The Neighborhood | Ashley Boucher
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
The trees die on a Thursday in January. Each one comes down not in pieces but all at once. One by one, men work a chainsaw right through the trunk of three one hundred foot Douglas Firs, and then they fall: a creaking, aching moan before they hit the ground and my house shakes, shuddering at the loss. When they fall, the men whoop and cheer. Like wolves to a carcass, they tear at the trees. They saw off their limbs and load them into the wood chipper, which roars all afternoon. They sever the trunks into fifteen foot lengths and use a machine with a big, metal claw to stack them in the road that they’ve laid on top of the meadow where the dandelions used to feed the bumble bees at the top of spring. To the right of the stack of trunks is a port-a-potty. This is now the view from my bathroom window.
The housing developer, a man named Fish, is wearing a cowboy hat every time I see him. Fish is 72. Younger than the trees. He was not there to watch them fall; he comes after. Even I could not watch. I did look on as the chainsaw worked through the first of them, but turned away at the last second, so I wouldn’t remember what it looked like as it fell.
The day after the trees die the sun is out and I think I can see all the way to Washington. Granted, it’s not far, but before then I could see only the trees. Now a new world is open. Not for long though, because soon Fish will put a house there, right next to the fence, right where the trees were, and then instead of Washington I will see into the windows of my new neighbor.
I see Fish walking to his car and I shuffle out of the bathroom, down the stairs, into my boots that I don’t lace, out the front door without a coat, and I try stop him with an arm wave that he doesn’t see, because his back is to me, so I yell “Hello!” and then he comes toward me. We meet in the middle of his new road, which runs along the left side of my house and into the meadow behind it. The road is ugly and unfinished.
I pepper Fish with questions. What are the required setbacks? Is the property behind mine at a lower grade? What are the heights of the proposed homes? How many windows will loom over my backyard? How much does he intend to sell the homes for? This last question is the most pertinent because if the one that will stand where the trees did is affordable, I will buy it and tear it down just to spite him.
He tells me that each house will be listed for $475,000. This is not affordable. Especially not for a spite purchase.
The truth is that I’ve already asked Fish all these questions before, but I make him tell me again partially to annoy him and partially to confirm the facts that I’ll have to adapt to. I spend the afternoon querying everyone I know in Portland to see if they might like to buy the home that will be directly behind mine, because then maybe it will be more bearable. I haven’t gotten any takers yet, but maybe my luck will turn.
The next day I am lugging packages inside from the porch when a beat up pick up truck pulls into the mouth of Fish Road. Its driver is a heavy, old man with a long, gray beard. He reminds me of a white trash Santa Claus.
“You live here?”
I stare at him. I feel defensive. Suspicious.
“This was my family home,” he says.
I nod, softening. At first I wonder if this is the Charles that I’ve heard of from the neighbors, whose mail still comes through my slot. Charles is the son of the woman who used to own my house.
Before his career as a prisoner in the Oregon State Penitentiary, Charles was an entrepreneur. He had a thriving business in which he stole cars and then stripped them for parts inside of my garage, which he built without a permit. His business partner, Bean, still lives in the house next door, and probably has for all of his life.
Bean is my enemy. His house, to the right of mine, is ugly and encased by a rusting chain link fence. His yard is filled with hoarded metal scraps and tires and two broken boats and a pile of boulders. A dead husk of a tree with broken off branches stands near our shared property line. He has a flood light that shines into my bedroom window all night long and his truck rumbles so much it makes my house vibrate. He seems to work on all kinds of projects but only ever under the cover of darkness and only ever when I’m trying to sleep. He has never once said a word to me, and nor I to him.
There’s another guy, always hanging around Bean’s house, named Tapper. Tapper is a drug addict. Transient, petite, perpetually shirtless.
Last summer I was sitting on my front porch, sipping a beer, when he stomped by, a question on his tongue: “How y’all like your roof?”
What an odd question, I thought. I liked my roof perfectly fine. It was roof-like. It had shingles. They did not fly off in the wind. They were dark gray.
“I put that roof on,” he said, and kept going.
This alarmed me. Tapper couldn’t be bothered to put on shirts, what business did he have putting on roofs? But in reverence to my beer, I buried my concerns about Tapper. I also buried the concern, briefly resurfaced, from when I bought the house and my inspector said, “The roof looks okay, but to really check requires a separate inspection, which is $800,” and I told him to shove it.
