Molly Mogren Katt
Wolfman and the Old Woman live in the two-story Victorian that sits on an over-sized city lot, with a paint-chipped, sloping front porch. The white vinyl siding, a low maintenance but unfortunate exchange for the original wood, needs a good power washing. Weeds climb through the dilapidated lattice along the porch’s base. I imagine dead squirrel carcasses, or worse, rotting below. Come summertime, the yard is a mini North Dakota– no trees. No hostas. An occasional dandelion. Grass with lots of creeping Charlie.
Aside from the picture window on the first floor, stained roller shades cover all the windows. In the evenings, while walking our dog, I try to catch a glimpse inside, but I can’t see much. They never turn on the lights.
On a sunny, January day, I sit in my parked car, thankful for tinted windows. The paramedics chat as they hoist a gurney from the front porch down to the icy sidewalk, carrying a child-sized body covered by a white sheet. They open the ambulance and place the stretcher inside. The doors close, they back out of the drive and onto the street. No sirens, no urgency.
Three weeks later, Wolfman heaves a dozen black garbage bags onto the porch. It looks like clothes. The next morning, the Epilepsy Foundation takes it away.
The old woman must be dead, I think.
In the following months, I see Wolfman on his regular errands. Shoveling the sidewalk. Marching through the neighborhood with a 12-pack of Coke in one hand and a brown grocery bag in the other. Always avoiding eye contact and walking straight through my neighborly hello. At night, I sometimes see his silhouette hanging from the pullup bar, banging out chin-ups, repetition after repetition.
In May, he busts out the rusty push mower for the first cut of the season. He always wears the same thing– polyester plaid pants, and a sweat-stained, off-white button down shirt. He spends the next two hours mowing the grass, intense and dedicated, as if harboring a vendetta against the lawn itself. When he finishes, the mower goes back to the garage. He walks to the porch, rings the doorbell. Moments later, the Old Woman unlocks the door and lets him in.
If she is alive, who was under the sheet?
The next day, I tell our neighbor Mary what I’d seen. The gurney. The garbage bags. The Old Woman, appearing months later.
“Oh, that was Leigh,” Mary says.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “It looked like a child.”
“Yes, she was in the hospital for a few weeks,” she says,
I listen, riveted, as Mary explains that the house, purchased by Leigh’s parents in the early ‘50s, now belongs to the Old Woman and her husband, Mike. They never had kids. No siblings. No friends.
“He’s a Vietnam vet,” Mary says. “And she was a model, if you can believe it. We used to bring them Christmas cookies, but Mike told us to stop. Said they didn’t want to be a charity case.”
Mike and Leigh appear decades apart. He is ripped. Leigh looks as fragile and pale as a dandelion, wearing the same dress every day, her thinning grey hair pulled into a low ponytail– straight out of that American Gothic painting. Mary says in the three decades she’s lived across the street, she’s rarely seen Leigh leave the house.
Though Mary had never seen the inside, rumors swirled of the home’s beauty. Its pristine woodwork, intricate built-ins, and Italian tiled fireplaces. Mary told me a decade prior, an estate sale company spent hours removing antique furniture. She wondered what could possibly be left.
In December of 2019, the ambulance returns, hauling Mike away after a massive stroke. In January, Mary stands outside another ambulance, shivering, as EMTs secure Leigh in the back.
Three months later, Mary texts me to see if we know anyone interested in buying Leigh and Mike’s house. I lie and say we do.
My husband Josh and I meet their realtor in early March of 2020. She opens the metal side door and it smells stale, of air held tightly as Tupperware.
We walk into the kitchen. The layout is terrible– worn 90s cabinets, cheap appliances with a faux brick backsplash. In the fridge, which I of course open, I find shredded cheese and a can of Coke. I wonder what Leigh ate during her month alone.
Everything else is Victorian brilliance. A green tiled fireplace in a formal parlor, flanked by benches– what I’ve learned is called an inglenook. The only furniture, if you can even call it that, is a giant, free-standing pullup bar. Quarter sawn oak columns separate the parlor from the living room. A bronze light, installed when the house converted from gas to electric, hangs from the ceiling, two of its five lights burnt out. An oval tan line marks where a portrait once hung, presumably made by years of tobacco smoke.
We climb the grand, if worn, staircase. I run my hand up the banister, wondering why it feels like the scaled flesh of a boa constrictor, realizing it’s decades worth of hand oil buildup. Josh opens the solid oak door to the left. It’s a den with a crimson tiled fireplace and a single bed topped with a blue floral comforter tucked in with perfect hospital corners, covered in dust. A lone military cot sits in the primary bedroom. The only other furniture in the entire house is a dresser, an orange recliner, and a card table with two folding chairs.
