The Last to Set it Free

Suze stood beside a Christmas tree stand, her arms crossed. “Now what?” she barked.

“It’s not ours. None of this.” Darnell didn’t feel right.

“Eff you and your Mama’s conscience, Darnell. They ain’t comin’ back. They ARE NOT RETURNING. If they wanted it, they would have took it with them.”

Something sad about an empty house, thought Darnell. Broken entertainment center glass in the front room, angular puddles on the beige carpet. But for a six foot extension cord, a dampened issue of House Beautiful, a standing lamp with a bent shade, and a child’s black sneaker (only one), the room was clear. Suze picked up the tree stand; it dangled from her arm like a hi-tech shield. She had wide shoulders, fleshy arms, the wide stance of a rugby player.

Darnell looked at her with his puppy dog eyes, but she wasn’t trading in sympathy. All business. Eyes of the lone coyote circling in for the kill. Darnell thought of the Indigo Girls song: “I’ll be the first to praise the sun, the first to praise the moon.”

“At WalMart these go for 18 bucks. That’s half a tank of gas,” she said.

“We could have waited till tomorrow.”

They had seen the routine before. Once the dump-out crews cleaned the rest of the place out, there was usually a 12–24 hour wait before the truck showed up.

“And what’s left of the neighbors time to pick it over?” There were people out on the web, she said, scouting these pack outs. They had connections with real estate agents. Buzzards on phone lines waiting to swoop down.

“Listen, it’s December 21, and we ain’t got a tree up. What you waitin’ for?”

It had once been a clean house, a blend of stucco and red tile and faux marble floors, Mexican-lite for white folks. Out back was sagebrush, weeds poking up like barbecue skewers and the pool, now a putrescent green post-industrial soup of mutant algae that glowed at night. A six-foot treated lumber fence divided the property from theirs. Beyond, the incessant hum of the high tension wires, the freeway, and the distant ridges of San Jacinto.

“I can feel their ghosts in here, Suze. Like shadow figures.”

“Would you stop it with that? You watch too much Ghost Hunters. John and Nicole not even dead, you turn ‘em to ghosts.”

To him, as presences in his life, the Andertons were already figments, and to an extent, had always been so. What had they talked about since they had moved in around 2007? The Dodgers, Kobie, some reality TV show that nobody watched anymore? What of certainty had gone down over that fence? Some of these neighbors came and went and he’d never learned their names. And worse yet, he didn’t think hard about that until now.

“They have departed, though. It’s kind of like a death. They ain’t coming back, fo’ sure.”

“Awesome deduction, Holmes. They probably someplace sweet by now. She came from money.”

“Won’t be getting a Christmas card this year.”

“Take that footstool. We could use that.”

Darnell stared around the place, scanning the blank walls, glancing in closets. In high school, he had a fundamentalist white friend named Troy, who’d invited him to a youth group meeting, where they had showed a film about the rapture. Snatched away, left behind. Like that. Leaving him in hell with their 37 inch TV set not ready for high def. Except he wasn’t sure John and Nicole had gone to a better place. Leaving this place, the family had made his neighborhood feel worse, deader, except for the traffic. Rush hour was decidedly easier to manage, lately. Always bright spots beside the shadows.

“Leave the stool on the back patio. We’ll come back later for it.”

He had seen them slink off late at night on a Wednesday, what remained of the development quiet and dark and comatose till morning. Darnell had trouble falling asleep and was playing Gameboy by the window, the blinds open to their backyard. He enjoyed the neighborhood at night, the long ghoulish shadows of the security lamps, the howls of coyotes up in the hills. A patio light triggered on; he doused the Gameboy and watched from the darkened room while the Andertons carried their two squeaky white kids – Ronnie and Paula – draped in blankets, to the backseat of their Ford Escape. They moved swiftly, quietly stashing belongings in green garbage bags aside their designer luggage, carrying them from the back of the house to the front for the sake of discretion. Rushed, passion muted, the way clouds at night roll without sound. The Escape backed down the driveway and pulled away, its red taillights chasing midnight down the hill, he was certain they would not be back.

