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.

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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

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Cathy’s Ghost

I had the Studio City apartment for over nine years. It was the longest place I had ever lived as an adult, and there were a great deal of memories made there. The place was spacious by city standards, and there was rent control. I was only the second tenant to inhabit my unit in the 45 years since the place had been built. We spent a few holidays there, celebrated joyous times, and made it through sad times. I completely rewrote Moral Ambiguity there, and I wrote the first draft of Tossed Off the Edge in the same spot. I perfected a few advanced cooking skills in that place, and I took many trips while I lived there. Like Auntie Mame’s #3 Beekman Place, it was waiting for me when I returned.

There were 32 apartments in the building with underground parking, and even as I was taking boxes out during my move, I encountered people on the elevator that I had not seen for almost a decade though they swore that they had lived there for years. I realized this because one of them asked me if I were moving in. Moving in?

Had we not seen each other on the roof for July 4th fireworks? Did they not get their mail or drive out of the building at regular hours? I knew I didn’t know everyone, but I thought I surely knew the long-term residents. Perhaps they were not as notable as some of the people living on my end of the building.

There was Cathy with a C. She worked for a dentist in the neighborhood. She had moved from Cleveland somewhere in the late 80s, but her license plate still said Ohio. She wore sweats and was from whatever generation that gave up wearing Lycra to keep everything in place. She loved cats and said she’d have 20, but no pets were allowed. She threatened to get one, but there was no more talk of cats once the ghost came.

Cathy was always having issues with apartment 204. She said it smelled like curry when she moved in. That’s because a pistol of a woman lived there before her and cooked with all sorts of spices. That seems to have been the only thing to cover the smell of cigarettes after the international car thieves were arrested and cleared out. They’d been running some sort of scam where they stole cars, shipped them to foreign lands, collected insurance, bought other cars and repeated the cycle. The cars would be taken to a shipping container and hidden behind a false wall of knockoff designer handbags and shoes.

It seems there is not a lot of active work in being international car thieves. Other people do the heavy lifting, so to speak. Their car, the most expensive BMW model made, sat in its space much of the time. Everyone wondered why anyone who could afford such a car would be living in such a simple apartment, but insurance money or no, our building might have been all they could afford.

When they were in residence, they smoked so much that the common hallway on our floor was as like walking through fog. Stinking fog. I really didn’t notice them much until one afternoon when two women in sparkly clothes and purses that looked like something you’d see a streetwalker carry in a Starsky & Hutch episode came out of their apartment and got on the elevator with me. The two goons were right behind them, and I felt like an obvious intruder into what was obviously the end of an afternoon delight.

I’d been traveling for a couple of weeks when I returned home and learned from two neighbors that they had been arrested. They had saved the television footage for me. The goons had planned to make a break for it by moving out in the middle of the night, but the building superintendent had insomnia, and the best time to find him in the building was while everyone was sleeping. I was sorry to have missed the excitement.

So Cathy in 204, separated from the car thieves by the spicy lady who stayed only six months after declaring the super to be the meanest man she’d ever met, was fine until the NBC executive on the floor below died of a heart attack. When I first moved in, we had so many ambulances out front that you’d think we were an assisted living establishment, but people get old in their rent controlled apartments, and they die. Death in a building; that’s where the ghosts must come from.

Personally, I could explain all the bumps and moaning I heard. I was surrounded by noisy neighbors. The family of four above me sounded like they were running a gymnastics camp that met in the evenings, and the moaning wafted in from next door as the hard-of-hearing senior belted out You Made Me Love You until four in the morning.

I was taking out my garbage one Saturday afternoon when I ran into Cathy coming out of the laundry room. We were neighbors for over six years, but never once stepped foot into the other’s apartment. She asked if I’d heard about the NBC executive who had died downstairs. I had assumed such because there was yellow police tape across his front door and a letter from the LA County coroner demanding that no one cross it. I suspected foul play for his being on somebody’s bad side about Community, a show that had more lives than a cat though I never understood why.

The reality turned out to be nothing more than dying without a will and no known relatives, but the mystery for us residents wasn’t solved for nearly a year. With his estate in flux and dying “before his time,” Cathy insisted that he was haunting her apartment one floor above.

“I’m serious!” she exclaimed after I smiled a little too broadly. “There are flashes of light and whooshing noises all the time. It’s hard to sleep because of the racket.”

