by Jennie Goode
The blue paint on the house next door bubbles and curls away from the siding. A downspout dangles diagonally from a single bolt, and the eaves look as flimsy as wet cardboard, buckling and ready to tear. Next to the foundation is a pile of trash: shards of white window trim, empty plastic bottles, phonebooks wrinkled with rain. A green hose snakes through the mess, and a recycling bin is tipped over on top. Nearby, in the gravel driveway that separates our two houses, roof shingles poke from a mound of grass clippings and torn tree limbs.
My bedroom window faces the side of the blue house, a blue like the cold of a deep lake, a blue that matches my bedroom walls, soothing, unobtrusive, a color for sleep, for dreaming. I have made a habit of looking every morning at the window opposite mine, sometimes just glancing as I walk bleary-eyed into my day, other times resting my elbows on my high windowsill and gazing. The white paint on the window’s frame has cracked and split like dried mud, and thick folds of yellowing curtains obscure what’s beyond. Where the curtains don’t quite meet there is a sliver of darkness, and in the upper pane, at eye level, the glass is clouded with age. Many mornings I have stared into that dark gap and wondered what is hidden there.
When Kristin and I moved into our south Seattle neighborhood a decade ago, we were full of first-house fervor, caulking and painting and ripping up sun-faded carpet. We’d bought our 1950s brick rambler from a ninety-year-old woman—Polish, we heard, just like Kristin—who’d lived in the house for half her life, and we imagined ourselves staying as long. No more jumping from rental to rental in the city’s rapidly gentrifying urban core. We were home. I planted pansies in the brick planters lining the front steps, and we waved to everyone who walked by the house.
Eager to meet our new neighbors, Kristin called out one morning to a stocky, middle-aged woman with a short, reddish-brown afro as she stepped out of a small green SUV parked in the driveway next door. Vernette, we learned, worked at the county jail. She’d bought the house from her sister in the mid-nineties and now lived there with her daughter and grandson.
When Kristin asked how she liked living here, meaning in the neighborhood, Vernette waved her hand dismissively at the blue-shingled house behind her. “I’m gonna knock this thing down.”
Kristin paused. “And do what?”
“Oh, you know. Build another rambler.”
The house looked a little worn then, but not much more so than other houses on the block. We’d moved into the neighborhood because it was where the two of us—a serial nonprofit worker and a self-employed editor—could afford to buy a house. Also, we knew the area was diverse in all sorts of ways, and we preferred to live where nobody could assume everybody else was like them.
Our neighbors, we would learn, were nurses and home health aides, grocery managers and mechanics, women who ran home daycares and men who hauled junk, drug dealers and ministers and elderly widows who’d arrived fifty years earlier to raise kids and had never left. It was the kind of place where unpermitted add-ons might get tacked to the back of a house to accommodate grandparents or cousins recently arrived from the other side of the globe, but nobody here could afford to scrap a house and start over.
So when Kristin relayed Vernette’s comment, I figured she was just dreaming aloud. Still, after that first conversation, I paid attention to what happened next door in a way I might not have if Vernette hadn’t shared her plans. I watched her rock back and forth on stiff feet as she walked from her front door to her car. I saw crows hover on telephone wires as she lugged her lidless blue trash bin to the curb. I peeked at the lean-to tucked in a corner of her backyard, made of two-by-fours, a plywood roof, and silver tarps for walls, and speculated about its contents. And I watched the jumbled heap in the back of her SUV swell to the roof, and another in her daughter’s car too. Stuffed animals, food wrappers, rain jackets and hats, black plastic trash bags, shoes, spiral notebooks—each new item like another breath stretching a balloon. I waited for the steel seams of their cars to burst from the pressure and wondered if Vernette felt hounded when she glanced in the rearview mirror, her life’s debris always hovering just behind her. Or maybe she’d trained herself not to look back.
A few years after we moved in, on a cold December day, Vernette and her daughter and grandson walked out their front door for the last time. They didn’t move out in the traditional sense. No truck at the curb, no furniture hauled or boxes filled. They simply locked the front door and left.
For a long while afterward, Vernette returned every few days to pick up her mail from the box on the front stoop and every few weeks to remove or deposit something in the metal shed that had been delivered to her driveway and installed on blocks the week before she left. I’d wake on a weekend morning to the clatter of the shed door rolling up on its metal slides. A toaster would go in, and a cooler and folding chairs would come out. Or a bag of Styrofoam cups would enter, and two suitcases would leave.
