WAKE FOREST — Down a red-dirt road with ruts deep enough to swallow a truck tire, Ollie Estes ekes out a solitary life inside an 1860s farm house, not much minding that part of it burned down last week.
Theres no running water, so he drinks from a cooler he keeps in the bedroom. Theres no electricity, so he reads his duct-taped Bible by the light of an oil lamp. The woods provide a latrine. But the biggest inconvenience with living in a torched house is the constant smell of char.
Let me say up-front that I dont know the whole story here. I stumbled into Ollies stray-dog life more or less by accident, and details thus far are scant. But I can say for sure that a 50-year-old man with a black beard, a bad back and a shy disposition is holed up in the smoky wreckage of an old house in the Wake Forest woods a charming abode but for the missing roof on the back side.
Aint got nowhere else to go, Ollie said with a shrug.
I got word on Friday that a stove had sparked a blaze in a stately two-story house with a tin roof and brick chimneys and that neighbors were worried about the lone inhabitant still living a hermits existence inside.
So I drove out there, bouncing down a dirt driveway for a quarter-mile, nearly sinking my truck in the mud puddles, dreading the large, unleashed dogs and shotgun-toting men you sometimes encounter when you wander into the woods uninvited.
But when I finally reached the big white house in a clearing, Ollie came out barefoot, a bandana on his head, and offered a tour of the place. He seemed glad for the company, even of a reporter with a notepad and camera, and he recalled the night two Saturdays ago when the fire broke out behind his bedroom.
It freaked me out, he said. I ran down that path in my socks. When its dark out here, you cant see nothing. The only way I could get down there was by walking in the Vs in the road.
He led the way to the back of the house, pointing to where the sun shone through the blackened roof beams. He showed how hed been dragging some of the burned debris out to a fire pit, arranging some rusty cans in a circle around it so that the pile resembled a piece of outdoor art.
I got tired of looking at a fire pit, he explained.
As we walked, Ollie said he gets by mowing lawns and doing odd jobs. He rides a bicycle since he lacks a drivers license or a car. In his spare time, he paints pictures of roses using pastels, ink pens and glitter. He paints them mostly on cardboard box tops. As he shows off his portfolio, you can see that some are inscribed to his mother.
I like roses, he said. Flowers are the most beautiful things God made, except for human beings.
Ollie said hes been living here about six months, renting from another renter, staying behind because he wants to help clean up and rebuild after the fire. He couldnt tell me who owned the place, and I couldnt find the house listed anywhere in Wake Countys property records.
I asked if anybody knows hes out here, and Ollie mentioned a brother whos now keeping the pet pit bull that also escaped the fire. He fished a wadded-up piece of paper with a landlords phone number out an old pair of his pants. I called the number and havent heard back.
Ollie showed me a family graveyard out in the woods, most of the inscriptions carved by hand on the stones. He pointed toward the remains of a lumber mill and a graveyard of old cars, then he showed me a bean tree that scared him at first because he thought the pods were snakes.
Wild, isnt it? he asked. This whole place is wild. You think somebody could help me out?
I dont know. I hope so.
I checked Ollies prison record and found that he has spent time behind bars for a long string of crimes dating back to the early 1980s. But I cant tell if anybody cares or even knows that hes living like a wild animal. I dont know if hes burned his bridges with family and friends, prefers his own company or cant help being alone in the world.
I shook his hand and drove out of the woods, watching in the rearview mirror as Ollie shuffled back into the burned remains.
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