Do you ever imagine what your neighbors would say if some horrible and newsworthy tragedy befell you and the local TV station showed up to ask what sort of person you were before the horrible (and newsworthy) tragedy?
Because I’m morbid, I’ve imagined what my own neighbors would say many, many times. I’ve thought (probably too much) about how they would react if I got eaten by a bear, or crushed in my driveway, or cooked in an industrial oven along with 12,000 pounds of canned tuna.
It’s just terrible. I can’t believe it. We used to see her running through the neighborhood all the time and she would wave to us. She mostly kept to herself, except for that wave. But one time, about five years ago, she yelled at my son for playing music too loud because it woke her baby. He joined the Marines and went to Afghanistan since then, but you can ask him yourself, he was never more afraid for his life than he was on that day.
They would have a lot more to say about my husband, who is a cheerful and friendly presence around the neighborhood, chatting in the driveway or giving directions to lost day-trippers. His loss would be felt much more acutely than mine if he were suffocated by an “atomic wedgie” or died in a silo collapse. My husband knows all our neighbors by name, knows their kids, knows their troubles, their joys. Meanwhile, I struggle to remember the name of the woman who has lived behind us for a dozen years. She stopped by to compliment the flowers I’ve got growing in pots all around the porch and while she spoke, I noted the innumerable freckles that ran from the left side of her face all across her nose and then spilled over the other side. I described the freckles to my husband later.
“That’s Stephanie,” my husband said and I know I’ll remember her name just long enough to include it in this post.
Of course, my husband noticed when our neighbor, the guy who lived in the other side of our twin house here in the Philadelphia suburbs, had stopped rolling his trash bin to the curb each week. Let me stop here to explain to you what a “twin” is, because, unless you’re from around here, you may not know. In other parts of the country it’s a style of house known as a “duplex,” and if you know that term, you have an idea of the sort of house we live in, but not quite. Twins in the Philadelphia area are different from those tracts of duplexes I’m familiar with that clutter the outer boroughs of NYC, squeezing two families into space designed to hold one. Rather, twin houses around here seem to have sprung up organically, chaotically, not due to some plan of a real estate developer to maximize profits. For example, my house is the only twin on the block, each half a mirror image of the other, set down (sprung up?) in the midst of old stone mansions and converted barns in an architecturally diverse area of the historic district of our town.
Ok, so as I said, my husband was the first to notice that this man who we shared a wall with had not been seen for a while.
“Have you seen Chris?” my husband asked. “He’s the guy who lives next door,” he added, because he thought it necessary.
I hadn’t seen him, but that was not unusual. Like me, Chris mostly kept to himself, perhaps for other reasons than my own. He had been an engineer, but he suffered an injury in a car accident shortly after I’d moved in here, and he no longer worked. While I hadn’t seen him lately, I could still hear his TV through that wall we shared, and his answering machine when it picked up in response to the ringing telephone, and there were almost always lights on in the house when I left in the predawn darkness to run.
“Always on or almost always on?” my husband asked.
I wasn’t sure.
That morning, my husband knocked on Chris’s front door and got no response. “I think I’m going to call the police,” he decided when he came back. “Ask them to do a well-being check.”
What happened next I’m sure will be no surprise: when the police came, they found Chris dead, lying on his living room sofa in front of the television. He’d been there for several days, they said. Possibly as long as two weeks.
Chris’s family, you know the one that relied on the nice guy next door to check on their son/brother/uncle? Yeah, they showed up to take his car (a late-model Volvo), remove the valuables from the house and list it for sale. Real estate flippers bought the house and then sold it to a group of investors. The investors intend to rent the property to the young professionals who are drawn to this town, to this neighborhood, but can’t afford to buy here, at least, not yet.
I guess that’s a pretty smart business plan. My husband and I have often thought about doing something similar as our family outgrew this side of the twin one child (maybe two) ago. Still, here we are, and instead we’ve embarked on a series of modest improvements, some of which I’ve managed to achieve on my own. I’d never done any sort of home projects before, except that one time I painted a bedroom in an apartment, and never considered myself particularly handy, but I’m organized, pay attention to detail and I’ve always been a good student, so I’ve been able to teach myself how to tile a kitchen floor, and stain hardwood, and refinish cabinets. I’ve discovered the satisfaction that comes from physical labor that I had not known before.
Anyway, our neighborhood of homeowners is concerned about the effect a rental property will have on home values. They’re worried about what sort of people a rental will attract, even though the monthly rent is set high enough to make me sputter over my morning cup of coffee when I first hear about it. Regardless of what the rest of the neighborhood thinks, renters are about to move in next door, into a house built in 1870, back before there was a Historic Architectural Review Board that’s now telling me I need their approval before I can replace the window in the living room that’s been leaking in every thunderstorm this summer. The HARB is concerned that I might choose a style of window that detracts from the historical character of the neighborhood, so I have to send them the window specifications, and they have to approve them, before the work can be done. As I fill out the Certificate of Appropriateness Application, I think how un-American, invasive, almost Orwellian it all seems.
Then I think about a post I read last week over on I didn’t have my glasses on . . . titled Now Comes the Mystery. In a poem, new homeowners wonder what’s become of a missing hatchet, outlined on a pegboard of tools left in the backyard shed. I left a flip comment there.
Here’s hoping that Lizzie Borden wasn’t the previous occupant . . .
And then I think about Chris, the previous occupant of the other side of our twin. And I think about all the previous occupants on our own side, all 145 years of them. Like the guy who left this message on the drywall behind the kitchen backsplash I replaced last year.
I wondered if he ever called Pam, and where he’d met her, if they dated for a while and then broke up, or if they got married and live together somewhere in a house in the 212 area code now.
Or maybe Pam was just the drywall saleslady and his supply was running low.
My point is–I guess I do have one–we’re all renters, even those of us who carefully tend the potted pansies we have growing out on the porch, even those of us who will drop dead in front of the TV.
The images of the can of tuna and the twins come from freeimages.com. The other photos are my own.