By J Thomas Fussell
Mary Sue stood on her porch and stared through tightly squinted eyes at the house across the street. The damn thing was hard to see these days. Was it fading, or was she? Some days she didn’t know. She put her hands at her lower back and scratched with old gnarled fingers swollen at the joints from the arthritis. Years of hard work hadn’t helped that, Lord no, just the opposite in fact, but she wouldn’t let a little pain stop her. No sir. Sometimes a person has to swallow some misery to move forward. Mary Sue always thought it was God’s little way to keep you from reaching the end too soon. Apparently, He wanted her to continue for some time, but the end was coming.
She pressed against her hip and stretched, producing a loud pop that reverberated up her spine as if her vertebrae were dominoes all in a row. She cackled at the sensation and the brief relief it delivered. She sighed. God, she was old. “Old like Moses,” she like to say. When asked, Mary Sue would say, “Well I reckon I reason like a fifty-year old, run like a hundred-year old, and feel somewhere in-between on most days.” The truth would startle most, if not everyone, who asked her that question. And although Mary Sue wasn’t exactly sure herself, she had a pretty good idea it was at least as “Old as Moses” but she wasn’t about to tell anyone. She didn’t want a bunch of doctors and ne’er-do-wells harassing her day and night like the old days. She didn’t have time for that kind of thing. She had things to do, and based on the house across the street, she didn’t have a lot of time left. Besides, no one would believe her anyway.
Mary studied the house across the street. Its Gothic shutters appeared to have fallen since last night. That explained why she was having trouble seeing today. She would have to make herself a note to call Mike tomorrow and see if he could put them back up. He was the only handy man who would still answer her calls. They all thought she was crazy when she asked them to fix the house across the street It wasn’t even hers, and no-body wanted to take money from dotty old Mary Sue. Even though she had been doing it for years. Mike still would though, he would take her money. Mary wasn’t sure if that made him a bad man, but at least he tried to fix what she asked, even if he usually wanted the money up front and didn’t always do a good job. Mary Sue wondered if Mike was decaying too. He spent a lot of time in the neighborhood and his skill and work ethic appeared to be in steady decline; perhaps he was, although it wasn’t her doing, not directly anyway. No matter, he was his own man and didn’t have to take her money if he didn’t want the work.
A cold wind blew down the street and whirled into a dust devil in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Mary Sue shivered and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Leaves scattered noisily in the bluster and spun upwards, riding the devil. Her house was the only one which remained whole and occupied on the whole street. All others had fallen into ruin, only hers and the one across the street still even resembled houses. The others had long ago collapsed into basements, or fallen onto overgrown lawns becoming vine covered lumps that now looked more like small hills or earthen mounds hidden among the trees.
This neighborhood had gone the way of most when she was involved and had her way about it (and this time she had), quietly and with a little dignity and grace, like the slow decay of an old oak tree deep in the woods. The whole thing would go to seed, and it would take years for the city to reclaim it. But as the last house finally crumbled away, Mary knew it was time to move on. She had put it off long enough. She sighed. She had hoped new neighbors would move in and revitalize the area; but once the blight sets in, there is no going back.
She hated moving. When had she moved last? She struggled to recall. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be. Like this place, the slow decay of age and solitude ate at her underpinnings, and things that had been easy to recall slipped away from her like a shutter succumbing to gravity when the rot behind it would no longer hold its weight.
Mary Sue turned from the house across the street and went back inside. She wasn’t there to see a small portion of the roof collapse under its own weight, but she felt it in her spirit; she had never felt so old. Yes, it was definitely time to move.
The steady beeping of a garbage truck backing up the street woke Mary Sue from a deep sleep. It was a sound Mary Sue had not heard in a long time; not since the Markle family, who had lived in the house across the street, had moved to Boston. Why would a garbage truck be backing up the street now? She did not subscribe to the service as she produced very little actual waste and just burned or composted what she did.
She moved to the window and peered out. Dear God! It wasn’t a garbage truck at all. A large semi-trailer carrying a back-hoe and a bulldozer back languidly towards the Markle house. When it reached the driveway, a loud hissing broke the stillness as the truck’s brakes outgassed. Two men climbed from the cab and looked around. One, a tall man in blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat; the other, a short, burly man with dark, curly hair wore a white baseball cap with some sports team’s logo on the front. The short man gestured towards Mary Sue’s house and then towards the Markle house. The tall man shrugged and then began the process of unloading the heavy equipment. That didn’t bode well. Mary decided she needed to go out and talk with the two men to find out what was going on. She didn’t want to change her timelines. It took time to find the perfect neighborhood, but if this portended what she imagined it did, she may not have a choice.
