Five Houses Down

Remember to close your curtains after dark. If I’m passing by an open window, I’m going to slow down and see what I can see. Though I’ve been rewarded enough through the years to continue indulging my guilty pleasure, it matters not what someone might be doing. It’s just that I’m curious about what’s going on whether driving by a lonely house on a dark country road or gazing at all the neighboring windows from a high-rise hotel room.

Is someone on the phone? What are they talking about? Are those people having a party? Why are all the lights on in that house on the hill with only one car parked in front? The house over there is completely dark at 8:00 every night. What do the occupants do each day that requires them to get up so early? Every residence triggers a long list of questions and provides hours of speculation.


The immaculate house a few doors down. Lacking curb appeal, I’m left to wonder what the owners do all day.

The fifth house east of my childhood home has fascinated me for decades. My mother once remarked that the little white house standing back from the road was so well kept; yet she never saw anyone outside. Keep in mind that we couldn’t see the house from half a mile away unless whizzing by it in our rush to reach the highway, but one would think in 40 years that we’d see someone in the front yard at some point.

Except for meticulously trimmed boxwoods to camouflage the front steps, there are only four other small plants along the front, which do nothing to mask the raised foundation. There are no grand flowerbeds, no colorful borders, nothing to be mowed around or anything to please the eye. The owners are clearly not trying to attract attention or provide visual interest.

In a real estate listing, the smallish dwelling might be described as “cozy” or “quaint” or “meticulous,” but this well-maintained abode raises so many questions in my mind. In an area outside of television cable service, there’s not a satellite dish attached to the slightly pitched roof, and speaking of roofs, I’ve never known this house to need a new one. The white shingles are always in good shape. The lawn is never out of control, but in more than four decades, I’ve never seen anyone mowing it. There are no trees on the front of the lot, and those four plants along the front would take no more than ten minutes to prune, and that would include getting out the tools and putting them away.

There is no barn or garden shed, and the carport, which was added later, no longer has a car in the drive, nor is there anything else stored in it. My last trip to the neighborhood had me slowing down. There was a vehicle in the drive as I passed on the way to see my parents, but there were no cars on the place during the rest of my stay.

I believe someone lives there, and they have the means to keep the place up, but my casual research indicates these people do not enjoy gardening, being outside, watching TV, or getting involved with the neighbors. The backyard is unfenced, there are no pets running toward the road, the house faces north, and some of the windows are high, which indicates limited natural light.

It’s true that I haven’t been around much in decades, but when I was younger, I went by that house at least twice a day. There were never additional cars on holidays, no kids playing in the yard, and there were certainly no eye-popping light displays. These people didn’t even light a candle in the front window.

In my imagination, these two people—perhaps now only one—have been sitting in the dark for almost 50 years discussing anything but gardening, animals, food, exotic travel, and whatever is coming on television tonight.

When I was six, my sister took me trick-or-treating after a battle over my last-minute costume. I liked the idea of dressing up and going out, but I was never keen on asking people to give me candy, which has resulted in my becoming one of those adults who doesn’t like asking for help.

We’d just moved in a couple of months earlier, and perhaps we saw a porch light and mistook its meaning. Dad drove us, and Karen walked me to the door. That Halloween night was the one and only time I’ve ever gotten close to the house though I have passed it thousands of times. The lady of the house dropped pennies into my bag while her husband complimented my costume.

The lack of candy on hand indicated they weren’t expecting trick-or-treaters. I was surely the only kid they’d had that year or perhaps ever. I can recall the husband facing me, standing on his wife’s right, and I think she had blond hair. It could’ve been gray. I have always remembered them being “really old,” but I was six and anyone over 35 could have admitted to being 40 or 70 and I would have believed them. Considering how much time has passed, they couldn’t have been too old that night if either of them are still living in the house and keeping it up.

I was more focused on the coins the lady dropped into my bag. I was ready to reconsider my stance on begging if every knock on the door resulted in cold, hard cash. Because I was blinded by filthy lucre, I missed a wonderful opportunity to steal a glance inside a house that has haunted my imagination for decades. I can’t very well go to the door now and introduce myself as that six year-old kid who came trick-or-treating one time over 40 years ago. The sight of my gray hair would shock them into realizing how long they have been sitting in there night after night as the years became decades and faded into the past. I’ve lost my window of opportunity to know what they’ve been doing in there all this time.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at

Knowledge is Power

“Knowledge is power.” While many people assume Auntie Mame said it, the quote comes from Francis Bacon. Whether the statement has been applied to opinions on sacred texts or the proper mixing of martinis, this is a quote I’ve used as a personal motto for over 30 years.

The summer I turned 20, I lamented the fact that I knew absolutely nothing. I had no original thoughts, and I felt completely incompetent about everything. I was not well read, knew only the arts and literature from what had been assigned in class, and I was terrible at math, secretly hoping I’d never have to solve an equation without a calculator.

