Vicki Entreken salvages memories from her old Fort Myers home, which is now an abandoned house languishing in foreclosure.
Florida has over 35,000 zombie houses, abandoned by people and infested by critters and bugs. I say houses because when you look at the pictures, you can see they aren’t homes at all. Not anymore. I know. I used to live in this one [pictured above] at 2350 Victoria Avenue in Fort Myers.
My mother owned this house back in the mid-80s, when I was a teenager, and she was newly divorced. When I wasn’t in school or working the drive-through at the Burger King, I was curled up on the couch in the front room, watching Talking Heads and Madonna videos on MTV. A yellow AMC Hornet was parked in the driveway, and Tara, our Keeshond-collie mix, was licking my feet. Mom used to read her paperbacks in the recliner in the corner when she wasn’t watching Magnum P.I. or Knight Rider. She had a thing for types like Tom Selleck and David Hasselhoff, but I didn’t see the attraction, not until 21 Jump Street came on the air.
The room on the far left was mine. My boyfriend used to pull out the jalousie windows and crawl in late at night. Surely Mom couldn’t hear our muffled giggles or smell Bryan’s Lagerfeld cologne from under my bedroom door. We thought we were quiet. She never said anything to me. Today, I know better. Still, we loved in that corner room. We lived. It was home.
Many of the zombie houses are caused by the lengthy foreclosure process, but sometimes, it’s simply because the owner died. However, Mom sold this house in 1990, and it’s changed ownership a few times since. It’s hard to tell when the boards went up over the windows and doors. On Google Street View there is a photo from 2007 showing trucks parked out front, the bedroom windows covered with tin foil, it seems, and an air conditioning unit in one of the windows. Five gallon buckets and unidentifiable items litter the front yard, as if someone is working on the house—or perhaps merely trashing it. It looks like a grow house.
The Lee County Property Appraiser’s site has a 2008 photo showing it cleaned up, the trees trimmed, but possibly vacant, as the grass is a little high. I took the above photo when, out of curiosity, I needed to visit the old neighborhood. I wanted to drive by slowly, nod at small children playing in the front yard, smile at a tired dog lying in the grass, or a cat sprawled out on the sidewalk, like our Misty used to do. Instead, I saw boards, overgrown trees, and a hole in the roof over my bedroom. Except it wasn’t mine anymore. There’s probably a family of raccoons in there now, bees in the walls, snakes in the kitchen. Nature is reclaiming her place.
Even before I drove past my own zombie house, I’d get sad whenever I saw an abandoned house anywhere else. There are so many homeless people in this state, yet the number of empty houses grows. It’s a disconnect that I can’t fathom.
One afternoon in 1983, Mom set down her paperback, turned to me and told me she was adopted. The people I knew as my grandparents had adopted her and raised her on their farm. She’d told me this a few years earlier, so it wasn’t news to me.
“The Hunts adopted you,” I said, because I knew everything.
Mom glared at me, hesitating to continue, her lips pursed. Then she said, “I was eight,” and she looked away, but not before I saw her eyes were red. After a moment, she took a breath and told me that her mother left her on that farm.
“You knew your real mother?” I said. I had always believed that adopted meant given up at birth. I had two friends in middle school, sisters who were adopted. They looked nothing alike but they loved each other. They loved their parents. I could tell.
“My mother was too busy with the men,” she said. “She never wanted me.” Mom turned back toward me with angry eyes, and said, “She was nothing more than a whore.” She waited for a response from me, possibly, but I glanced down at my lap and fingered the tattered hem of my t-shirt. I didn’t know how to process this, and I definitely didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t know everything.
One night, when I was seventeen, Bryan parked his blue ’67 Mustang—his baby—on the next block and jogged to my house in bare feet. He tapped the window with his key and my heart jumped. I cranked open the jalousie windows and held my breath as he kneeled on one knee and quietly slid each slender piece of glass out of its frame and handed it to me. He knew what he was doing. This wasn’t his first go-round into my room.
After what seemed like an eternity, he popped his shaggy head inside and grinned. His thick brown hair was all mussed up from the run. I held the flowery curtain aside as he climbed in. Lagerfeld filled the room as he placed the glass slats on the ground outside the window. His bare feet were filthy, but I didn’t care. The jacket came off. Then the shirt. He climbed under the covers with me, his strong arms inviting, his feet cold. We kissed.
My bed was against the wall to my mom’s room, so when he suddenly coughed, I slapped my hand over his mouth. His eyes wide, he covered my hand too, and we giggled silently. He coughed again, and though he tried not to, he fell into a coughing fit. I covered his head with the blanket and he buried his face in my pillow until it stopped. Then he reappeared with red eyes and a runny nose. We both knew well before he came over that he had a nasty cold, but we didn’t care. We were stupid in love and wanted nothing else but to be near each other.
Soon after, someone pounded hard on the front door and I sat up straight. The pounding continued, echoing throughout the house. It was after midnight, late for a neighbor to be knocking. Then the doorbell rang. I wondered if it was Bryan’s mom. Then I realized, if she were looking for him she would have simply called the house.