She was in no mood to be reminded of our proximity to the flight path of Burbank’s airport and a steady stream of street traffic. After enough chatting to indicate that I had listened but needed to go, I excused myself and marked her down as another kooky neighbor to avoid. Not that I would deny the existence of a ghost per se, but with all of LA to haunt, why be tied to our building with its dated lobby furniture left over from its swingin’ sixties heyday?

"Mercy" taking us on a graveyard tour on Halloween night. We saw no ghosts.

“Mercy” taking us on a graveyard tour on Halloween night. We saw no ghosts.

Months later I saw Cathy in the garage. She had to tell me about all the excitement she’d been having. First, she was redolent with pot smoke, so I knew the story would be a good one.

“It turns out the ghost was not the man from downstairs.”

“Really?” I asked. I had some time to kill, and I knew the update would be well worth standing there for a few minutes.

“Yeah,” she said before a grand pause that was due more to the gathering of drug-induced thoughts than dramatic effect. “The ghost was molesting my boyfriend while he slept, so I called a psychic to tell me what was going on.”

“Wow!”

“Yeah! The psychic lives in Cleveland. I used to know him when I lived there. He took a look at the situation and then told me what to do.”

“You mean he came all the way to LA to investigate?”

“No, he saw it psychically while I was on the phone with him. It was really cool. I walked around the apartment and described each room to him. He tapped into my mind and could see what I saw.”

“Cool.” To have said what I was thinking or give any other response would’ve shut her down, and I really wanted to know more about this promiscuous presence.

“Yeah, right? So he had me sit quietly for a few minutes while he summoned the presence. This breezy image starts to form in front of me, and I can see the ghost. I could see her!”

She seemed to have overlooked the possibility that the vapors rising from her bong could explain a lot. I found myself less interested in the possibility of a ghost, and was suddenly more curious about the hallucinogens she’d been using to enrich her weed.

“So it turns out that she was a starlet in the twenties. She was having an affair with one of the studio heads, and he dumped her. She lived in this building and ended up committing suicide. He said that there was no doubt about it. She lived in my apartment! Isn’t that crazy?”

“Wow!”

“I know! He’s calling me tonight or tomorrow to explain how to have an exorcism. Did I tell you that she’s been molesting me while I sleep?”

“I thought it was just your boyfriend.” Come to think of it, I’d never seen a boyfriend come or go, and my apartment was on her way to the elevator.

“At first, but he wouldn’t stay over anymore. Once she realized he wasn’t coming back, she decided to get into bed with me. The psychic said she was desperate to get my attention because she wants my help.”

“And you’re sure she died in your apartment?”

“Positive. Somewhere about nineteen twenty-one or two.”

“Cathy, you know that this building was built in nineteen sixty-nine, don’t you?”

“What?” It took her a moment. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that our building is not the same building if she died over forty years before it was built.”

“Hmmm.” Cathy paused for a moment to consider the math and the fact that our building in the San Fernando Valley looked nothing like those older buildings in Hollywood. “I’m going to ask him when he calls.

It's more likely to find a ghost in a spooky graveyard than in a Los Angeles apartment.

It’s more likely to find a ghost in a spooky graveyard than in a Los Angeles apartment.

A few days passed before I saw Cathy again. She was getting her mail when I came home from work.

“How did everything go with the exorcism?”

“Oh, that. Yeah, well, the psychic had me lighting candles and saying all sorts of words. There was a rustle of something in the corner then I saw those lights again before she disappeared with a whoosh.”

“Is she finally gone?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Oh, I asked him to clarify where she died and told him that he must be mistaken since our building was newer. He said that they had torn down an old building from the twenties to build ours. She killed herself in that old apartment building, and her spirit remained all through the demolition and new construction. That’s why no one ever stayed in my apartment very long. The ghost decided that she liked that place the best.”

I restrained myself from saying what an unflagging ghost this was to have hung around for a new building. I also didn’t point out to Cathy, who has surely never been in the men’s room at Chin-Chin on Ventura Boulevard, that there are enlarged photos of Studio City from the 1940s and 50s hanging on the wall. Where our street would be, you see nothing but undeveloped land from Ventura Boulevard to the north. I wondered what her psychic would say to that.

©2014 by Patrick Brown