He had wondered why their yard had suffered from neglect that summer. At first he chalked it to vacation, or business travel. They were often in and out. Once the Andertons asked him and Suze to check in on the place, feed and clean up after their tabby when they went to Kings Canyon for a weekend. It was rumored that they had family in Bakersfield. Aging parents in retirement villages. Properties to be disposed of. Lots of reasons to come and go.

The foreclosures had started half a year earlier, at the end of the block, at the Morales’ place. When Grumman-Dietrich laid off a third of their workforce, it hit the town hard. Then the Estradas were gone. Suze figured they were illegals and the INS had finally caught up to them. They told themselves these were isolated cases. California was a nation of transients. Real estate agents were still coming by, buying and flipping houses on the side. Building contractor trucks still pulled up in front of houses. Landscapers still had work.

Then, like water seeping from a kink in a hose, spreading onto the hot concrete in a broadening stain, the bank signs appeared. A man in short sleeves would pull up in a SUV, stake a sign from the bank on the front yard. Bright yellow stickers would be hung from front door handles. Strange cars would slow ride through the neighborhood. People with cell phones and clipboards, pointing. They weren’t flippers anymore. They weren’t young couples moving up from shabbier neighborhoods like he and Suze. You’d see strangers exiting homes with copper pipes under their arms.

Darnell’s limbs felt wooden, stiff. He watched his athletic wife hurl the tree stand into the backseat of their Hyundai then head back into the house for more.

“Make yourself useful! Did you check the kids bedroom?”

Tomorrow she would send him out to buy the tree at the vacant lot across from the bank on Ventura. Darnell wondered where the Andertons would celebrate. They used to travel – Diamond Head, Vegas, Sedona. The ghost feeling was butting against him again. His neck was itchy, his throat tight.

“I’ll make a final sweep up here,” he called out. He hoped there wasn’t any good furniture upstairs because he didn’t feel up to lugging it down.

Amazing what people leave when they’re in a hurry. Place mats on the dining room floor, candleholders, food boxes in the cupboards – Lucky Charms, oatmeal, Campbells soup cans, bags of trail mix, a fully populated spice rack, a set of stemware. Upstairs he found a 13 inch color TV with built-in VCR, an ironing board, a bookshelf full of videos and Dr. Seuss books – Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle. A Pokemon card collection in a pink sewing box, soap bottles and towels in the bathroom, a full-length mirror leaning against the bedroom wall. There were photo albums and framed pictures of grandparents, grand aunts and uncles, a wooden crucifix hanging from a nail in the wall, tilted ignominiously. How cheap it all looked. All this shit. Take the people away and it’s suddenly worthless. They even left a couple photo albums from their vacations. The fake Roman plaza in Vegas, the black glassy pyramid.

Suze’s heavy feet trundled up the stairs. “What they got up here? There’s still room in the car….”

“I dunno. None of this looks worth shit. We should probably go. Maybe we’re being watched.”

She pointed in all directions. “Darnell, they’re all gone. The Pavonis, the Morales, the Estradas, Jim Diamond. The Robinsons went bankrupt last year. Hell, there’s more gone than left.”

She was right. They were safe. Of the 32 homes in their development, under ten were still occupied. And of those left, they really weren’t on speaking terms with any of them.

“You want this?” he asked, holding up a VHS copy of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Let me get another bag.”

“There’s some under the kitchen sink.”

While waiting for Suze to rummage through the rooms, he popped the video in to the small television and sank into a ripped bean bag chair. His crushing weight made the chair spit up a little. The film picked up from the scene where Jimmy Stewart, from the afterlife, comes back to his house. The kids, the wife, the furniture all gone. And he’s freaking, staring all shocked and awed through the camera lens. The snow looked colder in black and white.

