|Whitey the Killer Cat came and went through the hole under the |
Griffith*house, located just to the left of the leaning sign
Whitey, the Killer Cat of Traveler’s Joy*, lived under the abandoned house that stood on the corner of Limestone Street and Kent.* I first saw him on the day we bought the house across the street. Waiting for the real estate agent to work his way through a ring of keys and unlock the front door, I stood on the porch of the blue cottage and watched as a short-legged, broken-tailed cat crawled out through a hole in the stone foundation of the old Griffith* home and made his way up the street, sticking close to the shrubbery. Since later sightings of him nearly always occurred late at night, when I would go to close the drapes in the two front rooms and would spy him under the streetlamps making his stiff-shouldered pilgrimage up the hill towards Shagbark* Street, I wondered if he’d made an appearance that afternoon with the specific intention of letting us know he was there and was not to be intimidated or driven off if we decided to become his neighbors.
I learned something of his fearsome reputation from one of our human neighbors on Shagbark, a friendly and loquacious man who walked a giant white dog around the town. This dog Miles* was all that remained of a sheep-ranching business that L. and his wife had operated years before. Stopping to talk one day, L. responded to my questions about Whitey (a name I gave the cat, which was likely the only repeatable name he’d ever been called) by warning me off any contact with the animal. He told me that on one occasion the cat had attacked Miles (a dog big enough to substitute as a pub table) while they were taking a stroll on a summer’s evening, and L. had been forced to beat him off with his walking stick. He went on to say that Whitey often hung out at an old house further up the hill where a congress of semi-feral cats had been breeding, fighting, and sunning themselves beneath the scrubby eleagnus shrubs for generations. One of the old women who lived in the house had mistaken Whitey for one of her own and attempted to lift him into her arms. “He slashed her in the eye and she came down with a fever," said L. "Two weeks later she was dead from a massive infection. That damn cat killed her!”
|Whitey, in a rare daytime sighting|
I never saw Whitey come into our yard, nor did he seem to bother our large, tough, tiger-striped male cat, Tobey. He kept to the sidewalk on the far side of our street when making his nocturnal rounds, until I began to notice that I was seeing him less often, and then, not at all. I have convinced myself that he died of some untreated disease in the home he knew under the Griffith house, and was not alive when the neighbors on our north side burned the old house to the ground.
We had heard from our neighbor Steve S. that the structure’s days were numbered, that the J. family had bought the lot and the ruined house standing on it and had plans to build a garage on the lot. Here they planned to shift their collection of half-wrecked sedans, trucks, and one enormous pontoon boat from the limited space around their tiny house where the vehicles were currently parked to that site across the street once the Griffith house was eliminated. Mr. J. told my husband that he had approached two salvage operators with a proposal that they strip the 125-year oak banister and newel posts from the home, detach the mantels in the parlor and take up some of the surviving flooring, in exchange for which they would tear down the remaining shell and haul the debris away. In both cases they told him it would cost more to take the place down than the salvage was worth, and that he should take off the doors and strip what he could before lighting a match to it himself.
Shortly before Christmas that year, an excavator rolled slowly up to the property and began knocking down the walls. It was difficult seeing the old home's innards exposed to the elements in that way -- watching the sturdy chimney resist the force of the battering bucket over and over until it finally crumpled and fell. You ask yourself plenty of existential questions, the kind that don't have answers, while witnessing such a spectacle: what did their lives amount to, the families who lived and died in those rooms over so many years? How can it be said that their happiness or misery, their love or fury or passion amounted to anything, when the rooms that contained them are shredded as easily as paper bags, and then the whole pile is set on fire?
One morning a week or two after the demolition, I woke up and noticed immediately that it was too bright in our north-facing bedroom for seven o’clock in the morning. I hurried into the front rooms and saw that the light was fairly blazing through the cotton drapes. The fire had been set before dawn and the flames were shooting into the dark sky. Mr. J., some members of his family, and a couple of neighbors were standing at the edge of the yard, calmly watching the remains of the house go up in pillars of flame and ash. They had set up plastic lawn chairs upwind of the smoke, and someone had brought a box of donuts which was being passed around.
Eventually, one of the fire trucks drove down from the station a block away and a couple of volunteer firemen looked in on the fire, but in the six days that followed while the Griffith place threw off flaming cinders as it burned, smoked and smoldered down to a mound of black debris, I never saw another official visitor at the site – just curious townspeople gathering to watch. Ash seeped in through the cracks in our cottage and filtered down to us through the floorboards in the attic. It covered our tables and our bed and made our meals taste like picnic food, gritty and slightly burnt.
