Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Subdivision Horror Story

In 2009 I was living in a very small town on the outskirts of a slightly bigger town. About a mile from my house was a failed subdivision that I will call Morton Mills. Someone had spent a lot of money on the entryway to Morton Mills. On either side of the drive into the subdivision were big brick terraced structures that had beds in them for flowers (and which were now just filled with pokeberry bushes and reedy grass); a black wrought-iron gate leaning open; matching black wrought-iron letters that were attached to one of the brick structures and that spelled out Morton Mills in a hopeful kind of font.

Once you’re through the gate and into the place, though, you realize how desolate it is. It’s hilly, unusually so for this part of Georgia, and so you can look down and see acre after acre – 100 acres in all -- of empty lots marked off, the pvc pipes for the plumbing sticking up through the dirt like bones. The roads wind through these abandoned lots, each with a little sign optimistically declaring its number. There are 62 of them.

I would roller blade in Morton Mills about once a week or so. Often I would startle deer grazing on the edge of one of the many cul-de-sacs. The lots had been there so long that trash trees were growing in the middle of them, and wildflowers were starting to poke up through the cracks in the pavement I was skating on. Once I skated down the “Community Nature Trail” (according to the faded sign at the start of it) and across a narrow berm that separated two man-made ponds. There were fountain thingamabobs in the middle of each of them, but they were rusty and collapsed in on themselves. The road ended at the “Community Recreation Center,” which was being used as the sales office for the fledgling subdivision when the whole thing was abruptly aborted.

There were blueprints everywhere, and surveys. Things that cost hundreds of dollars to have done. They were piled on a desk, under a fine chalk of pollen. I skated around the office. Brochures advertising Morton Mills' quality of life were scattered on the floor. I picked one up. Grills! Foosball tables! I skated out of the building and back down the road the way I’d come.

In the very middle of the subdivision, in a sort of valley, sat four model houses. They were very large, and built in the creepy-artisanal style you’re familiar with if you can picture Alexandria, the most-recent holdout of the characters in the Walking Dead. Each house sat on a small patch of violently green rye grass. The lawns were so tiny compared to the bulky houses, which were right up next to each other. No one with enough money to buy this big of a house would buy any of these particular ones. Anyone could figure that out. There was no privacy at all. No big yard for the kids to play in. Your neighbors would stare down at you from their dining room as you tried to barbecue. This was not an urban renewal project in a city. This was the suburbs, for crying out loud. Only one of these houses was occupied, by a cop and his wife and kids. The other three empty ones were starting to fall apart.

One day when I was skating the cop came out of his house just as I was passing by, and I stopped to chat with him. Back then I was a 39-year-old white lady on rollerblades. Clearly I was not up to no good. The cop talked to me freely, answering all my nosy questions about what it was like to live here and even throwing in some anecdotes of his own.

“What about that house up there?” I asked, pointing at the highest hill in the subdivision.

At the top of this hill sat a gray stucco house that was completely different, architecturally, from the 4 model houses it was looming over. It had mansard windows and was trying to be French, or something. (Aw hell I can’t describe it. It looked like this, only smaller.)

“That house up there,” said the cop, “Is haunted.”

“What?” I said, overjoyed. “By whom?”

“By the developer of this subdivision. It was the original family house. When it went belly-up, he shot himself.” He pointed up at the hill.

“In that house?”

“Yep,” said the cop. “That’s what they say.”

“OK, well,” I said, skating around on the driveway pad, “It was nice talking to you.”

I immediately skated up the winding road to the house. I did not care if the cop was watching me. Why would you tell someone something like that and not expect them to go check it out? That’s what I’d say if he came after me, I decided.

The drive led up to the back of the house. There was a filled-in swimming pool, and a carport. The door into the house from the carport was standing open. I took off my skates and went inside.

