AWAY, HOME, and PARTY—Clark Humphrey
The Lowells and the Stewarts moved in to the adjoining houses at nearly the same time, after Hugh Lowell and Eric Stewart were both transferred to this town by their mutual employer, a mutual insurance company.
Technically, Hugh was the new regional manager and Eric was his trusted underling. But they operated more like equal partners, a two-man firm nested within a national underwriter.
And it wasn’t just on the job. They and their wives did EVERYTHING together. The same restaurant meals. The same double dates on the town. The same summer vacations to Paris or the Grand Canyon.
At first their neighbors and colleagues teased them as being the local Ricardos and Mertzes.
Or the local Kramdens and Nortons.
Or the local Flintstones and Rubbles.
Then in 1972, during a banquet at a corporate retreat, a work colleague of Hugh and Eric called them and their wives the local answer to “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.”
When the room turned around en masse to look at them, the couples gave up some nervous little giggles. They had never been anything in public but two faithful pairs. They had never publicly said nor done anything to suggest otherwise. What were these people in this room thinking? The Stewarts and Lowells became even more private, only talking strictly about business for the rest of the weekend.
Then in 1979, Kim Lowell had what turned out to be a fatal heart attack. The police found her in the Stewarts’ master bedroom. They were rumored to have found some of Hugh Lowell’s belongings in there too.
A few years after that, Eric and Hugh retired, within the same month. They and Nancy Stewart retired to New Mexico. The two couples’ ashes are now interred in adjoining niches at a local cemetery. Some townspeople continue to spread a rumor that the four sets of ashes were mixed.
Nobody knew for sure what their private lives were really like.
Until the newest owners of the Stewarts’ house found something in the basement.
It was a false wall.
The new occupants, Lily Snyder and Noah Shea, found it when they had the furnace replaced.
In bed the night after they discovered the false wall, Lily and Noah speculated on what might be behind it. It could be somebody’s old drug stash. It could be weapons. It could be what ever wasn’t in Al Capone’s vault.
All they knew for sure was they couldn’t smell anything from the other side of the fake wall, probably ruling out the presence of any dead bodies.
Lily and Noah played out little fantasy scenarios. They were a 1920s gangster and his moll. They were student archeologists trapped in a cave together. They were the king and queen of a heretofore secret underground empire. Lily liked that one the best, because she got to be the all powerful matriarch of a matrilineal pagan realm, thoroughly serviced by her subservient prince consort.
The next morning it was back to the realm of brute force. Crowbars. Pick axes. Big plastic buckets to hold the shards of sheetrock.
Noah got the first peephole sized breach. All he saw, he told Lily, was “a lot of dark.”
Once enough of a hole was made to stick a flashlight into, they saw a darkened space, with somebody’s old forgotten personal effects.
When they crowbarred enough of a hole to climb through, they found the room went on longer than it ought to. It became a passageway under the easement between their home and the old Lowell home, ending at another false wall.
From the other end of that wall, Lily and Noah could hear their neighbors Lisa and Simon Holden. They’d obviously heard the banging and had come down to inspect. The Holdens knocked on the their side of their fake wall.
“It’s just us,” Lily shouted into the 2 x 4s that now solely separated the basements. She told a short version of the secret room story, and invited the Holdens over to see for themselves.
Ten minutes later, the four of them were in the long, narrow room. The space was musty and stale-aired from its decades of isolation. They were newly equipped with full coffee mugs and emptying beer bottles. Simon mounted a “trouble light” on a ceiling rafter; it illuminated the space with a harsh yellow hue.
One long wall inexplicably bore old wallpaper in a kitschy rose blossom pattern. The other long wall was naked concrete brick, behind rough wood-plank shelving. The four female and four male hands grabbed onto some of the forgotten belongings on these shelves. The two female and two male mouths blew accumulated dust and sheetrock particles off of these objects of observation.
