The house was a steal, a real ‘blind man finding gold’ moment—that’s what my brother said. It was a fixer upper in the heart of Portland, Oregon, with two working toilets, a radiator, and a large, skinned bear rug glued to the floor. There were other things, too, but those were the most notable.
“It’s crazy, sure,” my brother said, “but so is the real estate market. You have to take advantage.”
I didn’t notice the woman when I first moved in. I didn’t notice her at all until I moved the oven to clean. She had olive oil on her left arm from being stuck to the oven and grime on her right from being stuck against the wall. She toddled out of the crevice, growing taller and wider as she came into a taller and wider space. I wipe down the oven, then wet a second sponge and wipe her down, too.
“I used to live here,” she says.
“Beside the oven?” I say.
Gertrude didn’t offer to help with rent or bills and it felt wrong to ask. She hardly took up any room, squeezing between couch cushions when she was tired, and was just as content in a dark room as a lit one. She wouldn’t eat but didn’t judge my TV dinners, even claiming once that Marie Callender was the second wife in her marriage. All in all, she was as stationary as the fridge; they even shared a low humming.
“We said our vows right over there,” Gertrude says. “Me and my Bill. Right in front of the fireplace.”
“Oh,” I say.
“My mother didn’t want me to marry a plumber on account of the smell,” she continues, “but my father was thrilled. Plumbers make good money, after all. That’s how my Bill and me got this house.”
“In front of the fireplace?” I say.
“There’s no fireplace here.” I look around for one, though I don’t need to.
Gertrude crawls out from beneath the coffee table where she’s been laying and stares across the room at the fireplace-less place.
“Huh. Well, would you look at that?”
“See? No fireplace.”
“Fireplace? Who’s talking about a fireplace?”
“Ack, dumskalle.” Gertrude waves her hand at me. “Always trying to confuse me.”
She crawls back under the table. I turn on the TV and try to ignore the subtitles.
My brother always swore by yoga classes as the best place to meet women. His own marriage was proof of that. Still, when I go to the hot yoga class down the road and end up meeting a woman, I’m surprised. This wasn’t some bargain fixer upper; this was a much more impressive feat. This was a date.
We go to a food truck and sit in Cathedral Park under one of the bridge arches.
“This is my first date in, like, forever,” says Tanya. “Honestly, I hardly ever do stuff like this.”
“Yeah, no, same.” I take a bite of my sushi burrito.
“Do you have pets?” asks Tanya.
“No.” I wonder what single parent has time to go to hot yoga at 2pm on a Tuesday.
I hesitate. Gertrude and I have yet to define our relationship.
“I mean, you have a house in St. John’s,” Tanya continues. “A house like that has got to have its own personality. You don’t even need roommates for entertainment.”
“Yeah.” I try to take a graceful bite of burrito. “It’s definitely full of personality.”
I wonder for weeks why I never mentioned Gertrude. She wasn’t any bother, if you didn’t mind the same four episodes of Columbo, constant wandering, and forgetfulness. Once, I had to remind her to bathe. When I found her an hour later, she’d crawled into the soap dish for her afternoon nap. Gertrude was easy.
“Maybe she’s a ghost,” my brother says. It’s the fourth time he’s visited and the fourth time Gertrude seemingly vanished. “That’s what it is. You’ve got one of those ghosts who’s all confused because the blueprints and floor plans have changed. I read about them.”
“You read something?”
My brother pauses. “Well, I saw it on Reddit. Same difference, brainiac.”
I hear Gertrude chuckle. When I turn toward the epicenter of the laughter, a small, gray lock of hair is sticking out of the floorboards.
“Have you Googled her?” My brother goes on. “Like, the stories she’s telling? Maybe she’s not a ghost, sure, but it’s all a crock of shit instead. Like, she’s a squatter with a fake sob story.”
“The stories are real, man.”
“How do you know?”
Gertrude teaches me how to sew and soon, my jeans are covered in patches. They don’t really match but no one gives a shit in Portland. I ask Gertrude how she and Bill came to live here, out of all places. I know not everyone in Portland is a hipster but it’s still strange to see someone so out of place insisting that this is where they’re meant to be. There’s only a handful of properties in the city under a million and fewer that have both a backyard and two or more bedrooms. It seems like a fever dream to think of raising a family here.
