By Ernest Gordon Taulbee
She looked at the court summons stating she must appear again regarding her house. Her address was printed prominently in the upper right corner of the letter. The judge was affable but stern during her first time in front of the bench. The enforcement officer was there as well, and he sat with a plain look on his face and an odd smirk in his eyes.
He was the one who referred her to court, and she suspected he enjoyed being there.
It was deep winter, and she knew he spent most of his day in a car. She saw him more than once, sitting there looking at a computer or a phone. She saw him on the way to the bus stop, and she saw him through the bus window with her grocery bag sitting on the seat beside her.
She bought most of her groceries in boxes. The cans and frozen stuff added up quick—both in cost and weight—and it was more than often too much to afford. Her bones were frail now, and her arms were in atrophy. It was too much to carry as well, and if she were to slip and fall, it just may be too much all together.
The last enforcement officer had been kind. He was the first one to knock on her door. She had lived in the same house for more than fifty years, but now it was in a different neighborhood—as if geography and commerce somehow worked together to move it from its foundation. Now, not only were the faces on the street new, but they bore no familial similarity to her old neighbors.
She remembered him—the last enforcement officer—his name was Foster. He was short and polite, but mostly he was kind. He had a pointy beard that scared her at first. He asked her about her house and its issues (violations as he called them), and she tried to explain.
“My Morton took care of this house. He wanted our home to be the best on the street. That grass was never more than a few inches. He checked our house every time he cut that grass, and he fixed everything. He’s been gone a long time though. I’ll be gone before much longer.”
“You don’t have any kids that can help you?” Foster asked.
“My Billy died not long after his dad. Vanessa moved to Memphis. She doesn’t call like she used to. Maybe I should just look at assisted living. I don’t know.”
“Well, if you can just make sure the grass stays cut, I can work with you on the other stuff, but grass gets phone calls. Tall grass causes more complaints.”
His letter came a few days later. He had “cited” several problems on her home. There was a loose gutter in the rear that needed to be nailed back up. A downspout was separated from that same gutter by about six inches. The address numbers were supposed to be posted at the front and the rear. She only had them at the front. Then, of course, there was the grass.
She paid the grandson of the last neighbor on the street that she knew. He cut the grass every Tuesday evening for ten dollars. That lasted for a few cutting seasons. Officer Foster’s letters arrived every few months with the due dates for the violations pushed out another sixty days. Then, the neighbor boy moved.
She took the bus to the store and bought weed killer. She sprayed it all over her tiny yard in front and back, and the grass was all brown and dead the next day. Foster came a few days later; the neighbors had called to complain about her dead grass.
“The code only says grass cannot be more than ten inches,” he said. “There is nothing in the code that says you have to have a living lawn. They can complain all they want. Your dead grass is compliant grass.”
She took a breath, as the judge called the courtroom to order.
“Will Mrs. Mildred Fugate step forward please?”
She took her place at the lectern on top of a long table. The courtroom was not the most formal she had ever seen, though most of her courtroom experience came through the television as she was preparing dinner. This one seemed rundown, like—perhaps—it was a courtroom they used for the less pressing and less important cases. Explaining a broken downspout to someone with a law degree and wearing a black robe seemed pretty unimportant to her.
“Mrs. Fugate, when we last met, I directed you to make repairs on the property. I informed you that total compliance was not necessary for the entire dwelling, but that there needed to be some progress.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Enforcement Officer Baker is present today. Officer, please stand and approach the bench.”
Officer Baker had not been kind, like Foster. He had hair the color of rancid chicken fat that was thinning on his crown and temples. He walked with a pursed tightness, and she thought he looked silly in those uniform shorts. He walked to the bench with a thin stack of papers in his hand.
“Please take the witness stand, Officer Baker,” the judge said, and the enforcement officer placed his right hand in the air.
The last time Foster came to her house, she could tell he wasn’t himself.
“My supervisor quality controlled me on my last inspection, ma’am,” he said. “He told me I have given you too much time. He says something has to happen.”
“Can’t you just tell him I’m old and don’t have any money?”
“I wish I could, ma’am, but your neighbors are complaining to the councilperson about you. They are saying you are bringing the neighborhood down.”
She felt her eyes get hot. “Foster, for a long time, I was the only thing holding this neighborhood up. Isn’t he my councilperson too?”
“We just have to get compliance on something. We have to show progress,” he said.
“I know. I know, Foster. You’ve been patient with me.”
“They want us to crack down,” he said. “They want us to apply the code in a stricter manner.”
