass and chunky muntins, Dutch door hardware that swung down to let in ocean breezes. The kind of turned, beautiful woodwork that no one bothers to do anymore. You could see that she had been built a hundred years ago, and had seen the Roaring Twenties when the twenties were a party and everything up to when they returned, even when they were a pandemic. For these and so many reasons, I thought–I hoped–that she was worth saving.
I didn’t really know her but I did love her, in my own pathetic, stalking way. I admired her standing and her old-school elegance and her classy looks and her discretion so much that it became worth it to me—to me, a first-child rule follower and bona fide scaredy cat—to trespass and to risk getting in some trouble, just to see her one more time. To honor her and to take her picture. To make sure she is remembered when the new houses go up, the ones that haven’t been through anything, haven’t seen anything yet, haven’t survived anything yet. The ones that are like all the rest.
In the end, all I could do was bear witness to her, and to all she had been, when she was the Shell House.