On one of these visits, Vernette showed up in a shiny dark blue SUV—this one larger than the last, its backseat and tailgate completely empty. Maybe that’s when I began to suspect that my neighbor’s talk of replacing her house might have less to do with the house itself than with what lay inside. Would she someday simply start again with a new house, a clean slate? Maybe she’d already done so, elsewhere. Not long after Vernette showed up in her new SUV, a tow truck deposited her daughter’s car in the driveway, its hatchback still stuffed, its shattered back windshield mended with duct tape and black plastic.
In my family, long memories, deep attachments, and a Depression-era mentality toward reuse have combined to fill attics and basements and closets with doll carriages and yellowed christening dresses, Lincoln logs and Playskool towns, hard-sided luggage and quilted hanging bags swollen with old suits and wide ties, filing cabinets stuffed with newspaper clippings, and jars full of nails and screws and brackets organized by size. My father wears thick wool sweaters he’s had since high school, and my main winter coat is a fifty-year-old down jacket he bought on his honeymoon. It’s threadbare but almost back in style.
Recently I returned to my parents’ house in St. Louis to clean out my childhood closet in preparation for their move to another (not smaller) house. I cleared off shelves stacked with books from college: Karl Marx and John Locke, three years’ worth of anthropology texts, and the entire reading list, it seemed, from Sociology of Poverty. I’ve lived in Seattle without all these books for nearly twenty years, but they’ve remained back home, ready to remind me of an earlier self whenever I opened the closet door to temporarily store a few piles of clothes during a visit. Would I lose that part of my past, my self, if I added them to the Goodwill pile?
As I sorted through cardboard boxes and old popcorn tins full of memorabilia from twelve years of Catholic school, my dad poked his head in the room from time to time to see how it was going. On one visit, he pulled from the recycling pile a poster from the summer camp where I’d worked during college. “You can’t get rid of this,” he said, and I realized that my genetic inheritance would crowd me out of my own house if I allowed it. I let my dad encourage me to hang on to the poster, or at the very least donate it back to the camp, and when he left, I folded it in quarters and buried it at the bottom of the recycle pile.
Still, a load of furniture and boxes arrived at my Seattle doorstep a few months later—the things in the ship pile, a few maybes I could never agree to discard, and more than a few items my mom decided on her own to send: pieces of my grandmother’s china, quilts belonging to long-dead relatives. They occupy one corner of my basement, a few of the boxes open, their contents strewn across the Ping-Pong table, waiting for me to determine their fate.
The way to let go of a memento seems to be to divest it of meaning, to learn to call up a memory—of an event or even just the feeling that accompanied the event—without the object to trigger it. But how do you get rid of your grandmother’s sugar bowl? In the end, I may decide that you don’t.
In those first years after Vernette left, two neighbors who lived nearby mentioned they’d offered to buy the house from her. One wanted to fix it up and rent it out; the other wanted to flip it. The real estate market was hot then, before the ’08 crash. A light-rail station was going in nearby, the city was swelling, and house prices soared, even in a neighborhood like ours, with few of the big old box houses or cute Craftsman bungalows that spark bidding wars.
Vernette could have made out well, but she ignored the letter from the first neighbor and told the second that she lived in the house still, just left for work early in the morning, before anyone else was up. Whatever that house held was more important to her than money. What that was, I didn’t know. History? Memory? Shame?
Vernette was a mystery to me. She seemed incapable of throwing anything away, yet she could walk away from her house, leaving everything in it behind. Or maybe there was no paradox. Maybe leaving and letting go are two entirely different acts.
If I could see into the house, maybe I’d know.
And so mornings I contemplated that dark gap between yellowing curtains, and nights I dreamt about the house. In one dream, I’m inside the house. Music and voices are coming from somewhere beyond an old kitchen with painted cabinets and a linoleum floor. I duck through a doorway and step down two stairs into a warmly lit room with brown shag carpet and wood paneling. A woman’s voice, sultry and low, crackles from an old turntable on a credenza in the corner. A few strangers mill about, and in a gold velour chair near a dark window sits my neighbor. She’s dressed in the blue polyester slacks, white shirt, and blue coat she wears to work at the jail, but in her hand is an amber drink. She waves me over and I wake up.
In another dream, I am alone inside the house. Sunlight floods in from all four directions. I walk from room to room, and in each room I find a door or passageway to another. From the outside, the house seems big enough only for a kitchen, a small living room, a bath, and a couple of cramped bedrooms. But in my dream, the rooms are large and airy, and they go on and on. There is always another, and I am always surprised.
