There is a homeless man living in our house.
I can’t really complain, I suppose, since we walked away from the house two months ago, and when the gavel falls at the Lancaster County Courthouse in another ten days and turns it into the property of JeffFi Mortgage, it won’t be ours anymore. But until that happens, my wife and I are still on the deed, and it’s still our house, on what was our block, where our son played in the backyard with our dog Libby and our neighbors’ kids. We used to live here, in this house, on this block, in this development across from a retention basin where frogs make froggy noises at night. Hence Jeremiah Place: our developer thought naming the development after the old Three Dog Night song was the height of cleverness.
But even though it is narrowly, technically, still our block, I’m not sure what to do about the homeless man living in our house.
That’s not entirely true. I do know what to do. I can call 911. Or I can call JeffFi, assuming I can ever get someone on the phone who isn’t from Bangalore and knows what to do when I call. Hell, I could just walk in the door. After all, I still have the key, since JeffFi was too stupid to change the lock even after I sent them two letters saying change the damn locks and winterize the damn house—it’s the middle of February, you asshats.
Just to clarify: I did not actually use the word “asshat.” It’s a word I learned from my 16-year-old son. But, given the circumstances, it seems to fit.
Eight months ago two guys in khaki colored shirts and brown pants served Gwen the foreclosure notice at 9:15 in the morning. Gwen worked for County Children and Youth, and she’d been up all night, taking an abused child into custody. She’d not quite fallen asleep, and I had told her when our financial problems first started that nobody would ever be coming to the door like this, that I’d take care of it before things reached the level of sheriffs and courthouses.
When we’d received the first notice, the one that my lawyer called an “Act 91” letter, I tried minimizing its importance. This was not easy, given the fact than an Act 91 was designed by the Pennsylvania Department of Banking to be written in a manner precisely so you will not minimize its importance. It’s meant to make you piss yourself.
But I’m good. I brushed it off. So I figured I could do it again when she came to my office.
Here’s how that conversation went:
“I almost hit a duck.”
“A duck. I almost hit a damn duck.”
“Gwen, what’s wrong?”
“You told me this wasn’t going to happen.”
I guessed this had something to do with the mortgage even before Gwen said that, but I didn’t let her know. Denial is a gas, a vapor. It seeps into everything if you let it.
“Talk to me. What’s the matter?”
I meant the exact opposite of that. Don’t talk to me. I will only have to find some other form of emotional defense.
“We’re fucked. We’re fucked. We’re going to lose the house.”
When Gwen gets angry, she mixes crying and rage into one, mashed-up, superheated emotion. She tears up, but she doesn’t cry, exactly. No sobbing lamentations, not even understated sniffling. The cry does not move one inch beyond her tear ducts. At the same time, she shows me the serrated edge of violence. Maybe she’ll throw something. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll just slam shit around. Like the paper in her hand, thick with legal-sized documents folded to fit the letter-sized pleadings they were attached to, making the whole of it look thicker, plumper, and all the more intimidating—like its accusatory language couldn’t be contained on mere paper but needed to spill out and beat me up.
“We are not going to lose the house. Jesus, Gwen, I work at a bank. I know how this goes. I know how this game is played.”
Which was true. I did know how the game was played. I knew we’d lose the house.
Now that we no longer live there, there’s no reason to drive past our house except anger or revenge. It’s not near any of my life’s touchstones anymore—not where I worked, not near the house we now rent, not near Jason’s school, not especially close to anything, really. Which is why I’m surprised to see anyone living there in the first place.
I drive past, slowly but not too slowly, like a stalker whose heart isn’t quite in it. I had left the basketball stuff in the driveway, thinking that the ghosts of Jason and his friends might still want to shoot a round of H-O-R-S-E, but now the only thing there is a mid-80’s Buick. So I pull up behind it and get out of my car, but then what? What do I do? What’s the protocol? I’ve been going to work earlier and earlier so Gwen won’t have to look at me, but for Squatter Guy I have no coping mechanism.
I stand by my car for maybe 45 seconds. I fiddle with my BlackBerry, looking for some newish email to distract me. Finding none and hoping it’s not because they cut my service, I put it back in my pocket and start heading towards the door, trying to walk very softly, then realizing that it’s still my house and I’m not the trespasser here.
I don’t go to the door, though. Instead, I cut across the lawn, which is just starting to look unkempt, to the window. Squatter Guy has the blinds pulled down only half the way. I walk right up to the window. Torso up, I see a vague silhouette of a man, like the blinds are keeping him in a witness protection program. Torso down, gray sweats.
I stare at the window, waiting for him to pull the shades in either one direction or another. He doesn’t. I spend about 45 seconds like this then walk back to my car.
