Monday, June 14, 2010
The Fire Next Door
My friend Michelle Hickman, over at The Surly Writer, wrote a while back about her Neighbors From Hell. Which poked my memory for a somewhat similar story from my own young life. . . ------------------------- I bought my first house a few months after I started my first 'real job', a few months after I finally finished college. It just seemed like The Thing to Do - you know, getting 'established', owning a house, being in debt, all that good stuff. Alas, I was too terribly 'green' to know much what I was doing, and I didn't make the wisest choice for my First House. It was small, had virtually no yard, was three doors from a main thoroughfare, and two from a KFC (those Eleven Secret Herbs and Spices are tasty enough when you're eating some chicken-fast-food; but when they inundate your senses day after day after DAY after freakin' DAY - not so much). And there was an alley (sort of a cut-through in the middle of the block; I think it was meant to provide access to back-door parking for businesses along the aforementioned thoroughfare) that ran right alongside the house. But, being so new to drawing a paycheck, I hadn't saved up much of a down-payment, and so this little mislocated dwelling was all I could afford, just yet. This lack of available cash also had its impact in terms of what part of town I could afford to buy into, and who my neighbors were. Now, I had lived in the same general neighborhood a couple summers when I was in college, and I rather enjoyed living in a more, um, 'working-class' neighborhood, alongside folks who were pretty 'real' and unpretentious. Which has its good side and its bad side. (It's sorta like what Bill Cosby once said, in response to the assertion that 'cocaine intensifies your personality' - "But what if you're an asshole?"; unpretentiousness can cut both ways. . .) My closest next-door neighbors were a wonderful old couple, whose children were our age. They could not have been more delightful - we had each other over for dinner, and in the few years we lived in that house, we formed a friendship that lasted for years. Jen and I went to the wife's funeral visitation just a couple weeks ago; she was 96 years old. My other neighbors, across the alley, were not quite so delightful. It was a couple (I don't know if they were married; not that it matters, at least for purposes of this story), probably close to my age, or a few years older, and their relationship was, how shall I say - volatile. Both of them had a fondness for the distilled spirits, and it was a regular occurrence, especially on weekends, for me to be awakened at 2 or 3AM by the two of them screaming at each other in their front yard. I don't know what either of them did for their daily sustenance, but I'm pretty sure that at least part of it involved sales of recreational pharmaceuticals. Once, I came home from work and parked my car behind the house, off the alley, and saw the guy toss a small packet down from the second-floor balcony, to a guy I'd never seen before, waiting in the alley below. So I feel justified in saying that these were not the nicest of people. Of course, this was also around the time that Jen and I were about to begin our courtship, and in the back of my mind was the thought that, if all went well, I'd be bringing my bride to live with me in this house before too much longer, and possibly raising children there, as well (if I'd only known, heh-heh-heh). So one night, when I was once again awakened in the middle of the night to screaming and multiple crashes of broken glass (both windows and whiskey bottles), I turned to prayer. I told God that I aimed to bring my wife to this house, hopefully before too long, and to raise children here, as well. It was all very earnest and young-aspiring-husband protective. I told Him that I couldn't properly bring my family into a house with neighbors like these. In my desperation, I asked God to get them out of there - move them someplace else, whatever - just get them away from next door to my house. And then I drifted back to sleep. ------------------------- As it happened, the next weekend, I was gone on a retreat. It was a good retreat, and I returned home refreshed in body, mind and spirit. As I turned my car onto my street, and then into the alley, a surreal scene greeted me. The roof of the house across the alley was missing, and the entire second floor was blackened and charred. A mattress lay in the alley, still smoldering from a few burned holes. "Oh, Lord!" I thought. "I didn't mean for You to burn their house down!" Immediately the thought came into my head, "You asked me to get them out of there. They're gone." And I confess that chills ran down my spine, when I considered the almost off-handed (though certainly desperate) way in which I'd prayed the prayer, and now to be faced with what, at least to my eyes, was the very stark answer my prayer had recieved. . . ------------------------- I don't know what ever became of those neighbors of mine. As far as I was able to know from the other neighbors, neither of them was hurt in the fire, so I was glad to know that. But I never saw either of them again after that, as far as I know. Within a few weeks, the landlord had begun repairs on the burned-out second floor of the house, and before the snow fell, the house was good as new, at least to outward appearances. Jen and I got married the following summer, and we lived in that house for another two-and-a-half years. 1F was born during the time we lived there. When she was six months old, we moved to a larger house two blocks away, which was more happily located in real estate terms. We lived in that house for 17 years, moving to our current house ten years ago this spring. I owned that first house for another two years, renting it out (and proving to myself, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I really, really didn't want to be a landlord) until I was finally able to sell it. But that's another story for another day. . .