I forgot about that conversation with Tapper until this last winter when I needed a duffel bag that my wife had stashed in the crawl space beneath my dormers, accessible only via a tiny door in the bedroom closet. I vowed never to open this door, because surely the space behind it was haunted, but my wife insisted it was excellent for storage, and thus our luggage went to live there.
So despite my better judgment, I opened this tiny door and reached into the black, cavernous space to find my duffel bag soaking wet, the blue and red paisley mottled into the white cotton background like a watercolor, bits of mold growing on its handles. I immediately stopped touching it and closed the tiny door, further convinced of the space’s malevolent nature.
We called a contractor.
The contractor entered the crawlspace on his knees, with a flashlight in one hand, and for some inexplicable reason, a mallet in the other.
“Your roof has a hole,” he said, from inside the black. “Around the vent here. And another one over there. And every time it rains, water comes dripping from these nail holes.” He crawled out. “You need a new roof.”
The white trash Santa Claus is not Charles, though. His name is Craig. He’s Charles’ older brother.
Craig adds additional color to the story of my house. He goes back further in time, before Charles’ crimes and before my bunk roof, telling me about the fruit trees that used to fill the field where the houses will go. He tells me about the bonfires his family hosted annually on Mother’s Day. He tells me about his father, who bought the house from one half of a set of twins in 1952. The other half died from a gas leak in what’s now my den. He’s the ghost, Craig says, which, based on my experience with my crawl space, I don’t immediately dismiss.
Craig tells me about how his sisters took over his mother’s finances, and how they were the ones who parceled off the land separately from the house after Charles went to jail. His face is tinged with regret as he explains it. He tells me never he never got along with Bean, and I see in front of me a man who watched his baby brother get lost to trouble with the boy next door. I see a man watching another man pave over all of his memories.
Craig leaves, but before he does, he asks if he can stop by again sometime soon, and I tell him yes, he can.
I have other neighbors, too. On the opposite side of Cecelia Street, across from Bean, there’s Saban, who fled the Bosnian civil war, who lives with his wife and adult daughter and his grandchildren, who is retirement age and still works as a security guard downtown, who trades with me excess fruit and vegetables from our gardens in the summer. Saban’s house is one-story, all the houses on my block are, except for mine. It’s yellow and small and tidy. His property is set a couple of feet up off the road and a moss covered retaining wall keeps his yard tucked inside its lot. The day after my visit from Craig, Saban rings my doorbell.
He speaks enough English for us to have become allies, but not much more than that. He asks about the construction. I tell him about Fish.
“Eight skinny houses,” I say.
Skinny houses. I wonder if this is Portland specific vernacular, or if other cities in the American west are afflicted with the same architectural blight. Narrow, and long, often two stories, but sometimes three, meant to fit on 25’ x 100’ lots. They are not so much ugly as they are nothing at all. They are less than boring. People like Fish stack them in rows, side to side, back to back, you can fit sixteen on an acre if you do it right. Everyone is desperate for more housing, Portland is in a crisis, but no one wants these, and these are all they build.
“They fit eight there?”
I nod. I pull my bathrobe tight around my body.
“They put sidewalks?”
I shake my head no.
“Maybe this cleans up the neighborhood,” he says.
We both look toward Bean’s house. Saban gives me a bag of figs.
Then there’s Joy and Walter, who live next to Saban, directly across the street from me. That week they wave us over from their yard. Their chihuahua Chance growls at us from behind their four foot fence, and I stick my fingers through it to pet his nose. Chance is very soft at heart, he just won’t admit it.
They tell us about a man who’s been standing on the street corner for the last week, yelling incoherent things toward the sky.
“Do you know him?” they ask. “We think he’s unwell. Should we call someone?” We all agree, not the cops. But who?
They give us a key to their house, stuffed inside an envelope with their names and cell phone numbers on it, and ask us to keep an eye on things while they vacation in Mexico. They’ve had some packages stolen recently and want to make sure no one suspicious is coming around. I proudly display the envelope on the shelf where I put any cards I receive in the mail.
Nothing unusual happens at Joy and Walter’s while they’re gone, but Fish carries on. He erects power poles, the city digs trenches for sewer pipes, the remains of the trees are sliced into rounds and hauled away, Western Bluebirds flit back and forth in the space where their nests used to be. The framing will start next week, Fish tells me, at another meeting in his road. Construction will be done in five months.