Obsessed is possibly too strong a word for my relationship to the house next door. Preoccupied might be better, with its hint of inhabitation. The blue house occupied the edges of my consciousness, and at the same time my mind seemed to be squatting in the house.
A few years ago, Vernette’s visits began to taper off, and the house seemed to notice the neglect. The frame on a front window rotted so badly the glass pane slid down to the bottom sash, allowing autumn winds to whistle through the house. I left a note in the mailbox, but the rotten frame remained unfixed. Roof shingles blew off in a storm, and after a downspout broke away from the gutters, water poured down her driveway during the long rainy winter. By May, the grass in the front yard grew knee high.
In June, when a mama cat and her litter of feral kittens moved into Vernette’s yard, I began spending time on the other side of the Photinia hedge and chain-link fence that separate our properties. I left bowls of kibble in the driveway and watched as the kittens poked their heads out from beneath the metal shed. One Siamese, two orange, two black. When one of the black kittens disappeared and the other turned up dying in a neighbor’s yard, I decided to catch the rest. Between the sagging back porch and the shed, I set a live trap, covered it with a towel, and checked it hourly.
The yard felt eerie. An old electric stove sat behind the shed, and fat black plastic bags adorned the decaying porch. A towering blackberry bramble had swallowed up two mature cherry trees and was threatening to overtake the lean-to near the back alley. On breezy days, the silver tarps flapped in the wind, and I half expected someone to emerge from within.
Around this time, a neighbor told us that the house was rumored to be haunted. Somebody knew somebody who had once been inside and refused to ever go near the place again. Of course a story like that would attach itself to such a house. Like me, whoever spun the tale was probably just imagining her way inside. It seemed to me that the only ghost haunting the house was Vernette.
But maybe I’m shortchanging outside forces. Can a house push out its inhabitants? Can land pass on qualities the way families do? In a book of old survey maps in the downtown public library, I found a page with our block on it. The maps were created in the 1920s, when only a few of the current houses stood. It would be decades before either Vernette’s house or mine was built. So as I scanned the page, expecting to see only white space where our houses now stand, I was shocked to see a collection of small rectangles designating structures on our land. One rectangle sat just on my side of the border between the two lots; a dashed line across the front designated a porch and the letter D indicated its function as a dwelling. Just behind the empty space on the map where Vernette’s house now stands was another rectangle. Like all the houses on the block, it was shaded yellow to indicate a wood structure. But unlike any other rectangle on any other page I scanned, this one contained the carefully lettered description “VAC & DILAPD.”
Vernette’s wasn’t the only unoccupied house on the street. At any given time during the past decade, three or four houses on our block have stood empty. Fire, eviction, death, and, increasingly, foreclosure—all were reasons I’d seen my neighbors disappear. The housing collapse, which in my naiveté I’d initially thought might benefit the neighborhood by slowing down inflating prices and speculation, hit hard here. On my neighborhood walks, I began to pass more and more houses with the telltale notices affixed with blue masking tape to a curtain-less front window.
Some of the displaced were people I’d come to know as we spent weekends clearing trash and hauling soil to build a community garden on a vacant lot at the end of my street. Others were neighbors I recognized but didn’t know; I realized one family was gone only when they no longer passed my big picture window on their Sunday-morning walk to church.
When a friend around the corner fell behind on her mortgage, she received letters offering to buy her house for cheap. And one day, a bright yellow sign that read “We Buy Ugly Houses” appeared on Vernette’s front stoop. I walked up to her house, grabbed the sign, and tossed it in my recycling bin.
One unseasonably cold November morning, as Kristin and I pulled into our driveway, I noticed the bottom pane in the kitchen window next door was gone and the beige cotton curtain flapped against the blue cedar shingles. “Someone broke in,” I said, but as we walked up to the side of the house, it looked more like someone had broken out. Large chunks of glass rested in the grass and up against the house as if they’d been gently pushed out and lowered to the ground.
What would we find if we looked inside? My hand hovered for a moment next to the curtain. Still wondering whether I should, I swept the thin fabric to the side and peered in the window. The sink and counters were piled high with dishes and old cartons of food. The slatted pantry doors stood open revealing bare white shelves. In front of the pantry was a mound of clothing and plastic bags and presumably what was once in the pantry: boxes, cans, wrappers. On top lay a Ronald McDonald doll, staring up at a caved-in ceiling. Plaster chunks and a fine white dust covered the pile.
