The Corner Lot
by Charles C. Cole
Looking back, the first child death I can recall was for a young boy new to the neighborhood, someone I’d never met, from leukemia. I was in fourth grade, and he (Jeremiah something) was preschool. He lived across the street, three houses to my left, on the corner of Sunset Drive and Liberty Street.
His family had a large treeless lot with an overgrown field and a decrepit old barn. One day a truck dumped pine tree bark, birch polypore (hard disk-like fungi), and small finger-sized twigs. As a fundraiser and, I think, to cheer the boy up, someone mowed the grounds, and we had a one-day contest: kids, from all over town, built faery houses.
Captain Steinkopf and the fire department served hotdogs and little bags of chips. The PTA paid for a couple of ice cream trucks. A tall skinny guy from the “book of records,” wearing cowboy boots and a silver Texas-star bolo tie in suburban New Jersey, took pictures and counted our creations. We broke the record, then the boy died about three weeks later.
I knew nothing about leukemia. Rumors had it the little boy bled out his nose as he was dying and even his white underwear turned red. After he died, his parents burned down the barn; the faery houses were gathered up and tossed into the conflagration. The firetrucks came again, without hotdogs, and we stood around and watched the crackling destruction like it was fireworks. Then, the neighbors we had never known moved silently away.
Over the summer, a faery house or two would reappear in the field, due to mischievous, or well-meaning, kids who wouldn’t let the supernatural shantytown die. Eventually, an old guy — Mr. Unsworth — bought the house. He put up a classic wood rail fence like he was going to get a horse, but it was just to keep us kids out, from shortcutting though his yard to Liberty Street.
He didn’t like the faery houses. At all! He thought they were real. Really! I delivered his Plainfield Courier newspaper every afternoon. We only talked when he owed money, which was often. He once told me about his suspected infestation of “little people” living in his attic. My dad said they were probably just squirrels who’d gotten used to the house being empty.
Unsworth gave me a fifty-cent piece for every faery house I razed, which makes me wonder why he was always late paying for the newspaper delivery. I showed him the pieces in a paper bag, then dumped the remains in our modest compost pile. Some smart-aleck started getting fancy, using their sister’s dollhouse furniture. I saved what I could and brought it home, for the longest time keeping it in an old White Owl cigar box under my bed, until Mom made me throw it out.
Sometimes I split my collection fees with Jimmy Ulm and Ray-Joe Mastro, because they were the lead instigators, and they made me. They knew a great way to save up money for movies or cigarettes. You’d think Unsworth would have caught them, but they worked at night, and Unsworth mostly kept his curtains closed. It’s a wonder, with all the kids around, that Unsworth moved into the neighborhood, but Dad thought he got the house for cheap because some people thought leukemia might be contagious.
Unsworth got smart or went off the deep end: he started leaving cat food on his back porch for any feline opportunists. Back then, very few of us kept our cats indoors. I was an adult before I realized cats could live well into their teens, if kept indoors. Unsworth figured the threat of sharp claws and teeth would keep his little people away. But, instead, Jimmy and Ray-Joe upped their game; they used toothpicks for spears and snipped tin cans to make swords. I made them promise not to hurt the cats.
Unsworth gave up and left, still owing me money. Some people thought he was committed for all-day adult care. For the longest time, nobody bought the house. Kids threw rocks through the windows. My dad said the town council originally wanted a baseball field but someone thought that would be disrespectful to Jeremiah or, maybe, kids wouldn’t play there because the land was diseased.
Eventually, the bank plowed the house over and donated the land to the town for a cemetery, which seemed weird at the time, because there was another, bigger one only about five blocks away. “We need another cemetery like a hole in the head,” Dad said.
The Ferranti Quarry was near enough that we had warning whistles before they used explosives. You could sometimes hear the deep hum of the huge, earthmoving trucks, chains jingling. But mostly, to a kid, daily commercial operation was just white noise. Until the accident where four men were buried alive! Two victims were brothers. One guy was a well-known and well-liked substitute teacher. One fellow drove an amazing red Alfa Romeo sports car and lived walking distance to most of us. He was a volunteer fireman, a nice guy, who had handed out hotdogs back during the big event.
The whole team was buried in our neighborhood. They had a crowded service at Our Lady’s, the Catholic church on the rich side of town. I’m told people sat in folding chairs on the sidewalk. When the hearses pulled up our street, Mrs. Blatt from next-door burst out crying. Her daughter had dated one of the guys while in high school.
The firetrucks led a kind of slow, sad parade. The lot was renamed “Ferranti Cemetery” and the faery houses stopped appearing. More graves were added over the years. It wasn’t scary, more like a neighborhood war memorial.
After a brief fight with cancer, even my dad was buried there. Dad finished out in a VA center in Somerville. One of the last things he said: “Who knew we’d need another cemetery, right? But it’ll be nice to stay in the neighborhood.”
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole