Jacob Morgendorffer, Esq.
Early summer, 1987
Vivian Taylor eased her car into the driveway of 109 Howard Drive but her eyes were riveted on the large ramshackle house next door. No cars were present and no one was on the lawn.
"Good," she thought. "Doesn't look like anyone's home. Although with that bunch..."
Three times in the past year, Vivian had been on the verge of closing a sale on the house. Three times just before signatures found their way onto paperwork, the woman next door drifted over to introduce herself to her new neighbors, usually with several of her children in tow and once her husband. Three times, buyers backed out despite the eight-foot tall privacy fence that encompassed the backyard and the row of cypress trees that ran from the fence to the sidewalk separating the two properties completely. All said the same thing; they would not live next to those crazies if the house were half the price.
"Damn," she thought. "I'd have had less trouble unloading this place if a tribe of howler monkeys lived there."
Vivian plastered her best smile on her face as she waited for the minivan to pull in beside her. She knew that Mrs. Morgendorffer was in the market because the Davis-Miller law group recently hired her, a firm whose offices were practically a right turn and a straight shot from Howard Drive. A point Vivian intended to drive home aggressively because she was one more commission check from saying 'Good bye, Lawndale Community Theatre, Hello, L.A.'
"I have to warn you," she said brightly as popped from her car. "Once you're inside, you'll probably won't want to leave."
Helen corralled her two daughters but that did not prevent her from seeing the REDUCED placard diagonally draped across a corner of the FOR SALE sign that stood forlornly amidst grass that was at least a week past its need for a mowing.
"Asking prices are not lowered for houses that people are fighting to get into," she thought. "And any agent worth her salt would have had the place squared away before she brought over a potential buyer. Missy, I'm gonna skin you alive on the final price if the house is anywhere near in decent condition."
Helen blinked in surprise at her savage thought but quickly shoved it aside. "We'll see," she aloofly said as she continued her perusal of the immediate neighborhood. The houses were older, she guessed around forty years old.
"Probably built during the post-war housing boom," Helen thought.
She knew that the workmanship of new subdivisions varied greatly during those years. Quantity, not quality, was the order of the day for some while others weathered the years well due to superior craftsmanship. It did not matter because Jake stressed to her to have any house she thought of purchasing inspected independently before she signed any papers.
As for the area itself, quiet was the word that came immediately into Helen's mind. They were at the edge of town. Howard Drive itself ended in an intersection just four houses down the street. A small strip mall sat beyond there nestled between the road and a set of railroad tracks. A huge pasture dotted with a few dozen cattle stretched several hundred yards from a fence bordering the tracks to a large grove of hardwood trees.
The tracks were perhaps a bit close but Helen enjoyed the cadence of a passing train. It conjured the romance of travel especially when its seductive rhythm teased her in the deep dark of night. It was an aural aphrodisiac. Jake felt the same way. Quinn likely owned her existence to a passing Norfolk & Western zipping past their home one warm spring night. "Jake would like this neighborhood," she thought.
"Are you okay, Mrs. Morgendorffer?" Vivian asked intruding on Helen's reverie.
"I asked if you were okay," Vivian repeated. "You looked funny for a moment, sad, sick or something."
Helen gave her a weak smile. "I was just thinking of my husband," she replied. "I miss him."
A stricken look slid onto Vivian's face. "I'm very sorry," she said looking at the two young girls with pity.
"Oh, no, no, no," Helen chuckled. "It's not like that. My husband's in the army and at the moment in the middle of a yearlong tour in Korea. Unfortunately, it's a hardship tour, no dependents allowed but he'll be home by Christmas."
"Mommy was a soldier," the little red haired girl piped up.
"Really now," Vivian said brightly while she struggled to remember the girl's name.
"Emphasis on was," Helen said. "Let's go inside, shall we?"
"Right this way," Vivian said.
With her back to the Morgendorffers, Vivian failed to see Daria look up at the second level next door. A little, lanky, dark haired girl was standing by a window staring at them over the tops of the cypresses. Tentatively, Daria nodded a small greeting to her. After a moment, the girl waved back, a tiny, crooked grin on her lips.
As they toured the house, Helen's struggle to keep her poker face in place intensified. A five bedroom, two and a half bathroom house was larger than they needed especially since she and Jake agreed that two children were enough but it was a steal at the asking price. It was a dream with hardwood floors on every level including the full basement, an actual staircase to the attic, a huge kitchen, a covered porch on the rear of the house and a massive enclosed backyard that absolutely begged for a garden. Helen missed her old garden dreadfully.
"There's no way this house could have been on the market for over a year," she thought to herself. "What's the catch? Poltergeists?"
"Helloooo," someone crooned from downstairs.
"Eff me," Vivian snarled in the corners of her mind. "If I lose this sale, I'll strangle that bitch!"
From the top of the staircase, Helen spied a woman about her own age wearing a highly embroidered umber-colored peasant dress standing in the foray with a tall, thin young girl. The woman wore her light brown hair well past her shoulders. Large silver earrings dangled from her ears.
"Hello," she repeated when she caught sight of Helen. "I'm Amanda. I live next door."
