July/Aug 2018 KR OnlineNonfiction |

The Old Woman in the Bus Next Door

I was weeding my garden one afternoon in May when two officers drove down my driveway to say a search was underway for my neighbor Charlotte. Eighty-six and nearly blind, Charlotte no longer drove, and every so often I saw a cab pick her up. That morning, a cab driver had reported her missing. That’s too bad came the callous blip of a thought. She’s probably dead.

“Have you heard anything?” one officer asked. I shook my head—I’d spent the last days—beautiful, bluebird-sky days―the kind you dream of all winter, holed up in the house, and when I had ventured outside, I’d been plugged into an audio book. I’d heard a crash from my pond the night before, but I’d assumed it was ice breaking. And there had been a cracking noise in the woods that, any other time of year, would make me think of moose, but now seemed to be the collapsing of ice shelves lining the creek. Had I missed something?

After the officers left, a red helicopter began flying low, tight circles over Charlotte’s property and mine, the deafening noise drowning out my audio book. Before the arrival of the officers, I had been adrift in a meditative haze induced by scraping dirt from the roots of weeds. Now I could think of nothing but Charlotte and how difficult it would be to spot a body in the forest. At least the trees had not yet leafed, making it easier to see. As the helicopter flew over my garden, I felt self-conscious, knowing the searchers must be seeing me over and over. It felt wrong to be engaged in a mundane chore while a person was missing. Should I be helping?

The helicopter expanded its circles. They must not have found her, I thought. I emailed my other neighbors to alert them to the search. Chris—potentially one of the kindest men alive—wrote back, “The humanist in me hopes she’s OK. The objectivist in me wonders if she has any living relatives and whether they are decent people.”

I’d had the same thought but felt guilty for having it.

 

When I bought my property in Fairbanks over ten years ago, neighbors told me that the only negative would be Charlotte, who stockpiled tires, bicycles, mattresses, barrels, dog houses, ovens, windows, and scrap lumber and thought they raised the property value. For many years, Charlotte lived in a school bus with a wooden extension tacked onto each end. Then one winter the bus burned, and she moved into a metal trailer behind the charred skeleton of the bus. While the rest of our cabins were tucked down long driveways, Charlotte lived right off the road, her mess in the open.

A visitor once described my neighborhood as being like old Fairbanks. I took this as a compliment and understood it to mean that we were rough around the edges, a non- cookie-cutter place. For example, one year a camper appeared in the woods near Charlotte’s driveway. The camper belonged to gold miners whom Charlotte had invited to set up camp. They were middle-aged and hairy in all ways—which I could tell because they sometimes sat naked in yard chairs by the road. The summer was dry and forest fires were a worry, but the miners lurked in their chairs and threw paint cans on a bonfire. When I jogged by, they waved. I did not want them there, but our neighborhood has a history of squatting. Charlotte’s encouragement of the practice was arguably in the spirit of frontier hospitality, and the frontier, however we might define it, seemed to be one value our neighborhood had in common.

When the miners moved out, they left behind a trashed camper and yard debris. Then, overnight, a cabin appeared behind the camper. Two neighbors complained to the government, saying that the cabin—actually, Charlotte’s entire property—had no outhouse, and sewage was dumped from buckets.

Not long after, my neighbor Steve spread the word that the state had warned him that all our properties were in violation, and we might need septic tanks because we live along a creek. This terrified me—I also dumped sewage from a bucket, although only onto a pile that theoretically composted. Actual plumbing would be beyond my means.

One night I had been out walking and got stuck waiting for a moose until Steve picked me up. “I just coo to them,” Steve told me as we bypassed the moose.

We chatted in his car at the end of my driveway. When I asked Steve about the conversation he’d had with the state about plumbing, he replied, “Oh, I made that up.”

“What? Why?”

Steve told me the other neighbors were too righteous. “They need to take the log out of their eye! It’s just a little toilet paper and pooh, no worse than a dog, and it’s a big property. The neighbors just hate her.”

We agreed there were worse scenarios than Charlotte’s property, such as McMansions or zoning covenants.

“I worry about the future,” I added. “I like my life here and don’t want it to change.”

