Prose: “Interloper From Another Neighborhood” by Douglas Steward

At any one time there are scores of houses in the Grosse Pointe area that sit empty, serving time as silent citadels of the neighborhood. They’re owned by family estates whose administrators diligently pay the taxes and heating expenses year after year. They never dream of putting the property up for sale and risk having “outsiders” buy in and desecrate their ancestral family home.

     Such was the fate of the black-and-white Colonial with the peeling paint job on Lakeland Street near the “Village” section of Grosse Pointe. The one neighbors commonly referred to as the “McAllister house.”

     Theresa Schluederberg, the silver-haired septuagenarian who made it a point to power walk up and down the street every morning, was the first to notice Fay Bunting attaching a lockbox to the front door. She tacked left and zoomed over to investigate.

     “Have the McAllisters finally decided to sell?”

     “Seems so,” Fay said. “Their lawyer offered me the listing last week.”

     “I’m on the board of the Property Owners’ Association here. If I can be of any assistance, let me know.”

     “The house looked lived-in last week when I checked on it. Have you noticed anyone in the house?”

     “I thought you knew,” Theresa said. “People have been living here for several months. At least.”

     “The lawyer didn’t mention it. Who are they?”

     As if in response, the door swung open, revealing a young woman wearing gray sweatpants and a yellow tank top.

     “Are you two with the Jehovah’s Witnesses? I already have a copy of The Watchtower,” she said and slammed the door shut. The two astonished women stared at the door a moment, then at each other.

     “She is definitely not supposed to be here,” Fay finally said. “I wonder if she’s a squatter.”

     “A squatter?”

     “Someone who’s illegally occupying the house.”

     “Oh, my. That can’t be good for property values. Can’t you just kick them out?”

     “They have certain rights. It can be difficult to get rid of them.”

     “I don’t think we’ve ever had a case of this in our history. Certainly not since the City of Grosse Pointe was incorporated back in 1934. That’s when it split off from Grosse Pointe Farms over a debate on the sale of alcohol.”

     “I’m glad that debate’s over,” Fay said.

     “You’re aware that I’m president of the Grosse Pointe Property Owners’ Association here?”

     “Isn’t there a homeowners’ association?”

     “Well, yes. But I created the GPPOA to focus on neighborhood concerns I didn’t think were being addressed by the homeowners’ association.”

     “I see,” Fay said, looking back at the door as if it might open again. “And you hadn’t noticed anything odd about whoever is staying here?”

     “They’re normal neighbors. I’ve seen a plumber’s truck parked outside from time to time. They updated their window treatments recently. Put peonies in the front flower beds.”

     “But you haven’t spoken with them?”

     “Sure I did. They didn’t respond. Lots of neighbors ignore the GPPOA. But I still serve each and every one of them faithfully.”

     “All right. I’m sure the McAllister estate will want to take care of this privately.”

     “I can keep an eye out. I live a street over.”

     Theresa was a little steamed by the fact that these interlopers had fooled her for months. She chided herself for not being on top of things; letting this infraction get past her was inexcusable.

     That’s not the expectations I have for my tenure on the GPPOA, she thought.

     Still, she was aware that since her husband died and her son had moved away, she’d lost some of her steam.

     Those weren’t the only unwelcome changes in her little neck of the woods.

     The neighborhood street was once chock full of busy residents, tending to their gardens or kibbitzing over each other’s fences.

     “Well, that’s all in the past now,” she mused. No one showed any interest in attending a property owners’ meeting anymore. More likely they would bolt at the mention of such a thing. Undeterred, she called her own impromptu board meeting to confront the new neighborhood
threat.

     This is an emergency meeting, convened on account of the squatting incident in the old McAllister house, she wrote in the meeting minutes.

     She scanned the room and made a note that enough board members were present to constitute a quorum. She called her little conclave of one to order and approved the agenda.

     “The floor is open for discussion,” Theresa said to an empty room.

     “The world isn’t what it once was,” she said, “but our neighborhood can still pull together in a crisis. And now we have a crisis on our hands.”

     She closed the meeting with a motion for adjournment and a brief prayer. A plan of action had been agreed upon.

     She typed up a neighborhood announcement, in all capitals and with little punctuation.

     SQUATTERS HAVE BEEN SIGHTED IN THE AREA. DON’T LET YOUR PETS WANDER AND CONSIDER KEEPING YOUR CHILDREN INSIDE. ANY QUESTIONS PLEASE CONTACT YOUR GPPOA REPRESENTATIVE.

     She distributed it among the houses on the street. She tacked one on each front door, careful to avoid letting any slip into the mail slot underneath.

     “It’s a federal offense to use their mailboxes,” she reminded herself. “Didn’t I learn that the hard way five years ago?”

