The Previous Owner by Daniel Person

I was sitting at my dining room table, repeating the mantra of the hung over: too much, too old. In front of me was buttered toast and black coffee, fat and carbs and caffeine to ward away the burning in my stomach and the pounding in my head. But at that moment the food might as well have been plastic set pieces for decoration; I couldn’t fathom putting anything more into my body for the rest of my days. That’s when the knock came at the door.

It was Sunday morning. My wife was at work, part of a 12-on schedule that was depriving me of her but providing me with this house and this bread and, yes, this hangover, considering the credit card I’d used to buy my drinks the night before would be paid, without question, automatically, from a checking account kept flush by her tireless labor. A good woman; an evil arrangement.

The knock. I could see the man who produced it from where I sat. Sixty-ish, pudgy, neat. Were the Christians doing same-day recruitments for their Sunday services? That was my first thought, if that paints you a picture of what he looked like. A beat longer and he would have turned and looked through the window and found me there, staring. So I stood, withstanding an onrush of vertigo and ache, and went to see what he wanted.

“Good morning,” he said, not too friendly. I saw “Tacoma Police Department” stitched into his white polo shirt. That put some gravity into my voice when I responded in kind, “Good morning.”

“My name is Walter Thomas. I’m with the Tacoma Police Department. I came by yesterday but missed you. I left a card asking you to call me. Did you get it?”

Ah, yes. The card. It was in the wastebasket under the sink. But it wasn’t from a cop. It had a big crucifix on it with a number written on the back by someone with a bad hand tremor. You’d have to be crazy to call that number back, unless you were itching for a lecture on the savior.

“Oh, yeah.” I bought time for the lie. “I, um, we got home late and I figured …”

He cut me off. He’d heard it all before. “I’m the chaplain for the department and I’m here on behalf of the New York Police. Does the name Hank Lyons ring a bell?”

Well, now, this was interesting. Yes, it did. He was the previous owner of the house. Mid-20s, pale skin with bright-red hair, skinny but not exactly fit, yes, had something sickly about him, worked at a bank downtown. I didn’t share any of this with the cop or whatever he was.

“Yes, we bought this house from him. About a year ago.”

“Do you know anything about his family situation? Or friends? He’s … He’s run into some trouble in New York …”

Trouble. My curiosity burned. My wife and I were intrigued by Hank Lyons when we were buying the house from him. It was a for-sale-by-owner job, which meant he personally gave us the tour of the place. The house reeked of pot and the stench was sour, not sweet like cannabis can be. He was entirely at ease as he guided us past drug paraphernalia and bugged-out photos of him at raves. Incongruously, he told us he was a banker downtown, and his story was that the house was sound and, as he was in the financial industry, he could assure it was priced fairly, but he wanted to move into a condo in a better part of town. He made no secret of his disdain for the neighborhood, which did not scream banker so much as food bank. He was a bit cold and sly and, as I say, he had that sickly pallor. There was something a bit sulfurous about him. It fed into idle speculation between my wife and me — or maybe not so idle. We were preparing to give him hundreds of thousands of dollars without using a broker. We needed him to be aboveboard and decided he was, just odd. After the sale we never heard from or saw him again. Yet we still talked about him once in a while, tried to piece together what he was. We even looked him up online once. Not much there, but enough for a little more fuel to the gossip.

“I think he may have had a daughter,” I told Thomas, in hopes he would divulge more.

“Is that right? We’d love to get a hold of her.” Ach. Nothing.

“Well, I really don’t know anything more than that …” which was true. Things were sputtering, so I decided to be bold. “What kind of trouble is he in?” Wrong move. Thomas flashed his eyes to mine and broadcast his displeasure at receiving a question rather than asking one. They are well-practiced in their ramrod control, cops. I tried to save the conversation with another offering, the name of his friend who’d helped with some of the paperwork in buying the house. “He’s a real-estate guy. He’s in the book,” I said. Thomas said thanks but was done dishing. He fished out a card.

“Here’s my card, in case you lost the other one.” Again it featured a large cross and no mention of the police department. “That’s the number to my ministry. I’m out of my police cards, but you can leave me a message there. I’ll get it.”

Rebuffed in my search for gossip, I took the card in the manner of a man who plans to throw it away the first moment he gets. Our farewells were as cold as our good mornings.

“Well, what was he, a preacher or a cop?”

Faith was beside herself with the story, and not happy about the lack of real dirt. If our continued interest in Hank Lyons had an engine, it was her and she was a V-8.

“I told you, a chaplain for the police department.”

“So does that mean Hank Lyons is arrested or dead?”

That was Faith. Putting the flint to the steel. She was a nurse and worked in the emergency department, so I told her she should know better than I. This she did not like. She was put upon for 10 hours a day, weeks on end when staffing was short, and wasn’t about to let this development become her responsibility to untangle. She pouted and tucked her fishhook brunette hair behind her ear.

“Why should I know? You were the one who talked to him. Where is his card?”

