As we were moving our furniture into the house, sweating under the hot July sun, Billy noticed a curtain being pulled back and eyes watching.
"I wonder who lives there?" Billy stated the question we both had left unspoken until we saw the curtain swinging.
After three hours, the truck was empty and we collapsed for a moment on our haphazardly placed sofa in the living room.
"Phew," he sighed and I couldn't have agreed with him more.
We went about organizing the boxes and furniture into the proper rooms and hauling the things that would live in the guest house up the steep staircase. Our first priority was making our bedroom downstairs ready for the night's sleep. With the television installed and the linens on the bed, we turned on the TV and laid in our bedroom assessing the new surroundings. It was a far cry from our thirty-third floor perch in New York with its expansive view of downtown and a direct sight of the World Trade Center. Our new bedroom felt close and contained.
"Open the windows. It's stuffy," Billy whined. I lifted the old wooden window and the sea air breeze cooled the room instantly. "There. That's better."
I'm not sure what we were watching but soon we heard a mix of the TV sounds and another voice.
"Paul. Paaaaaul. Paul? Paul!" the voice came from our new neighbor.
"What's she saying?" Billy asked.
"I think she's calling Paul," there was no deadpan in my answer. I was just trying to figure it out too.
"Paaaaul. Paaaaul," the word dragged out for longer than the name. It was a word we would soon get used to hearing and it was a word that knew no difference of day or night.
The next day after some cursory decorating, we took a break and went for a walk in the neighborhood. As soon as we passed the house next door, we saw the voice's owner. She was a woman, perhaps once beautiful, with thighs larger than the Danskin tights she had on. One breast was hanging out of her opened shirt. A six inch tin foil collar had been fashioned to look like a satellite dish around her neck and she was smoking a cigarette.
She looked right at us as we smiled the new neighbor smile. We gave a little tentative wave.
"Paul?" was her response.
"No, I'm Bill," was his friendly and innocent response. I stood stock still not knowing what to say.
"Paaaaaul," and off we went for our walk. We had just met Athena. In the following years we learned Athena used to live with her father in the house until he passed away. His name, however, was not Paul. We also heard she had a daughter and a husband who left her because he was gay. He would be Paul.
Whether the neighbors built this myth or perhaps it was even true, it didn't matter. What became very clear was Athena was not a well woman. She was given to fits of singing indecipherable opera at the top of her lungs late into the evening. She wore her fat Siamese cat around her neck like a stole. She was never without a cigarette in her mouth. Spending most of her time sitting in her driveway, she would stare us down every time we passed her house daring us to speak.
"Hi Athena," was our cheerful reply and her eyes would narrow and her stare grew darker. Sometimes she would become aggressive and follow us to our cars. She'd stand right by our window once the door was closed, look right into our eyes and say, "Paul?"
One day, Billy was late for work and in the foul mood that comes from being rushed. He hurried to his car and I ran out to give him something he had forgotten. Athena was on his trail as well.
"Get away from me Athena! I'm not in the mood!" Her face grew imperceptibly softer and she backed away.
We would often see a Volvo parked in her driveway. One day we saw an elderly woman get out of the car while we were taking Bob for a walk. We approached her and introduced ourselves, hoping for some explanation of the house's occupant.
"I'm Athena's mother. Dorothy," she said in a library whisper. We chatted with her for a few moments and she asked for our phone number. "Even though I only live a few blocks away, I worry about her. Please call me if you hear anything strange."
Although we wanted to blurt out that everything we heard from next door was strange, we agreed, shook hands and left for our Bob walk. Some months later, we got a call from Dorothy. "Athena has been hospitalized and she believes she left the stove on. Would you mind going in and checking to see? The door in unlocked."
"No problem," I tried to mask my glee in my answer. We had wanted to see inside ever since we moved in. Billy and I scurried next door and slowly opened the iron door that lead into the living room. We weren't prepared for what was in front of us. Every once in a while you see a report on the local news of a house that has been condemned for unsanitary conditions. This was five steps beyond one of those newsworthy homes.
The house was covered waist high in garbage with two small pathways leading to the bedroom and the kitchen. We went to the kitchen and saw the gas had not been left on the stove. We also saw jars of what we assumed to be urine. The walls were covered in feces.
"I'm going to go get the camera," I started to rush out the door not wanting to miss this photo-journalist's dream house.
"No. That's not right," Billy said with a conviction that made me feel mean-spirited for thinking of taking pictures.
But our exploration continued. The stench was overwhelming so we had to look quickly. We ventured into the bedroom and it was almost pristine compared to the rest of the house. It had a musty smell of old linens and it was thick with dust. But it was intact and garbage free. We climbed over the piles of rubbish into the second bedroom where a small tent had been erected for what we assumed to be sleeping. Inside was a filthy, yellowed sleeping bag. Surrounding the tent were cases of Slim-Fast. We glanced at the bathroom and it was most the shocking of all sights. The toilet had been unusable for a long time but that apparently didn't stop Athena from using it.
With our fingers pinching our noses, we left and closed the caged door behind us. "That was gross!" Billy said with his gift of the obvious. I don't say that sarcastically either. His simple and direct statements were among his most beloved traits.
We called Dorothy at the number she left for the hospital and assured her the gas was off. No mention was made of the condition of the house and we always left that unspoken when we would see her. Athena came back a month later and was noticeably subdued. Heavy medication must have taken the "Paul" right out of her.
But it didn't last long and soon we would hear the familiar refrain. All day and night, the neighborhood resounded with the name "Paul." Over and over again. Constantly. One night, the man who lived on the other side of Athena screamed, "Shut the fuck up!"
"Paul?" was her response.
In 2000, Athena was moved out. We didn't even see it happen. Just one day, she wasn't in her driveway. No sounds came from the house. The cat was gone. A For Sale sign went up. We saw the Volvo one day with Dorothy behind the wheel.
"What happened?" Billy asked.
"Athena is going to come live with me. She can no longer live by herself and stay on her medication," Dorothy looked sad and I wondered how it must feel to have raised a girl who grew up to be so troubled. The house was selling for a song given its condition. Dorothy asked if we wanted to buy it. We politely declined and soon the house was vacant of any of its history. The walls were torn down, and the foundation and wood frame were left standing until the architect and crew began their work.
We missed Athena. The home built in its stead is a beautiful green stucco Spanish bungalow with lush landscaping. Its new owner is a tough-as-nails but kind woman from South Carolina who works in the music business. Billy and I soon became friends with Pat and she would cook us some of the best meals we had ever eaten. She also travels a lot and has a nice young girl staying with her named Stephanie. Their story will come later.
But now, at night, sometimes I long to hear the sing-song of "Paul" drift through the cool salty breeze.