Steve brought up the recent barrage of bullets. I’d been hearing it, too, coming from Charlotte’s yard. Steve said he asked Charlotte, and she replied, “What, you can’t shoot a gun around here?” Steve had seen Charlotte with alcohol, a new development.

“She’s gotten paranoid,” he said. “She listens to talk radio all day and thinks all the neighbors hate her. She thinks they represent the government.” She told Steve to go away, like he was the enemy.

“She is going to be rotten in there some day,” Steve concluded.

 

I barely knew her. She owned another property off a remote highway and floated between here and there at unknown intervals. She was rarely outside. Once I saw her wandering her yard in her midthigh white nightie, shooting her gun in the twenty below. For years I waved, unsure whether she could see me.

I lived next door for five years before I made my only trip to the bus. I was coordinating a project for an oral history nonprofit, and Steve agreed to interview Charlotte. I knocked on her door to ask her to participate, and she led me through the bus, which had counters on either side instead of seats. Heaps of boxes occupied all the counter space. The back of the bus contained a woodstove and a five-gallon bucket topped with a toilet seat. There was a plywood bed platform and sleeping bag and desk. “I live back here,” she told me. She sat on the bed and motioned me to sit on an overturned bucket, which was next to the toilet bucket. The bus stank like sewage.

I explained the project, worried she might cringe at the word “interview,” but Charlotte was not shy. In fact, she was writing a memoir. She’d had a laptop, she told me, which she kept in a box covered with socks and underwear, but some guy stole it, plus one of her puppies.

I perched on the bucket while Charlotte told stories about her three husbands. “My husband died in a snow machine accident. They gave me twenty-five hundred dollars for the funeral,” she began. “I thought that was very nice. They told me they did it because they liked me. My husband went to jail for murder. Threw a guy through one of those bar windows. That guy had killed someone, and had killed a nice person, so my husband only got five years.”

The project I worked for had two mottos: listening is an act of love and everyone has a story. As I listened to Charlotte, however, I began to suspect that my listening was more an act of rubbernecking. I felt thrilled at the mention of murder and multiple husbands, at the continual revelation of our difference. For example, Charlotte didn’t believe in evolution. “There was a professor, up on the road by Fox Hollow,” she said. “There was a cabin back there, but it burnt down. That professor, he told me with a straight face that we were descended from apes. He’s probably still there.” My own philosophies aligned with the professor’s, but Charlotte never seemed to consider that possibility. I found a point of convergence only when she described her other cabin, where she lived in a shack with a million-dollar view of a glacier. How perfect, I thought.

The sewage smell began to make me sick. I said I had to go. Charlotte replied that her teeth had been missing for two weeks. She was too blind to search, so I sorted through the dishes heaped on the counters. I found her filthy teeth in a filthy Tupperware, and when I gave them to her, she opened her mouth and shoved them in without washing them. She swallowed me in a hug. “Now I can eat nuts!” she said. “I love fruitcake, and I haven’t been able to eat fruitcake because I had no teeth. Thank you for the teeth! Now I like you, after all.”

“What, you didn’t like me before?”

“No, you walked away when I said I’d pray for you.”

“I did?” I asked, having no idea when that had happened.

“I pray for all of you,” Charlotte told me and then listed off my neighbor’s names. “I figure you are all my responsibility. I’m Christian. I’m prolife. I’m conservative. And that is who I am with my whole being. And my daughter says I’m crazy.”

Conscious of our differences, I nodded anxiously as Charlotte continued on about our neighbor Larry. “I tell Larry, no, I accuse Larry . . . you are a Democrat! You are a Socialist! You are a Marxist!”

“Well, he is a Democrat,” I replied. “But I don’t know about a Marxist.” I did not know how Larry would label himself; he is one of the most liberal people I know and abandoned a Harvard law education to live in the woods without a job and grow vegetables.

“Aren’t Marxists those saying that no one can be rich and you have to share all the money?”

“I guess,” I answered.

“Like the Democrats! They don’t think you can go off and be rich!”

I wondered if Charlotte considered herself rich. She was certainly independent, and perhaps for her that was the same as rich.

Walking home, I puked in my driveway, my body unable to forget the smell of the bus.