“I threw it away. I threw them both away. I googled Hank’s name, with the middle name and not, to see if anything came up. Nothing. Doesn’t seem like someone could die or get arrested in New York City without showing up on some website. Maybe he’s just very sick in the hospital and can’t say anything.”

Faith pondered this, then a worried twitch formed on her bottom lip. She chewed for a moment. “What if he is sick? It doesn’t make sense that the cops would come here before the bank he worked at.”

“So …”

“So what if he quit his job, or never had the job? What if he didn’t have insurance and now he’s racking up some crazy bills in the ICU? I’ve seen these bills people get. Five digits, easy. What if they come for the house, for payment?”

I scoffed. “This house? He sold it. To us.” I wanted to put that piece of paranoia out of her mind fast, because I myself had come to it almost immediately after Thomas left and I myself hadn’t been able to completely silence it.

The way we bought the house was unorthodox to say the least. For sale by owner, yes, but that was just the start. There was the friend, whom I mentioned, in the real-estate profession though what exactly he did was vague. Escrow? Title? It was all fine print to us. His name was Doug Wilson, so boring a name he couldn’t have been crooked. By using Wilson and not a regular broker, Hank assured us, he could offer the house for an absurdly low price. The price meant we could buy it with cash, which was a requirement of Faith’s. Faith refused to carry a mortgage.

In sum, we did not want a bank involved. He did not want a broker involved, so we got neither. This was unprotected sex in real-property form. So, as Faith likes it, to the flint of the matter: If Lyons accumulates debts, the debtors will come to collect. What if the sale was done wrong, a missing piece of paperwork, something a professional would have spotted had any professionals been involved … Well, a toehold is all someone with good lawyers needs. Yes, I’d thought it all through that morning. The rumination cured my hangover, as some consolation.

But I did not want Faith to go there. Could not let Faith go there. The house was my idea. She’d fought against it. Her father, whom I’d never met and have cursed in absentia more than few times, had left her with these words and these alone to live by: You never own a house, no matter what the title says.

Faith would quote the man. “Fall behind on the mortgage. Fall behind on the taxes. Fall behind on the goddamned lawn, and they can come and take it away.”

I, meanwhile, was raised on the more conventional thought that renting was for suckers. As if often the case, two diametric viewpoints found compromise in a wholly awful solution: a house in a bad neighborhood that we could afford outright with cash. No mortgage to fall behind on, low taxes that could easily be paid on the annum. Within the marriage, the terms of the agreement were thus: her cash, my ass, which is to say my responsibility that everything was aboveboard and without a hitch. I would not allow this to be the hitch.

“I’m sure,” I said in my most knowing voice, “it is nothing.”

The hospital bills with Hank’s name on them began to arrive a week later. The first day it was just one. I scribbled “not at this address” on the envelope, made sure Faith did not see it, and clipped it onto the mailbox to be sent back to the Mount Sinai billing department from which it came. The next day there was a stack of them. Radiology department. There was no hiding it from Faith, as the girth of the bills was more than the alligator clip we used for outgoing mail. I put the stack on the foyer table and let them burn a hole in our psyche. The next day, an even larger pile. There must have been 25 individual envelopes now piled in the foyer, menacing in their sameness like white bees. When, on the third day, another 15 bills arrived, Faith snapped.

“He’s haunting us, Phillip.”

“Haunting? That’s an exaggeration,” I responded evenly.

“Why are the bills coming here? Why doesn’t he have another address on file? This means he never bought another house, no? He lied to us, Phil, and we gave him all our savings. I can just feel it coming.”

“Feel what?”

“Some … some evil.”

I looked at Faith. Despite her name, she was not a spiritual person. Once, a few years ago when I was on a bad run and drinking too much, she told me she had prayed for me. I didn’t even know she believed in God. It was a gut punch, and it got me clean for a time.

Now, I saw, she believed in the Devil, too.

“Look, we have insurance for this kind of thing … something with the title.”

“I know for a fact you don’t know that for a fact. They can always get your house. They took my dad’s house and they’re going to take mine. If someone wants it, they’ll get it. If a hospital in New York is owed money, they’ll find a way to make someone pay. And as far as they’re concerned, this is Hank’s house.” She picked up one of the bills to prove her point.

It was early spring and we had the windows open. A chilly draft pushed through the house, and I thought I picked up a whiff of marijuana from the neighboring yard. Hank, I thought. Faith was paranoid, no doubt, but it was also true something wasn’t adding up. There was a lie somewhere, a deceit. The nice story we’d told ourselves about Hank Lyons, the banker flipping a house to move up in the world, was rotten at its root, and we weren’t sure where in its gnarled branches we were.

Then, a larger gust, whump, pushed through the house. The air got caught in the foyer and lifted up the bills in a whirl. It happened in the blink of an eye, the white papers swirling and swirling. As the envelopes fell to the floor, Faith and I both knew we’d just seen a ghost.

