A bright blue tarp hung over the high-pitched roof, corners of it flapping in the wind like a flag waving at passersby. It was as out of place as the one, scraggly, white flower that had found its way through a crack in the disintegrating concrete driveway.
I slowed down as I approached the house, my curiosity tugging at me. It wasn’t like I’d never seen a neglected property before. I just hadn’t seen one on a street known for its mansions and well-appointed homes with manicured lawns. Every morning, on my way to work, I passed the house. And on my evening run, I often ran past it. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it, particularly considering I have a serious fascination with unique properties. Houses, for me, are more than brick and mortar. They have a heartbeat, stories to be told, a personality. And they hold secrets of the past and present.
While I had no idea how I’d missed it, I was delighted to have a new obsession to add to the list. The Tarp House.
Every morning I slowed down, coming to a virtual stop in front of it. At night, I stood on the sidewalk staring and absorbing everything I could about the house while feigning an aching back and doing some very deliberate stretching. And the more time I spent observing it, the stranger things got.
The Tarp House was a large house with a gray slate facade. Chunks of the facing were missing, exposing the sheathing and structure behind it. The front porch was crumbling, giving the once-regal entrance an uninviting vibe. And all the windows, but the big one in front, were covered by shades and curtains. Clover, weeds and swaths of tall grass had replaced the lawn, and the gardens were nothing but mounds of dirt and more weeds. And though the back yard was difficult to see from the sidewalk, I was able to get a sense of it.
A concrete carport jutted out from the side of the house and looked like it could collapse if you blew on it. It led the way to the back yard where chest-high grass consumed the small lot. An old phone booth and rusted-out car poked through it all, looking like they wanted to escape. I wondered if someone inside was feeling the same way.
As I walked up the driveway, I rehearsed my spiel. I learned in sales that the first few words out of your mouth are the most important. I love this area and pass your home when I’m running. I noticed you were doing some repairs to the roof and was wondering if you had ever considered selling. I’ve always enjoyed working on older homes etc. I worked on my inflection, hoping to sound genuine, though I was being anything but. I had fixed up a few houses along the way, even flipped a couple earlier in my life. But I had no real intention of taking on this monstrosity. It was just the best option I could think of to explain my visit.
As I stepped onto the porch, I could see into the one room at the front of the house that wasn’t covered by curtains. It looked like it might have been a sitting room at one time though there was no longer a place for anyone to sit.
A child’s rocking horse stood in the middle of the narrow space, its painted eyes looking right at me like something out of a horror flick. It was my first serious cause to pause. There were stacks of clothing along with Christmas decorations, broken furniture, and bags of garbage everywhere. On the window ledge were two large, overflowing ashtrays and a small glass filled with dark liquid. Maybe whiskey or bourbon. As I stood taking it in, a feeling came over me. That instinctive, intuitive feeling you get when something’s awry. Someone was watching me. It was another cause to pause, but there were too many unanswered questions. And, I’d rehearsed my lines. I was ready to roll.
As I raised my hand to knock on the front door, I noticed large nails hammered through the wood…from the outside! I got on my tiptoes like a ballerina and looked through the small, leaded glass window. Another glass of whiskey and full ashtray sat on a radiator next to the front door. The hall was filled with stacks of newspapers, toys, and more bags of garbage. To the right of the door was a staircase, each step covered with more toys and junk.
Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock.
The sound disrupted the quiet and startled me. I’d been so wrapped up in my thoughts and sidetracked by my imagination. I continued to rehearse my lines, saying them faster and faster, half hoping no one would answer. I assured myself that I was doing nothing wrong. There was no law against knocking on someone’s front door.
There is also no law that the owner is required to answer it.
I got inside my head as I walked home thinking about all the toys, wondering who lived in such squalor, hoping there were no children there. I couldn’t stop my imagination from running wild, hurling visions of horrific things at me…children chained to pipes in the basement, devil worshippers chanting mantras in the attic.
My first visit to Tarp House turned into many. And with each one, I became a bit braver…and more brazen. After several trips, it was nothing to walk into the back yard and snoop around, or to hoist myself up onto a ledge to peer through the kitchen window. I observed all the rotting food and dirty dishes, hoping to spot something that might have changed. It would answer at least one question confirming that someone was in there, that the house wasn’t abandoned.
Below the kitchen was a partially-exposed basement. While it was too dark to see much, it appeared to be flooded with a good foot of water. I couldn’t help but think about the vermin that were enjoying a good swim.
Day after day, I visited, then one day everything changed.
As I knocked on the front door, I spotted a piece of mail. It was addressed to a woman. I’ll call her Carolyn.
The new discovery sent me to the internet to look up tax records and anything else I could find about her or the house. I learned that Carolyn was behind on her real estate taxes—almost two years. I also discovered that she was quite a character in her day, protesting this and that in the neighborhood, not making many friends. But facts, alone, don’t tell a story. It was time to broaden my scope and do some real reconnaissance…to learn more about Carolyn and Tarp House.
One evening, feeling particularly confident, I decided to visit the neighbor to the south. If nothing else, I could explain why I’d been snooping around. In case they’d seen me, maybe I’d get a pass to take it a bit further. To my relief, the owner was a friendly woman who was more than happy to share everything she knew. And she knew quite a bit.
Carolyn had lived in the house since she was a child, later occupying it with an older sister. After the sister’s death, things took a dramatic turn. Carolyn ventured out rarely, and when she did, she hauled an oxygen tank on wheels with her. The neighbor chuckled describing it all, like the pack of cigarettes stuffed in a small handmade purse that hung from her neck. The city had come after her for being delinquent in paying her taxes. That was about the time things really changed. She shut herself in, squatting in the house to avoid them. Rumor had it, she only left at night, sneaking out a window.
I was later able to confirm what I’d learned with the alderman, all under the guise of being interested in purchasing the home. He informed me that she was, indeed, two years behind in taxes, and that they’d soon be legally removing her.
While most of my questions had been answered, I kept an eye on Tarp House. I no longer jumped up on ledges or knocked on doors, but I still slowed as I passed. Then one day, a roofing truck showed up. Followed by a masonry truck. Then a dumpster–which was quickly filled to the brim. And, before I’d had a chance to consider what was coming next—or snoop, a moving van appeared. But, they weren’t moving stuff out. They were moving someone in.
It was sad to learn that an old woman had lost her home, but I was happy to see the neglected property getting the attention it deserved, like Cinderella stepping into a pair of glass slippers. But like many fairy tales, the ending isn’t always what we expect.
Many months after the new owners moved in, weeds still covered the front lawn, the carport was still crumbling, and the shaded windows continued to keep out the sun. The front sitting area, once the room where a crazy-looking rocking horse stood, was now flooded with blinding fluorescent light. Two pastel, hard plastic chairs were pushed up against the far wall, and a globe sat between them on a small table. It was like a makeshift school room—the kind that would quickly increase the dropout rate. Or maybe more like a meeting room in an insane asylum. Other than a few repairs to the roof and the façade, little had changed with Tarp House. Except who lived there.
As I ran past the house in the evening, I often caught a man pulling back a curtain and peering out as if he didn’t want to get caught. And on the couple of occasions when our eyes met, he quickly closed it. And only once did I see the woman who lived there. She was walking two young girls up the driveway, her hands clutching their shoulders like an owl holding its prey. It was the only time I ever saw them. Not once did I catch the kids playing in the yard or waiting for the school bus. Never once did I see a grill smoking, or a plant being planted.
Carolynn had been removed, just like the tarps. But, the darkness of Tarp House remained.