Over the course of 25 years of handwritten correspondence with my pen pal Persephone, none had ever been returned. Imagine my confusion when my last letter reappeared a couple of weeks later, unopened and defaced with an orange sticker offering 14 possible explanations. My confusion turned to alarm on noting the box checked “deceased.”
I was at my computer in seconds and punching “Persephone Longueuiel” onto my screen, a name spelled so uniquely that Google kept trying to suggest alternatives.
“Mother and daughter killed in house fire,” “Fire officials describe hoarder conditions,” “Neighbors remember reclusive women killed in Mission Hills blaze.”
Social media posts, newscasts, and cell-phone footage broke down the events of early Tuesday morning, April 4, 2017. The first body was discovered in a front room at 6:45 a.m. (Persephone, it turned out). Her mother Elizabeth was found near the back door, around 8:15 a.m. Seven hours after arriving, firefighters were dousing hotspots, and onlookers were still posting the pics and footage.
Comments ranged from “Good God how horrible” to “That’s what happens to hoarders, good thing they didn’t burn down the whole neighborhood.”
Video reports included helicopter footage of around 30 firefighters battling the blaze at 1737 Fort Stockton Drive — four houses east of Sunset Boulevard — which nearly lit up nearby properties and parts of Robyn’s Egg Trail in the canyon behind the house to the south. Persephone and her mom had lived there since Persephone was born in April 1967. She turned 50 two days before the conflagration. Her mom was 68.
“The high amount of items inside the home made the fire burn very quickly and very hot, which made it difficult for crews to extinguish,” San Diego Fire Department spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz told CBS News 8. The same report quoted neighbors saying that “a bedridden woman and her adult daughter lived in the home.... They were hoarders who preferred to be left alone.”
A second Channel 8 report covered a memorial “vigil” held later that week in Mission Hills by neighbors of the two women. This left me baffled, given how many of Persephone’s letters talked at length about her battles with nearly everyone on her street. Some of these skirmishes had been going on her entire life.
“They wanted nobody to be in their house, they had no friends. They didn’t want to leave this place,” Sam Shammas, owner of nearby Mission Hills Liquor & Deli, told the Union-Tribune. “This is not the end I wanted to see.” Shammas also provided TV news crews with footage of Persephone making a purchase at his store on her last day alive. Multiple stories quoted people saying the women drank every day and that the only place Persephone ever went was Shammas’s liquor store.
Monica Lafferty from across the street told one reporter “They were a little reclusive, and they weren’t readily accepting of help.” The impression left by this report and others was of reclusive drunk hoarders who didn’t like people and almost torched the neighborhood they had long battled.
Persephone was among my best friends. We’d been close since I worked with her and her mom at a local comic-book distributorship in the mid-1980s, and we corresponded by snail mail every few weeks since that job ended. Aside from hundreds of letters, we wrote stories and designed puzzles together for magazines and comic books (TV Teens Magazine, Starjam, Rock ’N’ Roll Comics, etc.), mostly while I served as managing editor of Hillcrest-based Revolutionary Comics, which used to occupy what seemed like a whole block of the south side of University Avenue just west of Park.
Tall and dark, with long jet-black hair and inclined toward gypsy-gothy clothes, she was a part-time photographer and aspiring author who spent 30 years working on a never-published book about homosexuals in early Hollywood forced to hide their sexuality. She lost her virginity at a San Diego Comic-Con to a famous horror author for whom she spent the rest of her life pining. She once managed the Comic Kingdom store in Hillcrest, and she owned a horror memorabilia collection valued many times the $20,000 fire officials say the contents of the “hoarder” house were worth.
She bought one each of all the Stephen King signed hardcovers and other contemporary authors such as Clive Barker, but she also had rarities like a second edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and original editions of HP Lovecraft books such as The Outsider and Others. She had original TV scripts for shows such as The Addams Family, crates of Universal monster toys dating back to the 1940s, and movie posters for lovable turds such as Son of Blob and Attack of the Crab Monsters.