     She posted the notice on the front and back doors of the McAllister house, just to make sure they received it.

     The next day Fay Bunting sat in her car outside the McAllister house. She waited for the woman living there to emerge. Her patience paid off when the squatter opened the back door and made a beeline toward the garage.

     Fay rolled down her window. “Hi there again.”

     “How long have you been loitering here, intent on ambushing me?”

     “Not long. I’m Fay Bunting. I have the listing for the house you’re occupying.” Fay thought it safe enough to exit her car and stepped out.

     “I gathered that.”

     “I thought we might discuss our little situation here.”

     “Okay. What’s up with the old biddy who was with you last time?”

     “Neighborhood snoop, I guess,” Fay said.

     “She walks very fast. Talks even faster. Oh, and here she comes now.”

     When Theresa saw the two talking, she threw on a windbreaker and shot out across her back porch. She nimbly vaulted over the back fence and scuttled through a neighbor’s backyard before joining Fay and the squatter.

     “Can I be of assistance?” she said.

     “Not particularly,” the young woman said.

     “I’d like to know what the hell you’re doing in this house,” Fay said, ignoring Theresa.

     The woman looked around. “Seems as if my partner and I are living here.”

     “Illegally,” Fay said.

     “You and I would disagree on that.”

     “I checked. Her daughter is enrolled in Grosse Pointe South High School,” Theresa said.

     “All it took was a driver’s license and a utility bill,” the woman replied.

     “I’ll have to talk to the school board about tightening up those residency requirements,” Theresa said.

     “I’m listing this house,” Fay said. “Which means you have to go.”

     “You can’t be that heartless. We’d have to set up camp right here on the sidewalk.”

     “Maybe pitch your tent under that tree there?” Theresa said, pointing to the neighbor’s imposing red maple.

     “I think she’s being sarcastic, Theresa,” Fay said.

     “Look, I’m on my way to pick up my daughter from school. Just leave the lockbox off the door, thank you very much.”

     “You can’t get away with this,” Fay said. “I could call the sheriff.”
“I think you’re bluffing. Besides, it’s up to the owners of the house to call law enforcement, not you.”

     She waved them away, crossed the yard, and entered the garage through the side door. A moment later the garage door opened.

     “What do you think we do now?” Theresa said.

     “What do you mean, ‘we’?” Fay said.

     The car flashed its brake lights.

     “Right now I’m going to get out of the way,” Fay said.

     The car backed past them, the woman giving them a stare as she glided by. She reversed onto Lakeland Street, shifted into drive, and drove off.

     Fay headed back toward her own car. “She’s seems very sure of herself. She must know something we don’t.”

     “They’re like refugees from a blue-collar neighborhood,” Theresa said. “We can’t let them get away with this.”

     “There’s not much we can do right now that would make a difference,” Fay said over her shoulder. “I think she has the upper hand.”

     But Theresa was determined to make a difference.

     “You don’t just get to live in Grosse Pointe by accident,” she said out loud as Fay’s car retreated into the street. “You have to earn it.”

     Squatters aren’t the norm in Grosse Pointe. There was no tried-and-true road map to manage such a situation. Theresa knew how to handle a racoon wandering aimlessly through backyards, intoxicated with distemper. Or a neighbor who habitually violated the local noise
ordinance.

     This was something new. Something Theresa had yet to tackle.

     She sat at the card table in her kitchen, mulling over her options.

     With her husband gone and no kids to raise, her GPPOA responsibilities made her feel productive and gave her purpose. And after her bridge club disbanded, the GPPOA was the only thing keeping her busy. She patrolled the neighborhood, power walking and keeping a watch on the community. She kept track of new inhabitants on streets adjacent to hers, even though there was a paucity of such. That’s why these new interlopers—these squatters—galled her so.

     She was aware that her neighbors didn’t share the same enthusiasm for all things Grosse Pointe. They also didn’t think their cruel comments would get back to her, but they were wrong on that account.

     “She’s always into everyone else’s business, as if her little made-up neighborhood association gives her that authority.”

     “I suppose it’s helpful to have someone on the lookout, even if she takes things a bit too far.”

     They’ll all sing a different tune after I take care of this little matter, she thought.

     The thing was, the non-native squatters acted as if they belonged. They were a quiet bunch, keeping to themselves, not too chatty. Their lawn was kept clear of dandelions and dog droppings.

     If they had left a hulking old Buick rotting in their driveway, I would have spotted them in a heartbeat, Theresa thought. But the way it is, they got by me.

     Theresa responded to the threat by immediately embarking on a full-on surveillance program. She spied on the intrusive émigrés from her corner bedroom, her high-powered binoculars peering out from between the slats in her window blinds. She made notes on the times of their comings and goings.

