Fresh Pressed Despair
Fresh pressed plywood seals the exterior doors to their house. There is stillness in our neighborhood that could not be heard before. It is the silence of despair, of things gone wrong, of hope that has been misplaced, a family, along the path of homeownership, who becomes lost. Once, their plywood was one of promise and renewal. Now, a tomb, that holds the remains of what has been left behind.
I've watched this family for eight years from my double-sided windows in my kitchen. I've watched them in the daylight, nighttime, and twilight on sleepless nights. When you are a neighbor you come to know people as they are rather than the church faces seen on Sundays. You learn and know their routine. You see their trash beyond the physical heaps set out for weekly collection. You see the trash in their lives. It's almost impossible to hide. Someone will see it like me-a watcher, an observer, and a trash picker of a different sort.
I don't know how I missed the ceremony of the closure; the thud of the plywood against the doors, the pneumatic hammer, or the ones who decided it was time for them to go. I missed the ones who slapped the red stickers atop the plywood right next to the red, white, and blue. I missed the owner leaving a small American flag between the plywood by the door just before they left. Stop! Do not enter! Never enter again. I can't see the writing on the stickers, but I know it's a notice that the house has been condemned- unfit for human habitation. I did hear wheels squeal like a sonic boom, did see the plume of dust erupt like a nuclear bomb when they left and disappeared with it.
I missed the owner boldly return, in daylight, with an aerosol can of black spray to leave a message. This time it was large enough for me and everyone else to see, "Fuck you." He blames us. All of us: his mortgage holder, the power company, the water company, his employer, the police, and his neighbors around him. I don't suppose he has arrived at the understanding that what has happened has been all his own doing. But, we all know it could happen to any of us. One misstep in this life and the dominoes become unstoppable, predictable, with one final piece of plywood representing the concluding act.
They were once like many young couples: newly married, infant in tow, a family dog, and a third generation to settle in my town. John, a brawny man, decorated in tattoos across his arms, chest, and legs, married a local girl. Estate settled, they bought her grandparents' home. We bring the greatest zeal in this passage of adulthood not understanding or realizing that our possession is so inextricably intertwined with every path we take in our life. We turn the key to unlock the door and feel the surge of independence. But, we are fooled with these thoughts. What we do, every decision we make, for the next thirty years, becomes a dependent of our home: jobs, relationships, children, morals and character.
For months, the backyard lit up like a ball field. After work, John built a sizeable addition. Sounds of construction, sounds of hope, and sounds of satisfaction could be heard late into the night. Tan vinyl siding, matching river stone facade, and new windows transformed the lackluster dwelling into a tasteful, middle-class statement for the neighborhood. With his mason's hands, he crafted a pond, adorned with more river stone. Goldfish flourished, as they did. I enjoyed hearing the slow rush of water cascading into it. Those were acceptable sounds tolerated by the neighbors. They were to change. Change would come slowly like a movie before my eyes.
Sounds change to become warning signals. Anything with wheels could be heard pulling into their backyard, idling engines, headlights doused, the reverse sound of an engine, and the crunch of wheels exiting onto the rear alley. All day. All night. In winter, sounds echo like caverns. Pleading cries, doors slam, the boom of John's voice, "You filthy, dirty bitch," carry into your house and into your heart. That was enough for me to leave my kitchen windows, tremble in the dark, wait, and decide if I should rescue her. This wasn't the first time the two made their domestic problems public. It wasn't the first time I did not help. I no longer saw the church face that John wore during our brief exchanges. His mask removed, an abuser, was revealed. I missed the day the SWAT team surrounded their house. I wasn't the only one in our neighborhood who was watching them. Other eyes were wiser than mine.
Months later the waterfall stopped. The house went dark though still inhabited. Sounds of a generator reverberated though our neighborhood. Some lights went back on. The roar of a generator is tolerated, for a little boy named Mason. No one wants to be the one responsible for taking away the heat it provided to keep Mason warm. Spring comes, windows open, Mason is taken away, and all the watchers are free to make secret calls in efforts of returning the neighborhood to its Rockwell status. There is little compassion extended to drug dealers and drug addicts that live among you. Mothers fear for their children, children fear for their parents, and soon fear overtakes compassion. Eyes, hidden from view, watch them, in wait for them to go.
Warmer weather and longer daylight extended their stay. The yard, neat and well kept, was littered with trash and debris. Indoor furniture was hauled outside appearing more like a stereotyped home of West Virginia. More people moved in, squatters, bustled in and out of the house. Adults peddled bicycles down the alley, disappeared into the streets, out of view from windows, to peddle their drugs. The door to the addition was left open in the summer for relief from the heat and dank air of the house. Camping lights dimly lit the addition. I could see silhouetted figures seeking cooler, cleaner air, the glow of a joint, its end growing brighter with each inhale, and its passing to shadowy forms.
A newer white pick-up truck appeared, parked by the door to the addition, with its rear facing towards it. They loaded their mint condition washer and dryer onto it. Rolling my worn out grill out to the alley, the owner of the truck came to greet me. "Can I have that?" he politely asked. "I'm a scrapper and we are scrapping metal from the house." I knew what that meant. They were dissecting it: copper plumbing pipes, heater, and stove, anything to get a few bucks. "Sure, take it. But, there's propane still in the tank." "We could use some propane," he said. I watched him disassemble the grill, load it onto the truck, and off he went. In the front of the house, a "for sale" sign was tacked onto their double door refrigerator. It sat out in the rain. I suppose, that too, was scrapped.
They lived without electricity for six months. Like everyone, at first, they believed they couldn't do without it. Generator, now forbidden to use, prompted John to seek other ways to get it. More illicit, but quieter ways. Three hundred feet of extension cord led a trail across the alley, plugging into a neighbor's outlet. He buried the safety colored orange cords beneath the grass. When dusk came, a 20-foot section, which crossed the alley, was connected. I suppose John promised a payment of some sort, but the plug was pulled after a month. John convinced another friend to shimmy up the electrical pole to reconnect the power line. Not wanting to draw attention, light from the windows was barely visible. But, it was seen. Two days later, a crew from the power company vaulted a worker to the top. Their line was locked.
John had his own power over people. The kind of power to make decent people do wrong and believe it's right. The kind of power that leaves mass graves, the kind of power that collapses titanic buildings, the kind of power that blows up innocent people, to which we remember the person we thought we knew as our neighbor.
A beat up camper appeared in the yard. They tucked it away from sight as best one can attempt to hide one. John collected more people, now forming a small tribe. They scoured our town, collected discarded wood pallets from a nearby factory, and repurposed them. Summer nights grew cooler with a chill of autumn air. I could hear the screech of nails being removed from the pallets to disassemble them. Flames shot up, fueled by the pallets, under ancient stars, from their burn barrel.
The fire drew me out, away from the safety of my windows. I lurk in the dark and watch them. Gathered around it, the tribes of followers quietly engage in conversation. They huddle together for hours. They have a synergy about them sparked by misspent lives. I watch their fire go out. Fire once pure and full of passion. Fire that lit their joints and burned their dreams.