Though I was accustomed to the lack of choice, I still resented it. Taking an afternoon walk on Tuesday November 8th, I turned south at the corner where my apartment building sits. North, south, and west were options, but I missed going east, walking down my block. I know almost everyone there, and I used to enjoy spontaneous chats with whoever was on their porch or getting out of their car. But for a year or more, I’d been afraid to do that.
In the middle of the block, in a brown-and-white trailer with a decrepit plank fence, lived a woman who hollered profanities and threats and a teenaged boy who was once taken away in an ambulance. She had three dogs, loud, aggressive, and prone to escaping. They hurled themselves against the fence, barking, when anyone passed by. They chased me twice, and one tried to bite the man across the street from me. They attacked a Great Dane being walked by a young man who had to climb on the hood of a car to avoid being bitten. Everyone in the neighborhood had called animal control repeatedly. We suspected the hostile woman might be a drug dealer. Why else would she keep such dangerous dogs? One neighbor dared return an escaped dog to her yard. She came out and demanded to know what he was doing. He told her, and she called the police on him for trespassing.
The owners of the trailer live in another city. I wrote to them about her and her dogs, but she didn’t move out. After a while, I didn’t see the boy anymore and imagined he’d been taken away from her, perhaps put in foster care or with nicer relatives.
Behind the trailer, on the same property, is a little house. It had a high turnover of tenants—good, quiet people, driven away. The last one to live there was, like the rest, quiet. I take care of the gardens at a friend’s vacation rental place between the problem property and my apartment building, and she spoke to me across the fence a few times as I was watering plants.
“You have such nice wildflowers,” she said, the first time we met. “I promise I won’t pick them.”
I assured her I didn’t think she would. Perhaps she was accustomed to people accusing her, not trusting her. Her skin tone, on the grayish side of white, her unhealthy teeth, and her neglected hair gave me the impression she had a drug problem.
But it didn’t make her a bad neighbor. She was pleasant and friendly. I offered her pomegranates from the garden once. Like everyone else, she didn’t like them and declined, but she thanked me. For safety, I carried pepper spray when I watered plants, and I wanted to ask her if the dogs in the trailer bothered her. But maybe their owner was her dealer.
When I came back from that walk on election day, a state police crime scene investigation vehicle was parked in front of the trailer-and-little-house property. My first thought was that Hostile Woman was in serious trouble. There wasn’t a sound from her dogs. What had happened? Then I realized the workers were going in and out of the little house.
I later learned from neighbors in my building that while I’d been on my walk, detectives went around knocking on doors, asking about the residents of the trailer and little house. One friend said he told the detectives to contact animal control, since they were the ones who’d interacted with Hostile Woman the most. We never knew her name. Or the name of the woman in the little house.
The next day, someone came to clean. They put the belongings of the woman I’d assumed was an addict in a trash bin and on the sidewalk in front of the house where I do plant care, blocking the driveway where a vacation tenant would have to pull in. I cringed, but I moved the stuff to driveway of the little house. I didn’t know what had occurred, but it couldn’t have been good. Then I approached the brown-and-white trailer. A young man was inside cleaning with all the doors and windows open. Stale tobacco stench reached me from twenty feet away. Poor guy—he had his work cut out for him. I asked him to please not put the trash in front of the house next door, he agreed not to, and then I said how good it was to see the trailer empty, to be rid of the scary dogs. He said something noncommittal, and I realized I’d been insensitive, treating the situation as good news. He might have been cleaning up a crime scene.
Still, I was relieved. I could once more enjoy the safe, sociable neighborhood I’d first moved into. I walked east on my block and had a curbside chat with neighbors a few houses down, two brothers, a musician and a plumber. The musician said he’d ventured into the trailer and its yard shortly after it became empty and the crime scene people had left. He found dog droppings everywhere, even indoors. I hate to think what might have happened in there—and still don’t know.
The plumber told me that a woman had been found dead in the middle of a nearby street at two in the morning on Tuesday the 8th. Apparently, she’d knocked on someone’s door, incoherent, and then staggered off. The crime scene investigators had been going in and out of the little house. I guessed the dead woman was the tenant and that she’d died of an overdose. Perhaps the owner of the bad dogs had supplied it.
Thursday, I moved the heap of bedding and the overfilled rolling trash bin from the little house out to the curb. The clean-up man hired by the out-of-town landlords wouldn’t know Friday was trash day. Though I felt strange and uneasy touching a dead person’s belongings, it seemed important to me—respectful, in a way—to have everything picked up. The sheets, blankets, and mattress pad from a single bed, the place where she’d slept, were too personal, too intimate, to be left lying on the pavement. Due to the lack of a county medical investigator, the dead woman herself had been left lying in the street for hours until someone from another county could come examine her. That was more than enough indignity for one soul.
The next morning, her few possessions were gone. I rolled the empty bin to the chain-link gate of the little house and took a moment to wish her rest in peace. Not much of a memorial ceremony. I hope it wasn’t the only one she had, but it might have been.