Empty Rooms

The house next door is a rental property, one of the few in my neighborhood. It’s empty now, vacated last month by a family that stopped paying rent in January. The owners—siblings who grew up in the house some twenty years ago—have been carting an astonishing amount of left-behind junk out to the curb for weeks since the eviction. Clothes, dishes, broken furniture, bedding, toys, wastepaper, food. Pretty much anything the occupants couldn’t fit in their sedan on the morning they drove away. At night, people in vans and pickup trucks stop in front of the house and pick through the refuse, looking for something, anything, of value.

The family that lived there experienced one of those calamitous implosions that are no less inevitable for being slow and lengthy. They were a married couple in their forties, with a young daughter who was seven years old when they moved in. There was an older child, too, a girl old enough to move out shortly after the family moved in. I thought that she might have been a child from a previous marriage, though I could easily be wrong about that. My wife might know better, but I hesitate to bring the subject up with her.

The man, whose name I never knew, was on disability. One of his legs had been amputated at the knee, the missing portion of limb replaced by a steel rod and prosthetic foot. I sensed that his disability was the result of some chronic disease, like diabetes, rather than an accident. He had the look of a man with entrenched and ongoing health problems. We didn’t see him very much, but we often saw his wife, puttering around in the yard or getting into her car to run errands.

We saw their daughter all the time. In fact, it was a rare day in which she didn’t ring our doorbell at least two or three times, directly after school on a school day and as early as eight am on a non-school day. This, in itself, would constitute unusual behavior in our neighborhood, where kids tend to have highly regimented and organized daily social calendars. For better or for worse, the notion of young children “dropping in” at other kids’ houses has been replaced by the ritual of supervised and scheduled “play dates.”

And then there was the matter of age difference. When our new neighbors moved in, our daughter Abby was three and a half. Abby was, not surprisingly, thrilled to have a seven-year-old friend. My wife and I thought that our new neighbor’s enthusiasm for “dropping by” would wane once she got settled in and developed friendships with kids her own age. But that never happened. Instead, she was perfectly happy to spend hours at a time at our house, in our family room or out on the sun porch, playing with Abby and even our son Owen, who was one year old.

She was impervious to hints. If you said, in your best bluff and cheerful tone of voice, “Well! It’s time for dinner! Thanks for stopping by!”, she would immediately counter, “Can I stay for dinner?” It wasn’t so much that she was unaware of common social conventions, but rather, I was convinced, she didn’t believe she could afford to abide by them. If you said, “Well, I think your mother would have to give permission for that,” the girl would reply, “Oh, it’s okay with my mother.”

My wife often wondered aloud about that. About where the girl’s mother thought her seven-year-old daughter was all day. I didn’t have to wonder. I knew more than a little about the dynamics of that sort of household.

As Abby grew older, this situation began to correct itself. Abby cultivated her own circle of age-appropriate friends and began to take on more and more extracurricular activities, so there was less time for our neighbor. But nothing ever really changed for the neighbor girl. By this time, we knew that there were a couple of houses in the neighborhood where our neighbor was no longer welcome. If she rang our doorbell and Abby was out somewhere, she would ask, guilelessly, “Can Owen come out and play?” Owen might have been three years old to her nine years. While this was out of the question, both of our kids were still allowed to play with the neighbor girl, if Abby was home and wanted to play, a situation which occurred less and less often. At those times, the neighbor girl would sometimes function, cannily, as a sort of intermediary between Abby and Owen, who, like many brother and sisters, will bicker endlessly. The neighbor kid had many, many disadvantages, but she also had a survivor’s instinct.

And then her father died. There had been a couple of instances of ambulance visits to the house next door and then, one day less than two years ago, that was it. He had passed away. We stopped seeing the neighbor kid’s mother. She just closed herself up in the house. There must have been some money—her husband had been a member of an electrician’s union—but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The lawn went to seed, the mother’s car never left the driveway, and the neighbor kid took to pedaling the streets on her bike for hours at a time. We had her over to our house maybe twice a week, but Abby is nine now and her life is moving on. The visits didn’t always go well. Eventually, the neighbor kid showed up at our door with plastic jugs in hand, saying her mother had sent her over to get some drinking water. Then she came asking for money. Twenty dollars. A few weeks later, they were gone.

I said earlier that I hesitate to bring any of this up with my wife, even to clarify details about which she is surely familiar. My wife has a great deal of empathy for the misfortunate. She organizes yearly drives that provide food and toiletries for the homeless. She’s a Girl Scout troop leader and a regular participator in the kids’ after-school activities. She has a tight network of friends among our neighbors, some of whom have turned to her in times of difficulty. But this one subject is a sore spot with her. Just bringing it up can set her off on a half-hour monologue about the responsibilities of parents to their kids and neighbors to neighbors. She never had much patience—or much empathy—for the woman next door.

I, on the other hand, could never muster much outrage at our neighbors. In part, this was because I have difficulty maintaining much interest at all in the doings of those around us. And I certainly didn’t have to keep an eye on the neighbor kid when she was visiting. My wife did that. But mostly I couldn’t get indignant about the whole business because I recognized their plight all too well.

I knew from my own experience what it was like to discover—at all too young an age—that my parents were not only less than infallible, but essentially untrustworthy. I knew what it was like to live in a house where the bills went unpaid and services were turned off and nobody but me was around to answer the door when the bill collectors showed up. I knew what it was like to go—again and again—to the same neighbors to borrow some pancake batter or spaghetti sauce or five dollars to pay some of what we owed the newspaper boy, to borrow things that we never returned, to go to neighbors who never had to come to us to ask for anything. I knew what it was like to live in a house you could never invite anyone back to because no one was there and the rooms were all empty and it was all too evident that no one gave a crap.

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was eighteen and I never went back. Three decades later, I rarely speak to my parents and I can’t help but think that all of our lives are better for this arrangement. There’s too much back there, in the past, that doesn’t need revisiting, and too little here in the future to build anything on.

My neighbors were here for four years or so, and then they were gone. When they left, as I’ve said, they must have taken only what would fit in a few suitcases and bags. They left a dog with a neighbor and two cats to fend for themselves. My wife fed the cats for a while and then made arrangements to bring them to a local pet shelter.

At night—after work, after my daily run—I stand in my back yard and I can see into the house next door. The painters took down the curtains when they started to paint and the owners promptly added those yards of cloth to one of the hills of junk at the curb.

There are lights on in the two bedrooms that look out on the fence that separates the adjoining properties. I look into those empty rooms and I think of that neighbor kid and I wish for her a future much like the one I’ve been granted, one in which she can look back over the decades at all she has escaped and feel what I feel. No regret, no anger, no sadness, at last, nothing but an abiding sense of relief.

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