ON THE WASHINGTON STREET where I grew up there is a house that has been brutally lobotomized, butchered by design-happy architects. It's a sad thing, mourned by the whole neighborhood. The house was once a fine old frame friend, peeling and creaky and settled back behind a front line of forsythia with all the dignity of a commanding general. Now, the hedges are gone, and what remains looks eerily familiar, but scary and vacant-eyed. More like a display wall for window styles than a house.
"Damn gas station in the front, roller coaster out back," my father says every time he gets an eyeful. He's talking about the U-shaped cement driveway the new owners poured to replace the brick walk and flagstone terrace out front, and the tortured configuration of decks and stairways scabbed onto the back. There is a special sadness to the missing bricks. We helped lay them more than 20 years ago on a hot summer day that stretched into a sweet summer night with drinks on the porch for grown-ups and an extra margin of rowdiness for the kids. Maybe that cement horseshoe has such an ugly look because helping lay the bricks was one of the last things we did with the neighbors' dad before he was killed, shot while making a war documentary.
Out back, where the crazy roller- coaster decks sit, stupid as an underwater scream, there used to be nothing at all. Nothing but a perfect child's kitchen of weeds and rocks and fine hard-packed dirt. And a little farther down the sloping hill, the sacred spot where we watched in horror as a noble beagle named Custer fought a losing battle to the convulsions of food poisoning.
When our friends sold the house a few years ago, it sat empty at first. A group of doctors, we heard, bought it as an investment. Then the radical surgery began and went on for months. When it was finished, the abomination sat empty for months again. Finally, someone else bought it. A plastic surgeon, I think I heard.
One day our former neighbor, the mother, was back visiting. She walked over and knocked and explained that she had lived there once. Could she take a peek inside? A woman spoke through a crack in the door and said no, they hadn't finished decorating.
Now, whenever I walk past the molested house I smile a secret smile. I remember that this house was once the home of an extensive reptile collection that I co-owned with the neighbors' eldest son. Big boas and pythons, caimans and iguanas, milk snakes and turtles roamed the old house at will, only occasionally confined to a bathtub for a splash or to a closet for a live-rat meal. They were always disappearing and then magically reappearing, sailing out from behind a radiator or winding around a shower head. I think of Steve, the mighty but missing boa, and Pauline, the winsome but runaway python. I think of them sliding forward now, their snaky tongues all flickery friendly, coming out to meet the new owners. And I smile.