Her pen pals over the years included authors Robert “Psycho” Bloch, Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and comic creators Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Alan Moore (Watchmen). Persephone and her mom Elizabeth got holiday cards from Ray Bradbury, Robert Crumb, and Isaac Asimov. One of those celebrated figures is the man who claimed her virginity at Comic-Con.
“I feel like a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body,” she once wrote me. “I’m totally attracted to men, but usually only gay men that, as a woman, I can never have… so many people have hurt me in so many ways, including physically, that my idealism rots.” (September 8, 1991)
Persephone took constant care of her Elizabeth, who always seemed afflicted with ailments. I never saw them apart, other than one lone date that Persephone and I went on. They didn’t take jobs unless they could work together. But then, after they quit working in the late 1980s, they still made enough money from a real estate rental to hole up in their home for the next quarter-century, watching movies, reading books, and collecting memorabilia (much of it paper).
“I’m marinating in pop culture,” she wrote on February 8, 2004. “I feel like [I’m] living a total life of leisure, I get to read and write whenever I get the inspiration (and you know how important it is to chase that elusive dragon whenever it appears somewhere just out of arm’s reach). My only fear is that someday one of these mountains of paper will come crashing down on either me or mom.”
They drank. Every day. And smoked. It may have been the drinking and smoking that killed them, thanks to all that flammable paper.
The duo had no internet, no computer, and only the most basic cable service, but then I got them a DVD player and started sending discs each month. Sure enough, they took to DVD collecting and soon filled shelves in their home with esoteric horror movies and obscure TV shows that they purchased from mail-order catalogs and magazines they subscribed to (and never threw away.)
To someone on the outside, they may have looked like hoarders (a far kinder assessment than some expressed on Facebook), but they loved all the stuff they had and didn’t care about the stuff they didn’t have. Nor did they care what other people thought of this. They withdrew from the world and lived the life they wanted to live, other than battling neighbors who hated the rundown house, the overgrown yard, and the attendant herds of chattering squirrels and screaming ravens.
The ravens were welcomed by Persephone, whose favorite author was Edgar Allan Poe. (Among her treasures were several rare Poe editions, now ashes.)
“Ravens poke their beaks down the squirrel’s burrow to get at his chow. Obnoxious, but sort of funny to see.” (May 20, 2012)
“I’m constantly fascinated by a five-member-strong raven cell, which I’m sure are all related to each other, but they tend to abuse any hospitality I extend by making a holy mess and an unholy racket whenever I let them loiter together. If I try to shush them or herd them off the car, they yell at me like I owe them money or something.” (July 2, 2012)
The ravens eventually stopped cussing her out and terrorizing her other yard critters.
“Even the asshole ravens have been getting lazier. It’s been weeks since one perched on my laundry line pole and cawed right at me through the bathroom window.” (September 17, 2012)
It was while re-reading her letters that I realized how she’d been sharing with me, bit by bit, her mostly secret life. I didn’t comprehend how secret until I contacted a few of her surviving relatives, none of whom had heard much from her over the past quarter century.
I found Persephone’s niece first. We talked on Facebook and then on the phone, and she put me in touch with Persephone’s brother.
She recalls "I received the news [of the fire] at work in a meeting through a Facebook message asking if I knew Persphone and Elizabeth Longueuiel, it was a reporter. I called him and he wanted a full story of our relationship, one I couldn't tell, one that barely existed. I was bombarded with phone calls after that. I never returned any of the calls."
According to the niece, “She [Persephone] used to write me a lot. As a kid, I’d love it. At Christmas, I’d sit in the corner of the couch and open my letters, my mom put them under the tree and she would usually mention New Year’s, Rock Around the Clock, rock music TV countdown show.”
The niece's dad (Persephone’s half-brother) Chris Daniels grew up at 1737 Fort Stockton and was nearly ready to graduate high school when his father, Daniel Christian Longueuiel, divorced their mom and married the much younger Elizabeth J. Kiechler, who was called Betty.
