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The Board of Health Pays a Visit

It was September and yellow sun choke flowers growing along the foundation were taller than the windows in the dining room, the sunniest space in the house. The old couple used to keep a dog barricaded in the dining room by a makeshift plywood gate, its surface clawed, one of the first things to go. They also had cats, lots of them, and after the house was empty, a neighbor brought them bags of dried food. Eventually, the cats ran off or died. Later, when Hank replaced the back porch, he found cat skulls and empty booze bottles beneath the rotted planks.


The Dodge house was situated on a small bluff in the overlooking Route 112, a state-numbered route, with enough of a yard for the kids to play before it rose steeply into a two-acre wooded lot. This was the Ringville section of Worthington, named for the Ring family, including Johnny Ring, a Civil War hero. The trees on the lot were not remarkable or large. Like much of the settled part of town, the forest began reclaiming its turf in the fifties and sixties when most people stopped burning wood for heat.

The one interesting tree in the backyard lot had grown around a scythe. Some careless member of the Dodge family left the tool leaning against the trunk long ago and the tree consumed its blade so the rusted metal stuck out like a thorn. The wooden handle had long rotted away.

It appeared the people who lived here never went to the dump either. They stuffed their garbage in bread bags, and then buried them on the hill. I tried yanking the bags. Their contents now were disintegrated to colorful dust, but I gave up when I realized how much was there.

I have a photo of Hank, wearing patched jeans, as he stood in the living room. His arms are spread akimbo and he’s looking upward toward the blackened ceiling as if this situation was hopeless. But he was joking, because he knew we were capable of scrubbing and clearing and painting, that we could make any place livable.

The Dodge house was structurally sound, with more room than it appeared from the outside, with two bedrooms on both floors and a large living room. The bathroom was tiny, but clean enough. The kitchen wasn’t. The counters beside the sink were old unfinished planks, and we poured straight bleach to disinfect the wood and vowed never to put food or a utensil on them. We used our apartment washer, because there was no hookup, attaching hoses to the faucet and drain, but I couldn’t forget when it was filling or it’d overflow onto the floor.

In all the places we lived, we never locked the door. Mostly it was because we lived in a safe neighborhood or we had an extraordinary faith no one would want to rob or harm us. We wouldn’t be locking the Dodge house either since it appeared on the outside that nothing inside would be worth stealing. That was correct. No stereo, just a black and white TV someone gave us. I had a few pieces of jewelry, valuable to me, like the amber earrings that had been a birthday present from Hank, and of course, his tools.

If someone sunk some money into the house, gutted it, upgraded the mechanicals and poured a cement floor in the cellar, it could have been a very nice home. But Brian, the man who owned this house we were renting for $150 a month, wasn’t planning to do that. He wanted something on the cheap, so for the next several days Hank and I hauled trash, shoveled dirt into barrels, and removed the broken furniture. We scrubbed the ceilings, walls, and wooden floors, their finish long worn away. Hank washed the windows, and one of the neighbors, who stopped to say hello, told him he had never seen them clean.

One day while we were working, two women from the Board of Health arrived unannounced to inspect the place. Lois Ashe Brown explained they were making sure the place was habitable. She said it was one thing for people to live in squalor when they owned a home, but another to rent it out. They heard how the old couple had lived. The other woman rolled her eyes as she talked about what she expected of our landlord. They weren’t unfriendly but were businesslike. It got me worried. Our belongings were still packed in boxes. We didn’t have enough money to return to Boston, and we had no other prospects.

So Hank and I showed the women around, trying to convince them we were getting the place in shape. The trash was gone and most of the walls had been washed of soot. We had a lead on a woodstove for heat. The plumbing worked fine, and the phone was hooked up. The town was so small and the lines old, we only had to dial four digits to call another person in Worthington. Our number was 5989, and the ring was something quaint and tinny.

Yes, the two women could see we were making progress. They were satisfied, and in parting, Lois remarked brightly, “Livingston. Now that’s a good name for Worthington.”

I smiled.





Yeah, it was a dump but we turned it into a nice home. Here is Hank as I described.


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