The House with the Koi Pond
Bethany C. Gotschall
“Take the job,” my mom says, “or move out.”
For once she refrains from adding I told you that degree was worthless. When I got the scholarship, she thought she’d have a lawyer or a doctor or an investment banker for a daughter. Instead, she’s stuck with an artist who’s sent out resume after resume with no reply.
“I’ll find something,” I say, but my mom shakes her head.
“Take it,” she repeats. “I’m tired of you freeloading.”
“Mom, come on…”
“I called in a favor with Joyce.” She narrows her eyes at me. “She says there might be something after the holidays. Take it, and don’t make me look bad.”
Two days later I’m shivering with my fellow trainees in the middle of a warehouse full of trucks and boxes. Joyce’s favor has landed me a position as jumper at Zippy’s Delivery Service, the local package delivery company. On paper we're Seasonal Home Delivery Driver Assistants, but everyone calls us jumpers. Because when your driver says jump, you do.
Only one other jumper is anywhere close to my own age—Marc, a fellow unemployed recent grad with thick black glasses and short dreadlocks—and we gravitate towards each other when we have to partner up for team-building exercises.
At the end of the day, the trainers hand out uniforms. We shuffle into line as the drivers begin to trickle in from the cold. A few give us a nod as they walk towards the time clock, but most trudge past without looking. Ahead of me, Marc shakes his head as he examines the plain blue sweatshirt and nondescript black pants he’s been handed. It looks nothing at all like what the drivers wear.
“High fashion here,” he says as he shakes out the wrinkles. “I will be truly disappointed when I have to give this outfit back.”
I snort back a laugh.
“Well, you can keep the hat,” says the supervisor, handing us both one from a battered box full of blue cotton beanies. Each is emblazoned with the company’s logo: a leaping white carp in the shape of a Z above small block letters spelling out Zippy’s Delivery Service.
Marc rolls his eyes, but jams it on his head anyway. I pull on my own beanie and the thick cloth sends static crackling through my hair. When I hold the sweatshirt up to my chest it hangs down nearly to my knees. I’ll look like someone’s kid sister wearing hand-me-downs, not a company’s paid employee. I say as much to Marc and he pats my shoulder.
“Hey, better than nothing, right?” he says.
“I can wear layers when it’s cold,” I say, with a sigh.
“Some uniform,” Marc snorts.
Three days after that I’m assigned to my first driver: Roger. Roger is in his forties, with thinning mouse-brown hair and a graying mustache that would look the right size on a walrus, but does not at all seem small enough for a human. When I meet him in the parking lot, he looks me up and down and says, instead of hello, “Good. Get in,” then jabs a thumb over his shoulder towards the rickety jumper’s seat on the passenger side of the truck.
All day he hands me box after box from the stacks in the back of the truck, points to one side of the street or the other, and says nothing else until we’re back at Zippy’s that evening, when he adds, “You’ll do fine. I’m going to request you again tomorrow.”
He does, and the next day as well. After that the manager who makes the daily assignments says, “Just keep showing up for Roger, you’re with him through Christmas Eve,” and stops calling me each morning.
Roger’s route runs through one of the wealthiest suburbs in the area, home to swaths of gated communities with tony red brick McMansions lining winding streets. The neighborhoods sound as though they’ve been named after candle scents–Windy Pine, Sycamore Breeze, Oakwood Green, Misty Hills—and with the Christmas lights they look straight out of a holiday movie.
On my sixth day with Roger we end the route at one of the largest house in Misty Hills. Roger drops me off at a cul-de-sac and waits in the truck as I haul three heavy boxes up a steep flight of gray slate steps. I’m impressed by the house when it looms over me from the street. I’m more impressed when I reach the top and see a secret feature invisible from below: a long curving pool of water that frames the porch like a moat circling a castle, with a little footbridge to cross it.
It’s the kind of house my mother imagines me living in, claimed with all the money my fancy degree will bring.
As I stand on the bridge I look down at the water and see a flicker of movement. Bubbles rise to the surface as two shiny orange and white carp, the large kind called koi, peek up. Their fleshy lips nibble at the air as I step off the bridge onto the porch, but as I ring the doorbell and set the packages down they dart back down into the shadowy depths and don’t come up again.
“How do you think they keep those fish alive all winter?” I ask Roger when I swing back into the jumper’s seat. He shifts into drive and pulls out of the cul-de-sac.
“Wasting money, that’s how,” he says, and snaps open a Red Bull. Roger drinks at least four Red Bulls a day. Five if we’re out past dark. “Because they can.”
“It’s kind of a weird thing to have in your yard,” I say.
“They’re weird people,” he says.
“Just because they’ve got a fake pond in their yard?”
