Shell House

The house should have meant nothing to me. She shouldn’t have mattered to me at all.

It wasn’t like I had any 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 all agree that, technically, this does not constitute a relationship. That this is what we call stalking.

It’s true that I had become smitten—OK, fine, a little obsessed—with her along the way: her age, her beauty, her history, her discretion. I had begun to believe, as the most delusional of stalkers do, that we had something of a relationship. That we were, sort of, friends. That I could and should prevent—or, at the very least, warn her about—what was ahead.

It wasn’t 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 notable, astronomical, the subject of articles in the paper. Her millions-and-millions price tag was far beyond what even she and her DuPont ties, her graceful 1920s curves, her shingled self-possession could command. Even for my muse, the price didn’t make financial sense. Even for her, it was way too much.

And that 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 screened doors, as wide as my arms could reach, allowed you to look all the way through her to the dunes at her side. Not for the private dock on the lake where you could watch the ospreys return with their dinner and the herons take flight, shadowed by the setting sun. Not for the private ocean view, for the sweetness of a small and weathered gate, just beyond the patio, 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, and kept secret outside of them.

No, she was priced only 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 ghosts. Ghosts of her gardens, of the paths and people that wandered between them, of the walls that kept them all to herself.

Everything would 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 and aged antiques, the painted paneling and oil paintings, the gravitas of an old-money beach retreat. Again and again, I Google’d her, typing in “Shell House”, or her maiden name, “Carpenter House.” I found a few 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, too—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 was the only house south of the mile-long boardwalk.

By definition, I guess, the constant research and captivating articles were gateway drugs to what happened next, which was that I found myself, quite literally, in her gateways. The first hit is always the best, I understand, and don’t I know it: I will never forget the first-time thrill of pushing the gate on the lane near the realtor sign and finding it unlocked. In no time, I was on the other side of it, alone with her inside the fence; predictably, 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 long track marks from the brambles there that hid me from view, that made me less likely to get caught. Sometimes I even tried to get my friends hooked, bringing them by to take in her majesty, to see how amazing she was.

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. 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 listing; how the grounds, neatly manicured in the picture, could have become so 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.

When the salvage guys started showing up, I knew we didn’t have much time. One day I arrived to find the cobblestones in front of the garage had been taken up; on another, her verdigris copper lanterns were missing, too, the wires left dangerously exposed. Paths that had been brick turned to sand, and when I saw her wavy-glassed windows and doors stacked in the backs of pickups, I knew the end was near. Eager (as stalkers often are) for even a piece of her, I decided to ask one of the guys where the salvage was headed; I thought maybe I could buy something to remember her by, a memento of our time together. But when I approached the open front door, I was greeted only by silence and a bashful staircase, its banister and gracefully carved stair skirts half-removed. “Hello?” I called into the open door, listening carefully—hopefully— for a long time. But there was never any answer.

I got busy this week, and had kind of forgotten about her, forgotten to check on her or even to worry about how she was faring. I was walking on the beach this morning, thinking of other things, when I heard a strange sound entirely out of place. It was loud and sounded like a train coming off the tracks, an ominous metal-on-metal groan. Still, I wasn’t thinking of her, exactly, when I looked her way; I was just turning in the direction from which the sound had come.

My brain scrambled clumsily, trying to sort the information coming in. The old house. Something wrong. If anyone had been with me, I would have grabbed their arm and asked, in the panicky way that does not even allow for an answer, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” But I was alone, so all I could do was stand and gape, trying to figure out why something seemed to be missing between her chimneys, why there was blue sky. What was wrong, what was out of place. The sound again, the awful screech and groan, and then a giant arm with a toothed bucket, rising into that same part of blue sky, cruelly presenting, like a cat with a dead mouse, huge clutches of splintered parts of her in its teeth.

It was the Shell House. Her whole middle, between the chimneys, was missing, and from a horrible, fatal gash in her side, a single white curtain waved in surrender. She was, I knew—in the way you know such things—already gone.

I didn’t even know her all that well; not really. She didn’t belong to me or to my family. I didn’t summer there, or even visit, not legally anyway. I can’t even say I remember when she was the only house south of the boardwalk.

But I loved 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, to risk getting in some trouble, 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, seen anything, survived anything. The ones that are like all the rest.

In the end, it was all I could do to bear witness: to her, and to how much I loved her, and to all she had been. When she was the Shell House.