by Pa Rock
It was autumn in the Valley of Hell and the unbearable summer heat was beginning to dissipate as I began noticing subtle but alarming changes in my living environment. I would turn on the television in the evening and discover that it opened onto channels I never watched, mindless selections like Lifetime, Oxygen, or The Shopping Channel. Foodstuffs were disappearing and apparently being washed down with my cheap wine. One afternoon I stepped into my abode and caught a lingering whiff of cigar smoke.
Somebody was enjoying my home and lifestyle during the hours that I struggled at work to pay for those pleasures!
The audacity of this usurper didn’t scare me off, but it did piss me off! The fright arrived early Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend when I was awakened quite suddenly by the clear and distinct sound of a sneeze – a sneeze that seemed to originate in my bedroom! A rapid and complete search of my double-wide revealed that I was quite alone on the premises, but my demon inner-voice was quick to respond, “Like hell, you are!”
The intrusions into my life were becoming alarmingly common. I came home one evening and instead of picking up the lingering aroma of cigar, I caught just a whiff of something that reminded me of college in the sixties. A diligent investigation revealed minor amounts of fresh ash in the large pot that is home to my pet dieffenbachia. Further snooping showed that approximately half a box of wine had disappeared along with most of a bag of ginger snaps. Someone had the munchies big time!
My guest was also making himself at home with my library and music collection. Being anal retentive does have some advantages, and it was easy to see which books and CDs had been placed back on the shelves in an imprecise order. My visitor was a fan of Dashiell Hammett and Arlo Guthrie.
“This here’s a song about Alice. You remember Alice?”
Somebody was having a lot more fun than me, and they were having it at my place, on my dime!
Still I let it slide. The Wheezin’ Geezer is private property, so law enforcement would be reluctant to go cruising through the neighborhood looking for oddballs – especially when the neighborhood is home to little else. And telling Fat Jack would be about as smart as pissing up a rope. That wobbling rodent was on my short list of suspects anyway.
It was during this same time that Scroungy Bastard officially moved in. The neighborhood cat had been edging closer to commitment ever since showing up on my lot in early summer where he enjoyed sleeping under one of the big bushes on hot afternoons. The stray cat would raise a lazy eye in acknowledgement when I ambled by, but otherwise he would ignore me unless I happened to get too close. When I did inadvertently invade his space, he would arch his back and hiss.
I’m not a fan of cats, but I grew to admire his crabby attitude and would occasionally throw him a scrap of two from one of my meals. The odd scrap quickly turned into Scroungy having his own dish on the back porch, a dish that he expected to be ready and waiting whenever he took the notion to drop by for a meal. Constant kindness wore him down, and the hissing eventually stopped.
Fat Jack has a book of rules for the park that he constantly modifies to outlaw anything that displeases him. When a rule is broken, the culprit gets a written warning with a threat of eviction. Being evicted from a trailer park where the resident owns his trailer is an expensive proposition, so Jack feels, with a certain amount of smugness, that he has his victims, err…uh…residents, by the cajones.
I already had one letter in my file from Jack alleging that I drove over the park speed limit – 10 miles per hour. It was a lie, of course, and he had no radar readings to back the stupid allegation, but the park is private property and if the landlord says pack up and leave, you go looking for a truck driver to move your trailer - and a new lot to park it on. The fat bastard has all the aces.
So letter number two arrived. This one told me that it was a violation of a park rule to feed animals outside. It suggested that I might consider getting rid of my cat. Instead of kowtowing to management, I rebelled by moving the dish inside and inviting the old yellow cat in for his evening meal. After he ate, I would throw him back out. But Scroungy grew to like the idea of being inside, and he quickly discovered that he could come and go as he pleased through the doggy door – and I just as quickly discovered that he was exceptionally smart and did not require a litter box. Not surprisingly, we two crabby cats became tolerable roommates.
But Scroungy Bastard had been invited into my home – the mysterious human visitor had not.
My list of suspects contained a few possibilities other than Fat Jack. One was an old hippie who started appearing at various places around the trailer park, and could often be found sitting on the park wall where my cat liked to sun himself.
I had begun going home for lunch on most days in the hope of stumbling upon my well-fed trespasser, or at least interrupting his afternoon repast. But while I found evidence of morning and afternoon visits, my guest was very cagey and seemed to know to stay away during lunch. Scroungy Bastard, however, was always happy to have me drop in and fill his food bowl. He would eat and then exit through the doggy door to resume his neighborhood prowl while I checked email and prepared to return to work.