I mentioned my incompetence to a few people, and they responded by pointing out my musical ability, though I was surrounded daily by people who were far more knowledgeable and capable than I. Those people were also more passionate about their art. Others attempted to point out my, uh, well, they couldn’t find a thing I was good at. It was at that point I decided to learn as much as possible. The speaker at my sixth-grade graduation said we never stop learning. “We learn something every single day of our lives.” Good. That meant there was still time.

I started out by working with what I had: a good eye and a willingness to absorb. From then on, I surrounded myself with people I enjoy who can also stimulate my brain. I’ve read books, taken classes, watched video, heard opinions, observed live demonstrations, and had my broad general statements challenged in order to hone raw sentiments into solid philosophies about a vast array of topics.

I also set out to be more practical. With my dad, I’d taken the old car I drove to college and sanded it down and painted it one summer. I did that before I was 20, but had forgotten this was solid practical knowledge. I’d eventually take that love of transformation by gathering castoff furniture and making it nice for my first apartment. Then I learned there was more to cooking than opening the freezer and pouring from a can. I could bake bread from the age of 10, but at 21 I really started challenging myself to grow as a cook.

A new herb garden in a forest clearing. Easily accessible to the kitchen unlike the vegetable garden.

A new herb garden in a forest clearing. Easily accessible to the kitchen unlike the vegetable garden.

Gardening came later, as did a host of other practical abilities like rewiring old lamps, installing light fixtures and patching cracks in plaster. With certain subjects I knew not only how it was done, but why it is done a certain way. Throughout the decades, I’ve been blessed to know people who’ve shared similar interests in whatever subject I’ve taken on for that period of time. Such has been a springboard for exploration and more opportunities to gain knowledge.

I’ve also taken jobs, which have challenged me and left me more capable. I worked in a wood shop where I learned how to use various tools. I’ve worked in a bakery where I’ve gotten my hands on professional equipment and have made dozens of bread loaves at one time, run an electric “sheeter” (a most horrific device) and have made gallons of cake frosting in a single shift.

At some point I realized I have a reasonable understanding about a lot of subjects, and I feel comfortable in sharing my knowledge whether or not it’s been requested. When we decided to leave the city and move to the woods, I didn’t see such a life change as a major issue. Self-assured in my knowledge to handle every situation, I was ready for any challenges. The property was beautiful, but the grounds had been neglected.

I’ve found that the biggest purchase most people make requires the least amount of inspection. One tries on clothes for hours, walks around in shoes, studies maps and itineraries for trips, test drives several cars and visits multiple college campuses before deciding. But a house? One might walk through a few, spending no more than 20 minutes in each, but the decision to buy that special place occurs in the first few minutes. You know instantly if it’s going to work.

It’s only after you’re in escrow (or under contract) that the realities start to build. We saw the current property in the fullness of springtime, and loved it as soon as we stepped out of the car. The land with its trees was mainly solid walls of green at that point. When we finally moved in, it was during the summer’s drought. The leaves started falling soon after, and I could see where the occasional cluster of branches needed thinning or a place where a tree didn’t need to be.

“I think we remove two out of every six trees in a cluster,” I said as if the work were nothing more strenuous than weeding a garden. “We can use the wood for the stove,” I added, as if I knew how to use such a thing to heat a house.

In order to accomplish the thinning out, we acquired a chainsaw and had to learn the process for cutting down trees. We also learned that trees, when set adrift from their roots, have a special relationship with gravity. The accuracy of the “felling notch,” another new term which has become a regular part of our vocabulary, is crucial when you want to make a tree land in the general vicinity you’ve decided upon. I say “general vicinity” because I’ve yet to master “specific target.” And a note on the wood stove: with minimal fuss, I can now get the great room as hot as a nursing home lobby without burning the wood too rapidly.

Trees and stoves haven’t been the only things to learn. We installed a hot tub, but there’s no such thing as a pool guy to come by each week to do the chemical maintenance. Thanks to the advice of friends and the lady at the spa store, we’re getting better at this.

New geography has meant learning new types of plants and how they grow. While we’re not yet experts on well pumps and French drains, we’ve learned about safely eradicating invasive plants, and keeping gloves in the car in case we happen to encounter a tree that’s fallen across the driveway. Luckily, most have been light enough so one person can clear them away, but there was that big one during the December windstorm. We have a lot more sawing to do!

When we first arrived, each day presented me with a new experience, but I recently mentioned to Gary that we’ve learned much more than we ever thought we would. A year ago, we couldn’t imagine ourselves attempting to remove a single tree, much less the dozens we’ve taken down in the past few months. In the city, we mostly gardened in containers. Nowadays, we look at various clearings and contemplate how they’ll be used in the future. We used to discuss weekend plans thus: “Did you want to grab a bite at Musso & Frank before or after the theatre?” Now our conversation sounds more like this: “Let’s put the new pallets in the wood bin on Saturday so we can start stacking and curing all this firewood. Winter will be here before you know it.”

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at