 

When Charlotte visited my house for the interview, I looked out my window and saw her shuffling through the snow. It did not occur to me that I should have escorted her until I saw her trip over a lumber pile. “I tripped,” Charlotte told me accusingly when I ran to fetch her.

I’d clamped microphones to the kitchen table, and I ran the sound while Steve asked questions and Charlotte told different stories from the ones she’d told me in the bus. She did not mention a single husband or murder. Once she’d run a thousand-mile sled-dog race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. She’d run into trouble and set a spruce tree on fire in order to flag down a plane. “I almost burned down Canada,” she laughed.

One reason I’d joined the recording project was because I wanted to show an Alaska beyond clichés and stereotype, yet the producers in Brooklyn edited Charlotte’s interview into yet another dog-mushing story, a two-minute radio clip about a woman in the wilderness. Now if you search Charlotte’s name, you’ll discover two digital remnants: the interview done in my house and a topic not mentioned there: Charlotte’s history of animal cruelty.

 

For years, she put out a plywood sign along the highway advertising husky puppies for sale. Outraged tourists called the troopers to report starving dogs. The director of the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) testified to the state legislature that in 1981 Charlotte had more than forty dogs tied up by her remote cabin. Those dogs were mostly rescued, although some had to be destroyed. She was convicted in 1993 after five huskies starved to death. In Fairbanks in 1995, eight years before I moved next door, more than one hundred of Charlotte’s dogs had to be destroyed because they were so emaciated. “These individuals re-create these conditions over and over,” the SPCA director emphasized.

I have heard the continuous thunk of ravens landing on my roof. I’ve seen them circling Charlotte’s property. I’d come across Charlotte burning dead dogs. Steve saw grown dogs wearing puppy collars, their skin encasing the old collar. “There used to be a hundred and forty dogs here,” he said. “There are dog spirits everywhere.”

Charlotte’s name stopped appearing in the public record during the years that I’ve lived on the property. Instead of full dog yards, she had only a few. Did the cruelty stop, or did the problem become easier to ignore?

Last winter, my neighbor Chris checked on Charlotte because we saw a dog tied up but no footprints in the snow. “I saw things I cannot unsee,” Chris told me, such as a dead dog by a live one.

I told Chris I felt bad about hardly knowing Charlotte, how I visited her only once and puked in my driveway because of the smell. “The only time I went over there was worse,” Chris replied. “I was carrying a dog that had a tumor bigger than a watermelon in its stomach. The bus smelled of feces from the dog.”

One good thing about Charlotte’s possible death, his wife Andrea added, is the salvation of the white dog chained in the yard.

 

When the helicopter left, I continued weeding, although weeding was a generous term. I was excavating, trying to reverse the process of entropy. Two years ago, a frost hit in June, a flood in July, and moose in August. I had not planted the following year because I’d felt struck down by lethargy and consumed by chores. The previous years had been hard, and I felt I was starting over. Preparing the soil felt synonymous with reclaiming my life.

Often when I passed Charlotte’s property, I felt guilty for not helping her. When you have an elderly neighbor, you should chop wood, shovel snow, and deliver groceries. My neighbor Larry once chopped her wood, although he’d stopped once she began to consider him devil spawn. I told myself I did not help because she did not want help, because she was paranoid and alcoholic and armed. But was I only busy?

Chris and I agreed that Charlotte wasn’t very nice. “Larry used to help her with chores,” I said.

“Larry has more patience than me,” Chris replied. He paused and added, “I hope I don’t get that crazy when I get old.”

“Yeah, and it makes me want to have friends when I am old,” I replied.

 

Growing up, I watched my mother pick up strays—not animals, but people who had no one else to help them. Compassion comes naturally to my mother, plus service is part of her Catholic faith. For years she helped a single mother who struggled with drug addiction. She bought groceries and donated clothing and drove her to the doctor.

One of my mother’s strays was an old lady named Ms. Atkins. My entire family agreed that Ms. Atkins was a very negative lady. She never married, had no friends, and did not smile or say anything that wasn’t grumpy. As a child, the only redeeming quality I could see was that she owned a cat. When I complained to my mom about Ms. Atkins being invited over for Christmas, my mother said, “She has nowhere else to go.”