“I don’t know who these people are. My home is surrounded by strangers.”
“We just have to show compliance on something. We’ll start with the easiest thing first.”
He pulled his hand from his pocket. He had stickers with numbers on them.
“I’m going to put these on your house. I’m going to put them up, and then I’m going to mark that violation in compliance. That will let me prove you’re trying. I can show progress. We’ll figure the rest out, but today—if nothing else—we can show progress.”
Officer Baker took his seat in the witness stand. The judge asked him about her house, and the officer reported that the violations had not been corrected. He further reported that the property was in “further decline” and he had cited several new violations. He kept that smirk on his face the whole time.
“Mrs. Fugate, what do you have to say about this?”
“Your honor, I don’t know what to say. I feel like I’m at a loss here. It’s not like my house is falling apart. Houses age like people do. My house is old like me. Officer Baker said it is a nuisance. I just don’t understand that.”
“Mrs. Fugate, the enforcement ordinances are in place to help prevent nuisance and protect property values. Your dereliction on your property is lowering the values of the properties near you.”
“Your honor, I just don’t have the ability to do the things I am being asked to do. Officer Foster understood. He worked with me.”
“Officer Foster Salyer is no longer with the department,” Officer Baker said.
The judge wrapped the gavel.
“Officer Baker, please refrain from statements that do not pertain to the case. Mrs. Fugate, I am going to allow one more month for total compliance. If you come before me again without achieving total compliance on the dwelling, I will have no choice but to refer the case to district court. I hope you understand that district court can come with far worse penalties. This is a legal matter that can lead to you being taken into custody. As far as today, what is the current citation on the property, Officer Baker?”
“The property has over nine-thousand dollars in unpaid fines.”
“Let the record show that a lien for the entire balance due on the property is to be levied. Mrs. Fugate, please see the clerk on your way out for your next hearing date.”
The first time she saw Officer Baker, he woke her from a dead sleep. She had finished her coffee and nodded off in Morton’s old easy chair. It was ragged now, like everything else. He pounded the door again before she was able to answer.
“Hello,” she said. Her eyes met his scowl resting just above his thin goatee the same color as his dingy yellow hair.
“Are you Mrs. Fugate?”
“Mrs. Fugate, my name is Enforcement Officer Baker. I need to discuss your property with you. Is now a good time?”
“Where is Foster?”
“Officer Salyer has been reassigned to a different inspection area. I will be ensuring compliance on your property moving forward.”
“Why did he move?”
She remembered how he seemed to break from his stoic demeanor, and for a second his eyes became even more squinted and angry. “Because the neighbors saw him put the address numbers up for you.”
They walked the property together for almost an hour. It was just a shotgun on a little lot, but Officer Baker seemed to find something wrong with every angle in the walls and every nail that had been driven into the frame nearly a century ago.
His letter arrived the next week. It had gone from the two remaining violations Foster had cited (the downspout and the gutter) to a list of fourteen violations. Officer Baker said she needed to get a new roof, she needed to tuck point the chimney, and she needed to replace the siding. The letter went on for pages, written in legal diction that confused her.
She found the business card with Foster’s number.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t talk,” he said when she called. “I’m really sorry you’re going through all this. I really am.”
“Foster, I hope I didn’t get you in trouble.”
“I got myself into trouble,” he said. “I’m so sorry, I can’t talk though. One of your neighbors saw me put those numbers up. Then they got on-line and saw where I had marked it in compliance. They reported it to my boss. I got suspended for a week without pay. They reminded me my job is to cite violations, not fix them.”
“I’m so sorry, Foster.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but they’ll be checking my phone records. If they see you calling me, I could receive further discipline.”
She didn’t want that.
On his second visit, Officer Baker came later in the day. It was late summer and it was more heat than she could handle. He wanted to walk the property again, but she told him she was not able. Three days later she received his next letter. He added new violations and fined her. The first fine was fourteen hundred dollars.
She didn’t have that kind of money. She did at one point in her life, but that time had passed. He could have issued a citation for a million dollars if he had wanted. It was an equally unattainable sum.
Baker kept coming back every month. He issued a fine against her every time. After several months of that, there was a knock on her door. She assumed it was him again. When she opened the door this time, there was a sheriff’s deputy.
He served her with a summons.
When she first spoke to the judge, she tried to explain:
“Your honor, me and my husband bought that house right after we got married. We raised two kids there. My daughter moved away and the rest of my family is gone. That house is all I have. It’s not just a building; it’s part of my family. I take care of it as much as I can, but it’s a living thing and living things get old and they die. It’s a tomb for me now I share with my husband and children. I have memories in every corner. I just don’t understand what I am doing wrong here?”