“This whole neighborhood is full of people who won’t answer the door when people like us ring the bell,” he says, the longest sentence I have yet heard him say. He gulps down the rest of his Red Bull and crumples the can in his fist. “But you ring it anyway.”
He’s right. No one ever comes to the door in Misty Hills, not at the house with the koi pond or any other. But I do as Roger says. And when we visit the largest house I nod to the fish as they swim silently from one end of the pool to the other.
The morning of Christmas Eve is my last day as a jumper, and my mom’s friend Joyce tells me to come see her before I go out on my route. In her wood-paneled office, a cramped and dingy little room behind the warehouse that smells like burnt coffee and manila folders, she shoves a piece of paper at me. “There. HR assistant opening,” Joyce says, tapping her index finger on the desk.
“I don’t really know anything about HR,” I say.
“You’ll learn,” Joyce says. She cocks an eyebrow at me. “Art degree, right?”
I feel my cheeks reddening, and say, “It’s tough for any major right now.”
She shrugs. “Well, it’s something,” she says. “If Roger gives you a good referral, you’re in.”
Marc is in the parking lot when I go back outside to wait for Roger. “You’re still swimming in that thing,” he says, tugging at the edge of my sweatshirt.
“Today I managed six layers,” I say. “A personal best. How’s it going?”
“Had a job interview!” he says. “They’re supposed to call me back today.”
“That’s great,” I say. “I might have something too,” and I tell him about Joyce and the HR job. “As long as Roger says I’m good,” I add.
“Think good thoughts for me,” he says. “I’ll do the same for you.”
Roger’s truck pulls up next to us. The horn blares.
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed!” I shout, swinging up into the jumper’s seat, and Marc waves back as he runs across the slush towards his own driver.
On Christmas Eve there are so many packages to deliver that Roger is past his usual fifth and onto a sixth Red Bull by the time we make it to Misty Hills.
“I want you to do something different today,” says Roger when we come to the house with the koi pond. “Don’t ring the doorbell.”
There is something funny and halting in his tone and I pause.
“Just go with me. Let’s try an experiment. Don’t ring the doorbell, and leave your hat here.”
“You told me to always ring it.”
“Don’t ring the doorbell, and leave your hat here,” repeats Roger. When I don’t move, he says, “And get a great referral.” He shrugs. “Or not. Your choice.”
I look up at the house, dark and imposing above the cul-de-sac, and back down at Roger. He just jerks his head back towards the stack of boxes, hands gripping the steering wheel, and when I don’t move he thumps his fist on the dash.
“Okay,” I say. “Fine. It’s fine.”
I pull the beanie off, slowly, and leave it on the jumper seat, take the packages–three today, though thankfully all relatively light–and climb up the stairs towards the house.
I shiver as the wind sends strands of my hair whipping across my cheek. Soggy lumps of snow zip through the air, clotting together on my blue sweatshirt. It’s too dark to see the koi. The only light comes from the streetlights on the cul-de-sac below; there is no light from the house. I put the packages down in their usual spot, bending to stack the two smaller ones on top of the third and push them up against the door so they’ll stay dry.
I have to stop my hand as it moves up towards the doorbell. I think about ringing it anyway. My mom’s voice echoes in my ears–Take the job, or move out–and I stay crouched there on the porch for a long, uncertain moment. When I stand up at last I take one step backwards, staring into the darkness where the doorbell button is, and slip on the slick stone.
My foot hits the boxes, sending them scuttling away from the door, and I crash down against the end of the footbridge with a thud. There is a splutter and a splash from the water below–the koi, diving back into the depths–and then the door opens.
“Hands off!” someone bellows, and a sudden light from the front hall floods out onto the porch.
I freeze, one hand on the bridge and the other thrown up in front of me, as my eyes adjust.
The man standing over me is about Roger’s age, with a salt-and-pepper beard, polo shirt under a V-neck sweater, and brown slacks. He looks like the kind of father you’d see in a television sitcom from fifty years ago. His ordinariness makes it all the more terrifying that in his hand, pointed directly at my face, is the barrel of a shiny black handgun.
I yelp, “I’m from Zippy’s, I’m from Zippy’s!” and I grab for the beanie with its embroidered Z logo, but there is only a snarl of wind-blown hair.
“There’s the truck!” I say, blinking back tears. I keep my hands up, not daring to point down to the street. “I’ve been here every day with your stuff on that truck!”
He looks past me and shakes his head. “Every fucking Christmas,” he says, and lets out a long sigh. “You know as well as I do there’s no damn truck down there,” he growls, and I crane my neck around to see that Roger and the truck are gone, the cul-de-sac empty but for the drifts of snow piling up in the gutters.