He flicked off the set. Still, he couldn’t feel right about something. It was not the stealing that dogged him. That was finders keepers, and 99% of the junk was landfill fodder anyway. Who’d want that twin mattress leaning in the corner of the kids’ bedroom? If somebody could use it, then go for it. Suze’s practicality had rubbed off on him. No, it was something less. Or more. These things they left behind. What had gone into the decision to abandon them? Why would you leave your photo albums of Vegas, your VHS copy of It’s a Wonderful Life? What did they keep? Why were people so confusing? And why did Suze have to scavenge like this? It was like it wasn’t a choice with her. The way raccoons can’t help but get into garbage cans. What had happened to the “alt rock” babe he had picked up at Whisky A Go Go half a decade back? He ejected the tape and threw it in a duffel bag he had found in the walk-in closet. Why did she think they needed these things? All he ever wanted was her, her toothy smile (she had large pearly teeth), her broad shoulders and straight back, the way her torso stood erect, the way her chest heaved. He wanted the way her earrings tickled her suntanned neck when she laughed. He had loved her music collection and the way she undressed in front of him. None of that had much to do with VHS tapes or tree stands. But he felt like he owed this woman something. Loyalty was a strong force in his life. He owed no one else – fell out of touch with his father in Houston longer than he’d been with her. Had no wish to go back across that dusty, spread wide state of Texas to make good on some fiction of family duty when they’d not done squat for him. With Mama dead at 54 from weight and diabetes and Dad disappearing after Katrina – not dead like Aunt Daria supposed, more opportunistically making off, Darnell was sure, probably headed up to Chicago to start a second or third life. Those were stories he had left behind – his dreams of family brotherhood were not filled with voice mails and postcards from Dad. What remained was all the stuff. Back issues of his father’s boxing magazines, fishing poles and nets, jerry curl cream, an open box of condoms. He had to take all that out to the dump before, but still the crap found him. Around him here, strewn in the Anderton’s abode, plastic doll parts, extension cords, nails in the wall. He remembered the George Carlin bit about people’s stuff. Where do you put the stuff? When they foreclose your ass, the stuff loses relevance. Then the neighbors take the stuff into their house, and the poison spreads.

In the kids closet was a small bookshelf. He hollered down below: “What about the Dr. Seuss books? You want them?”

Suze’s tramping footsteps stopped suddenly. He waited against the silence. Awkward. She had wanted children more than him. He hadn’t wanted to risk it. Didn’t want to do to them what had been done to him. If there was a fatherly instinct in him, it had been suffocated and stamped out, and although he was not old, his thirty odd years had seen their share of dissipation and rancid irresponsibility. The doctor had said anyway that Suze couldn’t have kids. They didn’t have the money to adopt. They weren’t even legally married. He thought she would get used to the concept. Move on with life. Even so, the spare bedroom she kept available for an eventuality that might come miraculously in some way they hadn’t imagined – a trundle bed, a portable crib she’d trash picked, stuffed animals. It wasn’t something they talked about anymore. He thought she was forgetting, but the shit remained. The Seuss book pages were little used. Against his better judgment, he called down again:

“I said, you want the Seuss books?”

She stood in the doorway. “What, you forgot to read?! The fuck we need that for? You mocking me? You fucking with me? Get down here and put this crap in the car.”

When she turned around, he slipped the Seuss books into the duffel bag.

They put the tree up in its stand, and it just fit the living room, framed by the bay window. Christmas was intimate. For New Years they partied at a friend’s house in the valley.

The rest of the stuff found a place in corners and closets and alcoves and shelves. It took a couple weeks for the Andertons’ stuff to become their stuff, and the memory of their neighbors soon was set aside, like the hooks and rubber bands you bury somewhere inside the things drawer.

Darnel finished watching the Jimmy Stewart film; it ends with him surrounded by everyone he loves. When the VCR went into auto-rewind, the remote dangled from his fingers, as he fixed his thoughts on who in the neighborhood would be next, and what would they leave behind. The television painted him blue, as he tried to predict when the whirring before him would stop.

First published in Crack the Spine, July 2012