Daniel Longueuiel was an artist and photographer who spent years working as an art director for D’Arcy Advertising Company. One of his 1960s gigs involved creating logos like “The Now Sound” designs for local top 40 rock station KDEO that appeared on bus stop benches and billboards all over town.
“Raydio Kay-dee-oh,” as the DJs pronounced it, was the first station in the world to broadcast the American Top 40 countdown show in July 1970. Daniel also designed Route 66–style signage for KDEO, including a huge wooden microphone he built himself with the “91” call letters perched 20 feet in the air atop backlit signboards reading “Radio KDEO 91-derful,” erected on a busy curbside on Fletcher Parkway near the corner with Brockton Street in Fletcher Hills. (The sign was still standing in the late ’70s, altered to promote later station.)
Daniel also maintained a small photo studio in a shed out behind their Craftsman-style three-bedroom, two-bath family home on Fort Stockton, which he had inherited along with the property next door at 1733. Built in 1913, the house where Daniel, Elizabeth, Chris, and (later) young Persephone lived sat on a 1419-square-foot lot perched atop Mission Hills, along the edge of a verdant canyon.
Around ten years after marrying Elizabeth, on November 10, 1977, Daniel died of cancer at the age of 46. Persephone, who was 10, mentioned her dad’s passing in a correspondence noting that one of her neighbors used to be the actor who later portrayed family patriarch Philip Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“We briefly knew James Avery for a while in the late ’70s when he used to live on Upas Street. Strange but true, he came over one day asking if he could have Dan’s (my dad) best pair of shoes. Mom said that he could, until I had to bring up the small hitch that Dan had been buried in them. Can’t make this stuff up… it just so happened that they both wore a size 13, which came up during a discussion about big feet, which yours truly also has.”
Her niece says “My dad stayed in touch in the younger years of Persephone’s life, but he never got over his dad dying...also [his dad] leaving his mother and Elizabeth having my grandfather write him out of the will.”
In his will, Daniel bequeathed the Fort Stockton house and the house next door to his wife Elizabeth. “It pushed my dad and mom away,” Persephone's niece recalls, “and my dad lost his childhood home. They all lived there for 24 years, [the family] had a bunch of stuff in the house next door and the back house.”
Persephone’s brother Chris is open about his feelings from our first conversation. “Betty was 18 when she married my father. I was 16. Kinda fucks a kid up a bit, don’t you think?...
“I lost touch somewhat over the years with Pook, as I called Persephone,” says Chris, who graduated San Diego High School in 1969 and almost immediately went on the road with his band, leaving Persephone alone on Fort Stockton with her mom. “I did try to keep in touch. She never called me, hardly at all. I sent holiday, birthday cards…. Whenever we did speak, she was always drunk. Her mother and I never spoke. I’m assuming you know they became alcoholics. Shame on Betty for dragging her down the rabbit hole.”
I mention how impressed I was with the devotion she and her mom seemed to have for each other.
“Yes, of course, but I was there for the screaming and the rage. Dark existence, very dark. All filled by prescription drugs and alcohol. I got the fuck out as soon as I could…. Betty never let me in. All I remember are drunken phone conversations. If Persephone ever wanted to spread her wings, Betty would snip them. Guaranteed.”
His fondest memories of his sister are of her childhood.
“We spent a lot of time together, reading books. My friends would say, ‘She’s a kid, we don’t want her hanging around with us,’ but I’d say, ‘She’s cool. Come here, Pook.’ She’d sit down and go along with the program, keep right up with the other kids, talking about important stuff.”
After Chris left to tour with his band, things on Fort Stockton became turbulent.
“There was a lot of screaming between Betty and Persephone. Betty was just a fucking wack job, man. I remember my father took her to the psych ward. This is the stuff I lived. This is what molded me as a young man. I got the fuck out.”
