by Tamra Lucid and Ronnie Pontiac.
“In Every Dream Home a Heartache” by Roxy Music
My next door neighbor died. When I moved in her house already looked like a haunted ruin. Her first words? She threatened to sue me for parking my car in my own driveway. I stared past her at the menacing four level Spanish house of rotting wood balconies with a tarp on the roof and a mosquito paradise in what had been the pool. Broken cement and stray cats. Boxes of who knows what stacked outside.
She told me very little about herself, only strange, poignant moments. As a child, when upset, she would stand in the furthest corner of her property, by the deep end of the pool, by the filter equipment, overlooking the city, as far away as she could get from the house. One teenage summer in the 1960s, before the area became overbuilt, a European sports team performed nude calisthenics in the grass of an open field. She watched them from her bedroom window.
She wanted me to know that for five years she had eaten steak, spinach and baked potato every single night.
My favorite story she told me. As a teenager in the 1960s she and a few local teens in the area formed a club called the Dionysus Society. They drank water pretending it was wine and read poetry under a particular palm tree, now long gone. She and her friends hiked a little dirt trail down to Sunset to see Jimi Hendrix at the Whisky, practically in their own backyard.
She didn’t have nice things to say about her family. They never visited her. She told me she’d leave me her house so they couldn’t have it. Another of her veiled threats.
She told me about aliens, mother ships and Jesus. She tried to teach a raccoon to hold the hose when she watered her yard. She sneered about a neighbor she suspected might be gay. She snuck into my yard in the early morning hours to cut my rose bushes and lemon tree down to stubs. Making small snips each time until almost nothing remained. She never cut anything else. She never explained why. I never asked. But it went on for a long time.
A dead Eucalyptus tree slid down the hill behind her house. Roots up, the carcass lay by her empty, cracked swimming pool. She left it there undisturbed.
In some ways a cool neighbor, she never complained even when we rehearsed at high decibels. As long as she lived next door I wouldn’t have to live through a tear down and rebuild. You could count on her to take care of the local feral cats. She would give a shout out when coyotes roamed near She would hike anywhere to help rescue a lost dog or even a lost duck.
She also had a certain juju in the neighborhood. Another neighbor thought he had caught one of my cats shitting on his pool side AstroTurf. He had the poor cat trapped in a cage and threatened to drop kitty off at a kill shelter. When I informed him that my cat goes out only on a leash and that his captive belonged to the lady in the big decrepit Spanish house he promptly released kitty and never said another word about it to anyone.
She’d give me advice about dealing with the city. She fiercely protected her independence. But she was a terrible neighbor. She had once lived in my house and it seemed to me that she felt it rightfully belonged to her. She watched me at all hours. So creepy to take out the garbage, or to go outside to greet a friend, or to water your plants, and there she would be in the dark of her backyard or in the upstairs window. People would ask: “who’s the creepy neighbor?”
A racist, she feared people of color. Once, when Dave one of my favorite drummers visited, she called me to warn me about the black man in my driveway. It puzzled her that Dave was carrying things into the house instead of taking them out. She was not joking. I believe her illness made her paranoid. Several times while we rehearsed she ran to our house in a panic. She told us an intruder had surprised her. We’d investigate. As she held tightly to the arm of my Latina bass player, a former security guard, she didn’t seem like a racist at all.
I found out from neighbors that she had been a lawyer educated at UCLA and Loyola and that she had once been formidable. Bad relationships with men and long term addictions had reduced her to a street person except she lived in a huge house with a view. Authorities condemned the house blocking it with yellow tape on numerous occasions. She disobeyed with all the reckless abandon of white privilege. DWP turned off her water. She stayed anyway.
With homeless people collected from Sunset Blvd she smoked weed and crack in a broken down wooden shack behind her house. A forlorn reenactment of the Dionysus Society. All the neighbors lived in fear that a fire might start there and spread to the dry grass long neglected on her hillside.