I was just tucking into my third afternoon Bloody Mary when that friend, the one who’d helped with the sale, showed up. As it happened I was at the table scribbling “not at this address” on the 30 Mount Sinai bills that had arrived that day in the mail. I’d spoken to the mail carrier about it, but she told me there was nothing she could do. Talk to the hospital, she said. Typical pass-the-buck government.

I should have been apprehensive when I saw Wilson walking to the door, but the Bloodys were doing the trick and I was bold. I bolted to the door and opened it before he could even knock.

“Hi, Doug, that chaplain get a hold of you about Hank? I gave him your name.”

He looked at me, pain in his eyes. I remembered the two were friends, and I remembered the hospital bills, and I felt like an asshole. Wilson looked like a collegiate tight end, 20 pounds overweight, big but agile. Red-faced, but from the sun, not booze. He rubbed the back of his thick neck.

“Yeah, he did.”

He didn’t mention my crassness, but I was contrite all the same. “Yeah, we didn’t hear any details but have been worried all the same. Some bills have been showing up. I guess Hank didn’t forward his mail to a new place…”

“That’s what I came to talk about,” Wilson said. He was serious now. “There never was a new place.”

“Oh,” I said, looking serious now as well, in a way I hoped conveyed I saw where Wilson was going with this, which I did not. “So …”

“Look, Hank had some demons. Hank was a demon.”


“We weren’t the good friends he made us out to be. We’d known each other in high school, then reconnected. When he found out about my real estate license …” Wilson trailed off. “He conned me, and I think he conned you, too.”

“Conned us.”

“He had me cut some corners in the sale of the house. Made it sound like an easy side job. He just needed my broker’s license to grease some wheels. I’m a victim here too, remember. I came to you. I could lose everything. But he said it didn’t matter. And it shouldn’t have. Really, I swear. But now he’s got himself killed over some new scam, and they did a shit job of it so he racked up God knows how much in hospital bills before going to Hell like he should have.” There was enough rage in Wilson’s eyes it wasn’t a stretch to think he’d killed him.

My head pounded. The buzz of the vodka was gone and I was heading straight to my hangover. “Get to the point.”

“The title of this house could be disputed in court. If the hospital wants, it could argue this house still belonged to Hank and so it’s entitled to it, to help pay off his bills. If I had to guess, they’ve been sending all these bills to this address just to establish a paper trail leading right to this doorstep.”

“Hank’s dead.” It was all I could muster.

“Hank’s dead. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still fuck you over. Torment from the afterlife and all that.”

I was three sheets by the time Faith got home. There was no dodging on this one. I’d have to tell it all to her straight, and damned if I was going to be straight when I did it. The warm spring had snapped back into a dark, winter storm. Rain rapped at the windows.

“You fucking drunk!” she screamed when I finished telling her about Wilson and Hank and the bills. She said “fuck” about as rarely as she prayed. It capsized me into a rage.

“What are you screaming at me for?” I screamed at her. “If we’d have just gotten a fucking loan and a fucking real-estate agent like fucking normal people this shit wouldn’t have happened!”

I realized immediately my misstep. Her cash, my ass, I remembered. I’d broken the covenant. Here came the punishment.

“Says the guy with no. Fucking. Job!” She grabbed the bottle of vodka and poured a shot, downed it. I saw this was going to get ugly. She slammed down the glass and it shattered. She grabbed her hair. Her hand was cut. Blood ran down her face as she looked me in the eye and let out a withering, wrathful scream. Outside, the storm quickened with a baleful howl of wind that shook the home’s foundations and caused the lights to flicker.

Then all became quiet. Faith’s eyes widened and the skin on her face grew white beneath black-red blood. She was looking past me into the front yard. I turned to look. It was dark, and the rain made everything smeared, but his pale skin and red hair glowed all the same. I could see every detail of his face, his freckles, his smirk. I realized it wasn’t an unearthly glow but the light from our porch. He didn’t knock, but stood there at the door, staring, staring, staring. Next to him stood the chaplain. He was in robes. And there was Doug Wilson, too. He looked down in shame. The evil, the godly, and the helper. The rain resumed and came down in sheets. The wind blew again and this time the power faltered for good and the house was plunged into darkness, as was the porch.

I walked slowly to the window and drew the blinds.

I walked back to Faith and took her into my arms.

“We’re drunk, Faith. We’re seeing things. They can’t hurt us.” She shivered in hopeful agreement.

A knock came at the door. I walked back and threw it open. A tall, gaunt man stood in a gray overcoat, impervious to the rain. He offered a card, but I was too dumbstruck to take it.

“Sir, I’m from the bank. I’m afraid I have some bad news about your house.”

Daniel Person is a journalist living in Tacoma. He has written for publications across the West, including Cowboys & Indians, and High Country News and Outside Online. His story about Blackfeet tribal members using traditional practices to address PTSD was recently featured in the anthology Montana: Warts and All. He is also the coauthor of the forthcoming 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest. Lastly, though his employer wouldn’t use that term, he is the news editor at Seattle Weekly.