Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Better Fences

My husband and I bought our house in 2001. It is situated on a circle in a quiet little part of town. The street is missed by most only because it leads to residential settings. My husband called me from a pay phone, he had forgotten his cell and said "I think we just found our house!" It was for sale by its current owners and the sign in the overgrown lawn attracted my husband like an Irishman to a pint. Sean knocked on the door. The owners seemed hesitant to sell and we wondered why the For Sale sign then? We toured the home three times and each time feeling the house wanting us as much as we wanting it. After pre approval and bank approval, copious amounts of paperwork..."Sign here and here, initial there and there, one last page..." we were finally the overjoyed, over anxious owners of a 1901 Colonial home.

We were the third family to inhabit this house. Two sisters, then in their 80s had lived there until one became ill. She died and her sister lonely for her companionship shortly joined her. The second family had several children and needed a house with a swimming pool for their convalescing son who needed physical therapy, the result of an aneurysm during a youth softball game. On the day of closing we drove up to our house only to see the family still moving out! As our locksmith was changing the locks, the children were carrying out their books and toys and giving us mournful looks. We stood on the sidewalk shivering in the December cold feeling as misplaced as them. They left behind a dreadful mess as well as several of their cats.

I asked Sean if he thought it odd there were so many cats wandering around the neighborhood, more precisely, our porch and front lawn. We pulled up outdated Imperial Blue shag carpet and hired workers to sand and varnish our floors. I received a call at work from one of the men. "Hey, it was pretty cold out so I let your cat in, it was crying at the front door." Through gritted teeth I explained that we did not have a cat and no, we did not want one! That night we crept up the stairs "Here kitty, here kitty?" We heard a pathetic meowwww and spotted the cat hunched in the corner of the room. We grabbed the stray fur ball and escorted it out the door. When the sun shines at just the perfect angle, you can see frantic kitty prints on our upstairs landing. It adds character to the home.

We had only to look to the right of our house to see the source of this kitty camp. An elderly couple had them streaming in and out of their house. Bowls of food and water were set out round the clock for their dining pleasure. This feline festival drove us nearly to the brink. The cats were rendezvousing in our yard, peeing all over the porches and finding their way into the garage and napping on our cars.

Tom was out in the yard gathering branches and twigs and absently piling them at the end of his driveway. He had odd little habits of saving bits of discarded junk and stockpiling them in his garage. These piles would artistically rise then topple over on themselves only to be rebuilt over and over again by him. I learned he was a retired physicist who had taught in Florida years before. I assumed he had brains and might bend his ear toward reasoning. "Hi, I'm your neighbor, I haven't had a chance to introduce myself." I extended my hand only to be regarded with a cold stare. "Wow, you do have lots of cats, I don't want to sound rude, but could you keep them off my porch?" He was dressed in a lined plaid shammy shirt and looked a bit like a twisted garden gnome, suspenders holding up his well worn denims. On his feet were navy blue slippers aged to a dingy grey, holes where his bare toes poked through. "If anything happens to these cats, I'll know who to blame!" "Look, It's just they never leave my yard and I was hoping you'd want them to stay in YOUR yard." He stepped closer, shuffling his slippers along the sidewalk. He had the audacity to raise his fists, boxer style and propel them at me. I was certain other neighbors were watching from behind their lace curtains, quickly aborting should their spy mission be realized.

Barbara, his wife heard the commotion and joined him at his side. "Tom! Stop that! Get in the house!" He dropped his fists but continued to pummel me with his expression. "Now! Tom!" His wife's voice broke his trance and he turned his body away from me, lumbering down the sidewalk. Several of his feline minions followed at his ankles. "I'm sorry, this really is an awful way to meet, I'm....." "He gets a bit overworked. I'm Barbara." I shook her paper thin hand. She was birdlike, tiny, frail, with a close curled head of white hair. She could barely stand, a Dowager's Hump on her back cruelly submitting her body low to the ground. She welcomed me to the circle and then retreated into her house.

In the ongoing months I felt I was being watched. I would look around, walking to the garage, shoveling sidewalks, bringing groceries into the house, the hair on the back of my neck would stand. Then I spotted her as she was spying on me. Another white haired elderly woman was watching me from her kitchen window. She didn't wave, nor did I, we just continued to stare at each other. This went on for a few more weeks until spring, she was sitting on her front porch. I introduced myself. She was in her mid 80s and was a widow. Her husband Edward died 15 year earlier, he worked for the railroad. Elenore had lived in this house for 22 years. She was quick witted and affectionate. She told me she awoke every morning at 6 to use the bathroom. "That Irritable Bowel Syndrome, can't eat salad." Her hair was always done in a white, blond confection. Her eyebrows always drawn on just so. "Don't over pluck!" dispensing beauty advice to me. She had a colorful assortment of clip on earrings to match her shirts. She preferred men's white dress shirts and would add a silk scarf or sweater vest. She thought it romantic that Sean and I shared our evenings on the side porch with candles and a glass of wine. She soon became my lunch partner who favored Pete's Seafood and their shrimp and pasta. She became family, spending Thanksgiving at our home. She became Lola's honorary Nana. Elenore's only daughter lived in Maryland and she was not blessed with a happy marriage, leaving Elenore bereft of grandchildren.

Elenore's upstairs tenant Dot, owned the house and was raising three teenagers and had kicked out her husband on her return from a solo trip to Cancun. We missed Tobey. He was the Zen Master of the charcoal briquette. On weekends he'd treat himself to a steak dinner, with Budweiser in hand and a KISS THE COOK apron snugly hugging his beer belly. He would wield his tongs like a skilled ninja. He had no hard feelings against us when our dog Newman bolted out the back door one twilight summer eve and grabbed raw steaks awaiting the open flame. Dot was going through some sort of revamping after kicking Tobey out. While I was unloading groceries she announced out her upper window "My psychic business is doing great!" She had taken to wearing her daughter's Led Zeppelin t shirt and a crimson velvet robe in near 90 degree weather. Dot said scarlet was a healing color and she'd love to read my fortune. She said she was helping her nursing home patients get in touch with their final destiny. The noon day sun bounced off her pentagram earrings as she bitched about Tobey, he didn't like to go out and go dancing. She found someone on vacation, someone new who made her feel young. She began listening to music many decibels more irritating than her kids.

Dot no longer lives above Elenore. She moved her new boyfriend in, then he left less than a year into their relationship. Dot sold the home to a new owner. Mike seems like a nice guy. He's done some painting to the place and landscaping. Under new ownership, Elenore's rent increased and she too felt the financial constraints. She worried aloud to me how she could afford rent and heating next winter. I helped her pack her boxes, looking around her apartment at the bare walls and naked hutch that held her photos and bowl of fake grapes. I too felt her emptiness of moving on.

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