I had seen plenty of legal captions and documents before, but never one with my name on. I’d always wondered what it would be like, but now I didn’t have to. I stared at the paperwork that Gwen had thrown on my desk moments earlier, reading that caption, over and over again:
In the court of common pleas of
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Civil Action-Mortgage Foreclosure Charlotte National Bank, As Trustee of Jefferson Financial Corporation, Asset Backed Pass Through Certificates, Series 2005-r-7 Under The Pooling And Servicing Agreement Dated As Of September 1, 2005 Without Record
You, Seth Weinstein and Gwendolyn Weinstein, Deadbeat Losers, Who Took Out Too Much Loan Than You Could Possibly Afford And You’d Have Known That If You’d Have Not Had Your Heads Up Your Ass And Actually Looked At The Adjustable Rate Which Was Going To Go Up To 9.5% On A $388,000.00 Mortgage But You Figured You’d Be Able To Refinance It Because Housing Prices Always Go Up And Ha, Ha, Ha You Sucker, Lost That Bet Didn’t You, But So Did We Because We Sold That Mortgage, Then Sold It Again, And Now Jeff Fi Is In The Crapper Along With Everybody Else, So We’re Both In This Together, Aren’t We?
Husband and Wife.
When we moved into the house in Jeremiah Place, Jason was nine, I had just jumped from residential to commercial, and Gwen was working as a sales rep for a company that sold used construction equipment. She drove to various places in Central and Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland, often wearing her trademark hard hat with a Hello Kitty decal on the front. She made more money than me, more money than any of the men who were sales reps at her company, and, with all that, we could finally afford a really great house.
Two years later, she was back at school, finally completing her Bachelors Degree at Millersville, then driving back and forth to Temple to get her Masters, all so she could work more hours for less money—way less, gaping chasms less—doing what she really wanted to do, which was to rescue kids with cigarette burns on their genitalia in the middle of the night.
I could have had a conversation with her back then. I could have pointed out that we’d purchased a whole lot of house. That we needed her money to afford it. That what she wanted to do didn’t make sense unless we sold the house, took the equity we had, and put a really big down payment on a smaller place. It’s what the lending officer in me would have done. Here’s the thing, though. The socially unacceptable secret. There aren’t many ways to randomly display testosterone when you’re a middle-aged loan officer with bad knees and a receding hairline. But they do exist. In my case, those ways involved home equity loans. And credit cards. And refinances. And credit cards again. Debt was great. Debt was wonderful. Debt allowed me to be both stoic and supportive. Debt rocked.
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I leave early again. Gwen doesn’t ask why. She’s in the kitchen, pouring cranberry juice. Jason—I’m not sure where Jason is. In his room, maybe, with the boxes from the move still mostly filled with stuff. Gwen kept telling him, half-heartedly, to unpack them before she finally gave up. Only the computer and the Game Boy have seen light. The sheriff’s sale is nine days away.
I drive from this house that I rent—a house that I will not call “our house,” or “my house,” not yet, not today, not tonight—and pull to the end of this development, which doesn’t have full-grown trees. Granted, my old development didn’t have full-grown trees, either. But here I notice and resent their shortness, their lack of maturity. There’s lots to resent here, including the fact that I took this place so Jason would graduate next year in his same school district and on his same basketball team, and I thought I’d get some kind of credit for that.
I am about to confront a strange man in a familiar place. I pull up in the driveway. This time, if there are any ghosts still here, I imagine my tires rolling over them, cracking their incorporeal bones. I get out of the car. I consider honking the horn, announcing my presence, but decide against it. I don’t need to announce my presence. This is still my house.
I then notice that Squatter Guy’s car is not in the driveway. Or maybe I noticed it subliminally, as I was pulling in, and the thought that nobody would be there to confront me made me fearless. Regardless, I’m here. I pull out my key, wondering if it will work. It doesn’t. I stand in front of my door, hovering between panic and rage.
Then I turn the doorknob without thinking. It opens. I’m in my house. Again. Still.
There is furniture in my house. Not mine. A loveseat by the wall where my bookcase used to be—greenish, worn, kind of velvety. A thirteen-inch TV-VCR combo, early 90’s vintage from the looks of it, sitting on a wooden chair—also greenish, but with some sort of yellow in the paint mix. A coffee table, oddly placed closer to the TV than the loveseat. Recent copies of People and Sports Illustrated, and a not-quite-recent copy of, what, The Weekly Standard? What the fuck? Do I have a neo-con squatter here?
Into the living room. A card table, two chairs, both the same as the wooden chair the TV was sitting on. More magazines. Another People, a Rolling Stone. Against a wall, two boxes, long and narrow—one lying on its side against the molding, the other vertical, its top resting where a picture of Jason hitting a three-pointer used to hang. IKEA boxes. I look inside, trying to figure out what it’s supposed to look like when it’s assembled, but I can’t tell. It’s just a bunch of birch.