“Bill’s father gave us the down payment,” says Gertrude, “as a wedding gift.”
“How much did the house cost?”
Gertrude shrugs. “We got by. Bill worked days at the lumber mill and nights driving a taxi. You know, we got married just over there.” She points, again, at the corner of the room.
We’re midway through a lazy Saturday; my sweatpants and mid-morning beer are proof of that. In the background, a Columbo marathon goes to commercial and I press the mute button. I watch as the subtitles spell Kombucha wrong four times in thirty seconds.
“And you’ve lived here ever since?” I say.
“Well, where is Bill, then?” I have one eye on the television when it slips out.
She’s never said that he isn’t alive anymore but all of the stories about him fall into past tense. When she’s quiet for longer than usual, I wonder if I’ve made a massive mistake. Columbo comes back on and just before I unmute, Gertrude shakes her head beside me and says, “I can’t remember. He was … he used to live here. I know he did.” She looks back at the corner, her eyes wide and brow furrowed. “So, when he comes looking for me, I’ll be right where he left me.”
“Sure,” I say. Then add, “I’m sorry. That was probably a rude question.”
“Oh, good. Columbo’s back on.”
I start dating Tanya, like actually dating Tanya. I give her a shelf at my place, which she never uses, and she gives me her ring size. It all feels a bit soon for three months but also very grown up. And it’s the perfect excuse to never do hot yoga again. She spends one night a week at my place, though her Instagram is almost exclusively photographs of the St. John’s neighborhood. Her friends assume we’re living together. I have to tempt her with kombucha margaritas to spend the night.
Tanya insists she doesn’t believe in ghosts but I say that doesn’t really matter. Gertrude, after all, isn’t a ghost. Still, the two never ‘see’ one another. When Tanya and I fuck on the couch one night, the television turns on and a Columbo rerun begins to play. Tanya starts to laugh at how dumb this all is. She’s less amused when I move us to the dining room—still sexy and taboo—and makes the valid point that we’re being sexiled by a not-ghost.
Hours later, I peer into the living room and find that Gertrude has unzipped one of the pillows and is nestled inside, still watching the television. I double check that the subtitles are working and leave her be.
I Google Gertrude’s name the day after I meet her. There are zero search results. I don’t tell her.
“We said our vows right over there,” Gertrude hums. “Me and my Bill. Right in front of the fireplace. You know, my mother didn’t want me to marry a plumber. She thought our house would always smell.” She takes a dramatic whiff. Today, she is wrapped around a broom and when she breathes, the bristles move. “But it didn’t smell, not really. And plumbers make good money.”
“Is that how you and Bill got your house?” I shouldn’t interrupt.
Gertrude’s eyes light up. “Exactly.”
“Tanya wants to put candles in this place,” I say. “She says we need seasonal candles so it actually smells like Christmas.”
“Ah, Tanya!” Gertrude waves her hand at me. “I know Tanya. You dumskalle, always trying to confuse me.” She leaves the broom in its corner and makes her way across the floor, toward the fireplace-less place. “Me and my Bill, we said our vows right over—”
and then she falls.
It’s not a normal fall. It’s slow. I know everyone says that about bad moments but this is really, truly slow. She mutters an Åh as she stumbles off kilter and throws out her arms to catch herself. There’s no need. Gertrude never hits the floor. By the time gud has come out of her lips, she has stopped moving entirely, her legs awkwardly bent beneath her, arms still outstretched. I see that her feet have turned into floor planks.
“Ack.” Gertrude tries to pull her feet free. Every time she moves, more of the floorboard comes loose.
“Hold still,” I say.
“I can do it.” She continues to struggle. Splinters begin forming between her toes. Real nails replace her toenails.
“No, you can’t. You’re stuck.”
I run into the garage and grab my toolkit. When I come back, I dislodge the floorboards she’s become stuck to, then file them down so she can walk all right with them. They look like clogs. Gertrude stares at the wall, tears in her eyes.
“I used to live here,” she says.