He says neighbors would be subjected to the sound of Persephone storming angrily out of the house to play her trombone in the backyard at all hours of the morning.
“They’d hear screaming and hollering and breaking things, it went on and on. Betty was always very caustic to me. Betty hated the fact that I looked just like Dad: ‘I hate you, you look just like your father.’”
Persephone occasionally mentioned the conflicts with her mom, though rarely with specificity, as in one note tacked onto a letter that read, “Okay, that P.S. came out real crappy because I was running out of room and my mom was yelling at me.”
Chris is upset that his father’s will ended up excluding his side of the family from inheriting either of the Fort Stockton houses.
“Leaving everything to Betty, I understand, but she was supposed to work with me, to leave it to Persephone and myself. We were supposed to re-amend the will and to keep the L. name, to keep the property still flowing and moving within our family, and it never worked out that way.”
Persephone mentioned the two properties and their contentious history in a 2016 letter:
“My folks were next door in the house they used to own and I was over here at 1737. This is the one with the big canyon lot. At that time, down behind the garage, there was a darkroom and a pen for cats behind that (all of those are gone now, yes, even the garage. More on all this and the fate of 1733 another time, major bones of contention).”
Back when she first graduated high school, Persephone at first followed her dad’s muse and began shooting and developing her own photographs, a hobby that occasionally paid dividends when she sold concert photos to newsstand magazines Hit Parader, Metal Edge, and others.
Next she got a job at the city’s largest comic shop, Comic Kingdom. The store was launched by San Diego Comic-Con co-founder Richard Alf but owned at that time by a local character named Jack Dickens. Persephone eventually rose to a management position before taking a job with one of the store’s suppliers, a Comic-Con founder named Ken Kruger, whose comic and pop culture distribution company was called Bud Plant, Inc. Despite being the largest such firm on the West Coast, their San Diego outlet was an amusingly low-key building (actually a one-bedroom house) on 30th, near Howard and Polk.
Local Bud Plant manager Rolf Holbach, previously a record buyer for Licorice Pizza, recalls “Ken told me that I would have two female employees under me, a mother-daughter team named Persephone and Elizabeth, and warned me that there might be a little tension with Persephone, since she had applied for the manager position also. Sure enough, there was a little tension and resentment from Persephone at first, but she was always professional and, after a few weeks of working together, she realized I wasn’t a threat to her or Elizabeth.”
That was the last job I ever saw Persephone hold. She seemed to like it.
“When I worked for Bud Plant, we would get the Monday after Easter off, which pissed off the accounts to no end. I thought it was odd myself, actually, but of course I didn’t mind that because Bud Plant, the actual man, was Catholic. He also let employees take a personal day for their birthday, because he was a nice guy.” (April 11, 2012)
Rolf remembers “Persephone and Elizabeth were both very well-read, especially when it came to the horror-fantasy genre. If we weren’t working or dishing on all the local San Diego comic-store owners, we would often have conversations about our favorite authors, comics, books, movies, or music. Very early on in his comic career, Persephone turned me on to the writing of Neil Gaiman, probably by shoving an issue of Sandman into my hands and demanding I read it. Like many others, I fell in love with his work, and he’s still one of my faves.”
Rolf reciprocated by arranging for her to meet Gaiman. “Persephone had a huge crush on Neil and had been corresponding with him for quite a while before he came out to San Diego for the Comic-Con. I don’t remember exactly where we met him at the Con, but we had a short conversation and, being the consummate modern British gentleman that he was, he invited Persephone, Elizabeth, and I to have dinner with him later that evening.”
Recounting their dinner with Neil, Rolf points out that “Until she got to know you, Persephone could often project an aloof, disaffected, and cool demeanor. But right before and after meeting Neil, she reverted into a nervous, giggling, gob-smacked fangirl which was totally the opposite of her normal persona. At dinner though, she somehow managed to keep her giddiness under control and was the epitome of a poised, intelligent young woman who could easily discuss the issues at hand in conversation. A wonderful evening that we got to share.”