“Lots of thugs in this area around this time of year,” the man says, and pushes one of the packages through the front door with his foot. “Stealing. Pretending they’re delivering it. You don’t think we talk to our neighbors? We know your game.” He narrows his eyes at me. “You don’t look like the type of person who should be out doing shit like this.”
Through all this the gun stays fixed on me as I tremble in my too-large sweatshirt.
At last he lowers it.
“I won’t call the cops this time. Get out of here. Tell your buddies to stay out of this neighborhood.”
I don’t hesitate, I don’t ask questions, I just leap up and scramble down the stairs and keep running until I’m out of the cul-de-sac and onto the next street, when I hear someone calling my name. There’s Roger, parked in the shadows between two streetlights, leaning out of the truck and waving.
I turn away. But the truck’s engine revs and a minute later he pulls up beside me with the passenger-side door open, one hand on the wheel and the other holding out my blue Zippy’s hat.
Without a word I swing up the steps onto the jumper’s seat, snatch the hat out of his hands, and sit down with my arms crossed over my chest.
We have a few deliveries left, but Roger does them. I sit in the truck and wait for him, the blue hat clenched in my hand.
In the Zippy’s parking lot he turns off the engine, but does not open the door.
“Last year my jumper forgot his hat,” he says, “while we were in Misty Hills. Someone called the cops. Saw him out the window, walking down the driveway with packages in his arms.” Roger rubs his face with his hands. “I’d gone down to the next block to save time. Left him deliveries for a couple of houses. He was a lot bigger than you, could carry more at a time.” He snorts. “They thought he was stealing them.”
“You couldn’t just explain?” My voice squeaks, and cracks on the last syllable.
Roger gives me a look that manages to be both pitying and disgusted at the same time. “You think they care about an explanation?” He smacks his hand on the steering wheel.
Outside, the other jumpers and drivers move from trucks to cars on their way home. I see Marc, moving towards his car. Roger sees him too.
“My jumper looked like your friend there,” he says. “Misty Hills doesn’t have any black people. They see someone like him, they get suspicious and there’s no telling them otherwise. The cops tell them they’re actually delivery guys and they don’t care.”
Marc looks up, sees me in the truck, and starts in our direction.
“I can’t use jumpers like him,” says Roger, his voice flat. “One warm day not wearing that”–he points at the hat in my hands– “maybe even one late night where they can’t see the logo... well.”
He reaches over and pats my shoulder. “But you were fine. You were just fine. He let you go. He didn’t call anyone.”
“He didn’t have to,” I say. “He had a gun.”
Roger’s eyes widen. But he only says, “You were fine,” once more.
Marc stands in front of the truck texting, the falling snow swirling around him in the beam of the headlights. It’s fluffier now, lighter and not as wet.
Roger adds, “You got my referral, kid.” His mustache twitches back and forth. I’ve forgotten all about the job until that moment. “HR, right?” He stabs a finger at Marc. “You can hire the right people.”
“The right people,” I repeat, slowly.
Roger nods, his mustache still twitching. “Now that you know how it is.”
I hear my mom’s voice again--it’s a job, Sarah, just get your foot in the door—and I look down at the beanie in my hands.
Roger gazes at me, calmer now, the red in his cheeks fading away as I am silent.
“Fuck you,” I say, and throw the beanie at him as hard as I can.
Roger lets it hit his shoulder, lets it slide down his arm to lay on the floor of the cab, where it begins to darken, soaking up the salt and snow left over from days of tromping up and down the driveways of Misty Hills.
“Hey!” Marc says as I wrench open the door. “I got the job! I start first week of January!” He pulls his hat off and stuffs it in his pocket. “Won’t need this next year. What about you? Get your good review?”
“No,” I say. “It’s not going to work out. But it’s okay.”
And suddenly, it is. I know exactly how it’ll go. Tomorrow I’ll throw clothes into boxes, call friends with a couch to sleep on, ignore my mother watching me from the doorway. Neither of us will bother to open any of the presents under the tree, and both of us will let out a long, relieved breath once I step onto the front porch and shut the door behind me.
Tonight Marc grips my shoulder, returns my smile. The lamps bathe the parking lot around us with a golden glow, diffused to softness by the falling snow. Roger’s truck starts up behind us, and I look back over my shoulder. For an instant I see his face, his mustache catching the orange light through the windshield of the truck. Then the truck turns and he vanishes into the night, like the koi fish disappearing into the darkness of their pond.
About the Author: Bethany C. Gotschall is a writer and illustrator based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Front Porch Review, Short Fiction Break, Wordhaus, and Cleveland Art Magazine. Trained as an art historian, she also has a background in museum education and interpretation. Find out more at bcgotschall.com.