Sunday, August 16, 2015


A few months ago the house two doors down caught on fire.  The flames spread quickly, and when I heard the gathering of sirens outside my door, I stopped writing and went upstairs to see what was going on.  By that time, flames were leaping thirty feet into the air and a pungent white smoke covered the neighborhood. One rubbernecker claims to have heard a fireman say that the smell was typical of burning meth labs? A meth lab? Right here?

The rumor has gained traction because months later, the ruined house is still standing. It is empty and desolate, a burned-out shell ill at ease in its genteel surroundings. The roof is scorched and the windows and doors have been covered with plywood. The yard is overgrown and a dumpster has been sitting in the driveway for weeks. More recently, teams of men arrive daily in pick-up trucks to strip the house of its few remaining assets. They have taken the moldings, the kitchen appliances, the washer and dryer,, the copper pipes and, I believe, the heating and cooling system. I’m not sure what the house’s future entails. More and more, people are complaining that the ruined structure is lowering property values, which I’m sure is true.

 I remember the house from the man who used to live there until he died about ten years ago.  Jim was a retired military, a filterless Camel chain smoker whose Nordic wife had left him. The house had a pool and Jim planned to have bachelor parties with booze and barely-clad babes.

 Those plans didn’t work out. The booze was there, the barely-clad babes must have gotten lost on the way.  Jim got lonely. He went to Russia and found a wife. Olga arrived some months later, a tall brunette with an attitude and an 18-year-old son she hadn’t told Jim about. I never learned the young man’s name but he actually looked closer to thirty than eighteen. He was somewhat brutish, but I suspect that’s because his head was shaved, a novelty at the time.

The son turned out to be Olga’s boyfriend.  

 I’m not sure how Jim managed it, but he got rid of Olga and friend. For a while he drank a lot and I was afraid he might fall into his swimming pool and drown. He got a basset hound that bayed at the moon.

 A year after Olga’s departure, Jim went overseas again and soon a second Russian lady appeared. Tatyana was blonde and friendly and told me in broken English that in Minsk she’d been an electrical engineer. This being said, I saw that AC/DC power mystified her; she shorted out the pool heater, which forced Jim to hire an electrician to replace and rewire the entire system.   

 Tatyana and Jim were happy together. I’d see the two of them holding hands to walk the hound. She balked at carrying the plastic bag to harvest the dog’s droppings, so Jim had to do that. He didn’t seem to mind.

 About a year after that Jim was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Neither chemo nor radiation helped since he was still smoking a pack of Camels a day and had no intentions of stopping. He died five months later.

 Tatyana was now the owner of a house in suburban Virginia. She’d found a job working with dementia patients, and she took Jim’s death hard. She told me he’d had been a good and kind man who’d left her well-off, what with the house, the insurance, and retirement benefits.

 She kept the house for a time but got lonely too. One day she said she would be going back to Minsk. She missed the winters and her friends.

 The house sold quickly. The new owners had three small kids whom I could hear play in the pool during the summer months.  That family stayed there a couple of years and sold the house to investors, who rented it out to a young couple with a baby, who in turn lost the place to the fire.

 Every house has a story.

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