The family next door to the north of us moved out over Thanksgiving weekend, seven months ago and counting. There had been a lot of yelling during the holiday weekend, then a delivery truck backed into the driveway. I thought they were just cleaning out the garage. Then they were gone. There were a few cats living in the crawl spaces, a grill left on the small concrete stoop outside the kitchen sliding door.
In 8 years as neighbors, we’d rarely spoken with them, although one of the children who lived there was close enough in age to mine that for a while they played together. There was a matriarch, a woman of about 50, who life had left with a lot of attitude, but apparently few teeth. There was a patriarch, a stout grimy gnome with grease stained coveralls who died quite suddenly about three years after we moved in. There were approximately five young adult children and at least four and more likely six grandchildren. At various times there were two or three extremely small pugnacious dogs, a Vietnamese potbelly pig, a ferret who mysteriously slithered up on our back deck, many cats including a most peculiar munchkin tabby and only one aggressive pitbully type thing.
Now there is an empty yard and curb-cart filled with trash on the walk. The husk of a mylar balloon sits on the empty living room floor and a sponge mop leans against the kitchen door, next to the hole in the linoleum. I try not to look at the sliding door when I go through their yard, because it makes the skin on my neck crawl. But I walk past it just about every day because I’ve been mowing the lawn. And watering the plants.
When spring came the grass grew up in the yard. They had always been regular and exacting about mowing, so it seemed sort of sad that it would go unmowed. More to the point, in our neighborhood an obviously abandoned house could easily attract squatters or cookers. So I mowed the front. I pruned the rose bush in the tree lawn. After a while I made my way up the side alley. Then up the other side. I almost lost the mower blade on a buried dog chain. The backyard got to be about waist high, so I mowed it, gradually. Each pass I mowed a little more, using the cut down hay to mulch my vegetables and provide bedding for my ducks.
I weeded along the fence, digging up dandelions, nightshade and the odd bedspring or dog toy. Finally I started transplanting sunflower and pumpkin starts along the fence and next to the garage. Somewhere in there I looked up the owner and wrote him, offering to buy the house. I have no idea how we’d manage, but I figured I’d ask. I never heard back, but I dug up the small bed of irises under the front window and divided the bulbs. deep among the impacted plants I found a broken memorial marker for the father of the house. I set it out on the porch, but no one has come back for it.
He had a grandson named for him.
In the back I mowed farther until I came to the rear wall and started hacking down invasive blackberry and more nightshade. As it turns out one of the trees back there is a plum tree. I experienced a burst of irrational nervousness as I mowed under the trees. Honestly, I don’t think they buried Mr. Haws or even any cats back there, but I was glad when the mower didn’t hit anything worse than some wire.
There’s a doctrine in property law called adverse possession. If you take land and treat it as yours for a prescribed time, it can become yours, against the rights of the True Owner. Of course it takes a long time: ten years. And you have to be under the impression that you are lawfully using the property and that it is in fact yours. I know it’s not mine and the house will fall in on itself before then (every winter they would tarp the roof and hold everything in place with free weights). But the part of adverse possession doctrine I always liked was that ones use had to be “open and notorious”. Meaning simply that it would be obvious to all.
I dug up the second iris bed (finding a novelty painted rock of a crab smoking a joint). I transplanted a rose bush from my own yard into the bed and took the excess iris roots and planted them in front of my house.
A few nights ago, I dreamed about the blessed house, or rather its mysterious owners. It was a bit like dreaming about an old relationship that didn’t work out, a bit of wistful anxiety as they refused to sell me their house. So I wrote the owner again.