I start to look into the kitchen but stop. I am close enough to see a white refrigerator, but I don’t want to look further. I’m suddenly afraid of looking at his refrigerator magnets.
I leave my house. I try to lock the door behind me, fail, then run to my car.
I’m worthless at work. I want to lash out at someone, but I am not a lash-out kind of guy. I have a software financing package on my desk, and some lease syndication deals that need attention, and I really wish I were a lash-out kind of guy. It would help me, I think. I could do all sorts of rage. People would live in fear, trying to work around me, manage me, plan things so the rages didn’t happen, but, of course, none of those coping devices would work because I’d be as unpredictable as a tornado, a tsunami, a housing-price-fueled recession.
But none of that is true, so I settle for being useless. And if I’m going to be useless, I may as well be useless at my own house.
I get in my large, red, stupid, SUV. There is a duck—one single, loveless duck—standing in front, staring at the grille. I honk the horn. I wait for the duck to honk back. He doesn’t. He just stares. I honk again. Nothing. He is not moving. He just stands there in the parking lot, daring me to make him move. I could back out. There is no car in the adjacent parking space.
Instead, I inch closer. I think to myself I am playing chicken with a duck. I smile at that thought. It’s the most confrontation I’ve had with any creature in months, maybe years. I kind of like it. But only for a second. Then I start to feel something truly awful. I’d like to say it’s compassion for the duck, and revulsion at the thoughts I just had towards it. I know neither of those are it. I back out through the adjacent parking space, and I head to my house.
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Today, I have it mapped out. I am going to confront this man. I have an outline, a plan of attack. I will grab something, something heavy and capable of causing a body to gush blood, and stick it in the back of my car. I will pull into the driveway. If Squatter Guy’s car is in that driveway, I’ll box the little fucker in. I will go inside. I will tell him he has to leave. I will not have to use the heavy object. Displaying it will be enough. That and my forceful presentation. I am a peaceful guy, but I am capable of faking menace.
He will leave. I haven’t figured out what happens after that, but he will leave.
By the way, if you’re ever thinking of getting a homeless guy out of your abandoned house by force, cars don’t have crowbars anymore. I find this out when I go to check the trunk. Nothing heavy. Nothing metallic and unforgiving. My car knows me. It knows I have a cell phone and a Triple A card. Crowbars are only for bad movies now. I shut the trunk. I open it again, thinking I might have missed some other dense object, but no, not unless I want to throw a miniature spare tire at Squatter Guy. I shut the trunk again. If it were my old house, I’d look in the garage for something, but I don’t have a garage. I look in the back seat. There’s a clipboard. On the floor is a pen with no cap and a large paper clip. I think about fashioning them into weapons, then smile, then laugh, then abruptly stop laughing.
Just me. It will have to be just me and Squatter Guy.
I am here. It is 11:30 in the morning. In two hours, the county sheriff will ask if there are any bids to my house. The only one who will bid will be the bank’s attorney. A gavel will hit a wooden plate, not too firmly, not too softly, somewhere between a click and a pound, because there are 41 houses on the list today and a guy could get carpal tunnel if he kept swinging that thing too hard.
That’s okay. I don’t need two hours for this. I will be back at my office soon. This will only be a long lunch.
I pull behind the old ’80s Buick. Right behind it. Practically grinding against its bumper. I walk away from the driveway, onto the grass, which is starting to look a little ragged.
I knock on the door
I wait. Ten, fifteen, twenty seconds.
I knock again, then hit the buzzer. I’d forgotten I had a buzzer. I never had to buzz my own door, I guess.
Seven, ten, fifteen seconds. Buzzer again.
I hear muffled sounds, speaking, footfalls. The door opens. Squatter Guy is real. He is taller than me, which, admittedly, isn’t saying much. He’s younger, but not by much, either. More hair, less fat. Round-rimmed John Lennon glasses. T-shirt with the insignia of the Iowa Hawkeyes and blue gym shorts. As a Penn State grad, I have an immediate, visceral dislike of that. He doesn’t deserve to be wearing a Big 10 t-shirt.
“This is my house,” I say, in a voice that may or may not be calm
“Come in,” he says, in a voice that’s definitely calm. I resent that even more than the t-shirt.
I look around. He has started putting together some of the IKEA stuff, but it’s only partially assembled. I think it’s a bookcase. Or maybe an entertainment center.
“How long have you been here?” I ask him.
“A while, a while,” he says. I focus on the accent. Not Central Pennsylvania, not at all. A little bit Jersey, north but not too far north. He sits down on the loveseat. “Do you want a tour?” He smiles. It’s not a nasty smile at all. That unnerves me even more
“Look, this is my house. You don’t belong here.”