On the eighth day, Mr. J. and his kinfolk brought in a dump-truck and a front-loader and cleared away the pile of leftover pipes and foundation stones now that they were cool enough to handle. Then they cut down two of the largest trees and left the pieces lying in boulder-sized sections at the back of the lot. But as the weeks passed, and then the months, and as Mr. J.’s son rode his mower across the street to cut down the Johnson grass and the pecan seedlings that sprouted in the blank space where the house had stood, it became clear that whatever plans had been in place for that site had been abandoned or put on indefinite hold, and that the house had been destroyed to create an empty lot that held nothing but potential.
It’s created a tension in me whenever I drive or walk through Traveler’s Joy and pass the old houses that must have been charming or even beautiful in their prime, but which are now simply leaky liabilities for the people who hold title to them or who have been entrusted with their care while the owners languish in nursing homes and hospitals, or lie in local churchyards. I've come to think of the little Carpenter Gothic cottage I pass when I walk to the library as Miss Ivy’s Place, after a neighbor told me about the woman who lived there for years after retiring from a lifetime’s work in Charlotte. She moved out to a skilled care facility before my husband and I arrived in town, and her cousin still hires the gardener who comes quarterly to trim the privet hedge and mow the lawn, raking the golden leaves that fall in drifts from the massive tulip poplar. I heard that Miss Ivy died not long ago, and no one knows what the cousin will do with the house.
|Miss Ivy's Place, with tulip poplar|
It’s virtually the same story at the large white house up on Vance* Street, even down to the African-American gardener who mows the lawn and sweeps the leaves off the double verandas shaded by a towering white oak that can’t be a day less than 150 years old. A brother and sister grew old there together, the brother dying and then the sister being moved to a nursing home. How she must have longed for that veranda with the two white rocking chairs set out, waiting for sunset, the broad front steps descending through clusters of snowbells that bloom in late winter and look like white lace edging a collar. I heard that the sister finally passed away around Thanksgiving last year, and my heart sank driving home from work one afternoon last week when I spied unfamiliar cars parked at the house alongside a truck emblazoned with the name of a local auction house.
In the Griffith house, the last living person to have set foot indoors neglected to shut a window on the second floor, where tattered curtains flapped in all weather and the seat-back of a wooden chair was visible for years. It looked as if someone had been sitting at the window watching the neighborhood and had gone downstairs momentarily to lift a boiling teakettle off the stove. While the house was burning, I heard stories from several Traveler’s Joy natives who had grown up around the family. They told me that husband and wife had been hard drinkers who were famously foul-mouthed when in their cups, folks who beat on each other with anything close at hand and if there wasn't anything close they used their fists. Mrs. Griffith was rumored to give as good as she got, and someone said she knocked Mr. Griffith unconscious one summer by landing a brick in the back of his head. Mr. G. remembers spying on one of their brawls by hiding in the boxwoods with his little brother, until a five gallon ash-pail came flying through the hedge and sent them scrambling. It was rumored that Mr. Griffith had a secret room outfitted in his basement where the Klan met for a time, and in fact, the KKK held a parade in Traveler’s Joy back in 1968, although the locals maintain it was sparsely attended.
Mr. G also claims to have witnessed Mr. Griffith’s death while waiting for the bus that used to run along Tomahawk* Road. Drunk as ever, Mr. Griffith was running to catch the bus that had just pulled up at the stop in front of the police station, followed by some portion of the mongrel pack of dogs he fed and that always followed him. A car racing to beat the light on Tomahawk swerved to avoid the dogs and struck Griffith instead, tossing him high in the air and sending him scudding a fair distance down the street, like a flat rock skipping the surface of a lake. Mr. Griffith slid to a stop underneath a parked car and Mr. G. remembers running into the police station, screaming and screaming that he’d seen a man die.
After that Mrs. Griffith lived alone, and with no one to drink with or curse at, the air seemed to leak out of her as fast as that. She and her husband had raised a niece named Tamara*, and when Mrs. Griffith started losing her memory and wandering, she told Tamara that she could have the house once she was gone if she would check in on her aunt and do the shopping and such. Tamara did just that for a time, but she had a family of her own in another town and obligations that pulled on her, so her visits started to come less and less frequently. In order to keep Mrs. Griffith safe between visits and to prevent her from wandering, Tamara took to locking her into the house until she could get back to Traveler’s Joy, which eventually came around once a week on Sunday after church. This went on for a time with Mrs. Griffith getting weaker and thinner until one day the old woman broke out of the house in her nightdress and the postman found her face down in the front yard, stone dead.
People in this part of the world are not sentimental for the past. They care about it if it will feed their families in the present. And if their families are well-fed, then they look for these old relics to make them an honest dollar, even if that means crushing them into dust. They are surprised that anyone could begrudge them that.
I don't begrudge anyone the dollars. What keeps me up at night is thinking about all the stories that ought to be salvaged from these places before the banisters and bricks come crashing down, the stories of so many vanished lives lived badly or well or barely at all, of the young hearts, broken spirits, long nights, blessed days, and hours spent watching at a window, waiting for the kettle to boil or hoping for a miracle.
|The House with Two Verandas, empty of occupants.|