Heritage Oaks

Three of us stood under trees at the end of a long crumbling asphalt driveway joking and talking about the upcoming election. To our right, a large culvert, filled with water from recent rains punctuated the bottom of green grassy slopes leading upward on either side to distant houses that couldn’t have been more different. On the opposite side from where we were, a large brick ranch style home with pool, tennis court, and stately trees showcased a bright red door between two giant white columns set to greet visitors to the front entry. That property, situated on three full acres, hosted two gardens, a work shed the size of a child’s playhouse cabin, a large garage and a small metal windmill that churned gently as the day’s breezes passed its way.

We’d met with the policeman just prior to gathering regarding a vagrant using the vacated property where we were now assembled. After checking out the house and immediate area, including a small enclosure with two ponies adjacent, the officer cheerfully made a report and promised to speak with the woman in the vehicle we described as soon as he found her. In the meantime, since we hadn’t actually seen her enter the house, there was nothing he could do, other than warn her.

Because the house was listed for sale, earlier the three of us had taken a walk down the long drive to see what kind of property and house were being presented. Walking up two shaky steps to the right, we saw that the padlock on the side door wasn’t locked. Making note of a small rusty air conditioner sloping out the low window near the door, we stepped over an orange extension cord plugged into the outside wall, pulled the dilapidated plywood door open and stepped inside.

The first room, surrounded by windows on two sides, smelled of musk that smacked us as we crept carefully along creaky, uneven floor boards. The room ended quickly and we stepped up a flight of three wooden stairs with a handrail to the hallway. From there, a kitchen area on the left appeared to have been improvised with very little shelf space, more extension cords, and a small, dingy sink. To the right, a small bedroom perhaps, without windows or closet space. Longer than it appeared from the street, the house seemed centered on a narrow hallway, along which we peered into a tiny bathroom. Sporting the same creaky wooden floor, it was adorned with a mirror hanging awkwardly across from a makeshift, stand alone shower stall squeezed tightly against the opposite wall. Further down the hall, a larger egg shell painted plaster board room in the back could have been a living room without doors. This room boasted one tiny four paned window to the right, broken in one quadrant, where the end of an orange extension cord dangled.

“This house sure has character,” my friend Lauris smirked. I had to agree.

“How many kids did you say they had?” I asked, noticing a small upper area wreathed in spider webs as we began our way back to the stairs and door.

“Four. I saw them out playing and running quite a bit along the culvert,” Lauris replied. “But I never formally met them or the owners. Everyone here seems to get their mail when they drive in, so we didn’t see them much up close.”

Part of the intrigue of the house lie in who the next owners might be. My friends Lauris and Maury owned the stately ranch house on the other side. Various prospective buyers came and went mostly on the weekends. Some they met; others kept to themselves as they looked around.

One young couple, pawing all over each other, walked the length of the property, and hailed them from the other side of the culvert as Lauris and Maury were doing some yard work.

“Hello! Do you mind if we ask you some questions about this property?” the young woman, long brown hair flowing in the breeze, hollered out, and waved with her right hand as she kept holding and swinging the left hand of her companion.

“Just a minute, we’ll come over,” Lauris said, setting down her tools, calling to Maury, and removing her gardening gloves.

“We just love the looks of this neighborhood; do you like living here?” the young woman gushed.

“Yes, we do enjoy it here. We’ve been here about thirty years. It’s one of the safest neighborhoods in the area and you can see that the properties here afford a sense of privacy as well,” Lauris stated authoritatively. Maury nodded in agreement, hands in pockets.

“We were thinking we would cut down these trees lining the water area and build out closer to the road….”

“Wait a minute. You’re not allowed to cut down oak trees this big. And those trees over there would need to be replaced by trees just as big if you took them out. Doesn’t make much sense to mess with the trees. Did you know that the water rises up from time to time here and as a home owner, you really want to have your home further back and up the hill like it is.” By now Lauris was showing her concern. Because of its odd shaped lot and the unusual orientation of the house at the end of it, folks seemed to be coming up with all kinds of ideas of how to improve it.

“Well, are there snakes?” her companion interjected.

“Snakes, coyotes, possums, skunks, you name it, we have it here! There’s something to keep an eye on every season.” Lauris was smelling a victory.

“Ok, well thanks. I guess we’ll go look inside now.” The two turned and walked off toward the house, somewhat less enthusiastically.

Then there was another couple discussing plans to raze the house and situate a new home overlooking the culvert that would allow a direct view into Lauris and Maury’s pool area. Lauris let them know of the flooding problem often overtaking the entire area. Snakes could pose problems along here. Mainly she didn’t want anyone looking through her chain link fence to the pool area behind their home; it was her divine refuge during the dog days of summer.