It was on one of the drives back to work after lunch when I first noticed the old hippie on the wall that surrounds the Wheezin’ Geezer. He was doing a hand stand, demonstrating that even though he was probably in my age range, the fellow was in remarkably good shape. His shoeless feet were braced on a small mesquite limb well over six feet above the top of the wall, and a gray and brown ponytail dangled beneath his southbound head, touching the wall. He wore camouflage cutoffs and a faded green tee-shirt that proclaimed: "Nam – Class of ‘68."
I smiled at the stranger as I drove past, secure in the knowledge that Fat Jack undoubtedly had a rule against sitting on the wall, or at the very least, doing handstands on the wall. The ancient gymnast would be getting a letter, and in so doing, he would draw some of Jack’s unflinching scrutiny away from me. Welcome to the neighborhood, sucker!
A well tattooed and pierced young Goth, an androgynous creature who was constantly walking the streets, also made the list of candidates for being my unwanted house guest. He, or possibly she, appeared to be suffering from chronic starvation. I considered putting a dish out for this unfortunate youth on the back porch, but instinctively knew that would definitely be a lease-breaker. Besides, one stray was plenty – and Scroungy Bastard at least knew how to bathe himself!
My final suspect was a wild-eyed, middle-aged woman who roamed the streets chain-smoking and walking her imaginary pit bull terrier. Everybody gave her a wide berth!
Within a few weeks of the phantom sneeze, I was again startled awake. Late one chilly night (chilly for Arizona) my slumber was shattered by a scraping, rattling racket coming from just outside of my bedroom window. This time I knew what was happening, and I suddenly knew where the sneeze had come from. I lunged for a pair of cutoffs and my five-cell flashlight, and headed for the door. Someone had pulled the skirting back on my trailer and was either just entering or just leaving the crawl space beneath my home!
I was literally flying as I charged out the back door and rounded the outside corner of the trailer. I had no idea who awaited me, and I didn’t care whether he (or maybe she) was armed, psychotic, or rabid. I was protected by righteous indignation, not to mention a big, bad-ass flashlight like the ones cops use to beat down felons and witnesses. Smith and Wesson be damned!
My flight ended a few feet shy of the opening as I stopped to take stock of the situation. Even in the dark I could tell that the skirting under the bedroom window was pulled out about a foot and a half, far enough to allow entry to an average size person, but definitely small enough to eliminate Fat Jack as a suspect. I would need to creep up to the breach, listen for telltale noises of the intruder, and then either crawl under the trailer and scan the area with my powerful flashlight and deal with what I found – or close the skirting and barricade the sucker in this coffin of his own making until he was as dead and desiccated as Norman Bates’ mother!
I dropped to my knees and began to silently crawl forward. Just as I reached the opening, a familiar face peered out at me. I snatched the startled cat by his yellow fur and drug him to safety – and what did I earn for my bravery? Scroungy Bastard hissed, gave me a deep scratch along my forearm, and, after I slung him to the ground, ran back under the trailer.
When Scroungy scratched me I yelled loud enough to wake half of the trailer park, so there really wasn’t much point in trying to remain stealthy. I brazenly crawled just inside of the opening and scanned the manufactured cavern with the bright beam of my flashlight. I could see Scroungy forty feet away against the far wall preening with an air of being pissed off. Except for the possibility of a few hundred scorpions, the old cat appeared to be the only living thing currently in residence.
But someone else had definitely just left. Right inside of the opening was a rolled-out U.S. Army sleeping bag that was covered with a good amount of cat fur. It was still warm from a human body. There were a few empty cans scattered about, primarily beans and sardines, suggesting that he was sharing this makeshift abode with my fickle feline. My tenant-by-suffrage had also left one wrapped cigar and three cold beers in a cooler designed to hold six. I cleaned out his worldly possessions, but left the skirting open so that Scroungy Bastard could get out when he finally relented and forgave me for grabbing him.
The sleeping bag was vintage Vietnam era, one of the good ones like I had been issued four decades earlier. Now at least I had a fairly good idea as to which suspect was sharing my abode. I needed some time to think – that, and a little peace and quiet.
Dawn and the new workday were still about two hours away. I vigorously shook the cat fur off of the sleeping bag and threw it in the washing machine – heavy cycle. Then, not being able to get back to sleep or necessarily wanting to, I put on a sweat suit, and took the three beers and cigar – along with my trusty iPod - out to the front porch. There I relaxed with my feet up on the railing, and contemplated the complexity of life until the sun rose over the Valley of Hell.
The day held a promise of weirdness with a significant chance of danger.