“You won’t either soon.”
I start to pull one of the empty wooden chairs towards the loveseat, but stop. Instead, I take the thirteen-inch TV off the chair it’s sitting on, put the TV on the ground, and use that chair. “I want you to leave. Now.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious what the hell I’m doing here?”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to ask.”
“Why not?” He leaned back, practically being swallowed up by the loveseat in the process.
“This is my house. For the next 90 minutes, it’s my house. I want you out of it.”
“I’m not going. And you really can’t make me.” He has the same tone of voice I used when I was denying someone a loan. No, more than that; when I was denying a customer who was already into us, who needed more money, just a little bit more to cover expenses, a little extension on a line of credit, and I’d say no. We can’t. We just can’t. It’s not personal. Though I’d never say that last part, because I was already condescending to them just by the denial itself.
I get up and walk towards the pile of IKEA wood. I grab a plank of something light colored and smooth, and begin smacking it in my hand. “Look, you’re trespassing. I want you out of here now.”
“I’m not going until the sheriff comes and changes the locks.”
Still no anger. Still no reaction.
God, I want to hit him first. I want to hit him with this goddamn Swedish wood. I want to crack his head open with Blaarg or Kräppi.
“I think you should leave,” he says in a voice that seems almost kind.
I swing the piece of wood, aiming for the television, but I have to aim low since I placed it on the floor. The mechanics of my attempt at destruction throw me off. I hit the side of the TV, not the tube. As my right knee buckles, I pitch forward, onto the top of the TV, into the coffee table, scattering books and magazines.
He grabs me while my head is spinning, and I’m still in a daze, not sure if he’s helping me up or throwing me out. I get my answer when he lifts me under my right arm, opens the door with his left and gently deposits me, standing, outside. I think I hear him say “I’m sorry,” but I could be wrong.
I crumple to the ground. I’m dizzy, and I notice blood coming out my nose. I stay on the ground a while, a long while. I want to throw up, but I can’t. I want to cry, but I don’t. I just pant and gasp and stay down, down so far I don’t even notice a township police cruiser pulling up in the driveway, and a cop walking up to me.
“Are you okay?” he says.
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“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
I look at the kid in front of me. Can’t be more than 23, 24. Tall, about 6’3”, he’s leaning over me, trying to figure out whether I’m a victim or a perpetrator. Maybe I’m giving off the vibe of both.
“I’m alright. I just, well, tried to get into my house.”
“What do you mean?” I sense a shift in the cop’s voice. I realize I’d better pull the threads of middle class respectability together quickly. I stand up, haltingly, with some imbalance and fuzziness, but I stand.
“This is my house. I left it. I’m being foreclosed on. Today. In about 45 minutes, it won’t be my house, since it’s going to sheriff’s sale. But I just wanted to look around one last time.” I feel something in my eye. I hope it’s dirt, and not tears. I pull out my driver’s license, showing him both the old address and the little slip of paper from PennDOT showing my new address. He glances at them, hands them back to me, and stares at me.
“Is there someone in that house?”
“Why do you ask?”
“We’ve been having a problem with people moving into foreclosed houses. Bandos, they’re called. Short for abandoned.”
I didn’t realize I was part of a trend.
“Is there someone in that house?” he asks again. “Is that how you got hurt?”
I think for a moment. No, that’s not true. It’s not really thinking. It’s synapses reacting, firing madly and off-key.
“No. Nobody’s in there.”
“Then how come there’s two cars in the driveway?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. But there’s nobody in there.”
“Well, if you say there’s nobody in there, and it’s not going to be your house soon, I guess I’ll leave you here.” Pause. “You sure I should go?”
“You can go. I’m okay. I just—well, I just got sick, looking at my old place, and I sort of passed out. I hit my head and passed out. I’m okay, though. You can go.”
And he does.
And I stay until he leaves. Then I get in my car and drive to the courthouse.
I walk through the metal detectors, and then over to the old, ceremonial courtroom where they hold the sheriff’s sales. I’d been here before, as my bank’s rep, telling the attorney how much to bid, how high to go. Now I just take up space in the back row, all scratched and bleeding and beat up. I wait for my house to go on the block. The bank bids its costs. Nobody else says a word. The sheriff bangs the gavel.
I don’t know what comes next.
As an attorney practicing consumer bankruptcy law in Lancaster, PA, Mitchell Sommers may be one of the few people in America to benefit from the economic policies of George Bush. Mitchell received his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his law degree from Penn State Dickinson School of Law. He has had op-eds published in numerous Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has had short stories published in Ellipsis and PHASE. He is currently fiction/non-fiction editor of Tatanacho, an online literary journal, and is working on a novel. He can be reached at email@example.com.