Finally, Lauris and Maury thought they might, if the price was right, purchase the property themselves, knock down the house, and either re-build in its current location, or keep the property as an investment. To do this, they wanted to meet the sellers to discuss the possibility of a lower price. They planned to mention the numbers of potential buyers walking away. Didn’t the sellers think the price was just too high? It was, in effect, the cost of buying just land because the house was nothing, a junk heap. Buyers could see that. Anyone could clearly see that.

Finally a white Mercury Mountaineer drove up. An older woman with salt and pepper hair, glasses, wearing a flowing navy skirt and baggy flowered blouse, stepped out of the driver’s seat, opened up the back of the car and removed a wheel chair. She dutifully wheeled it over to the passenger side where she opened the car door, and patiently assisted a somewhat crumpled man with white hair and a light blue button down sweater, out of the car. The two of them met us on the driveway just a quarter ways down in the shade.

“Hello! Are you Lauris and Maury?” the woman inquired.

“Yes, we are and this is our neighbor, Shirley.” Lauris replied. “You must be Vicky and Marty.”

“Marty, look!” She pointed. “There’s a horse out back of the house! Oh, we used to love to watch the horses at the ranch back there! There’s a small walkway around the back of the house, did you see it?”

“Yes,” Maury replied. “We walked out there. “The horses roam awfully close to the house. The flies are relentless.”

“Oh, we didn’t notice that much. Marty has Parkinsons now, but this place holds so many memories for us.” Vicki started choking up and began patting Marty’s shoulder. “This house wasn’t really meant to be a house. It was an old railway station moved here from Seguin by the gentleman we bought it from.”

“That explains a lot,” Lauris inserted. “We almost tripped over the extension cords in there.”

“We had nothing. Our printing business went under and there we were with four kids, not knowing where our next meal was coming from. We prayed and prayed and all of a sudden, along came Vernon Smith. Said he had a place in Austin that would fit all of us.”

“I don’t know how you all fit in that place for thirteen years,” Lauris started. “I only saw you…”

“Well, we didn’t have a penny to our name, our savings we depleted trying to stay afloat the final months at the print shop. We wondered how in the world we could swing an offer so generous as what was being presented. We had to come up with ten thousand dollars some way, some how. The Lord provides, I’m telling you! I don’t even know how we managed that; that was Marty’s magic!” Vicki smiled, patted Marty, and looked longingly towards the house.

“Fireflies, Marty. Do you remember the kids trying to catch them fireflies along the creek there? Dustin fell over a log and cut his leg and we had to keep an eye on that for a week, hoping not to have to take him to a doctor.”

“It seems…well…Do you, do you…. think this house is priced right?” Maury squinted up at Vicky, hoping she wouldn’t take offense.

“Whoever buys this house is getting a gold mine. Goats, horses, giant oaks, and quite a long front yard for kids to run, throw a baseball, kick a soccer ball. We spent many an afternoon sitting under that oak right there, watching the kids, remember Marty? Lemonade and saltines with butter on top, I can practically taste them now. One year at Christmas time, I’ll never forget it, the kids laughing and trying to string lights in the living room only to realize we didn’t have an outlet in there! One of the ladies from the church brought us over a long orange extension cord and boy did we light up that room! Kids were thrilled. Wasn’t a tree or presents most of the time, but we always made a special meal and thanked the Lord for all the goodness in our lives. We sure had a lot of blessings, didn’t we Marty?”

I looked over at Marty who sat stone faced staring toward the house, and imagined him in his youth, running a printing business like a young executive, planning happily for his kids’ futures with Vicky busily keeping up with the kids at school and getting everyone to church on time. I glanced over at Lauris and Maury who glanced over at me. Somehow we all knew this conversation was over.

“What we really love is seeing how someone built two rabbit hutches over there,” Maury pointed back behind the house toward a small grove of trees.

“Oh yes, we babysat quite a few animals over the summers when school got out. Pets from the classrooms. Now, please forgive me. I’ve forgotten what we came out here for. You’ll have to excuse me, but since I’ve been taking care of Marty, I can’t remember so many things!” Vicki smiled and looked from person to person.

“Well, we just wanted to meet you and let you know what a beautiful sanctuary you have here and we hope it sells soon.” Lauris said, extending a hand. “Thank you for taking the time to bring Marty out. He got a good deal on this place and it sounds like you and your family had a wonderful life here.”

“We did, didn’t we Marty! Thank you for calling us. We’re glad to finally meet you. I guess we’ll wheel up the drive a ways, take a last look, and then head back.”

We watched as the two of them wheeled their way up the cobbled drive. At intervals, Vicky stopped and pointed, talking all the while to Marty who didn’t appear to move.

Lauris, Maury and I decided it was time for all of us to get back to our homes too.

Horse enjoying the shade of oak trees at the ranch.

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