Tears prick my eyes. The house is better than I imagined, but the home is so much worse.
We put in an offer. They accept.
With the sellers living in a nursing home during Covid, closing takes forever. After the stroke, Mike can no longer see nor write, and Leigh– who I learn is also blind– can’t read or sign the paperwork without a lawyer. It takes months to get the keys.
In a house where everything needs help, it’s hard to know where to start. I decide to comb through the boxes left in the basement. I find wedding China, Waterford crystal glasses. Some things still have tags, including a set of 1960s Samsonite hardsided luggage. There’s a small pottery vase sealed and stamped with the letters TASHI.
“Is this an urn?” I ask Josh.
“Maybe,” he says.
I think about what I’d want if someone found my pet’s ashes.
“I’m going to call her,” I say.
It takes me a week to work up the courage, but I dial the number.
“Hi, Leigh, this is Molly Katt,” I say, more like a question. “We’re your neighbors? Who bought the house?”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Hi Molly.”
“I wanted to see how you and Mike are doing.”
“Oh we’re great. They take such good care of us here.”
With Mike’s rehabilitation needs, the two live in separate parts of the care facility. Due to Covid, they can’t visit each other, but Leigh says they talk on the phone daily.
“We are so happy your beautiful family bought the house,” she says. “Are you moved in?”
“Yes,” I lie. At that moment, my husband is taking the kitchen down to its studs. “I found a few things I thought you might like to have. Does the name Tashi mean anything to you?”
“That was my dog as a little girl,” she says, her voice quavering. “A Cairn terrier.”
A lump forms in my throat. “Do you want me to bury him in the backyard?”
She cries so hard she can’t speak. Finally, she croaks, “Yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you.”
I call Leigh every few weeks. At 75, she’s a few years older than my parents, and way more normal than expected. I ask about her life. She arrived in New York City at age six as a Latvian refugee and they eventually settled in Minneapolis.
After high school, she modeled fur coats. She met Mike around the same time at Duff’s, a sports bar downtown. He’d just returned from Vietnam. They fell in love, married in 1969, and moved in with her parents. Her father died in the late 70s, her mother in 1987. For 33 years, Mike and Leigh lived in a time capsule, the picture window and a black rotary phone her only access to the outside world.
At Christmas, my kids draw her pictures. I buy a poinsettia, warm socks and lip balm and drop it off at the nursing home.
A few days later, a box of Abdallah chocolates arrives at our house.
Thank you for the goodies. You didn’t need to do that. We love you. Merry Christmas, Mike and Leigh.
I bawl myself to sleep the night before we move, convinced this creepy house will never feel like home. I’ve spent months scraping wallpaper, scrubbing two generations’ worth of sloughed off skin from between the radiator coils, wondering if one day I’ll stumble upon Norman Bates’ dead mother in the basement. And yet when all our stuff is inside– the oversized vintage rug, my Grandma’s orange wingback chair, the kid’s Magna-Tiles– to my shock, it feels right.
I call Leigh a few times that spring. No answer. I can’t leave a message and start to worry.
She calls me in June. It’s good to hear her voice.
“I’m sorry I missed you,” she says. “I’ve been so busy.” She talks about her coffee club, exercise classes, physical therapy. She says she’s hardly ever in her room, there’s just so much going on. I always felt sadness thinking about nursing homes, but I know how she spent the last 50 years.
Our front door opens into a vestibule with penny tile. Between it and the foyer, there’s another door that only locks from the outside. I wonder if it’s always been that way. I wonder if Mike used to lock her inside. I wonder what it’s like to have friends for the first time in 50 years.
In July, Leigh leaves a voicemail. When I call her back, she tells me Mike died.
I ask how she’s doing. She’s been sleeping a lot. I say I’m sorry, and I’d like to visit someday.
“I’d like that,” she says. “After I’ve scattered Mike’s ashes.”
Sometimes when I come home, I still look for her in that big picture window.
Molly Mogren Katt is a food and travel writer with bylines in Delta Sky, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, and Experience Life. She hosts Matriarch Digital Media’s A Mess in the Kitchen podcast. In addition to writing, keeping her kids alive, and cooking, she’s a sucker for animal rescue and loves fostering dogs. She and her husband are currently restoring a haunted 1903 Victorian house in Minneapolis. It’s their Covid project, and they haven’t divorced each other yet.