Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haunted-Looking House in the Old Neighborhood (ca. 03-09)

The Estate Sale over, it sat empty and forlorn, like a cursed, silent sentinel recalling terrible things passed.
The house came on the market two months after we bought our house in 1994. On a sunny afternoon, I went down the street to take a closer look at the house. I tried to peek in through the back windows, to see how it compared to our rambling fixer. Priced at $20,000 more, it was a clearly nicer house: cedar shake siding, boxed-beam ceilings, two staircases... A couple bought the house shortly thereafter.
Over the course of the following year or two, they embarked on a grand-scale remodeling project. Money was apparently no object. The roof was removed down to the attic floor, the siding was replaced after an earthquake-proof retro-fit of the outside walls, the attic walls were raised 3 ft., then the roof was rebuilt. Everyone in the neighborhood had an opinion about the project: they were either daring pioneers updating an old beat-up house in dire need of attention, or wild-eyed heretics bent on damaging a classic neighborhood landmark.
One day, when curiosity finally won over me, I knocked on the door and introduced myself. The wife, D., seemed pretty nice. She invited me in and offered to give me a tour of the house. I admired the curtains D. made out of brightly colored translucent silk to cover the small living room windows; but without a fireplace (removed to expand the back of the house), the space was now just like a large entryway. The dark stained furniture was Asian and Far Eastern; candles, statuettes and figurines were set on low tables and on shelves. D. told me of her plans to paint over the Pepto-Bismol Pink walls in the dining room, which clashed with the inviting cushions on a couch against the wall. I wished my house also came with glass chandeliers adorned with crystals. D. showed me the kitchen next. Even though it was spacious and one of the nicest new kitchens I'd ever seen at the time, it didn't fit with the Arts and Crafts details in the house. Her husband, J. had removed the service staircase; the back of the living room had been merged into an eating space and two columns were awkwardly merged into a wall. Still, I couldn't help comparing it to the orange Formica eyesore-of-a-kitchen in my own house. I felt envious. Right off the kitchen, French doors opened to a peaceful private yard fenced with tall bamboo. Back inside, D. led me to a wide, airy staircase going up to the upper floors. The rooms upstairs were spacious; the bathroom was old-fashioned and lovely, with a great clawfoot tub; there was ample storage space in a linen cabinet nearby. On the third floor, the attic had been transformed into a Master Suite/Palace with skylights, luxurious-feeling carpeting, a balcony at the back, and an amazing bathroom with expensive fittings; beautiful tiles covered the floor and walls. I wondered why I'd ended up with my ugly house, while these people had been fortunate to end up with a house I would have loved as it was before its unnecessary remodel, Craftsman detail et all.
I disliked D.'s husband J. as soon as as I met him: here was the driving force behind the dismantling of some of the things that had made this house great from the start. J., when asked, said they had moved from Northern California, and was vague about his occupation: he was, he said, and entrepreneur. Looking around at the messed-up living room, I thought that meant "Nouveau Riche." J. was clearly proud of his work on the house. To remove the chimney, he had instructed his stepson to go down to the basement and hammer away at the chimney's base with a mallet until the chimney came unraveling down the walls! J. then bragged that he would sell the house for over $300,000 in a few years' time (this, after buying it for a mere $160,000), and then he would buy himself five acres to raise sheep. What a jerk, I thought. He had messed up a perfectly great house.
As the years went by, and even though we lived down a block around the corner, I lost sight of D. and J. Although two of our children were the same age as theirs, we just ran in different circles. But I shook my head in disgust every time I drove up the street and saw the large 80s style round window looming at the top of the stairwell; it was like an open, unblinking eye. And like the rood over the side porch entrance, it was ostentatious...but, I had to admit, it somehow fit. Perched on top of a small earthen berm, the house, with its steep roof and tall trees nearby was grand.
Time went on. I rarely saw any activity near the house, only dim lights on the inside. The ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags were frayed from flapping in the winter winds and faded from the hard summer sun. The concrete walls supporting the property were leaning a bit more each year; moss covered the slowly crumbling porch stairs.
Then, one day, I saw a sign advertising an Estate Sale on the sidewalk in front. I went down to the house, wondering if the owners were perhaps moving.
The house was full of people looking for a bargain. But what immediately caught my attention were the dirty, worn floors, and the grime all over. The kitchen in disarray; cabinet doors were torn off the hinges; granite counters were broken and chipped. The yard, - the once peaceful Asian bamboo-fenced refuge -, was overgrown with weeds, its small altar askew, the steps off the porch broken. The moldy smelling basement suggested long-term problems. As for the items for sale, they suggested misery, catastrophic events, or a hasty departure: a few pieces of prohibitively priced import furniture, a collection of old Grateful Dead CDs, half-burnt incense sticks, worn, faded cushions, rusty paint cans, unidentifiable tools, a few cans of food, half empty bags of cereals, mismatched cups and plates, and scraggly potted plants sitting here and there...
What had happened? Where was D.? Was this a moving sale, I asked the weary-looking man minding the cash box set on a card table. Looking away, he reluctantly gave me the shocking news: the owner, J., had recently passed away, and D. had herself had passed away from cancer several years before...