"Hello," Helen politely responded as she descended the stairs. "I'm Helen Morgendorffer and who's that hiding behind you?"
"My youngest daughter Jane," Amanda replied gently pulling her forward. "She's five."
"Mom, I'm six," Jane said. "I'm gonna be in the first grade, remember?"
Amanda frowned then shrugged.
"This is my eldest, Daria, and my youngest, Quinn," Helen said more to Jane than Amanda. "Daria starts the first grade this year also. Is the school far from here?"
"Tydings Elementary is right around the corner on Fine Street," Vivian quickly injected. "Just two blocks away. Not even a five minute walk from here."
"That's true," Amanda agreed. "Oh, the reason I'm here. I came over to invite you to lunch."
"Thank you," Helen said. "But I don't want to put you through any trouble."
Amanda smiled. "It's no trouble. Penny made a large pot of soup, enough to feed twenty people, at least. And the kettle's on so we can have some herbal tea."
"Thank you," Helen accepted.
"You're welcome to lunch too," Amanda said to Vivian.
"No, thank you," Vivian tightly replied. "I have to get back to the office. I have another appointment."
"I'll be in touch soon, Mrs. Taylor," Helen said.
"It's a wonderful house," Vivian said
"Yes, it is," Helen agreed as the agent slid by.
The others followed her outside. Amanda sadly looked on as Vivian carefully turned the deadbolt and the lock.
"Locks don't keep anyone but friends from a house," Amanda intoned.
"It's a safe neighborhood," Vivian replied rigidly. "But you cannot be too cautious. I hope to hear from you soon, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
Without a backward glance, Vivian hopped into her car and roared away. Amanda watched her for a moment but turned to Helen as soon as the real estate agent sped down the street.
"I hope you move in," she said turning toward her home. "The house is lonely. It has had no one to shelter and protect for nearly two years now. It's starting to lose hope."
Helen frowned slightly at Amanda's new-age hyperbole before inwardly chuckling. "You're more army than hippie now, girl," she thought. "Daddy will be happy."
"I'll need to get it inspected first," Helen replied falling into step with Amanda. "But it's a bargain. I can't believe that no one has snatched it up before now."
"I know," Amanda agreed. "It's strange. Several have looked at it. Some even seemed enthusiastic about it when I talked to them but in the end no one bought it."
A loud crash greeted them as they rounded the last of the bushes. It startled Helen but it did not perturb Amanda. "The cypresses Mister Brown planted are lovely," she said serenely. "But they're almost a wall now. It does make it difficult to go from yard to yard. "
Two blurs that faintly resembled male toddlers scurried past them as soon as Amanda opened the front door. Inside, a young woman with long blonde hair was on her hands and knees picking up the pieces of a broken lamp.
"Grab 'em, Mom," she yelled trying to get to her feet.
Helen was quicker. Like lariats, her hands leaped out and snared both by the collars of their tee shirts. The boys squirmed and danced but her grip held them firmly.
"Thanks," the young woman said taking the two boys from Helen. "I'm sorry, Mom, but they broke your brown lamp."
Amanda chuckled. "It doesn't matter, Summer. I'll just make another body for it," she said before quickly introducing everyone.
Helen covertly took in the house. The first thought that popped to mind was shamble but she quickly amended it to jumble. Pottery was everywhere as were paintings and sculptures in various media and states of completeness. Mismatched furniture with no sense of arraignment lay about as if indifferently dropped by a giant child playing with a dollhouse.
"Who's this?" a teen-aged girl descending the staircase demanded.
"This is Helen," Amanda said. "She's looking Mr. Brown's house. My middle daughter, Penny."
Penny stared at Helen as if expecting a reaction. When none came, she snorted again.
"I suppose Mom invited you to lunch," she said.
"Yes, she did," Helen replied. "She said that you made a large pot of soup."
Penny grinned evilly. "I did," she said. "Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup. Do you know what's in it?"
"If it's what I'm thinking of it is based on tripe and beef feet," Helen answered smoothly.
Penny's grin fell from her face. "So are you another yuppie bent on turning Lawndale into another milk white suburb?"
"I'm an attorney," Helen replied trying to keep her amusement at the girl's belligerence from showing. "Just out of the army in fact."
"A real jackbooted lackey of the military-industrial plutocracy," Penny snapped sensing that Helen was not taking her seriously.
"Don't forget to add running dog," Helen advised. "No pseudo-Marxist rant is complete without that phrase."
Penny suggested the act of self-copulation to Helen before storming back up the stairs. "I hope you get heartburn," she yelled before slamming her bedroom door.
"Lively girl," Helen laughed.
"Yes," Amanda serenely replied. "Come this way to the kitchen."
"You mentioned that you were going to make a new body for the lamp," Helen said. "Are you a potter?"
"Oh, yes," Amanda replied. "I have three wheels and four kilns in the old bomb shelter.
"I haven't slung clay in years," Helen said.
Amanda smiled broadly. "After lunch, we have to get you back into it then. I have several smocks and plenty of clay."
At five o'clock, Vivian was locking her desk when her telephone rang. At 5:05, confident that the Brown property would pass any inspection, she danced a jig in the middle of the room as she calculated how soon she would be in Los Angeles.