Bob Chatman pushed up his cowboy hat and said, “Holy Shit,” when he saw Mary Sue walking across her lawn towards him. Terry, his partner on this job, had strolled up the driveway to the bigger house to assess the best starting point for the teardown. Bob stuck his thumb in forefinger in his mouth and produced a shrill whistle. Terry looked around, and Bob jerked his head in the direction of Mary Sue.
Terry Reyna’s eyes opened wide when he saw Mary Sue moving with obvious difficulty towards the truck. Had she come from the small house across the street? That house, along with the one in front of him, was to be demolished this week. Did no one bother to check for occupancy? This was going to cost him at least a week or more while they had the old woman relocated.
“Shit,” Terry mumbled under this breath, unknowingly echoing his partner. He took a deep breath and let it out slow, then walked to meet the old woman and find out what could be done.
This job was supposed to be easy. Demolish and clean up the cul-de-sac neighborhood of Windswept Hills. The beauty of the job was that most of the work had been done for them. Only two unoccupied houses remained. The rest had all fallen into deep decay, and that meant easy bulldozer work for the most part. But no, a job could never be easy. There was always something that threw a kink in the plans.
He knew of the Windswept Hills neighborhood from long ago. As a child, he had a good friend that he had visited often who lived in a house two doors up the street, a house that had apparently fallen into ruins long ago. Terry had vague memories of his friend Jack’s father complaining about how many things were going wrong on their house even then, but that was forty years ago and his memory might not be a hundred percent accurate. He wondered what could cause such rapid decomposition. He had never seen anything like it in all his years of construction.
As Terry reached the end of the Markle’s driveway, Mary Sue was hobbling around the back of the truck. Bob hopped down from the flatbed and said, “Howdy Ma’am.”
“How do, young sir,” the old woman said.
“Good Morning,” Terry said.
“That is yet to be seen,” Mary Sue replied. “What, pray tell, are you youngsters about with your bulldozers and the such?”
“Well, Miss?” Terry started, prompting her for a name.
“Mary Sue will do just fine, thank you,” Mary answered.
“Ok, Mary Sue. I’m Terry and this is Bob. We’ve been hired by Flemming’s Realty, who recently purchased all this property, to demolish all remaining structures in Windswept Hills. They’re planning on revitalizing the entire neighborhood over the next ten years. I was made to understand no one lived here currently, but that information is obviously in error.”
“I should say so. I have been here for fifty-three years next week. “
“Really?” Terry asked surprised. “Did you know the Thompson’s?”
Mary looked surprised for a moment and then smiled, showing old and crooked teeth stained brown from years of coffee and tea. “Ah yes. Melanie, David, Jack, and little Madelyn. They lived two doors up from the Markle family, whose house you are about to demolish. They left in ’93 if memory serves. It was such a shame about poor little Madelyn. Don’t you think? The poor dear…”
“Damn, I forgot all about her. She was so young when she died. I seem to recall some sort of wasting disease. Is that right?”
“That’s right. She died at seven, unable to even lift her head at the end. Such a shame.” Mary Sue thought back to those days long ago and remembered the screams of Melanie that had reverberated around the neighborhood when she found her daughter dead. The neighborhood, although already in decline, had been so much more vital back then. With all of those neighbors, she had never suffered for a meal. Even so, the little one had been a tragedy that could not be ignored, and the progression of the blight had picked up speed after that. Such was always the case.
Terry suddenly remembered Mary Sue from his childhood. What had happened to her? He remembered he and Jack thinking she was a straight up hottie. They had called her a MILF until they learned she had no children; then, she was simply Hot Mary Sue from across the street. Hell, the woman looked to be over a hundred now. How could that be? He thought maybe she was like some women who look youthful until they hit a certain age, after which they appear to age decades per year.
Bob decided he was not needed in the conversation and said, “Ma’am,” with a nod to Mary Sue, and then, “I’ll get back to unloading,” to Terry.