I was in a kitchen that had last been updated in 1987, maybe. It was all jewel tones and black counter tops. There was an island in the kitchen and there was one thing on it: a plaque thanking Scott Morton (not his real name) for sponsoring the town’s kids’ soccer team. I left it alone, and walked down the hallway towards the front of the house. The stairs were off to the left, and at the foot of them, there was a dead pigeon. It had probably gotten in the house and starved, or broken its neck bouncing off the remarkably few windows, trying to get out.

I climbed up the stairs and walked down a hallway towards an open door at the end. There were closed doors on either side of me but I didn’t open them. The room at the end of the stairs had probably been a bedroom. There was no furniture in it at all, but there were two trash bags on the floor. One was filled with Christmas garland, the other with 45 singles; old records. I picked one up, but I can’t remember what the song was.

I started to get scared. This was this man’s stuff; his records, his plaque. Why had his family left these things behind when they cleared out the house? Were they going to come back for them? It occurred to me that I should have checked out the entire bottom floor of the house before coming up the stairs. I was stuck up here. The stairs were the only way down. I hurried down them before I could think about it too long. “I’ll just go downstairs and get out of here,” I said to myself. I was sorry I had come. This wasn’t a joke.

But when I got downstairs, I talked myself out of it. I knew if I didn’t see the rest of the house I’d have to come back, and I didn’t want to come back. I’d do it quickly, just a quick walk-through, and then I’d get out.

The floorplan was disorienting. There was another big bedroom and a bathroom with a tacky garden tub that had mildewed. A living room that smelled chemically, like the paneling was deteriorating. Another, smaller room that might have been a more formal living room. I walked through this room towards an arch in the far wall. Through this arch was the front door and foyer. It was so weird, the way it was configured. If you came in the front door of this big, grand house, there would be a wall on your right and a wall straight ahead of you, boxing you in. You’d have no choice but to go through this dinky archway into the formal living room, which had no windows, and the only way out of that room was through the door at the other end of it. There was only one way to go. It was claustrophobic. But even worse was what was in the foyer.

It crouched there, black and shiny, like a spider. It was the only thing in the house besides the trash upstairs and the plaque and the dead bird. It was a huge, expensive telescope, with a lens like a tank barrel. The lens was pointed at the front door, which was inset with a big, single piece of glass. Through the glass I could see the four model houses at the bottom of the hill. In fact, with my own eyes I could see the cop walk out to his car and open the trunk. With a lens like the one on the telescope in front of me, I thought, I could read the labels on the cop’s spice jars in his kitchen, assuming he was the kind of cop who used spices.

“Probably,” my brain started insisting, “Probably the poor man who lived here and who killed himself here last used this telescope way before these model houses were even built. Probably he just liked to look out this glass door at the undeveloped land outside, where there are rabbits, and deer, you’ve seen them yourself. Or, at the empty pavements and crumbling infrastructure of his failing dream.”

These thoughts were not helping. I stared at the telescope, struggling to process its presence there. And then I noticed something. The telescope wasn’t dusty. Not at all. The whole rest of the house was slowly being buried under pollen and dust and crumbling drywall. The carpets were yellow with it; I could see my footprints in the room I’d walked through to reach this dead end at the front of the house. There didn’t seem to be any footprints in the dust on the gold and brown linoleum covering the foyer floor, but it was hard to tell. The telescope, though, was so shiny and dust-free that it was practically gleaming in the afternoon sunlight coming through the front door.

I noticed this, and that is when I turned around and hied myself out of there. I put my skates back on and skated down the hill and through the weedy lots and out the black gate. When I got home I took my skates off and went on the internet. I Googled his name, the one on the plaque, and the name of the subdivision. This was a big deal in the community, it turns out. The paper was full of news of the groundbreaking, and minutes of various meetings tell the story of sewer rights and easements granted, and of taxes, and complications, and liens. And then there is his obituary. Really, his obituary, 5 years after the groundbreaking. It doesn’t say what he died from, but you don’t need a lone cop in a model home to help you put together these clues.

Does the family know it’s there? Will they ever come and get it? Does it even belong to them? It haunts me to this day, that telescope.

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