Persephone and Neil Gaiman later had a falling out.
She wrote, “I knew him for years, I’ve hated him longer, and it all has a whole lot to do with Sandman. I’ve got the letters from him when he was still with wife number one in England to prove it. I hate to think how many other brains he’s picked to get where he is today. An awful man. I will go to my grave hopefully spitting on his first.” (June 12, 2014)
In summer 1988, Bud Plant sold its distribution network to emerging East Coast distributor Diamond Comic Distributors, and within a year both ladies had quit their jobs for good. From that point forward, their main source of income came from Elizabeth owning both 1737 Fort Stockton, where they lived, and 1733 next door.
In order to maintain the former, they rented the latter, an arrangement that seemed to provide a low budget but adequate lifestyle funded by $2000 to $2500 in monthly rental proceeds.
Between 1985 and 1990, the Longueuiel's tenants were Jeff Spence and Donna Zix, who worked at Piret’s restaurant on the corner of Washington and Goldfinch in Mission Hills.
From 1990 through 2002, the next-door house was rented by caterer Celeste Dunn-Schackne, who also worked at Piret’s and was Janet Jackson’s personal chef for a while. Dunn-Schackne says, “We were able to help [the L.s] with food and groceries. My son and I helped them with yard work. They became very paranoid over the years....
“I used to bring them food, because Betty drank heavily and Persephone rarely went out. I have taken Betty to doctor’s appointments, drug stores, and done grocery shopping when they weren’t able to do so for themselves…. From what I know, I am the only person that has been in their house for the past 25 years. I think they trusted me because I was also a single mother. I always gave Betty flowers on her birthday, November 9th, through the years.
“When I lived there, I maintained the home in pretty good condition, given that they did not want to or couldn’t pay for much. I repainted the exterior myself, planted gardens, and refinished hardwood floors. It was a magical home.”
After Dunn-Schackne became a realtor at Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty and relocated, the next-door house went unrented for several stretches. “In 2009 or 2010, Betty and Persephone came to me when they were having financial difficulty and asked if I would buy their home ,” she says. “I wrote an offer that is exactly what the current owners ended up getting. I think someone got between Betty, Persephone, and I and used the offer I had written to take advantage of them. Of course, they knew that I would have taken care of whatever they needed forever had I purchased the home.”
According to Persephone's niece, the late 2010 sale of the next-door house was at least partially arranged by the same liquor store and deli owner who I spotted on the TV news after the fire, Sam Shammas.
“The liquor-store guy was friends with a lawyer in the neighborhood. Betty and Persephone needed money, and...they sold it to this guy who this Shammas dude had positioned to buy it. I really think it happened after Betty was bedridden, and I really think they took advantage of her. I bet if we found what they sold that house for, it would be shocking.”
Real estate records indicate the house at 1733 sold as a grant deed for $500,000 in a purchase/resale arm’s-length residential transaction. That’s supposed to mean the buyer and seller have no relationship whatsoever, whether by blood, business, or friendship. Banks insist that both parties don’t know each other in order to avoid fraud.
On November 29, 2010, Elizabeth signed a contract that went into effect the next month, with the only recorded payment being the $550 county transfer tax. The selling price was only slightly lower than similar homes in the area, many of which now list for one million dollars or more.
Mission Hills Liquor and Deli store owner Sam Shammas did not respond to requests for an interview, but the April 4, 2017, Union-Tribune states, “At some point after the husband died in 1977, Shammas said, he helped the widow sell the second house and she and her daughter lived on the proceeds.”
Shammas is quoted saying, “I offered to get them a lawyer, get them help, but they refused because they didn’t want anyone to see the house. I knew it hadn’t been taken care of.”
The U-T quoted Shammas saying, “She and her daughter drank and smoked heavily...but they did it in their own home. They never hurt anybody.”