Terry nodded, then turned back to Mary Sue and said, “I do remember you from back in the day. I can’t believe the assessor didn’t say anything about you. Did you see the man? He would have been here about two months ago. Short guy, um,” he looked thoughtful, “Mark Welby, I think his name was. He wore black rimmed glasses and dressed kind of funny, like those kids these days. I’m sure you would remember his beard if nothing else.” He held his hand under his chin about six inches. “It was easily down to here.”
“Ah yes, Terry Reyna, that’s why you looked familiar. But no, I never saw a Mr. Welby,” Mary answered. “Maybe I was out that day, and when he didn’t get a response from the front door, Mr. Welby must have thought no one remained. My house is a little run down, you know.” Mary did remember the man. When he came knocking, she had been in no mood to chat. She had been hungry, and with very little remaining to eat at home, she had been reluctant to allow a visitor, especially so young and vital a man as Mr. Welby. She had to be cautious these days; time was short.
Damn, she had a good memory, Terry marveled. He hadn’t told her his last name, but was pleased to be remembered by one who had been so attractive. He stayed in business mode though and said, “That sounds plausible. Well, we’ll not be able to do anything today. Your house was first on the agenda, and I can’t see us switching to the house across the street today. I need a bigger crew for a two-story monster like that. Let us finish unloading. Then Bob and I’ll get out of your hair while we talk to the boss. I imagine you’ll be getting additional visitors in the next couple of days.” Terry smiled wanly and added, “I’m terribly sorry about this, Mary Sue. I hope you have somewhere to go, because I don’t think they will let you stay. The property’s already been sold.”
A tear slid down Mary Sue’s cheek and a hard look crossed her features. She reached out one gnarled hand and stroked the side of Terry’s cheek. “It’s not your fault,” was all that she said.
The tear broke Terry’s heart. God, he felt low. Worthless, really. How could a company buy this woman’s property out from under her without permission? And here he was, the catalyst to her unhappiness. A knot formed in his stomach and he suddenly felt queasy. He needed to sit down. He suddenly felt weak as if he had the full-blown flu. Where did this come from? A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and headache formed behind his eyes.
“Are you okay?” Mary Sue asked. “You look peaked.”
“I don’t know,” Terry asked, worried at this sudden onset. “I do feel a little under the weather all of a sudden. I think I’m going to sit down for a second.” He moved to the cab of the truck. He opened the door and reached into the side pocket. He brought out a business card and turned back to Mary Sue. The sunlight hit her face and suddenly he saw the beauty he had seen in his youth. Maybe she wasn’t as old as he first thought. She was still old, but over a hundred, no way. “Call this man,” he pointed to a name on the card, “if you have any questions before the assessor comes back out.” He wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how. He said, “Sorry for the bad news. I hope you have a pleasant rest of your day.” With that, he climbed into the cab and closed the door.
Bob watched Mary Sue march back across her lawn. Anger must be good for the old biddy. She hadn’t walked up to the truck with that kind of spring in her step. That was a woman on a mission. He didn’t envy whoever she was about to call. He couldn’t imagine that conversation was going to be fun for either side.
Back in her house, Mary watched Bob drive the two big machines off the flatbed and park them in the Markle’s driveway. The bulldozer snagged the mailbox as it went by and ripped it out of the ground. Mary gasped at the destruction. Yes, it was definitely time to move. At least now she wouldn’t have to do it on an empty stomach.
She walked into her hall, the floor creaking in several places as she moved, and pulled down the attic stairs from the ceiling.
“Ah, almost forgot the wine,” she said and retraced a few steps to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle along with three glasses. She placed it all in a basket and returned to the stairs. Without further ado, Mary Sue climbed the stairs into the attic. “Sisters, I’ve got news. Get out the maps and load stone. We must move ere morning light once again drapes our stoop in its warm amber glow.”
A cold wind blew from the gaping hole in the ceiling and ruffled her skirts and apron as she climbed as if the house itself sighed. When the last stair was mounted and Mary Sue stepped into the dark, the stairs folded up behind her of their own accord, and a bright light flashed briefly around the edges of the closing trapdoor.
