The old house in the old neighborhood is a rotting, dilapidated monster of a structure with a sturdy front porch that used to wrap all the way around like a short skirt that held creaky rocking chairs in its shadowed folds back when the place was in its prime a hundred years ago, loved and cared for as a family home. I don’t know what color it used to be, but it was recently given a fresh coat of paint in a dull greige. In that quaint section of the city, walking distance from downtown’s farmer’s market and overpriced coffee shops, it was one of the few remaining houses split up into apartments, surrounded by grand, colorful Southern Gothics meticulously updated and kept by the more permanent and wealthy residents. The old house was a bit of an eyesore.
We all used to lock our bikes up to the banisters of that front porch and instead of rocking chairs, there was a set of wicker furniture in a faded lime green. The heavy front door, caked in dirt and cobwebs, boasted a large panel of grimy stained glass in pastels and a doorknob barely holding itself together, the rusted hinges never allowed it to open or close fully and someone had found a split gnarled log to wedge into the porch seams and the door’s edge to hold it while we came in with heavy loads of groceries in reusable bags or the freshly washed laundry that had to be done elsewhere.
Although shortly after I’d moved in and gained his trust, the boy living across the hall lifted a black tarp crumpled against the back of the house and showed me a washing machine he’d hooked up to the hose, if you don’t mind using cold water, he’d said, his polo shirts on hangers hooked to the branches of the trees overhead, rippling in the breeze. But it was discovered by the city and they sent a cease and desist so we went back to our generous friends with modern apartments and appliances.
My first-floor corner apartment in the old house was bigger than it looked, the living room and bedroom were two equivalently sized grand spaces with flat 12 foot ceilings, glossy, scored cherry wood flooring, white paneling against the yellow-tan walls, and thick crown, baseboard, and chair rail moldings. The kitchen, hallway, and bathroom were along the outside perimeter, what used to be the porch. I had the apartment in the front corner and the north-west facing kitchen was sunlit in the afternoons so we left the windows open for air and to greet the perpetual train of dog-walkers on the sidewalk three feet away. There was a single short strip of kitchen counter and cabinetry, shoddily made of plywood swollen into budges where it was exposed underneath the countertop overhang, shedding sawdust whenever the drawers were opened and closed but the previous tenant had installed a board of scattered hooks for pots and pans so somehow all our cooking instruments and gadgets and pots and pans and plates and mugs and various coffee makers and machines fit inside that little 8’x8’ square.
The walls were so tall and so empty that I printed 60 of my favorite photographs and searched the city over for framing, matching each picture to a proper border and crowding the walls with scenes from the beaches, churches, boardwalks, small town alleys, and city streets we were surrounded by overseas. The living room was mostly his, a gigantic amalgamation of canvases fused together from behind by a complicated, heavy framework and leaned against the wall once it got too big to hang. And he added even more canvas after that, the art expanding to the edges of the space, to the point where there was a removable piece that could only be in place if no one needed to use the front door. He hung up my dad’s old shop light to see better and worked and drew and painted until 4am every night.
I had just gotten a portable washing machine to hook up to the bathroom faucet when we received the eviction notice, 30 days to be out. November 18, the bastards that had bought the place couldn’t even give us until the new year. I read the notice, uncurling the single sheet of paper wedged between the doorknob and frame, pacing the street in the dark until my boyfriend got home from work. We sat in the living room that was no longer ours, staring at the painting, he was pacing and I was shaking. All the pictures arranged and hung so carefully, the painting so massive and fragile, the new couch that just filled the space beneath the porch-facing windows, the new plants on new shelves where the light could reach them, the nook that held all the spare canvases we’d bought and transported home strapped to the roof of the car over a period of months, carefully waiting for sales and knowing there would be room to keep them, where would we go with it all?
We met housemates on the stairs or on the porch, red-eyed and distraught. We begged the landlords to wait until Christmas – who the hell moves in or out in a college town like this during November? But they said the new owners wouldn’t do it, these people that knocked on the door unannounced at 8:30 am with their overly enthusiastic redheaded round-eyed realtor, surveying the place, sizing it up, imagining what it would look like without my frames and without his painting. That’s incredible, the realtor said, surveying and sizing up his art on my wall. Do you think they’ll let tenants stay if they buy the place? I asked, bleary-eyed and smoothing down my bedhead hair. Oh yes, she’d said. I really like this art, I buy art, she said, and she gave me her card.
At one in the morning on the day all nine residents of that cozy, weary house were evicted, we heard arguing and fighting and screaming from the couple who lived upstairs, something heavy fell, and the door slammed and rocked the walls. He flew down the stairwell and she followed, calling after him sobbing. He got into his car and we heard it rumble and screech, tearing down the little neighborhood one-way streets. She called and cursed and cried and then it was quiet again.
I found a place for us three days later after the kind of frantic but controlled searching I’d perfected from too much practice, using the search term “vaulted ceiling” on Craigslist. Our new landlords are a couple, a guidance counselor and a firefighter. They didn’t make a fuss when we took down the ceiling fan on its long pole in the middle of the living room, an impossible obstruction to the painting, and amid the half-emptied boxes and discarded bubble wrap, we re-erected the art in this new space, in a way christening it and sighing big sighs of relief that nothing was punctured or bent.
The spare canvases are hidden behind this painting or stacked upright behind the couch like a kind of headboard. We now have one armchair too many and it took three full days for me to put the seven boxes of frames back up on the walls. It’s a bit crowded. And the large square tiles throughout the house are 2’x2’, an easy way to measure the size of each room, easy to slide dressers and bookshelves back and forth on to find an arrangement that fits. The tiles are a warm marbled tan and the walls are a cool bluish gray which still throws me off but we have a backyard with a hammock, potted plants crowded into the spots that get sun, and a laundry room. We have a dishwasher we’ll never use.
There are no sidewalks in this part of town. The university students get off the busses in the evening, back to their senselessly named apartment complexes, and dash across the street to walk along the side of the road in the dark. People ride their bikes against traffic and dart around the woman in an electric wheelchair who uses that “bike lane” to get out and about during the day and sometimes even at night. The bus driver flies past my stop not infrequently and on the walk home there are little kids playing basketball in big open parking lots and bonfires when it gets cold.
A pair of stray cats came with the place and I’ve adopted the one that let me pet him. He is allowed inside in the evenings for a couple of hours and likes to sit in my lap purring, glancing up and around, contemplating the place. Then he jumps up and slinks back and forth across the length of the apartment, the effect of his carefully placed silent paws ruined by the tiny bell on his collar. He weaves between the couches and armchairs and around the bikes and canvases, only content to sit between us, meowing plaintively. He has a box outside stuffed with old sheets and mismatched cereal bowls by the front door for his kitty food and water, we’ll make this place an eyesore. There’s no one to talk to through the window screens, no communal front porch, no uneven floors or paint dried in beads on the walls, no downtown farmer’s market, now a bus transfer away, no termite wings falling from the ceilings from the rotting walls upstairs. There are no candy-striped, graceful Southern Gothics around here. We skip from place to place, every year or two, and I think we’ll be leaving this town soon and it’s so sad but I don’t think I’ll get a chance to live in that old neighborhood again.