Persephone's niece alleges that Shammas somehow sweetened the 1733 house sale by offering the ladies “credit at the liquor store on a regular basis. It sounds like she would only go shopping at the liquor store due to the diem that Shammus for some reason provided her. That just sounds terrible…he took advantage of Persephone and gave her a free tab at the liquor store in place of ripping her off for the property?”
Reading Persephone’s letters, she never says anything about being ripped off, but she does mention things like, “We live off sandwiches at the neighborhood deli, which luckily has the kind of selection that made me a customer even before we started living on the barter system, swapping out our meager equity for the stuff that keeps me from having to get up and go find a job.” (January 13, 2013)
The next-door scenario from late 2010 onward, whatever the details, seemed to work for all concerned, but Persephone's niece remained disturbed that Shammas’s narrative of two friendless drunk hermits whose only conduit to the world was through him is now the biography of record for the late L. women.
“For whatever reason, all the neighbors seem to know that she had a free tab at the liquor store. At your local liquor store you get a few things, but she needed her basic groceries there, and it sounds like he was manipulating them.”
Nobody seems to know if Persephone and her mom were still earning up to $2000 cash monthly for the next-door house. It seems from Persephone’s letters that they had at least some income to pay for all their mail-order goodies and subscriptions, as well as regular bills, so they probably weren’t just getting sandwiches, liquor, and groceries in return for the second house. Looking over the liquor store deli prices, it doesn’t seem like two women could easily rack up two grand or more a month in liquor, sandwiches, groceries, and crispy rice treats (a shop specialty), but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
“It just really struck me, the liquor store was giving her everything from crackers to Fireball whiskey,” says Persephone's niece. “I called, because I saw the liquor store owner being interviewed on the news and I saw the security camera footage he sold of Persphone looking unwell and [presumably] buying liquor. He was defensive and short with me and told me ‘If you want to come down here, I’ll talk to you.’ something I couldn't do at the time, there was so much fear and confusion.”
At this writing, the next-door house at 1733 Fort Stockton Drive is owned by an attorney who has at times operated it as a bed-and-breakfast. It sustained only slight damage when 1737 burned down.
Persephone's niece mentions seeing the neighbors staging that memorial vigil on Channel 8 and being as surprised as I was. “This liquor-store guy [told] her story to the news and portrayed her in this horrible light, and then had a vigil or some crap for her, and he had the news back to cover it,” she complains. “There was a flyer [for the vigil] posted on the news, that the liquor-store guy had put together. And my mom was, like, ‘There’s no way we’re going, that man’s intentions are not well meaning’”
Shammas is introduced in the memorial footage as “one of [Persephone’s] few contacts to the outside world,” with him telling the reporter “They were good people. I mean, you know, the looks was deceiving.” Around a dozen neighbors are seen in the report holding flowers as they march the two blocks from Mission Hills Liquor and Deli, where the vigil began, “to the charred remains of the home.”
Persephone’s brother mentions their dad’s hedonistic lifestyle: “Pop was not a conventional father. He was basically a beatnik. I mean, for laymen’s terms, he worked in advertising for a lot of years, and then he tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. He did a lot of psychedelic drugs. He turned me on to pot, he turned me on to hallucinogens. Probably nowadays, he’d be in jail. I was a lonely child who lived on the other side of the neighborhood with my mother, who was conservative and who worked, with all my cousins and family. Then there was my pop who had these homes, was an artist, and was kind of reclusive. It was very weird, man.”
Their dad’s open-mindedness came up in a letter in which Persephone mentioned how he’d buy racing forms at Fuller Liquor on Rosecrans while she browsed the monster mags and comics.
