by Jeffrey Marshall
What kind of house can you buy for $5,000? I was about to find out.
The house sat forlorn – though that’s probably the wrong word, if that implies isolation. It was one among perhaps twenty in an ordered row on a straight street, all roughly the same size. Most were clapboard; a few were brick. Had the street seen better days? They couldn’t conceivably have been worse. The section of neighborhood my house was located in was an imploded disaster of decay; more than a few homes were ostensibly vacant, with siding askew, windows broken, shingles piled in untidy heaps on weed-choked lawns, shrubs shriveled and brown from neglect. It was dystopian, a scene from a movie about a future that had been laid low by some lethal disease.
I took it in with a mounting sense of shock and dismay. Still, here and there, where cars were parked on the cracked pavement, the homes shone brighter, with decorations on the stoops, window boxes with marigolds or impatiens, lawns that bore signs of mowing. They were the survivors, yet it was clear they lacked the means to escape, I thought, for who wouldn’t?
This was the neighborhood I had “bought” into in Fort Payne, Indiana, sight unseen and 1,500 miles from my home in Dallas. I’d been lured by the ad on BuyCheap.com, which was pushing houses around the country for incredibly little money. The notion of owning a home, any home, was like a canteen to a man dying of thirst, and I grabbed for it.
I looked at the house again. There could be no mistake: the number 455, rendered in black metal with a touch of Italic script, was fully intact. The house, less so – it appeared to have been empty for years. The black-shingled roof had a sizable hole to the right of the door, an open portal to rain or snow or whatever else the atmosphere could deliver. The crude concrete steps in front were cracked, and several chunks were missing.
The black iron railing was short several uprights, as if they had been plundered to bolster another entrance somewhere down the street. To the left, I saw that the one-car garage was missing two windows, and the garage front seemed bowed in, as if it had absorbed a giant’s punch. There was nothing positive, let alone prepossessing; it was the kind of house that advertised neglect in capital letters. And now it was mine.
I walked slowly up the concrete slabs leading from the driveway, several of them skewed at odd angles, and approached the front door. Taking the key that had been overnighted to me a few days earlier, I put it in the lock and turned it to the left and pushed. Nothing happened, so I turned it to the right. Now, I felt the door give, but it seemed stuck, and I leaned my shoulder into it until it gave. I was in.
That’s when I saw the dark stain on the hallway floor, a ragged circle maybe 20 feet in, close to what appeared to be the kitchen. I’d been an Army medic in Afghanistan, and the sight brought back memories I try to suppress. I craned over to look more closely, and I sucked in my breath. There could be no confusion. It was dried blood.
* * *
Jeffrey Marshall is a retired journalist and the author of four books, including the novels Undetected and Little Miss Sure Shot. He has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, High Country News and New Jersey Monthly, and was at various times a reporter, editor, feature writer, columnist and book reviewer.
Marshall is also the author of a book of collected poems, River Ice, and his poetry has appeared in newspapers, anthologies and online magazines. He lives in Scottsdale, AZ, with his wife, Judy, and two dogs, Maggie and Blaze.