Her last boyfriend had a criminal record. Before long his gaunt heroin addict girlfriend moved in with them. My neighbor matter of factly mentioned the nude pictures she had found of the girlfriend and casually commented “nice bod.” But was it all false bravado? Meanwhile many houses nearby suffered burglaries.
Glancing fearfully back at her house, standing at the fence we shared, afraid to be overheard, near the spot where she had hidden as a child, she told me he had burglarized the entire area. The man would not leave. She feared him. He hit her. She had seen me practicing martial arts with my teacher. She wanted me to kick the guy out. I told her to use my phone to call the police. The mention of cops ended the conversation.
Not long after that he hit her again. She called the cops. They removed the guy but a few weeks later there he was lurking in the shadows of her yard. She admitted to me she shouldn’t have let him back in but his intelligence, his artistic creativity, his musicality on guitar, he deserved a second chance, and a third, and so on. He even painted a black rose inside her empty pool.
I knew what a tempting target my easily pawned music gear must have been. Somebody had to be in my house every day and every night. On the few occasions when nobody could be here I always came home worried that I would find the door broken open. One night I saw him leave her house after midnight dressed head to toe in black. I never saw him again after the night months later when the police helicopter bathed her house in light.
I was kind to her whenever I could be. One of the amazing things about her was that despite being a skinny little thing she would walk down the hill to the market and then walk back even under the hot sun or in the rain. She jumped tall fences. Another drummer thought she looked hot, long white hair, weather beaten skin and all, she was still a lithe hippie chick. But then she began to get even skinnier.
I woke up one morning to see what I thought was a coroner’s tent in her backyard. A neighbor told me her body had been found. Her backyard had a little bridge that went to the pool. A waterfall used to flow by it. The story goes that as they were taking her body out the bridge broke and everybody fell into the foliage below. A week later when they pruned the palm trees wood rats scattered.
I met the family. Nice people. She refused all help, they said, as all her neighbors discovered. Her family kept paying the property tax. She had known she was sick but refused to return to the doctor. “What for?” she asked her oldest friend, a man who had lived across the street from her all her life. He remembered her as a bright blonde child with a beautiful family. Live music in the music room. Glamorous parties. Vacations in Europe. The house was a showcase, or as he described it: “a diamond.”
Her family told me she had been born in that house, a house they say was originally built for Greta Garbo in the early 1930s. She had lived on the small ridge shared by her house and mine for 67 years. She and her sports lawyer boyfriend trashed the Garbo house in the early 80s so they bought mine and moved in. But in my house their relationship of thirty years ended. Does that somehow explain her compulsive rose cutting in my yard?
The last time I saw her. Late one night I glanced out the window into her backyard. She wore a long white shift lit in moonlight. Her hair free and disheveled spread like tendrils of ectoplasm in the chill breeze. She seemed to be attempting her usual chores. A few steps toward feeding the cats. But then she paused. She floated off in another direction but stopped again. A Ghost Dancer in the Hollywood Hills.
The last time I heard her voice I was headed down my driveway in the dark. She thought I was someone else. She quietly called that person’s name three times. I figured she’d still be there when I headed back up the driveway a minute later but she wasn’t. I never saw her, I only heard her voice. She didn’t recognize me seeing someone else. She seemed to be rehearsing her new role as the ghost.
I found out yesterday that that she had been in increasing pain. The doctors had already cut her once. She was supposed to take medication and decide on her options. Instead she stayed high on the strongest, cheapest drugs she could find. She threw away her meds, and stopped eating. A friend who saw her the week before she died said she had become nearly incoherent. She wanted to go. She wanted out. She took the most direct approach she could.
Freedom meant everything to her. She didn’t die in a hospital bed or in the street. She died in the one place she wanted to be, the house she was born in. The house she had left only to live right next door. As she broke up with the love of her life there the house stood empty, accusing in its neglect, looming over them, filled with the ghosts of her parents, and with Christmas ornaments. Returning home, she lived and died among them.
Bulldozers will clear the double lot for a new house most likely. Meanwhile neighbors take care of her feral cats. It should be an interesting Halloween.