“To this day, I remember picking up an issue of Mad Magazine one night at that dump, and then putting it back in the rack when I saw my dad catching me in the act. He asked why I put it down. ‘I can’t read that’ (Me at 5, I thought it was a dirty magazine). He picks it up and points at various words on the cover, asking ‘Can you read that’ and so on. Well, of course I could, so I did, out loud. Then he said ‘You can read it,’ and handed it to me.” (January 9, 2012)
Chris notes the similarities between Persephone, himself, and their dad: “Our father was a wonderful painter and free thinker. I look back at it now and I’m amazed I survived…. He lived very sparsely, never spent a dime. Always kind of poor. He owned the homes but never really up-kept them, he kind of had old beat-up cars and stuff in there. It was a good existence, but Betty and I were at each other’s throats from the day he passed.”
To most of us who knew Persephone, Betty was her ghostly twin, almost always right there and nearly attached to Persephone’s side, but very quiet and not at all participatory like Persephone was. Persephone seemed to do all the living. She went to conventions and concerts, movies, did the shopping, picked up the Redbox DVDs. Betty seemed only to accompany and absorb.
Persephone did get away from her mom once in a while to surf the net at the library in Mission Hills, but she hated the signing up, waiting, and then being limited to one hour. She was devoted to handwriting her letters.
“Guess extremely tardy letters are all the rage this week. You’re getting one from me, and just yesterday I received one from a farmer friend of mine (farmer, not former) in IL whom I hadn’t heard from in months. Go figure.” (September 26, 2013)
The last time I was at their house was August 20, 1998, when I picked up Persephone to go see a reunion concert by one of our favorite goth bands, Bauhaus, at Golden Hall. She was dressed in all her Goddess of Death finery, pairing combat boots with a flowing spider-webby dress and awash in black lace and leather accessories. As she entered the Hall, her powdered white skin and huge smoky Egyptian-painted eyes made her appear almost like a floating apparition. Half a dozen little goth girls no older than my sideburns immediately gathered around her to “ooh” and “ahhh.” It was like squiring the queen of the vampires into Anne Rice’s Mardi Gras party.
After I relocated to another city in the early 2000s, few of our mutual friends saw much of the ladies, and I noticed the gaps between Persephone’s letters were growing longer. She occasionally referred to her frustrations, but only in general terms.
“I don’t like to write to anyone about bad news, so I’ll just put it this way: I wanna tank and I wannit last week! Last month, actually… please write sooner than later. I’m really not crying wolf this time, things truly are worse than ever. I’m not even feeling Halloweenish, and that’s just wrong.” (October 6, 2014)
A letter dated June 4, 2015 (“Only 10 more days until Flag Day! Yowza!”), hints at more troubles. “I’ve been so despondent. Waaay too much to get into, and who wants to waste that much ink, anyway, plus your reading time? Not I. Not today, anyway.”
She also seemed beset by the woes of others.
“One of my other friends was widowed in February, so that’s been an upset for everyone. I carry her announcement in my purse. Sorry, it’s all part of the ‘everything bad’ that can’t get better.”
Around a year later, she wrote, “I’ve never felt so frantic and hopeless before. Really am at my wit’s end, as I am in terrible health also…. My mom’s been in a bad way all year, laid up in the house, no hospitals. I’m doing what I can, but needless to say, this has been affecting everything.”
Persephone reported continued annoyance with nearby property owners. “The same old neighbors from hell are at it again with great vigor, building crap practically in mom’s backyard. Seriously! They are the pits.” (June 12, 2014)
The one time of the year when Persephone seemed to not be warring with the neighborhood was October, when their increasingly elaborate outdoor Halloween displays elevated the two women from neighborhood kooks to haunted-house heroes, as her annual Halloween report from 2014 attests:
“Ran out of seven pounds of candy before 7:30. Turned out this Halloween that the biggest hit on my always highly decorated porch was a last minute one, a little sign that reads ‘Watch for vampires.’ I’ve had it for years but never put it out before, too much other stuff everywhere else…. One girl was asking to take photos of it. I swear that little sign got more compliments than anything I’ve had out there for the last 30-plus years.”