What they found, over the course of the next half hour:
• Mostly-empty paint and varnish cans.
• Stacks of mid-century magazines; including Sunset, Playboy, Life, Better Homes and Gardens, Holiday, insurance trade journals, and some of the first Hustlers.
• Household knickknacks and tchotchkes. Ugly butter dishes and collector plates. A framed embroidery of the phrase “[house symbol] IS WHERE THE [heart symbol] IS.”
• Boxed Christmas decorations.
• Cardboard cartons containing old receipts, tax returns, and mortgage documents.
• Plaques honoring either Eric Stewart or Hugh Lowell as an insurance company’s regional or national salesman or manager of a particular year.
• Three boxes of costume pieces, unsorted. Shoes, hats, domino masks, capes, robes, togas, kimonos, tuxes, shawls, imitation-silk scarves, a belly dancer’s suit.
• Two thick photo albums, with Dymo Labelmaker type titling them as AWAY and HOME.
While the Holdens entertained themselves with the costumes, trying on the accessories and holding the garments in front of them, Lily and Noah pored through the old photos.
Both albums held pictures date-stamped or captioned between 1957 and 1981; some looked like they could be slightly older.
The AWAY book held pictures shot at major tourist attractions, in North America and overseas.
The HOME book held pictures shot in and around the Lily/Noah house, the Lisa/Simon house, around the town, and at hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs.
The pictures all depicted the same four people. Either the four as a group, or the two women, or the two men, or one woman and both men, or one man and both women, or one of the men or women solo.
But none of them, so far as Lily and Noah could tell on a quick leaf-through, showed just one of the women with just one of the men.
Lily and Noah also noticed, especially in the HOME volume, that virtually every picture that showed two or more of the people showed them gazing at one another as much as to the camera.
What’s more, Lily proclaimed that they looked “like they were all lovers.”
Lisa and Simon put down their party costumes and looked into the HOME book. They saw it too. The just slightly guilty smiles. The relaxed expressions. The doting eyes. The way each of them seemed perfectly comfortable with one another.
Then Lisa found a third photo album, labeled PARTY, at the bottom of the box of costumes.
These pictures displayed the four dressed-up, or undressed-up, in the party costumes already found in the room. The more undressed pictures were all Polaroids. Simon noted that with Polaroids, “nobody had to see your pictures except you. You never had to trust a local photo lab.”
The reason for such discretion became clear the more they delved into these pages. Some of the poses weren’t just naughty. They might have gotten somebody arrested at the time they’d been taken. Every body part was fully shown, alone or in combination with others’ parts. The pictures were mounted on the pages in no apparent order. The four past-day bodies went from young to middle aged and back again, as they engaged in genital, manual, oral, and even anal sex acts. One man with one woman, then with the other woman. The women with one another. All four together.
The first of the present-day four to admit discomfort was Noah. He made up an excuse about needing to head upstairs for some more beers. At Lisa’s silent prompting, Simon followed him.
Ten minutes later, Simon and Noah descended the stairs. Waiting for them, out of the secret passageway and in the main Lily/Noah basement.
Dressed only in accessories from the costume box.
Lisa wore a Charlie Chaplin hat, a beauty pageant sash, and a fake Hawaiian grass skirt with the plastic blades of grass pulled to either side.
Lily wore a Batgirl cape and mask, the bottom half of the belly dancer suit, and nylons with garters.
Each of the men approached his own mate. The women shook their heads and silently pointed at the men to switch positions.
Once the men were switched, Lily quietly yet assuredly explained the rules. For the rest of this Saturday afternoon. They would re-enact scenes from the Polaroids, in order. “Are you guys willing? It’s your last chance to chicken out. Speak now or forever hold your piece.”
Neither Noah nor Simon budged.
Lisa and Lily turned to one another and smiled.
For they knew they’d rearranged the order of the Polaroids.
And that scene #11 depicted the two men sucking each other off.