Article — From the October 2008 issue

Bleak Houses

Digging through the ruins of the mortgage crisis

( 3 of 14 )

Early the next morning, in a bruise-colored light, we lurched behind a school bus as it blinked and stopped every fifty yards or so, nearly all the way to Centennial Court, where we were looking for a single-story 2/2 (two bedrooms, two baths). It was a dense neighborhood remarkable only for its anonymity, built in the postwar boom but whose homes didn’t seem to embody the American dream as prescribed. At best, these were starter kits to the dream, their privacy fences tagged with graffiti, their roofs sprouting satellite dishes, often two at a time—a sign, my father said, that the family inside was Hispanic, since one dish would be for American television, a second for Latin American channels.

He often reads ethnicity in the details. After jimmying the front-door lock and taking a look around, he guessed that these owners must have been Hispanic, too, since nearly every square inch of floor was covered with white tile, a cooling system of sorts. In one corner of the back yard, another clue: a makeshift caja china—a box in which a pig is sealed and slowly roasted under coals piled atop the lid. This one had been discarded long ago and was little more than a tub for rainwater now, swarming with ants that had carried off the pig’s drippings but still searched for more.

The house held curious loot: a pleather couch, a weightlifting set, empty liquor bottles. The garage had been used as a makeshift room but not altogether converted. In it were signs of a final effort to coordinate an exodus that must have failed, since there were half a dozen garbage bags sitting full, as if waiting.

“Here,” my father said, kicking a headlight casing. “It’s a motorcycle . . . thing.”

I picked up a helmet, which felt creepily personal, tossed it aside, and dug into the bags. Every single one was crammed with toys, mostly stuffed animals and dolls.

In the rest of the junk, a profile came together: Sindy lived with Robert, but they didn’t share a last name. Perhaps she was a stepdaughter, or a roommate, because in the back bedroom, split by veloured light, sindy & chri$ was stenciled on the wall in black, with a devil’s tail whipping underneath. So Sindy, just twenty-five, judging by the birthday card left behind, loved Chris deeply, but other than the stenciled dedication there wasn’t a trace of him. My bet was that Robert had something to do with it, but it was hard to say. Information only fueled speculation.

The one indisputable fact was their indiscriminate taste in booze. The bottles scattered throughout the tiny kitchen—Seagram’s, Crown Royal, Hine, Hennessy, Bacardi, Holland Vodka (in a bong-shaped bottle), and Brugal rum—suggested either a slovenly habit of keeping empties or a blowout near the end; and the way the padded dining chairs were angled against the window-side table, with the bottles knocked over, lent some credence to the rager theory, in which Sindy and Robert and whoever else—bags full in the next room, their sofa too heavy to keep, the sheriff on his way—drank up their courage, kicked aside a box or two, and headed out into an unpredictable future.

More from Paul Reyes:

Readings From the October 1999 issue

My struggle

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