A tall, lumbering man appeared in our open door. With a cheeky smile, he boomed, “Well, there are a few homes that I’m called to again and again, but I’ll tell ya, I didn’t think I’d ever have to step foot in this house again!”
My boyfriend and I looked at each other, alarm and confusion etching question marks across both our faces. Again?
“You’ve been here before?” we asked.
“Oh, let me tell ya, I’ve got stories about this place,” the detective taunted. “Didn’t think there’d be another reason for me to come back here, but here I am.”
“Um, what kind of stories?” I inquired, imagining the worst – gruesome murders, meth labs, and gang hideouts. Our “up-and-coming” neighborhood was still in infant stages of gentrification, and there was no telling who had lived in our home before it fell into foreclosure.
“Actually, come to think of it, the last time I was here, it was for a death investigation,” he replied, “but I can tell ya that it had nothing to do with this bone you found. Now let me take a look at that, and then I’ll give you some history on your house. They did tell your someone died here, right?”
“No, the seller didn’t mention that,” I answered. “But in the state of California, sellers don’t have to reveal that information unless it happened in the last three years.”
The detective thought for a moment.
“Yeah, this definitely happened in the last three years,” he announced, and then turned to examine the bone on our mantel.
The seven-inch bone with one end sawed off was the whole reason why two patrol officers, a sergeant, and now a detective were standing in our unfurnished living room on a Tuesday night. Paint cans replaced a stack of wood in the fireplace. An abandoned paint roller waited in the bathroom for my return.
We’d owned the house for four weeks and been living in it for two. Two days before we moved from the apartment we’d rented in a nicer area of the city, our plumber found the bone while fixing the main drain pipe. He didn’t both to look for any others – after placing the bone on our backyard patio, he filled the thirteen-foot trench as fast as he could. I probably would have done the same thing.
We thought the drain pipe would be the worst of our issues, but now I wondered if it was only a gateway to the beginning.
Perhaps that’s why I tried not to think about it while we were moving into the house. Some people would have called the police right away. We waited two weeks. I figured if the bone had other relatives in our backyard, they weren’t going anywhere while we unpacked. My boyfriend, meanwhile, had other reasons for not calling 911.
“If the police come, they’ll take it away,” he said.
“Isn’t that the whole point?” I asked.
“If it’s not a human bone, I want to keep it. That’s why we need to find a professor or student in forensics science who would be willing to test it for free.”
I personally didn’t understand why anyone would want to keep a bone of any kind. Nor did I think my boyfriend would take the initiative to find a student of forensic science who could analyze the bone for us. All the while, this bone, which eerily resembled a human’s tibia that had been sawed off at the ankle, might belong to a skeleton buried behind our house, a skeleton with a tragic story which begged to be told.
“Do you realize how bad it will look if your ‘forensics science’ student determines this is a human bone?” I argued. “If it’s human, everyone under the sun is going to want to know why we didn’t call the police in the first place?”
My boyfriend hadn’t considered this potential scenario.
“Yeah, I guess that would look bad, wouldn’t it? Maybe we better call the police.”
We never expected they’d arrive with stories about our house. Especially one which included a death investigation.
The detective stepped away from the mantel.
“Well, I’m not a hundred percent positive, but I suspect this is an animal bone, and I’ll tell you why. The people who lived here before you had two or three big dogs, and they doted on those pets like they were children. I would guess this is a bone they gave to the dogs, which one of them buried in the backyard at some point, but just to be sure, I want the coroner to come out and take a look at it.”
He clapped his hands together.
“So, you want to know some history about your house?”
Before we had a chance to answer, he stepped forward and gestured around the room.
“This whole house used to be filled from floor to ceiling with junk. Tons of junk. The people who lived here were really bad hoarders. I’m talking about the kind who had stuff everywhere except this narrow path from room to room.”
Based on what I’d seen on an episode of Hoarders, I could easily imagine what the rooms had looked like when there were crammed with furniture, magazines, newspapers, knick-knacks, and trash.
“On top of that, the wife was an alcoholic,” the detective continued. “She had been to rehab a few times, but she couldn’t kick the drink. The husband had given her ultimatums to stop drinking, so she tried to hide it, but he knew she was still doing it on the sly. Kind of hard to hide that habit. Anyway, one night, he’s sitting in this small, hollowed cave right over there – that’s where he had set up his chair and a TV among all the junk – and he’s watching his shows, like he does every night. And his wife is sitting in a chair she kept over here.”
He pointed to a space beside me.
“Her chair was in the path from the front door to the hallway. So, she’s sitting there, and all of a sudden, she slumps over and falls onto the floor. This wasn’t anything new to her husband, so he figured he’d leave her there and let her sleep it off. So he goes back to his program, and after a while, he gets hungry. He gets up, steps over her, and walks out the door. Heads down the road to a fast food place to grab a burger, then comes home, walks over her body again, and plops himself back in his chair to watch more TV. Well, a couple of hours go by, and he looks over at his wife and thinks, something’s not right. She hadn’t even moved. So he got up, went over to her, and saw she wasn’t looking too good. He called 911, but when the EMT got here, they saw she was already gone, and they called me over.”
At least it wasn’t murder, I thought.
“How long ago did this happen?” I asked.
“Well, the guy told me they were in foreclosure and losing the house, so it wasn’t too long ago. Maybe a year and a half, two years tops.”
Eying our glazed expressions, the sergeant asked, “Have we freaked you out?”
“Not at all,” my boyfriend and I admitted. After initially picturing a gruesome human slaughterhouse in our minds, an alcoholic dying from her addiction wasn’t at all horrific to imagine.
“She died of an illness,” I added. “That’s essentially natural causes. I’d be more upset if her husband beat her death.”
People dying in homes wasn’t uncommon. Anyone buying a previously owned house, especially one built over half a century ago, had to assume that at some point in the home’s history, an occupant may have passed away there. But I don’t think we ever expected to see that part of our home’s history come to light. Here it was, glaring brighter than the mustard yellow wallpaper buried under five layers of cheap latex paint in the laundry room. I wouldn’t have known that it existed, too, had I not yanked a rusted metal cabinet off the wall and pulled away decades of paint as I did so. One of the three families who lived here before us had thought the walls looked prettier with giant flowers pasted all over them. I wasn’t inclined to agree, but I appreciated the history they left behind for me to discover in 2013.
The wallpaper lent itself to mystery and guesses about what type of occupants used to inhabit our house. Death laid out its tragic secrets and exposed the home’s deepest scars. Yet there was a comfort in knowing it had experienced loss and seen hard times, much like ourselves.
“The coroner should be here in half an hour or so,” the detective announced. “He’ll take a look at the bone and decide if it should be analyzed further.”
The bone. Another remnant from our house’s past.
Which my boyfriend wanted to keep as a souvenir.
“If the coroner takes the bone to his lab and determines it’s not human, can we get it back?” he asked.
The detective chuckled and shrugged. “I have no idea what the protocol is for non-human bones. You’ll have to ask him.”
“It’d be cool to keep and show people when they come over,” my boyfriend said. “If it’s not human, of course.”
“I think our story of this experience will suffice without the bone,” I laughed. “It’s going to be hard to forget something like this.”
Our house was enough of a reminder, all on its own.