     Departs every weekday at 3 p.m., she wrote in her journal.

     Theresa furtively trailed the suspect as she drove her teenager to school in the morning. Theresa had trouble remaining inconspicuous while driving her white 1997 Cadillac DeVille, causing her to take alternate routes and then double back to find the squatter’s automobile on the next street over.

     Drops off at 7:30 a.m., she wrote down.

     Theresa constructed a chart on a foam board to organize all the information she had gathered and hung it on the wall. She smothered it with yellow Post-it Notes and strung purple yarn to connect them to each other. In the center of the board, she tacked up a blurry picture she took of the squatter with her old Polaroid camera.

     She stood back and beheld her work.

     Wasn’t easy getting that picture without being seen, she thought. Not everyone could pull that off.

     News of the squatters spread up and down the street, thanks to the bulletins Theresa had gamely posted. Neighbors began approaching her, asking if there was any updated information. This newfound interest in her services was most welcome. It strengthened her resolve,
rejuvenated her pride in the community.

     They beckoned to her as she power walked down the street. She was asked if things were safe now that there were unwanted gate-crashers living nearby.

     “Grosse Pointe is generally considered a safe neighborhood, but we have had our fair share of murders. They tend to be colorful and press-worthy. In one case a woman shot her husband over a dispute about the grade of carpet they were choosing for their house. But I think it was in retaliation for some hanky-panky he had going on the side.”

     Even Patti Neilsen chatted with her over the fence. It was the first time Theresa could remember her next-door neighbor even acknowledging her beyond a wave from afar and a quick getaway.

     “Let me get this straight: you’re not with the homeowners’ association?”

     “No. I am president of the GPPOA.”

     “Hmm. How many local associations are there?”

     “I was on the board of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society,” Theresa explained. “But then my term wasn’t renewed. I applied for the position of historian, but it went to someone else.”

     “Oh.”

     “But I’m not one to be deterred. I’m still dedicated to helping any way I can.”

     “I heard a rumor that our new arriviste dated a McAllister recently.”

     “Her ‘partner,’ another woman, is living with her,” Theresa said.

     “Doesn’t mean they’re exclusive,” Patti said.

     Theresa pondered this. “Do you know the name of this family member? I’ll have to write all this down in my journal. Every lead matters.”

     Emboldened by the newfound attention, Theresa took further action. She committed to memory the squatters’ daily comings and goings. This made it easy to steal into the McAllister garage and abscond with incriminating evidence from the trash bins. She carefully laid out her plunder on the card table that did double duty as her kitchen table. There were natural gas bills, apparel catalogs, and solicitation letters from charities, all spoiled with coffee grounds and
fragmented eggshells.

     “I’ll need a cup of tea before I can sort all this out,” she said.

     Theresa poured water into her teakettle and set it on top of the cast-iron grate burner. She pulled out a used teabag from a mason jar and placed it in a ceramic mug. Just then the doorbell rang.

     “Who on earth could that be? Probably someone circulating political petitions. I’ll have to ask the city council again if they could issue licenses for that,” she said aloud.

     She opened the door and encountered a Grosse Pointe police officer.

     “We’ve had a complaint,” the officer said.

     “Is there another racoon on the loose? I’ll alert the neighborhood.”

     “The complaint involves you. Do you mind if I come in?” he said.

     “Of course. Would you like some tea? What on earth could this complaint be about?”

     The officer stopped short when he saw the evidence board along with her card table, heavy with assorted trash.

     That seems to be the problem,” he said.

     “You mean my kitchen table?”

     “What’s on it.”

     Theresa explained that she had been doing some reconnaissance on the neighbors on an adjoining street. “Illegals” was how she referred to them.

     “You’re the one who’s been trespassing,” the officer said.

     “It’s just trash. Once they throw it out, it belongs to everyone.”

     “I’ll bag this up and dispose of it if you agree not to bother them again.”

     Theresa felt stymied. She couldn’t comply, simply agree to give up. Not yet anyway.

     “Are you aware of all the parks we have in Grosse Pointe?” she said. “Some say it’s more parks per capita than anywhere else in the United States.”

     “I’m aware. You agree to leave them alone?”

     “What if I agree to stay out of their garage? And their trash?”

     “That works for me.”

     He borrowed a garbage bag from under Theresa’s sink, deposited all the evidence from her card table in it. He reached for the foam board that hung on her kitchen wall.

     “My evidence board too? I’ve spent hours on that.”

     “It would really be for the best,” he said.

     She raised her hand in resignation. “If you must,” she said. “I’ve memorized it anyway.”

     A resolute Theresa headed over to the McAllister house that evening. She took the long way around, cutting across Charlevoix Avenue.