“Mrs. Fugate, the enforcement code is written as it is. Your age does not privilege you to end your stewardship on the property. You may consider selling the property, but I cannot permit it to continue to deter the development of this community.”
As she left the courtroom, she passed by Officer Baker.
“A house is a living thing,” he said. “Stupid.”
“Do you not have a family, Officer Baker? Do you not understand home?”
He kept his eyes forward, not looking at her.
“This is a new government,” he said. “We hold people accountable. The time for freeloaders has passed.”
When Officer Baker’s first letter came in the mail, she considered a nursing home. There were retirement communities around, but she could not afford them. She would have to sell her house, which would prove difficult with the liens against it, though the neighborhood was up and coming. She knew that any buyers would want her house dirt cheap.
A nursing home would be different. To get into a nursing home, it would mean that she needed constant care, and the state would have to pay for it.
She kept the paper she received from the clerk in her hand during the bus ride home. She looked at the date inked on the page in the clerk’s block handwriting. The bus stopped more than usual and it took longer than she expected to get home. She napped in Morton’s chair again without even taking off her shoes.
Before he ended their last call, Foster said he would come over after dark and nail up the gutter and the downspout. She refused. She worried that if the neighbors saw him again they may call the police or he may lose his job.
“No, Foster, you’ve been good to me. I have to take care of this now.”
The nap had settled in over her, and she felt van winkle as she rose from it.
She crossed the street, still feeling sleepy. She knocked on the door across from her. Her cousin Rose had once lived there, but Rose died long ago. The new owner opened the door. His tie was loosened around his neck, and he had a glass of whiskey with ice cubes in his hand.
“Hello, I am Mildred Fugate, I live across the street.”
“I was wondering if I could ask a small favor of you.”
“I need to fix a portion of my downspout and gutter that is damaged. I was wondering if you could help me.”
“I’m not much for house repairs.”
“No, sir, I am not asking you to do it. I just need help moving the ladder into place.”
“Yes, sir, if you have a moment to help.”
“I’ve got people coming over for a bourbon tasting club in fifteen minutes, and I need to change clothes. Maybe tomorrow,” he said and closed the door.
She had peered into the house the whole time they were talking. It no longer looked like Rose’s house.
She knocked on two more doors, but no one answered.
When she went back to her house, she found the step ladder in the kitchen. It was about four and a half feet. It was heavy for her weak arms, but she was able to move it outside.
She thought of how family wasn’t merely people. Family was memory and family was experience. Family was the feeling of contentment and family was the feeling of solitude. The last thing family happened to be was people, she thought. The family she had was still in this house, and it would never leave, even if the people were dead and gone.
She pushed the step ladder as close to the house as it would go. She went back into the house and to her junk drawer to retrieve an old hammer and a few nails. When she was back in front of the step ladder, she took her shoes off and looked up at the sagging gutter and the gap in the downspout.
She remembered Foster’s first inspection. He pointed it out to her. He stated again and again how it was very minor, but he cited the code as it was written. The neighbors complained, and he had to treat them like his customers.
She placed her bare soles on the first step. Then she climbed to the next one. Soon she was standing on top of the ladder in a manner warned against by a sticker on the side of the ladder’s frame.
She pushed up on the gutter and tried to feel for a place to drive the nail.
She reached the hammer back and lost her balance. Her bare soles slipped from the top step, and her bare soul fell to the ground. She felt the bones in her right forearm break. She struggled with her left to remove her dentures, as she could feel them beginning to choke her as she lay on the ground.
She had rolled a bit when she fell and was staring up at the back of the house. The step ladder had fallen too, and she felt where it had shredded her thigh.
She looked at the address numbers Foster had adhered to the house. One of them was beginning to peel at the corner. She could tell she was bleeding from several places, and she had bitten her tongue when her dentures were knocked askew. She could taste the blood in her mouth and thought about shouting. The cold of the ground was penetrating into her bones, as she heard the scurry of feet surround her.
Ernest Gordon Taulbee lives in Louisville, KY with his wife, Tina, and their daughters. He holds a BA and an MA in English from Eastern Kentucky University. His novel, A Sibling in Always, and a few other works are available for purchase. His work has previously appeared in the online journals Fried Chicken and Coffee and Live Nude Poems. Followed him on Facebook @ernestgordontaulbee or on Twitter @gordtaul.