It was my wife’s idea to stay at a stranger’s house for the holiday weekend, sleeping in a room just down the hall from them for two nights and eating two breakfasts they cooked for us. Even worse was having them clear the table while offering us more coffee and hovering a few moments to coax compliments for a meal no one has ever seen on a diner’s breakfast menu. Not the best way, I thought, for my wife and I to start over after being separated for nearly a year.
As it turned out, after we didn’t do anything for New Year’s Eve but go to a matinee and eat dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, there was an opportunity, at nine o’clock, for our hosts to offer a tour of the house. My wife was eager. There wasn’t a way for me to say “No,” not without a television in our room and none in sight in the living room.
Once we started in the kitchen with the island large enough to seat four in the middle, the husband excused himself to brush snow flurries from the sidewalks. We were barely into the living room when the wife said, “There used to be a stripper pole here.” She pointed so vaguely that I pictured the pole in several places. The living room was large enough for a dozen poles. When she paused as if silence held that information in the air, I added a stripper to that history, her nearly naked body gripping the pole with her thighs.
“Who lived here then?” my wife said.
“Two pornographers,” the woman said at once. “They filmed here. There’s a movie about them. The Porn Barons. Maybe you’ve seen it on Hulu? A documentary. This room, the whole house for that matter, looks different in the film.”
I started imagining those differences, but the woman, after my wife and I both shook our heads, went on. “They made a fortune, but they ended up in jail. They fought about money and one of them was killed there before their sentences ended. The surviving porn baron is dead, too, natural causes.”
Upstairs, two of the four bedrooms were as large as most living rooms. The phrase “on location” seemed to seep from their walls. From our unobstructed view, the property was perfectly landscaped all the way to the edge of the half-frozen, natural lake. The woman explained that they had remodeled the house for the second time eight years ago. That the change followed only three years after the one they’d had done before they moved in. As if the house needed to be disinfected, I thought, and then, shortly thereafter, they’d discovered an even deeper cleaning was necessary.
The master bedroom sported an enormous flat-screen. The room sprawled so much larger than ours that it comfortably housed an oversized bed, one that could easily support a threesome or perhaps an orgy. The drapes looked so thick that nothing could ever be seen by prowlers. Outside, the world was frigid. The wind, when we’d returned from the restaurant, had been blowing gusts of twenty, even thirty miles per hour, but when she stopped speaking, allowing us to gape, the room was soundless, as if secrets of any kind could be kept.
The husband was waiting when we came back downstairs. “The pole she told you about was right here where I’m standing,” he said at once. “Long gone, but those old movies are still extant.”
My wife smiled like she does when she is making a decision, but I was trying to form a sentence with “extant” somewhere inside it and all I heard was an echo. Those actors, if they were veterans, would have been at ease in the house, the stripper pole an early prop or a feature used at launch parties, maybe even stylized into a logo. Decorated somehow. Sparkling. Reminding audiences of the excitement of earlier films, promising more of the same, but with a freshening twist. For sure, the house was large enough to handle dozens of variations.
At ten-thirty, we shared an early champagne toast with our hosts before slipping between what my wife pointed out were very expensive sheets. “I’ll stay up,” she said. “Just to read.”
I stayed awake doing nothing but wishing to sleep, but she nudged me at five minutes to midnight. “Get dressed,” she said, not asking. She led me through a door to the room’s exclusive balcony. The air was still now, but I was shivering in just the jacket I’d thrown over pajamas. My wife was better prepared in hat and scarf and gloves. “It’s just a minute now,” she said. “It’s been years since this.”
I clutched myself and concentrated on this. Our hosts, both armed now, appeared on a next-door balcony and fired the first of six shots each into the air, the reports, though seconds apart, so close to simultaneous that they must have rehearsed. “She told me,” my wife said, after I kissed her quickly and headed inside. “She offered a rifle, but I said we’d at least be outside to watch.”
The next morning’s meal was called brunch. We were at the table for more than an hour, the food so elaborate and served so late that lunch was out of the question. We had hours to fill before another movie and dinner.
When we returned to our room, the bed was made. Not a surprise, except we both saw right away that the bedspread was different. “Weird,” I said, but it was my wife who noticed that the painting over the bed had been changed as well. “Wow,” I said, and she held that smile of hers for a few seconds.
At last, she said, “It’s like a movie location.”
“Like we’ve been gone a while,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, her hands sliding up under my untucked shirt. “Like something’s changed. Like something different is about to happen.”
Gary Fincke’s new collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published by Pelekinesis Press in 2022. The title story was reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.