“I know you did,” I say. “You said your vows right over there, didn’t you?”
“I used to live here and I never got stuck like this before,” Gertrude says. Then, to herself, “Dumskalle.”
The house is quiet that night. Gertrude refuses to wander. She sits in the corner of the living room with a pair of tweezers, prying the nails from her floor plank feet. When she’s pulled out six, she sneezes and they reappear. I hear her grunt in frustration, then she stomps over to the big chair in front of the television and crawls into a remote. Monday night football changes to a Columbo marathon. The subtitles are inexplicably in Portuguese. We sit and watch an episode together—her pretending to read Portuguese and me resisting the urge to help.
Tanya and I celebrate our six month anniversary, then a year, then two. We go to an expensive restaurant and eat cake that has gold flakes on it. She says she’s pretty sure that gold is the traditional gift for two years; I know it’s not, but it makes her happy.
When I come home the next day, Gertrude gets a Marie Callender pie out of the freezer and puts it on the counter for me. It’s cottage pie.
“It’s a special day,” says Gertrude. “Isn’t it?”
I wonder if she half-remembered that the gift for two years is cotton and just got the word wrong. She beams and pushes the pie toward me.
“Eat,” she says. “You’re too skinny.”
I’m still full from the cake but I begin to preheat the oven. When Gertrude leaves, I can see that she’s written SPECIAL DAY on the inside of her arm. There’s a smudged question mark a few inches away.
Tanya and I decide we want kids. My house and her apartment combined are too small so we put both of them on the market and hunker down at my place while the sales are finalized. She and Gertrude meet one another; oh, she’s just an old little lady, Tanya says, confusing and annoying Gertrude greatly—and the two of them get along, in part because neither Tanya nor I speak Swedish.
“WOULD YOU LIKE TO WATCH AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL?” Tanya shouts.
I’ve tried explaining that Gertrude does not have hearing loss. She’s just ignoring us.
Gertrude, nestled inside a couch cushion, slowly unzips the fabric. “Fine. Dumskalle.”
“Oh, you love it.” Tanya looks back at me and smiles.
“Horrible girls,” Gertrude mutters. “Too skinny.”
While I put on dinner, Tanya and Gertrude share a bowl of popcorn. Gertrude can’t taste anymore and her sense of smell is poor, at best. She’s pretending and it’s exhausting for her. When she’s fallen asleep, Tanya and I sit on the porch with a couple of beers. It’s unseasonably warm for November and we sit beneath a flannel blanket as the streetlights come on.
“I don’t see why she can’t come with us,” Tanya says. “I mean, she’s old. Sorry—elderly. It’s not like … I just mean, she won’t be too much trouble.”
“She doesn’t want to,” I say. I’m regretting my choice of a Bud light but I can’t grab a different beer without waking up Gertrude. “She used to live here. She wants to stay.”
“How would that even work?”
I don’t have an answer. Tanya rests her head on my shoulder.
I explain to Gertrude half a dozen times that we’re moving. When the van pulls up outside, I explain one more time. The house was a steal, a real ‘blind man finding gold’ moment but it feels like I’ve grown out of it. When I tell this to Gertrude, she shrinks to the size of a marble and rolls into a vase full of other marbles. Tanya and I pack up the last of our things, then she shouts GOODBYE GERTRUDE and goes out to the car. The marble does not answer.
We cleaned the whole house when the furniture was moved out. I cleaned the fireplace-less place twice and the second time, I could almost see soot in between the floorboards. I walk through the house, eying the radiator and the bear rug glued to the floor and the one bathroom with two toilets. I go into the kitchen and put a Marie Callender pie back in the freezer, then I move the oven a few inches and see her.
She has smudged writing on one arm and popcorn in her hair and wooden planks where her feet used to be. She toddles out of the crevice, growing taller and wider with each step. Looking around the kitchen, a peaceful smile draws itself across her lips.
“I used to live here,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
Caitlin Upshall (she/her/hers) holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University and is currently based in the United Kingdom. When she's not writing, she enjoys most things dinosaur-related and trivia nights. You can find her on Instagram at @CaitlinUpshall or at www.caitlinupshall.com.