In the early fall of l982 my husband and I were on our way to look at what was apparently the last affordable house in Brooklyn, New York. We'd been house-hunting for over a year and were very anxious to settle into a home of our own.
At this point in time we were still living in a three-room apartment with our two daughters. Our landlord was extremely frugal with the heat, and we were growing tired of huddling in our living room near a portable heater. We were willing to look at virtually any house within our price range, but we had only a small sum of money available for a down payment. Real-estate agents took us from house to house, showing us lovely homes that, unfortunately, required substantial deposits.
We thought we were permanently stymied until we noticed this one house on their listing. It had been there for over two years, but no one had attempted to show it to us.
"It's too old and too much trouble," one of the brokers said, barely looking up at us, "although you might actually be able to afford this one." The sarcasm in her voice was duly noted. However, we were undaunted by her negative description of the house. We wanted to see it.
So, there we were, full of anticipation, parking our car on this very ordinary block. I was in a very "up" mood that day, partly because I had hopes this would be "the" house, partly because it was fall. September and October had always been my favorite months. The smell of cool air and the vision of trees painted in glowing hues of orange and red and yellow signaled the upcoming holiday season. This particular block had many trees, all colored so vibrantly that the whole area had a beautiful orange cast to it. Newly fallen leaves were gathered in bunches near most of the houses and they crunched beneath our feet as we walked to our latest prospect. I thought of pumpkin pie and chestnuts, and my heart leapt at the thought that perhaps, at last, we had found a house we could actually purchase. Maybe we could even spend Christmas there. I had to stop myself from skipping toward our destination.
As we were walking down the street, I noticed an unusual tree. Not only were its leaves a strikingly colored mixture of orange and red, but it appeared to be almost caressing the house in front of which it was planted. Its trunk was tilted toward the house, with almost no branches extending toward the street. Its branches and foliage sprung out like long arms, almost protectively. When we realized this was the tree in front of the house we were to look at, I felt an unusual sense of peace. I was, without obvious reason, very glad this wonderful, strong tree would be part of the package. I didn't know then that this house, indeed, needed whatever protection it could get.
The house itself was one of those big, old, fat houses; the kind they simply don't build anymore. It was whitish-gray with dark green trim, and rather dingy looking.
In retrospect I could imagine someone describing it as "spooky" looking, but "spooky" was the last thing on our minds. The front yard, not very large, was unkempt. Weeds were growing along the chainlink fence that surrounded it. The four entrance steps were made out of weather-beaten, cracked cement. The wrought-iron railing attached to these steps was rusted and peeling. The front windows, many small ones separated by strips of rotting wood, were nearly opaque with dirt.
For a brief moment, my husband and I looked at each other, wondering if this was such a good idea after all, but we knew our financial situation, and neither one of us wanted to spend another winter with our not-so-friendly landlord. So we took a deep breath and rang the doorbell, half expecting it not to work. To our surprise, we were greeted by a rather pleasant, if somewhat cool, middle-aged couple. They smiled as they brought us up to the second floor of this grand old house.
As we walked up the stairs we were wondering what would be the problem this time. We'd seen so many houses that we developed a knee-jerk reaction of not getting our hopes up. It was hard not to think that, even if the price was right, there would be something terribly wrong. Perhaps there were combative neighbors, or mud in the cellar, or exposed sewer pipes in the kitchen. We'd seen it all by this time. To our surprise, this couple mentioned only one dominant problem¿the elderly couple living downstairs. They refused to leave.
"My uncle is one tough cookie," remarked the middle-aged man, his nephew, about the old gentleman inhabiting the first floor apartment. As he reached the top of the stairs, he continued, "My uncle and aunt have been living in this house for over forty years. They sold it to us a few years back and have been paying a nominal rent ever since. I guess he thought this arrangement would go on forever, but our children are grown now and my wife and I bought a house in Florida. We are anxious to leave but my uncle keeps scaring prospective buyers off by declining to move."
My husband and I certainly didn't like the sound of that.