When I was in college and home on break, the doorbell rang in the middle of the night. My dad grabbed a bat and stood in his pajamas by the door, peering out the curtains while my mother and I hovered by the edge of the room. Then my dad announced, “It’s a cop.” My sisters were away, and suddenly I feared the worst. My dad opened the door.

The cop was in uniform. “I regret to inform you . . .” he began. When he told us that Ms. Atkins had died, we all felt a horrible relief.

“Oh, thank God,” my mother sighed.

It was only Ms. Atkins, I thought.

The cop seemed startled by our lack of grief. “We are not related,” my mother struggled to explain. “She just had no one else.”

 

Two weeks before Charlotte’s disappearance, I had returned from California, where my mom had her hip replaced. In the rehabilitation center her roommate was an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who usually lived in a nursing home but had broken her leg. “She spits at the nurses,” my mom reported to me. The woman yelled out, “Goddammit!” in the night and the nurses began to come in teams. “God bless her son,” my mother said. “He visits every day.”

I had gone to California, not just to visit my mother, but also to care for my eighty-six-year-old father. His aging had progressed beyond what now seem like easier milestones, such as wearing diapers and ceasing to drive. I watched him struggle to sign a check, and he could not remember how to use the ATM. “We need to go to the bank,” he would say, but we had just gone. At the hospital, he waved at the surgical patients, groggy with anesthesia, being wheeled off the elevator, my dad smiling at them as if it were a parade. I trailed him to the bathroom to make sure he would not get lost.

Every day we signed my mother out of the rehabilitation center and pushed her wheelchair to a coffee shop. One afternoon I noticed an old man in a wheelchair alone in the parking lot. Earlier I’d seen him in the corridor trying to enter a room that was not his. A nurse told me he could never find his room. Now he inched through the parking lot, pushing with his feet. I hurried inside to report him to the nurse, who ran to fetch him. That was the right thing to do, but part of me felt sorry. Who could blame him for seeking sunshine instead of the drab interior of a nursing home?

 

The troopers found Charlotte’s body in the woods, and we learned from responders mingling on our road that Charlotte had been about to move to a nursing home. I cannot imagine her in such a place, but I can picture her taking one final walkabout, like the elderly farmer William Borden from the early days of Fairbanks. When he became sick, he was shipped to a Pioneer Home six hundred miles from Fairbanks. Determined not to die there, he and a friend started walking home. Rescuers found them nearly collapsed and sent them to Fairbanks, where the old farmer died. For someone like Charlotte, this seems a kind of happy ending.

 

“What’s up with the bus?” a visitor asked me recently, pointing at the charred windowless metal skeleton.

“Oh, the owner’s dead,” I replied. “She was eighty-six. And crazy.”

When I talk about Charlotte, I worry that I care more for her story than I did for

the actual woman. I worry that I am also more interested in her yellow wheelbarrow, which I’ve been coveting all summer, wondering who now owns it.

A new owner has not appeared. Grass has grown in the driveway, obscuring my view of the wheelbarrow. The only activity has been a stolen car abandoned in the driveway and a rumor of squatters. A pink warning notice from the utility company hangs on a house-number sign by a dented barrel and a ceramic toilet in which Charlotte used to plant flowers. Next to the toilet, a strand of blue and white holiday lights decorate a scraggly spruce tree. The grass has reclaimed all this, so if you did not know these things were there, your attention would be drawn instead to the burnt bus. I remember the lights, however, and how I would drive home and see the lights blinking, the only light in the darkness, a declarative human touch.

Amy Marsh
Amy Marsh lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she tries to follow Grace Paley’s advice to writers to keep a low overhead. She is revising an essay collection set in her neighborhood, which has been besieged by a rogue bulldozer, flood, and fugitive. She also writes plays and is working on a novel about a fortune-teller in early Fairbanks.
Amy Marsh
Amy Marsh lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she tries to follow Grace Paley’s advice to writers to keep a low overhead. She is revising an essay collection set in her neighborhood, which has been besieged by a rogue bulldozer, flood, and fugitive. She also writes plays and is working on a novel about a fortune-teller in early Fairbanks.