The Neighbors

“Then for the house that is no more a house,

But only a belilaced cellar hole,

Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.”

                                                                        – Robert Frost

When I was eight years old, my family and I moved to a house on the other side of town. The thing I liked most about the house actually had nothing to do with the residence itself, but with what lay beyond the fence to its right. There, an ivory Dutch colonial was actively deteriorating, its shutters hanging like broken wings from its windows, its unchecked shrubbery concealing half of the front porch, whose wooden slats sagged under the weight of once stately but now peeling white columns.

According to the neighbors on our left, the owners of the house had driven off to Tennessee seven years ago with no explanation or preparation, leaving their clothes still hanging in their closets and their food packed away in their fridge. From my kitchen window, I could see dozens of blue glass bottles lined up along their attic window sills, and the bedroom window of the daughter who had lived there, its ledge decorated with snow globes and plastic figurines. I wondered if she was my age when she lived there, and where she was now.

In the summers, my mom and I would try to clean up the garden of the house. We’d bring over our trowels and pruners and kneel in the long grasses of the front yard weeding for hours. While the house faded with age, purple hydrangeas in the side yard flourished as though time were a natural fertilizer. Tulips forced their way through inches of dead leaves, and a wild mulberry tree and honeysuckle vines thrived along the fenceline. Trimming back dense shrubbery, we would find garden gnomes and marble angels, their faces smudged with dirt and streaked by the rainfalls of the past decade.

I always felt scared and a little uneasy walking onto the property. I felt as though the house was watching me. I imagined the owners, the couple and their daughter, drifting through the halls of the house, eating breakfast at their rotting kitchen table and playing board games on their moth-infested couch. One day when gardening, I found a grocery list hidden among the crabgrass. I stashed it in my pocket and later transferred it to a box on my bookshelf. I thought of it as an artifact of the family who once lived there. It didn’t occur to me that a piece of lined paper couldn’t possibly last seven Massachusetts winters outside.

By the time I was ten or eleven, squirrels had found their way into the house’s attic and squatters were living in the basement. We’d given up on gardening. One morning my mother noticed that the front door of the house had somehow been opened. When we went to close it, we found that the foyer and all the rooms visible from the entrance were brimmed from floor to ceiling with stacks of crumbling newspapers.

Four years later, when the house was knocked down to make room for a giant condominium, I imagined the newspapers, the stone angels and snow globes, crushed by the teeth of the demolition machines; all of the histories of the house pulverized within a matter of days. I used to think that maybe someday the owners would return. Now I hope that they never do, that they never have to see what their small white house and green garden have become.


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