In a few short moments, we found ourselves on the second floor, in the front living room, with windows overlooking the aforementioned beautiful tree. The decor was very bland, no pictures on the walls, no outstanding furniture. It looked like a 1950s motel room. Working our way toward the back of the house, we were introduced to the bathroom, which appeared relatively new. Green and white tiles gleamed at us, reflecting the light on the ceiling. Towels hung on the towel racks, but no pictures or designs of any sort adorned the walls. The shower curtains were, again, green and white, but with no distinguishing pattern. The bathroom was very clean, almost sanitary, but decorated with no imagination, no feeling.
Next to the bathroom was a dining area, connected to a kitchen. Dark wood cabinets dominated this room, and pink, painted-over paneling covered the walls. It wasn't a salmon pink or a "hot" pink, just a dull, almost beige pink, going from ceiling to floor. I could see the texture of the paneling showing through the paint and I wondered why anyone would impose such a nauseating color over wood. I figured I would never find curtains to match this unfortunate hue, but before I could get too upset about the dining room and kitchen, our hosts ushered us into what they termed "the playroom." There, in the back of the house, was a beautiful, spacious area, lined with double windows. It was huge.
"This was built only twenty years ago," the woman said, "and our children spent many hours happily at play here."
I must admit, it was bright and airy and pleasant. A sloped ceiling, punctuated with halogen lights, captured our interest. We imagined our own children playing under this wondrous roof.
Our excitement was palpable. That back room really piqued our interest. Our hosts then brought us up to the third floor and showed us their bedroom, located in the front of the house. It was the largest of the three rooms on that floor, but still it had a sort of restrictive quality to it. Thick, upholstery-like curtains hung on the front windows, almost completely obliterating the radiant sunshine coming through. The spread covering the queen-size bed was heavily quilted and shiny, and reminded me of unwanted afternoons spent at my grandmother's house. I could almost smell the mothballs.
The other two rooms were nearly claustrophobic in nature¿bedrooms housing the remnant memories of their now-moved-away children. The walls were devoid of decoration, except for a Charles Atlas photo cellophane-taped to one wall. Although there were still beds in each room, no pictures or shelves or toy chests were visible. No posters or telephones or any specific reminders were present. It was impossible to tell if a male or female child had occupied either of these rooms. And we didn't ask.
The rooms felt cold and dank. We kept focusing on that airy playroom on the second floor and assumed we could turn even this stark landscape into a warm habitat.
Although the atmosphere upstairs was less than desirable, it was certainly not enough to discourage us. We were finished with our tour when the wife said, "I'm sorry about my husband's aunt and uncle . . . you'd think they'd know better at their age."
"How bad can they be?" I remarked, not quite ready for her response.
"How bad? I'll tell you how bad. They intimidate everyone who comes to see this house. Especially his uncle. He's more than a 'tough cookie'¿he's nasty and impossible, and I'm getting sick and tired of it. I don't want to live in New York anymore." I could see her husband flinch at her candidness. She continued, "We've got this beautiful house in Florida that we can't move into, and he doesn't give a shit about it. If you can persuade him to move, more power to you. Even the real- estate broker has stopped sending people to see this house. I don't care if this makes us vulnerable to a lower sale price, I want out."
Her husband was clearly not happy with her outburst, but he remained silent, seemingly trying to be tolerant of her obvious frustration.
After a brief, but very pregnant, silence, I exclaimed, "Well, can we meet the ogres downstairs?"
I thought I was being cute, but it wasn't received very well, and I couldn't help but notice my husband's disapproving look. After a moment or two, our hosts took us downstairs, said their goodbyes, and left us alone at the first floor entrance. I suddenly felt frightened. I was anxious about meeting this man and felt my heart palpitate as my husband knocked on the door. I nearly expected Lurch to answer.
My husband looked at me a little strangely and asked if there was anything wrong.
"I'm scared," I said. "Aren't you?
"Hell, no," he replied. "We can probably get this house for less than we thought."
If it weren't for his attitude, I would have gone home. ...