“Did set up the zombie flamingoes…also a corpse thing in a hammock I’d never known where to hang the last couple of years. But when I saw that the house only a few down from ours had a similar one poking out of their lawn, of course I was forced into action. And this is a house that has never done anything for Halloween. They had a little cemetery set up too, but of course that’s nothing when it comes to 1737.”
The spooky autumn decor wasn’t limited to the porch and yard.
“We had to make several trips each to four different stores, but we scared up some real finds, including a mummy cookie jar (our second one!), black and purple lacy patterned dinner plates, black and orange bowls with skulls and others with witches, a fine porcelain black and orange spider web serving bowl, even some Lugosi Dracula salad plates! A black lace Halloween tablecloth the likes of which we’ve never had before, [and] some skeletal champagne flutes.”
Some of the Halloween-display components were repurposed for other holidays.
“Don’t have a [Christmas] tree yet, but on the porch there are three white pumpkins I’ve stacked to look like a snowman, it’s decked out with a Santa hat and a pair of eyeball stickers…. Hate to think how many lights I’ve packed up and then, once I get them out of storage for whatever the festivities, kaput. However, there was one miraculous occurrence when our dearly departed candy corn lights actually came back to life!”
The spookiest thing in her 2015 Halloween letter had nothing to do with costumes, decorations, or hazardous steps.
“These two boys (costumes forgotten and you’re going to find out why) who somehow made it into the door in one of the few lulls. They thought that the porch was so cool that they HAD to see inside. I said no. They insist, they HAVE to see inside. They start trying to barge in while the latest busload is clambering up, and I’m trying to close the screen door against them. I point out there’s a lot of other people waiting behind them. Do they care? Course not. I see in the driveway what must be mom and she’s telling them to come down, too…oh well, didn’t complain about the steps anyway, heh.”
“Just glad nothing scary/crappy happened. Both have in the past. Not sure if I’ve mentioned those to you or not, including three teenagers getting into the living room at 2:00 a.m. I managed to corral them back onto the porch, but had to use all my weight against theirs to try to keep the door somewhat shut. Enough yelling about calling the police worked, finally.”
The 2016 Halloween letter was terse and troublesome.
“Speaking of drags, that’s pretty much what Halloween was this year. The annual report is too annoying to relive, so I won’t. Let’s just say that kids (and some parents too!) just get pushier and ruder all the time, and leave it at that.”
Not even the once lush canyon behind their home could provide comfort any more.
“Haven’t seen a fox in the back yard since the ’90s, and the coyotes aren’t what they used to be either. The canyon we live on is pretty much demolished, so I assume that’s the big why. Even four years ago, we could see owls and other birds of prey. No more. Not enough trees any more. The city had them all cut down, but didn’t even remove them. The trunks are all still there, neglected. Depressing. And I see it every day.”
Ironically, much of the canyon stripping was done by the San Diego Fire Department over fire-safety concerns, which extended to the L.’s unkempt property.
“I am currently, and have been for almost a month, at war with the SDFD, all about ‘clean up the brush,’ which for us includes a huge canyon lot out back. This, after last year we had to have our garage torn down (ten grand right there). Enuff! But of course, it’s never enough. The damn situation with paperwork stating ‘you are in violation’ all rolled to a holiday head on December 15…so things have been terrible, with still no end in sight.” (January 9, 2012)
Then came the most eerily prophetic thing that Persephone ever wrote to me:
“Maybe for Valentine’s Day, I’ll be struck by lightning. Nah, more like the house would, and here come my busybody neighbors from hell and my pals from the SDFD.”
Persephone would never put up another Halloween display.
Her brother Chris says, “I was down there the day after the fire, rummaging around the house and down in the garage where I used to work with my father, and I found some of my father’s negatives and artwork.”
Among the photos Chris recovered from the scorched ruins is one showing Persephone as a teen, standing with her eyes closed and arms folded across her chest inside a propped-up wooden coffin from one of her first big Halloween displays. The ashes melted onto the photo are from the fire that killed her.