October 18, 2003

Saint Paul Saga

We moved here in July of last year. But we opened escrow on our house in the May preceding. We love our neighborhood, but one of the drawbacks to our location was that the house next door was owned by a handyman whose preferred maintenance strategy was to do as little as possible and use recycled materials whenever possible. In other words, the place was a dump. Fortunately, the house was small: a Cape Cod with a second story pushed out of the roof to the rear of the house. Our second story affords a commanding view of the tar-patches and the rusty gutters with barely hung from the soffits.

On the day we made our offer, the news was saturated with coverage of a local tragedy. The fellow (let's call him X) in the house next door to the one we were in the process of buying had disappeared, leaving his wife and four children looking for answers. On the day we made our offer, the authorities found his body duct-taped and gagged in White Bear Lake.

The story was tragic because the children had lost their birth mother four years earlier to cancer. Thus, the four kids were living with step-mom Mrs. X, who had only known them for those four years. Bio-mom's parents became regular commuters from Minneapolis, taking the kids each weekend. The kids were the strongest link to the daughter that they had lost, and they had known the kids far longer than step-mom had. A custody battle ensued. Changes happened quickly that summer: Mrs. X brought home first one vicious black dog, and then another less vicious one to keep him company. The children learned how to agitate the dogs into violent frenzies. Soon the commute reversed: the kids moved in with bio-grands, and came to visit here on weekends. No doubt part of the reason they won the custody conflict was superior condition of the living conditions they could provide for the kids.

Our deceased neighbor was, in a word, and despite his fervent religiosity, a miser. He refused to throw any stick of furniture that could be made to function in some capacity. So imagine our surprise when we learned that he had left behind a half a million dollar life insurance policy. We had fantasies that she would move and we would (along with the friendly neighbors on the other side of her) buy her place and have it razed.

The first signs that she was staying put occurred while the kids were there: a DirectTV dish went up out back. Furniture started getting dragged to the alley. Once the kids were gone, Mrs. X got a new Honda Passport. The minivan now remains on the street out front. We learned that Mrs. X's mother lives around the corner. She would not be leaving any time soon.

She began announcing her renovation plans: she hired a contractor who dismantled the fence in the backyard, parked a large trailer there, replaced the brick front of her house with visquine, and promptly disappeared. Weeks later, he returned for a day's work and dug some holes for the enormous deck out back. She claimed she was having a porch built out front, which really turns out to be another deck. I am getting the impression that the only things her contractors have ever built are decks.

They have replaced all the windows, and installed a couple of garden windows in the kitchen.

Mrs. X swears that on the many days when no work trucks show up that there are workers busy renovating the inside of the house. There may yet be reasons why she hasn't fired the contractor: Mrs. X spends many minutes chatting with one of the carpenters, who has of late begun to bring his own child to work with him. "Don't touch the chop-saw!"

It is said that there is no accounting for taste. True enough, but there are limits. Mrs. X revealed her landscape plans to us. Evidently, she likes mowing grass no more and a lot less than the rest of us; she has decided to replace her lawn with a field of pumpkin-sized rocks, as her infirmed mom around the corner has. As our neighbor describes it, it looks like a glacial maraine. I imagine that she has not considered the difficulty of raking boulders and removing the trees that will grow up between them, their roots smooshed under the weight of many stones, nourished by the unrakeable debris of the urban deciduous forest. As a precauion, she has removed the two fruit trees that partly shielded the eyes of street from looking at her house. l wonder if we will live here long enough to see another owner of that home struggle to clear the rocks off there.

It's easy to be an armchair critic, but Midwestern sensibility says "Get the new roof on before it starts to snow." It's mid-October: in 2001, a storm on Hallowe'en dropped nine inches. It's even easier to be an armchair critic of other people's spending. Without a doubt, X intended Mrs. X to be taken care of, but some of the money must surely have been intended for the welfare of his children. Mrs. X has decided to renovate the house that they no longer live in, hiring a contractor that shows no evidence of ever finishing the job. I think my neighbor is right: she is going to spend the entire insurance policy.

Mrs X claims that the workers can't finish the deck until the hot tub arrives and can be installed. My impression is that all they need is the wiring for the pump and the plumbing and they can finish. What do I know? Jill thought she saw the hot tub arrive yesterday, but the five by five by four box was merely a new television. The hot tub and the new TV are excellent investments in the welfare of those kids, don't you think?

Posted by webs0080 at 7:49 AM