Our house was built at the end of the Civil War and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in part because the man who built it also brought the university to town by out-scheming other state politicians. In the winter it can look grim, a tall, heavy Italianate rising from a plain of mud. The trees that keep grass from growing are bare themselves now too, and when squirrels have been burying nuts, the yard looks like a tidal flat scarred with land-crab holes.
But Friday afternoon, as we pulled in the drive, a young man was snapping photos of his wife or girlfriend on our steps. A recent light snow had covered the mud and softened the splintered gray porch, and since I’m too tired and busy to take down holiday decorations, there’s still pine garland on the railing, a red bow on each column, a wreath by the door and twinkle lights hanging from the eaves. We smiled and waved at the couple, and they were gone before we were out of the car.
“The place looks pretty good,” Mrs. Churm said, as if reversing an earlier decision.
Mrs. Churm’s mother lives one town over and watches Wolfie three days a week to reduce our daycare costs. He was with her Friday—being a handful, she said—and Starbuck was at school. We should have gone to get one or both of the boys, but we needed the time. I’m teaching beginning and intermediate creative writing classes, and a rhetoric class with a new textbook, and I’m overseeing a 400-level independent study and a campus honors project. Mrs. Churm had work too but took something for a sinus headache and went to lie down for an hour.
I work in what the old floor plans call the Dining Room. It’s too small for that, so we keep the computer hutch and dogs’ beds here. Cold air falls down the back stairs to the return vent next to me, and I have to type quickly, wearing a winter cap and blanket, before hypothermia can set in. Mrs. Churm came in, looking shaken.
“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong? Toilet leaking again? Birds in the attic?”
“Everything’s fine. I just figured it out,” she said and loosed her headache vision on me: Every room in the house would change. We’d sell the old futon and build a long shelf for folding laundry. Paint rooms that haven’t been painted in 15 years. Finish detailing Starbuck’s room, buy the bunk bed he would one day share with Wolfie. New draperies in the Library, built-in bookshelves to replace the modular ones. Rip up Berber rugs stained with kid tracks and cat puke. New wallpaper and vanity in the upstairs bath. She began to fix up the yard next and was doing a fine job of it.
I hated myself for questioning what would benefit us all, but righteousness was more important. I’d wanted to do those things over the last half-dozen years, I said, but she’d cried poverty. Now that she’d had a vision, we got to proceed? I panted with the effort.
She simply smiled. “But I know how we’ll pay for it,” she said. “Paying guests.”
“A bed and breakfast?” I cried after a moment. We don’t even like staying in them. Communal baths, those awful breakfasts with crumbly scones and the chatter of strangers, when all you want is six or eight cups of coffee.
“Not a B & B,” she corrected. “A proper inn. Two en suite chambers, like those places in Britain. Turn the library into a tiny restaurant—café tables, books and firelight. Afterwards, a deep armchair and a glass of port. There’s nothing like it in town. People will love it. And there’s plenty of room, once we get organized.”
The skirmish lasted all day. There was a lull during tea, but the battle was rejoined in the car, going to get the kids, and coming back. Reinforcements were called in over dinner, when I asked Starbuck how he’d like to share his bedroom with mathematicians from Texas.
But Mrs. Churm gained ground: She has an eBay business on the side and is a good bookkeeper. Besides, we must consider, she said, your skill with power tools and mastery in the kitchen. (That’s true.) Think, she said, of the poor visiting scholars here to do important research or give talks, stuck in one of the chain motels far from the campus community. Think of the trustees’ friends in town to get awards, and what they might pay to spend the night in comfort. (Yes, they might pay handsomely.)
We put the boys to bed and sat up sharing string cheese and a bottle of wine. The late hour and unaccustomed drink led to clarity and agreement, and an idea was born: Churm House, an Inn for Wayward Academics.
I’ll keep you informed as we progress….
Full disclosure: Churm House is a fiction. I won't mention that again, so when your Johnny-Come-Lately friends get in on this blog at some point in the future, they'll be all like, "Churm runs an inn! Dude, we should go over and sleep in his beds and drink his whiskey." And you'll be like, "Um, okay. I've made reservations for us, and I'll meet you there." And they'll be like, "Terrific! What state does he live in?"