Bob Chatman drove out to Windswept Hills in his own Ford Truck first thing the following morning. He had lost his cell phone and had searched everywhere. This was the last place. He searched the bar from last night. The one he found after he and Terry had gotten their asses chewed at the office when they returned from Windswept Hills. The boss didn’t want to hear that it was Welby’s fault, and that little prick was no where to be seen when the screaming started. Bob drank his fill that night, but not so much that he could not remember the evening. Terry didn’t go, to which Bob had been secretly ecstatic. Terry looked like shit, and Bob did not want to catch whatever bug Terry had contracted. Suffice to say, as he pulled up next to the bulldozer in Windswept Hills, his phone had not been at the bar.
He stepped out of the car and walked up to the bulldozer, kicking the mailbox off the side as he did. The mailbox itself burst into shards of rust eaten metal.
“Wow, what a piece of shit!” He said with a laugh, and then groaned as the sound spiked his hangover headache.
He climbed into the cab and saw his phone sitting on the floor under the driver’s seat. “And there you are,” he said picking up the phone. He sat in the Bulldozer’s seat for a second and checked his phone to see if he had missed any calls. He had two calls from Amber, Terry’s wife, and a call from his boss.
He opened his phone to call Amber when a loud pop and the groan of straining timbers pulled his attention to the Markle’s house. Dear God. The house was leaning to the left at a seventy-degree angle as if a giant had pushed on the other side. As Bob watched, a puff of dust blew out of three of the windows as something else inside collapsed. There was another two or three loud pops and the house crumbled with a soft rumble into a mound of broken boards, pipes, and other debris.
Bob stared, slacked mouth, his mind both stunned and excited by what he just saw.
“Woohoo!” He finally screamed. “Holy shit, nobody’s going to believe that shit.”
He pulled up his phone to take a picture and discovered his screen had cracked in several places. He wondered if he had stepped on it after if fell from his pocket. He would have thought he would have noticed the crunch. The phone came on, but he wasn’t able to make the camera work. He suddenly remembered Mary Sue, and he turned to see if she had been lucky enough to witness the collapse. His heart skipped a beat, he blinked in surprise and shook his head in disbelief. The house on the other side of the street was gone. Not fallen over like the one behind him just now, but gone as if it had never been there in the first place. There wasn’t even a hole for a basement or foundation, not even a brown spot in the grass to indicate where the house had been. And hadn’t there been bushes and maybe a fence? He couldn’t remember now. How could a house just be gone? The excitement of the collapse behind him fell away as he contemplated this new mystery.
A shiver ran up Bob’s spine. He and Terry had not shared some sort of hallucination, that only happened in the movies. He would swear on a stack of Bibles that there had been a house and an old lady here yesterday. The boss was going to be pissed. They had lost a full day…
Of course, the job, the paperwork. He hopped out of his car and hurried over to the cab of the bulldozer. He unlocked the door and grabbed the clipboard on the seat. There it was in black ink on the thin pink middle copy of the orders form. “August 12th, 2019 Demolish 115 Windswept Terrace, Terry Reyna lead + 1. On completion, Demolish 112 Windswept Terrace, Terry Reyna lead +3.” So, he wasn’t crazy. He looked at the small pile of forms that came with orders such as these.
“City forms, and state forms, and federal forms, oh my!” Bob heard Terry say as clear as day. Another shiver ran up his spine even though sweat already pooled at the base of his neck. It was going to be a hot day. He pulled out the city property form showing lot lines and addresses. Lot 115 was a narrow piece of property, and there was no footprint of the missing structure on the lot map. But… it had been there. Had the old lady been squatting all these years?
He shook his head again as if he could shake loose some explanation. He needed another drink, a little hair-of-the-dog as it were. He walked slowly back to his truck, first looking at the collapsed house, and then over to the missing house. It didn’t make sense. He stepped up into the driver’s seat of his pickup truck. Bob leaned on the wheel for support for a moment and took a deep breath. He wasn’t going crazy. He just needed to get out of here. He started the truck and looked around one last time. He needed to talk with Terry.
His phone beeped, indicating he had received a text. He glanced at it, and a lump climbed into his throat and gasp escaped his mouth. He had to turn the truck back off. Tears flooded his eyes. He could not have read that right. He read the message again. It read, “Hey Bob, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you. Terry died last night. Doctor says massive heart attack. I’m back home now. Call when you can. Amber”
To be Continued…