Scott Nadelson

He broke in the day after we moved out, so he'd likely been watching the place for some time—maybe since the realtor first put a sign in the yard. That was three months earlier, but we'd yet to get an offer on the house. It was mid-2011, the market still sinking to undetermined depths, and even at thirty thousand less than what we'd paid for it, few people were interested in walking through. But this guy wanted to live here. He clearly appreciated the work we'd put into the old bungalow, remodeling kitchen and bathrooms, refinishing floors, replacing rotten boards on the deck. Afterward, from scattered evidence, we pieced together his visit. On the sliding glass door, two greasy smudges, the imprint of forehead and nose as he peered in to make sure no one had stayed behind. Then, around the side, footprints in the oxalis, where he tested one window after another until he discovered the one with the broken lock. What a thrill to feel the sash budge and then, crouching in the camellia, listen for the alarm that didn't sound. And how carefully he climbed in to avoid knocking over the lamp, to keep from soiling the armchair we'd left to stage the place for potential buyers. There were other things we'd left, too: half a dozen dishes on the kitchen's open shelves, a few cast iron pans, air mattresses on cardboard boxes made up to look like beds. And in the garage a case of Riesling my father-in-law had given us when he thinned out his wine cellar, cast-offs we'd been storing for a year and never intended to drink. The stuff was sweet and warm, but our guy couldn't believe his luck when he found it, dragging the box inside, setting it in a place of prominence on the old farm table we used as a butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen floor. We hadn't left him a corkscrew—how thoughtless!—but he was resourceful enough to punch the cork in with a butter knife chisel and saucepan hammer. I don't know if it was before or after opening the first bottle that he decided to get some food. But eventually he let himself out the back door—which he left open a crack, maybe forgetfully, maybe for fresh air—and returned with a bag from Safeway. And what did he pick out? A tub of salad greens, bottles of oil and vinegar, scallions he sautéed in one of the cast iron pans, on the vintage Chambers stove we'd found on Craigslist. Salad! Sautéed scallions! Did he always eat this way? I want to believe it was a special night for him; that the house, though small and old and surrounded by decaying halfway houses and group homes for the mentally ill, was the most elegant he'd occupied for years; that he admired the people who lived here and had restored it so affectionately; that imagining them made him want to live as they did, cooking healthy food, drinking hand-me-down wine they couldn't afford to buy themselves. And what a night it was! The first bottle he finished while cooking, leaving it empty in the kitchen sink. The second he drank while eating his salad and a bag of tortilla chips on the air mattress in what had been our bedroom. Only he didn't realize it was an air mattress at first, because he sat on it hard, collapsing the cardboard boxes underneath. Salad dressing and wine spilled on the sheets, but he enjoyed his meal anyway, left the plates on the mattress, and fetched a third bottle of Riesling. That one he drank in the front bedroom, which had been my office, this time taking the boxes away first and laying the air mattress on the floor. Did he browse the dozen or so books I'd left on the shelf and appreciate my taste in literature? Did he pass the time with a Chekhov story—"The Kiss," maybe, or "The Darling"—or peruse recipes in my vegetarian cookbook? All I know for sure is that here he spent the night, getting up only once, as far as I could tell, to relieve himself on the baseboard in the corner of the room. And why not? For tonight, this was his house, and he could do with it what he pleased. If that meant splattering urine on the wall and floor after downing three bottles of warm white wine, so be it. Why begrudge him that, when I'd enjoyed so many nights here, strolling in the garden, cooking dinner on the Chambers stove, making love under the cracked plaster ceilings, conceiving my daughter. How could I walk away from the place just because it felt too small now that I had a child, the neighborhood too dodgy, the school district's rating too low? Shouldn't I have done more to honor all I'd put into it, all it had given me in return? I want to believe my guy took in the perfect tight grain of the old floorboards before laying down his head and shutting his eyes. I want to believe he caught a glimpse of the moon made wavy by the leaded window, that the surprise of it tickled out a little hiccup of laughter. I want to believe he slept a heavy sleep in my old office, that he dreamt swooning, blissful dreams. Because I know it must have been a rough awakening when the realtor opened the lockbox and jingled the key early the next morning, leading in a young couple who wanted just this kind of old place with a big yard, so long as it was free of rot, and its roof didn't need replacing, and its sellers could come down another twenty thousand off the asking price. How cruel to face the daylight slicing through the tall windows; to scramble up from the floor and crouch in the closet, waiting to run out the front door; to hear the couple exclaiming over high ceilings and laminate countertops they'd mistaken for real marble; to hear the realtor shouting after him and telling the couple to call the police; to feel the pavement rattling from shins to throbbing head; to pass For Sale signs in the yards of sagging bungalows with patchwork siding and crumbling chimneys and weedy lawns; and to know, once more, that nothing as ecstatic as love's first flare ever lasts.







Information for the would-be squatter, with pictures [here]. And more practical advice for long-term reclamation of vacant properties [here].