Mom’s bedroom door creaked open and I heard her ankles cracking as she made her way down the hallway. Bryan snuck across the room and peeked out the window to see who it was. He turned back to me and mouthed, “Police.”
A hundred thoughts went through my mind. Did he do something stupid like drag race on Cleveland Avenue on the way here? Did the police follow him? Were they looking for me? That would be silly. I hadn’t done anything.
I heard muffled voices, then Mom closed and locked the front door. The police car drove away. Suddenly, she knocked on my bedroom door.
Bryan grabbed his shirt, squeezed into the back of my closet, and tried to pull the inside of the bi-fold door closed with his fingertips.
“What?” I said, stalling. I closed the slatted door quietly and then unlocked my bedroom door. Mom pushed me aside and stepped into the room. My heart beat fast.
“Have you seen anyone?” she asked as she glanced around. I remembered his jacket on the floor and hoped she wouldn’t notice.
Then she wandered over to my window, pulled the curtain aside, and looked out. The closet door was right beside her, Bryan’s face only inches from hers. She stood there for a long time, longer than it takes to look out a window for someone. Could she hear him breathing? I prayed for her to go back to her room.
She turned to me. “The neighbor across the street saw a man looking in your window,” she said. I heard a muffled sneeze from behind the door. Immediately, I rubbed my nose and faked a sniffle of my own. Mom walked up to me, her blue-gray eyes more sad than worried. Did she know I was lying? “Are you sure you haven’t seen anyone?” I nodded, and she turned away from me, walking toward the door. If she knew he was there, she’d be angry, right? Instead she turned to me one more time, her eyes defeated, hurt, but she didn’t say anything. She simply walked out, leaving me to close the door as proof that I was hiding something.
When I look back now, I am a little wiser to the ways of teenagers and motherhood. She knew he was there. But why didn’t she say anything? A typical mom would have opened the closet door, yanked him out, and sent him home with a phone call to his mother. I’d have been grounded for sixty years. But she wasn’t a typical mom. Most likely she saw his jacket, or smelled his cologne, or noticed the slats missing from the window. She knew exactly who was there, and she chose not to confront us, even when I lied to her face.
Bryan and I were so much in love that we’d risk getting caught to spend a couple of hours together. That’s how I saw it. But I lied to protect my desire to be with a boy. In doing so, I chose him over her. That’s how she saw it. She never said anything because, perhaps seeing her own mother in me, she didn’t know what to say.
Mom passed away on April 11, 2013, and she left behind all of her poetry, short stories, photographs, and letters. In her intellectual property, I found an old English II notebook, with her name on the inside cover, from high school. I leafed past the vocabulary lists and poetry and found a twelve-page story called “The Stars Still Shine.” At first, I thought it was a short story written for English class. It’s about a little girl who is taken away from her father and brother at the age of five. Her mother drags her around for three years to Gainesville, Jacksonville, Arkansas, and back to Jacksonville before she threatens to put her in a children’s home. Instead, she leaves her with a farm woman in Gainesville and tells her, “You have to call her Mommy now.”
This isn’t fiction. This is Mom’s story.
When I was twenty, I told Mom I was moving in with my boyfriend, Jimmy, and his family. Jimmy was three years older, and he worked hard as a truss builder, ten to twelve-hour shifts. The only way I could see him was to be there when he got home, late at night, and when I got up early in the morning. We were adults, and we’d been together for over two years. She had to see it coming. “It’s just easier, Mom,” I told her. “I’ll be closer to school and work.” At the time, I was attending classes at Edison Community College and working as the assistant manager at the Spencer Gifts in the Edison Mall. Both were in the south end of Ft. Myers. Jimmy and his family lived in between the school and the mall. I was itching to get out on my own anyway. That’s how I saw it. Yet at the same time, I was leaving Mom alone, in this three-bedroom house, to be with a man. That’s how Mom saw it.
“You’re not taking your bedroom furniture,” she said. “It stays here.” Her face was emotionless, cold. “In case you come back.”
Back in the 80’s, we had a cream-colored push-button telephone that hung on a wall in the kitchen. I can still remember the phone number. Before cell phones, the 813 area code covered several counties, the Tampa Bay area all the way down to Fort Myers. It’s ironic that even though I now live near Tampa, I still have the 813 area code that I grew up with in Fort Myers. I can remember the sound of the house phone ringing from the kitchen and Mom struggling out of her recliner to answer it. Screening calls wasn’t a thing yet, and anyone could be on the line: a telemarketer, my manager at Burger King calling for me to cover a shift, or her ex-husband, my dad. If you wanted to carry on a conversation, you sat at the dinette in the kitchen, on the torn plastic floral upholstery, and fiddled with the foam inside one of the holes while you talked.
I wonder who has that phone number today, so I dial it. Maybe a woman with a soft voice like Mom’s will answer. What will she say to me now? But the number doesn’t even ring. Instead, the call goes straight to a digital recording: Sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. Please check the number and dial again. This message hasn’t changed from my childhood, except now there’s a code at the end as a robotic woman’s voice says the letters S-P-O-K. I have no idea what it means, and she doesn’t sound at all like Mom. I look at the zombie house again and sigh. Even a phone number can be abandoned.