An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
The Tweaker’s Tenancy
By Dostoevsky’s Firing Squad
You might say that people lived at the house on 52nd Avenue. They watched TV, they smoked, they ate meals from 7-11. They were trained to the darkness. If the people of the house on 52nd Avenue went out in the day, they received glares, indifference, were overwhelmed by the pace of the day. Leaving the house meant leaving two shaky and incontinent Chihuahuas. The Chihuahuas couldn’t use the backyard, which was a field of invasive ivy that would bury them alive. The front yard was against a commuter street, so if the dogs were able to hobble or more likely fall down the steps, they could easily be ignored and crushed. Rescued from hobos, the dogs had been trained by hobos. They were used to being ignored and relieving themselves anywhere, even squatting on the living room rug.
Cheryl owned the house on 52nd Avenue. The two Chihuahuas were her compassionate tether to humanity. She needed the Chihuahuas to balance the darkness of the roommates she had taken since her husband died 10 years ago. Her roommates were her siblings. Her sister Cynthia was the alcoholic witch in the basement, folding clothes and smoking. When Cheryl’s husband died, her brother Jason moved in and took over tinkering with the tools in the basement. Later he moved the tools to his bedroom. He was a fan of the glue gun. Glued to his bedroom wall was a big book of Romio Shrestha as a shrine, bowls, and ornate metal jars. He glued a whole chest of drawers to the wall. He glued speakers to the wall, which buzzed when the stereo was off. Jason was also a fan of electrical wire, motherboards and old machines. Geiger counters and telephones were stripped, wires were used to make crack pipes of glass bulbs, tape and paper tubes. Cheryl said she didn’t care what her brother did, as long as he paid the rent. But she must have wondered why he took his door knob with him to work.
My wife and I met Jason the first time we were shown the house on 52nd Avenue by our realtor. The house was falling apart, ready to be set aflame by dangerously old connections, and the sewer to burst adding stench of human waste to human waste, Chihuahua waste and cigarettes. The roof was ready to collapse, both of the house and a structure that would be called the garage, except it no longer qualified due to erosion of one wall. The dust in the house never settled, the particles in continuous deflection, a squalid snow globe. Cheryl had no money. She owed taxes several years back. We took the bait and met the family. In most showings of homes, anybody living in the home will vacate. Cheryl, her siblings and her Chihuahuas did not leave.
Cheryl opened the door like a surprised but sedated rat. Our realtor explained we wanted to see the house. The flies on the porch came in with us, attracted to the smell of urine. Cheryl replaced herself in the threadbare chair facing the TV while the two Chihuahuas yapped and 60-year old Cynthia perched unstably on the radiator with a can of Molson Ice. My wife and the realtor talked between themselves while I entertained Cheryl and Cynthia. Cynthia was attracted to me because I didn’t discount her. She showed me all she bought at Goodwill for her sister. In her diseased mind, the $4 vase and $20 synthesizer, which remained unused, made up for not paying rent.
Jason was locked in the second bedroom. He was a strange clown at a circus. He was lying under a couch mounted on end tables. The top of the couch was missing cushions, instead set with steel loops threaded with leather rope. Under the couch, under Jason, was garbage. Empty boxes of Lemonheads, used tissues, unopened mail from the Department of Justice, bent business cards, neckties, wire clothes hangers, broken glass, nails, staples, empty paint cans, and other things including a jug of lighter fluid. Under the couch, Jason was concentrating on working a needle-and-thread onto a transistor motherboard, fantasizing that he would show it to a woman he knew at work. He alerted to a knock on his bedroom door, stopped and watched the door knob. Would they go away?
Huh? The police? How did child support find me?
Jason crawled out from under the couch, knees crunching glass. He riddled the door knob. He pulled the door open a crack toward his body. His forehead and eyes peeked around the side of the door, watching us.
Why is that man grinning at me? He can’t be official. Can I shut the door? I’m going to shut the door. I have to shut the door now. They might want to come in.
Jason shut the door. We saw only there was certainly a space behind the door, and it contained some oddness.
Against the advice of our realtor, we made an offer. The offer was quickly accepted and began the events that always happen when people adopt and become keepers of land and home. We looked past the black mold in the corner, the piss plumes, the matted and tarry dust from decades of smoke, cracks, stains and evidence of mice infestation. The mice probably had a more orderly life than the people in the house on 52nd Avenue. The mice had passages, sources of clean bedding, cat food that was continuously spilled on the floor and cabinets for private defecation. We never saw a cat, but there was a litter box. Maybe Cynthia was the cat who no one trained, “Don’t eat that.” The mice slept through the day and awoke at night, as did the people. When we had the house inspected, Jason was not home. He took the door knob with him.
Jason was a night owl. Owls are mysterious and scary as you don’t know when they will appear. The neighbor told of yelling at Jason one night for trying to shove a whole printer out his bedroom window. He must have finished stripping its wires. The dude I bought my first and last Harley from was knocked off his bike by an owl he had scared into flight while driving at night. He said the only thing that saved his ass was the thick leather wallet in his back pocket. I once attended a writing workshop in the middle of nowhere. I awoke city time 4 am and walked the blackness. I wrote and walked in the darkness, past cornfields and one night I stopped to ask what the sound of my writing resembled. I thought mouse scratching. I was fearful of cougars. As I looked up, I saw the winged expanse of an owl silently fly over top. He too thought I was a mouse.