And so it happens. Lumber is hauled in. Driveways are paved. Rain stalls construction on as many days as it doesn’t. The crew starts at seven every morning, and I no longer set an alarm because the beeping from their trucks reversing down the road is enough.
One weekend a camper van with no license plates drives through the construction site and rigs up a way to pull power directly from the pole. I remember the business card Fish gave me, to call him on just such an occasion. It’s in the drawer where I keep Charles’ mail. I don’t call Fish, but I do post online to see if anyone in the neighborhood is missing a camper van. Four people are, and they ask if it looks like theirs. By Sunday night, the van is gone. On Monday, a No Trespassing sign is erected and I wonder if Fish has given his business card to people other than me.
Spring comes and the road is finished, a curb installed. I plant street trees along it. I make sure they are native trees, and ones that are good for wildlife. I plant a garden to attract Monarch butterflies and apply for a Backyard Habitat certification so I can have a plaque. I plant a fig tree and a peach tree and three pear trees so I can share more fruit with Saban and his family. I plant Italian Cypress along the fence where the house is being built, and even though one day they will be very tall, right now they are very small.
Tapper, still shirtless, walks by and yells something about my new roof. Days later I see him with a nail gun on top of Bean’s house, a sheet of shingles hanging next to him, and I shake my head. These people don’t learn.
Through my mail slot, Charles receives a notice from the Oregon Department of Revenue with a big, red PAST DUE stamp on its front.
A burned out car rots in the grass at the end of Fish Road, dumped by whoever stole it and stripped it.
Along my fence, a foundation is poured, 2x4s are screwed together to take the shape of a wall, and that wall is attached to three others and soon there is a house made of sticks that I can still see through.
It’s April and the burned out car has finally been removed. A piece of paper is shoved into my mail slot. On it is a missive written in bubble print, with hearts over every lowercase i. The author ran out of room and spiraled their final sentences around the edge of the paper in two concentric rectangles. They are asking about the whereabouts of their dog Missy, who used to, apparently, also live in my home. The author suggests that Missy still lives here, or nearby. The author has recently been released from jail and is hoping to get Missy back. They offered no description, nor contact information, but the bubbly handwriting yields desperate words, and I feel bad, so I put the note in the drawer with the other things.
The stick house gets a roof and siding. It gets doors and windows. I can no longer see through it, just into it. I plead with the heavens for my Italian Cypress to grow faster.
It’s May, and the new houses’ yards are landscaped. Walkways are installed, small shrubs are planted. For Sale signs are hung on placards in front of each house. People drive down Fish Road, which is officially named North Hodge Avenue and now ends in a well groomed cul-de-sac. The people park their cars and wander in and out of each house, even though they are all identical inside. I wonder if any of them will be my new neighbors.
The cable company sends Charles a postcard offering him internet for only $29.99 a month.
One weekend, during a scheduled open house at Fish Properties, my wife and I clean out our garage and put all the trash in a dumpster that we take too long to have hauled away. We create a free pile by the curb full of lamps, old ski gear, and a rusted dog kennel, and everything is gone in a day. I’m pretty sure Bean takes it all. The neighbor who lives one house further down from Joy and Walter drives by and introduces herself and her dog Waldo and asks about the cost of the dumpster.
“I’ve had some houseless living in my yard,” she shouts over the rumble of her truck’s engine.
“But they left all their crap and didn’t help clean it up when they moved on.” I wonder who she’s talking about, and where they moved on to, if they’ll be back, and if so, what will the new neighbors think? What will they think about any of this?
It’s June and my overflowing, neglected dumpster has not deterred any buyers. A moving truck pulls down North Hodge Avenue, heaving under the weight of its load, and two men in white shirts and jeans exit its cab. They walk to its rear and slide out a ramp. They open the truck’s back door, and all of someone’s entire life is exposed to the street. It’s all in boxes, though, so I don’t learn anything about them as I stand in my bathroom window and spy.
In a couple of hours the truck is empty and a man and woman are assembling patio furniture in their new backyard and my dogs are barking at them and I’m still standing in the bathroom window spying.
Another For Sale sign goes up, but not at Fish Properties. It goes up at Saban’s house. A wooden post is inserted into the ground in the planting strip in front of their house, and from it hangs a little For Sale sign that blows in the wind.