     It’s so pretty, she thought as she power walked by. All the mature trees in full greenery. The street receded into the growing darkness of dusk, the lampposts not yet illuminated. It’s a shame it has to be ruined by undesirables who sneak in here uninvited.

     She found her nemesis outside in the front garden, pulling weeds while the last vestiges of light allowed. She was bent over, her knees supported by a rubber mat, her hands protected by thick gardening gloves.

     She looked up when she saw Theresa approach. “Here comes the garbage picker now.”

     “I’m just trying to keep the neighborhood safe.”

     “You’re wasting your time. My family isn’t dangerous.”

     “Did you know that each Grosse Pointe community has its own municipal park, for residents only?”

     “I know that we can’t enter Neff Park. We don’t have access passes.”

     Theresa hesitated, then said, “That’s because you don’t belong here.”

     The woman stood. She approached Theresa, coming so close that Theresa took a step backward, a bit nervous as to what this woman might do with the trowel in her hand.

     “And what makes someone like you ‘belong’? You Grosse Pointers walk your made-to-order dogs, part poodle, part something else. You fill your days spying on each other and gossiping behind each other’s backs. You privately judge each other’s rose gardens.”

     Theresa blinked. She wanted to respond but couldn’t think of what to say.

     “We’re guilty of the same sense of entitlement,” the woman said, dropping her trowel. “Except our dog is from the shelter.”

     “You don’t pay property taxes. You aren’t properly registered.”

     “My daughter is registered at the high school.”

     “Fraudulently.”

     “The school district thinks otherwise.”

     “I wonder what the administrator of the McAllister estate thinks about this.”

     “Look, maybe you could find something better to do than to harass me,” the woman said. “I want to finish this front flower bed before it gets too dark.”

     Theresa retreated, going back the way she’d come.

     Theresa thought she still had a major card to play. She could just contact the estate administrator and make it clear to him that this riffraff could not be allowed to remain.

     But it was not to be. Word buzzed through the neighborhood that the McAllister family had settled with the squatters. They could wait until the daughter graduated from high school, then move out. Apparently money changed hands to make this happen. The woman and her partner were already considering purchasing a much smaller house in the Grosse Pointe Park area.

     If they had just given me some more time, I’m sure I could have had them extradited, she thought. These interlopers shouldn’t be rewarded like this.

     Theresa was intent on not letting this get her down. She still power walked religiously each day through the neighborhood and even made a turn down Lakeland Street, as awkward as that might be. She shrugged off the innumerable questions from the other neighbors.

     “There’s really no new information,” she said, then dashed away. The attention had lost its allure. She felt defeated.

     Fay Bunting spotted Theresa power walking her way down Lakeland Street. She hurried to arrange the numbers embedded on the discs of the lockbox on the McAllister front door. The shackle popped open and she removed it. Too late. She could hear Theresa’s voice hailing her.

     “Hello, Theresa.”

     “I suppose they are to be regarded as neighbors now,” Theresa said.

     “For now, yes.”

     The door opened and the woman stood there, hands on hips. “You two again?”

     Fay held up the lockbox. “All set.”

     The squatter nodded.

     “Looks like you won,” Fay said.

     “So I suppose I won’t be seeing either one of you anymore.”

     “But you haven’t been officially welcomed by the Property Owners’ Association,” Fay said.

     Theresa beamed and stepped forward.

     “Since you’re technically here on legitimate terms, let me be the first to officially welcome you to the neighborhood,” Theresa said.

     “Thanks, but that’s not necessary—”

     “There’s a lot you don’t know about the community.”

     “I think I know enough.”

     “There’s so many advantages when you live here,” Theresa continued. “Do you know this part of Grosse Pointe is considered ‘the Village’?”

     “So I’ve heard,” the woman said. She looked to Fay for help.

     “…you can walk to get your groceries. Starbucks is just a few blocks from here.”

Fay turned and walked to her car. She held the lockbox over her head and waved it as she left.

     “That’s nice and all,” the woman said, “but I do have to get ready for work.”

     “That’s not a problem,” Theresa said. “I’ll stop by later. Or tomorrow.”

     “It’s really not—”

     “In fact, I’ll make it a point to visit today and tomorrow,” Theresa smiled. “There’s just so much to tell you about the area.”

THE END

Douglas Steward has been published in the Zizzle short stories book series (Volume 1), Atherton Review, Blackworks, Brief Wilderness, El Portal, Louisiana Literature, October Hill Magazine, SLAB, Summerset Review, and Waxing & Waning. He has attended several creative writing workshops, including Gotham Writers Workshop classes. Semi-retired from a career that has included working in the automotive industry, manufacturing technologies, and real estate development, Douglas now devotes his time to writing and taking care of his two collie dogs.