By law, we were the owners of the house, and the land, but what is law? What is ownership? The day we were handed the keys, Cynthia met us on the porch, smoking cigarettes and drunk in a bikini, looking for an imaginary cat. Cheryl and the Chihuahuas were gone.
“We tried to move all our stuff,” she complained to me, then grew defiant, “I am not leaving without my cat.”
I promised Cynthia a phone call should the cat appear. She called the next day saying she saw the cat in the window, but we never saw a cat and never heard from her again. Cynthia had moved on.
Having the keys did not give full ownership or access to the house. Jason was not home, as his bedroom door knob was gone. He left his window cracked open. I moved a table from the porch to the side of the house, stood on it, and squeezed through the window. As my eyes adjusted to the dim of Jason’s room, I heard my wife from the other side of the bedroom door.
“Are you OK? What’s in there?”
I was stunned into silence. I listened, and looked around quickly. I was not certain I was alone. I pulled aside heavy blankets stapled to the window frame to let in light. I invented Jason sleeping or dead atop the makeshift bed of a couch that was only heaped with clothes. But the room was unoccupied. I could not open the door from the inside, and crawled back out the window.
The locksmith came. Jason had left everything in his room, as if he didn’t want to leave.
By rescuing this house we were rescuing ourselves. Rescued from failed marriages, boring jobs and mundane lives. The first thing I did was rip out and wrap up two layers of urine-soaked rug and carpet padding. I dragged the dead rugs down the front steps and into the yard, my forearms rubbed raw and saturated by their foul odor.
A few days later, someone smashed in a basement window. We had not yet moved anything in, so I didn’t inventory what might have been missing. My wife called the police. She noticed dirt on the floor and a screen removed from the crawl space. I thought it was Cynthia looking for her cat. The police identified the fingerprints as Jason’s.
Despite eight contractors and dozens of doughnuts hired to replace the plumbing, the electrical, the sewer, the roof, the garage, and finish floors, we worked for weeks scraping off lead-based paint, removing paneling and slowly becoming proficient at scraping, mudding, sanding and painting. The hundred-year old lath and plaster was unforgiving. We painted the interior shallot bulb green, tore out the toilet wall and installed a claw foot tub on top of tiny white and black tiles.
The second break-in was more disturbing. We had replaced the basement windows and added bars for protection. Jason simply kicked in rotted wood at the back door. In his old room, two foot holes fractured the lath and plaster and across the wall in chalk, “Where’s my coins?” In removing Jason’s belongings from the house, we had not found any coins except a couple of dollars in small change. Could that motivate him to break in? The police found Jason’s prints, but were unable to find Jason. Using the internet, I began my own search for Jason, plotting our confrontation.
After a month of our rescue, we had finished painting, and the last detail was blasting and repainting the old radiators. My wife was becoming familiar with the house, ready to forget the past. We had garbage service, ate at the neighborhood food carts and rode the bus that stopped outside our house.
Then one night we came home to find fire at our house. The firemen had arrived and told us we were lucky, we only lost the back porch. My wife thanked them, but I was silently seething they let the arsonist get away. Perhaps the three-foot trench I had dug to wire the garage to the house stopped the fire from spreading.
After the investigation found it to be arson, my wife abandoned me and the house to stay with her mother. Ownership of the house was no longer a legal battle. The police told me they found Jason in Seattle, but without proof, they could only get a restraining order. For me, it was about ownership. I was ready to reclaim the house. I was ready to extinguish Jason.
The break-ins and the fire had occurred days after Jason got paid his father’s social security income. I knew because I was still getting his mail including direct deposit slips. Each night after he got paid, I waited outside the dark house, watching late into the night for Jason to appear. Some nights, I sat in the backyard on a stump. When he came, I was waiting for him. This time he was carrying a can of gas. He did not hesitate to pour gas onto the side of my house. I did not hesitate to smash his head with a baseball bat. He dropped to his knees as if praying, and moaned, “Motherfucker…”
“What coins?” I asked him, heart pounding and braced to hit again.
“My dad’s coins,” he mumbled, “Cynthia hid them in the crawl space.”
The crawl space had been dug out for a new sewer line. Nobody had found any coins.
“There are no coins, you sold them for crack, you fucking tweaker,” I spat at the burglar, the trasher, the arsonist.
He stood and turned, his face sunken and when he spoke, all I could see were unclean teeth or spaces where unclean teeth had been. I saw the owner of the house, his craze daze.
“Where are my coins?” he asked.
I hit him hard. Sometimes ownership is by force, especially from tweakers. With my boot, I rolled him into the trench and filled it in. I hoped my wife would join me to search for coins in the crawl space.
© 2013 Kevin Nusser, Christa Helms