Beyond the heap, the back door had been broken in half horizontally, as though the house had a Dutch door, the bottom half wedged against the doorframe and the top half pulling awkwardly on one hinge. Beyond the kitchen was the living room, the room that lay hidden behind those yellowing curtains and that thin, dark gap where they didn’t quite meet. The room was full to the ceiling. I could not see with what.
Since we didn’t know how to contact our neighbor, we called the police. After the officers walked through the house, I met them in the driveway. “It looks like someone tried to start a small fire to keep warm,” one said and then pointed to the shards of glass below the broken window. “They probably broke the window out for ventilation.”
We worried most about fire, I told them. Our neighbor hadn’t been by in months and the house was so full. I was still spooked by a string of arsons that had occurred a few years earlier in our end of town. “It would be so easy for someone to toss a match in the window.”
The second cop glanced at the house, raised his dark eyebrows, and blew air through his teeth. “I suggest a flare,” he said. “It’s untraceable.” And then he laughed.
The root of preoccupied also carries hints of possession, of invasion, of claim. The longer the house stood empty, the freer I’d felt to take up residence. Not in a literal sense, of course, but I staked a sort of mental claim on the house, allowed my mind to rummage around inside.
The cop’s comment, at which I choked out an uncomfortable, reflexive laugh, suggested a kind of violation. Who, after all, has the right to decide what’s valuable? What’s the line between observing and prying? When I swept aside that curtain and peered at the wreckage of someone else’s life, someone who had not asked to be known, did I commit some kind of mental trespass?
In dream interpretation, houses represent your soul or self, and individual rooms represent aspects of the psyche or personality. But I think my dreams of Vernette’s house are more literal than that; the wave from Vernette upon which I woke—the empty, undiscovered rooms—suggest instead an inability to know her, a gulf between us. Just as a photograph omits everything beyond what’s framed by the camera’s lens, my view out my window and into my neighbor’s is only partial. I can’t, based on this limited perspective, understand her.
The word neighbor derives from the Germanic “nigh,” meaning near, and “boor,” meaning countryman or peasant. It originates from a time when the word implied a relationship, a level of mutual reliance and hence a certain familiarity. Now, the most common uses of the word imply only proximity. And proximity doesn’t assure connection. Sometimes it even impedes it.
Did I think that in seeing what the house contained, I would understand Vernette? Instead, seeing the empty pantry, the limp Ronald McDonald doll, the crumbled plaster made me want to look away. Like reading someone’s journal, I had exposed something not intended for me to see.
In my last dream about the house, I am not inside, but outside, across the street. The windows are unbroken, the paint fresh and bright. The curtains are pulled back, and the storage shed is gone. A woman who looks a little like me—or like a movie version of me in which I wear sundresses and aprons and the sun always shines—scatters feed to a flock of chickens. She has cleared the blackberry bramble, planted a garden, built a short picket fence. Although we live next door to each other, I haven’t yet introduced myself to her. I stand across the street with my neighbor Michael, an affable guy who, whenever I call, answers the phone, “Well hello, neighbor, what can I do for you?” He is saying how great the place looks now that it’s fixed up, but I just tilt my head and squint at the house. Something has been lost.
Since the police visited, I have seen no one come or go from the house. The curtain on the broken kitchen window flutters in and out with the wind. It gets soaked with rain and dries with a cold breeze. When I climbed out of bed one day last week, I glanced across the weedy driveway at the other window on the side of the house. But I couldn’t bring myself to keep looking into that living room window with its clouded glass, its thick curtains. I kept on walking into my day.
The city building code states that a vacant property left open to entry is a violation. The inspector assigned to the case hasn’t been by yet. Years of budget cuts and foreclosures mean crowded caseloads, so there’s no telling when this house will make it to the top of his list of addresses. But someday soon, I expect, a sheet of plywood will cover the broken kitchen window and another will replace the split-open back door. Someone will attempt to nail a board to the rotting front window frame, and as the hammer hits the wood it will crumble to dust.
Jennie Goode is editor of the anthology Drive: Women’s True Stories from the Open Road. Her recent essays have appeared in New South and Water~Stone Review, which awarded her the 2014 Judith Kitchen Prize in Creative Nonfiction. A former senior editor at Seal Press, she now works as a freelance editor, writer, and teacher. She lives in Seattle.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • November 2014
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