I’ve never knocked on Saban’s door before. I always see him in his yard, or moseying down the block with his grandchildren, or cruising slowly around on a bicycle. We wave, and I marvel at his garden. Sometimes we gossip. Once I gave him an old Radio Flyer wagon that I’d hauled to Portland from my mother’s house when I moved here. I hosed it down, washed away the dirt and the cobwebs, then wheeled it over. Later that afternoon I watched from my front porch as he sat his grandchildren inside it and pulled them around his yard. But I’ve never been inside his gate, not until now, not until he’s decided it’s time to leave.
“Too much crime,” he says. “Thieves take my daughter’s car. Right from the driveway.” It’s the most familiar story I’ve ever heard. We live in a neighborhood with old cars that are easy to steal. “I’m tired of all the trash,” he says, and once again we both look at Bean’s house. “The police do nothing. And I still pay mortgage and property taxes are too high.”
Everything Saban says is true. But I never thought he would leave Cecelia Street. He’s been here for two decades. This is only the second house he’s ever lived in and he’s fleeing this one too. If a man as stable and steady as Saban is leaving, maybe it’s time I do too. Maybe he’s right. There’s too much change, too much crime. Too many new neighbors.
Saban’s house sells in less than a week and in a month he’s gone. He comes to say goodbye and when he does I cry. I see Joy and Walter outside and go to their fence. I pet Chance, and tell them I hope they never move. I search online for new places to live but even with the increase in value of our home we can’t afford to go anywhere else, and besides, I’ve fallen in love with my house and its new roof and the ghost that haunts my crawl space and the memories I inherited from Craig.
It’s the Fourth of July and Bean is lighting off fireworks in the middle of the road and my dogs are trembling under the bed.
I go outside to give Bean the finger, and I see the person who bought the house behind me standing on the corner. He looks about my age. He waves at me. “Loud, huh?” I nod. He lingers for a moment, like he wants to say more, but he doesn’t. “Have a good one,” he says, and walks back the other way.
My fig tree is flush with ripe figs. I listen to my new neighbors host a party on the other side of the fence as I pick the figs and put them into a bag. The new neighbors must hear me too, because soon a disembodied head appears over the fence. “Come join us,” the head says. “Housewarming!” The head has a mouthful of food and its words are garbled. There is laughter in the background.
I exit my backyard through the gate and walk around to the front of the new house. There is a massive flower pot on the front porch and bumble bees are crowding it. I ring the doorbell but don’t wait for anyone to answer before walking inside.
I’m somehow surprised to see that the house is nice. It’s someone’s home. There are pictures hanging on the wall, and a TV frozen on the disgruntled face of a reality star, and magnets on the fridge. I walk through the open floor plan toward the back, to the kitchen. There’s a used napkin on the counter and an oven mitt with a spaghetti sauce stain. There are trays of good looking food, hamburgers and pasta salad and a variety of cheeses.
I walk through the sliding glass door from their kitchen to their backyard and find a group of people smiling. A man at a grill, people sipping beers, someone delivering a punchline to a laughing audience. I’m greeted by the disembodied head, now fully embodied, who tells me his name is Nick and his wife is Emma, and they are so glad to have found a home in this neighborhood because it’s close to Nick’s job and the river and they’d been having a really hard time buying in other parts of town. I hand Nick my bag of figs. His face lights up, like he’s never had a friendly neighbor before, and I’m touched by how pleased he looks, but I still wish I could give them to Saban instead.
I can’t stop myself from telling Nick, “There used to be three trees where your house is. They were one hundred feet tall. They were the tallest trees in the neighborhood.”
Nick frowns. I feel bad, so I keep talking.
“This all used to be one property,” I say. I give him Craig’s memories. I tell him about the ghost and the fruit trees and the bonfires and Charles’ chop shop.
I give him my memories too.
I tell him about Saban and Joy and Walter.
I tell him about the bats and the owl that used to live in trees.
I tell him to stay away from Bean.
He asks me if I’d like a hamburger, if I’d like to come over for a coffee sometime, if I’d seen the new Fish Construction sign at the vacant lot two blocks down.
Ashley Boucher is a Portland, Oregon based writer. She is currently a fellow in the Attic Atheneum Master Writing Program. She has three dogs, four chickens, and a love of nature.