Food & Culture

Stories from Seattle: The House With the Mossy Roof

While social distancing, I worried about my reclusive neighbor and how I might help a man I'd never met.

By Abigail Carter April 28, 2020


This is part of a series of personal essays we’re calling Stories from Seattle, contributed by our community and designed to show how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the lives of Seattleites. Want to share your story, coping mechanisms, wildest ideas? We’d love to hear. Please email: [email protected]. 

I walked my dog, Chloe, past the house two doors down, its moss-covered roof still bearing the weight of a stack of shingles from a long-abandoned re-roofing job. The cream-colored Pontiac in the driveway is tinged green and orange from the moss and rust patina, the car’s tires long flat.

I imagined myself climbing the crumbling, cracked steps, gripping the tilted iron railing, and knocking on the door. I imagined the yellowed sheets that served as drapes in the front window parting and a withered face appearing. I knew a man lived there, having chatted in the driveway on a few occasions with his brother when he’d come to mow the lawn. But I’d never seen him. I should know these things, I thought. I had lived in my house for three years but had never seen this neighbor, and now that we were in the middle of a pandemic, I found myself waking up at night worrying about him.

“Yeah, my brother doesn’t like to leave the house,” the brother had told me last summer when I saw him doing yard work outside the home and had asked about him. “I do what I can to help, but I have my own house to keep up too, you know?” He said this as if asking my permission to get back into his red pickup and drive away.

As I continued to walk past the house, I thought of what I might do to help him. Perhaps it would terrify him to have some stranger standing at his front door breathing potentially COVID-laden germs everywhere. Maybe I should just leave a note?

I wondered if he was alone and frightened during this pandemic, watching (or perhaps listening?) to the news, not technically savvy enough to order himself groceries online? Was that ageism? Maybe he was perfectly capable of initiating his own Zoom calls.

Just the week before, I left four bags of groceries and a crockpot full of chicken soup at the door of my ex, who had just tested positive for COVID. I even dropped off a bag of groceries as a weird COVID-era first (and last) date for a guy I met online who’d been traveling and thus was in full quarantine. I was in full-blown chicken-soup-grocery-store-run-victory-garden-quarantine mode. Pre-COVID, I often bought groceries for my ex’s home-bound mother, and for a woman I met at a writing group, who, along with driving her to and from chemo and radiation appointments, I helped over the course of a year and a half while she was dying of cancer.

I did my best to help people where I could, and grocery store runs were part of my M.O. I imagined picking out a plump rotisserie chicken for my unknown neighbor, perhaps some apples, clementines, milk, bread, butter. Would he eat that stuff? What if I bought the wrong brands? Had his brother already stocked his cabinets full of food? Did he even cook? Maybe TV dinners? The menu of his life filled my head as I stooped with a long slender plastic bag that had held that morning’s frightening headlines and picked up the morsel of poop laid by my small dog. Neatly, I pulled the bag inside out over my hand clutching the warm pile and expertly tied a knot. Chloe pulled on her leash, yanking me farther away from the house with the mossy roof.

Would the man even want my help or resent the intrusion? Perhaps he’d be too frightened, fearful of contracting the virus that could kill him. Or perhaps he would welcome catching the virus. I stopped walking. Had I really just had that thought? But the truth was, my own mortality followed me like a lost, hungry puppy. I was a single, widowed mother. Many times, since the first sniff of COVID-19 hit the airwaves, I thought I should pull out my will and review it, just in case. But I still hadn’t done it. As a widowed person, I often thought of my own death as a way of finally being able to enjoy cocktails on the beach with my dead husband. What could be so bad? Of course, the thought was always quickly knocked sideways the moment I thought of my newly adult kids, leaving them fully orphaned, rather than half-orphaned. I almost sobbed imagining their grief over my loss. Although I was a boomerang mom for the moment, if life ever got back to normal, I knew my kids would scatter. Alone (not lonely) was on my horizon.

The old man’s imagined desire for death, co-mingled with my own, followed me as I strode down the steep hill toward my local ravine, Dead Horse Canyon. I laughed alone in the middle of the street. Widow humor. Was this what happened when you were old and alone? You laugh in the middle of the street at anything death-related, the way teenagers laugh at anything sexual? I shook my head and continued, resolving to knock on the man’s door on my way home.

But later, as I walked past the house, my thoughts were filled with what I would make for dinner for me and my daughter. I was still unused to my daughter’s gluten-free, plant-based existence, and lost in thought about how to coax lentils, kale, and chickpeas into some kind of tasty concoction. This led me to think about French fries with gravy and cheese curds, full poutine style, the kind I used to get in Quebec visiting my grandparents, and so I didn’t notice the house and its mysterious occupant as I passed.

Until the next day when, again, I hesitated in front of the house, trying to decide if I should knock when I spotted the man’s next-door neighbor digging up weeds in his garden.

“Have you seen your neighbor?” I asked, pointing my thumb behind me at the house, bracing for his response.

“Sam? Oh sure. He’s fine. He walks to the bus stop from time to time. His brother drops off groceries I think. It’s sweet of you to ask.”

“I’m glad,” I said, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, as Chloe tugged on her leash.

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