My apartment, in Tupelo, Mississippi, is by no means what one usually pictures when thinking of apartments. There are no neat little parking spaces in front of lettered buildings and no swimming pool or tennis court to be seen. Instead, I live in a big old dilapidated white house, in the ever so scenic Skyline Community, that has, by the grace of God and a long-handled spoon, been divided into six apartments. There are four apartments inside the actual house, two downstairs and two upstairs with a common stairwell/foyer in the middle, and then two garage style apartments attached to either side of the house. They vary in price, size and desirability. Unfortunately, they also suffer from a number of ailments, such as no heating to speak of, faucets permanently set to scalding water, kitchens with less than the requisite number of working electrical outlets, walls and ceilings that may as well not be there as far as their soundproof qualities go, leaky roofs, windows that have never been introduced to a latch, large fearless roaches, a creepy-assed water filled basement, improper or non-existent lighting in the stairwell, and wiring that would give any reputable electrician a severe case of the screaming willies. In truth, the place is a festering hellhole. As a young man just starting out on my own in life, though, I prefer to think of it as a place I will one day remember as “that festering hellhole I used to live in back when I was poor.” The upside is, my land-lord, Mr. Willis, keeps the lawn trimmed short, isn’t too picky about what day I pay him, provided I do eventually pay him, and he doesn’t care that I have a cat.
In the previous places I’ve lived, my cat, Winston Churchill: The Infinitely Bad Kitty, was used to going outside whenever she pleased and could find someone to let her out. After I moved to Tupelo, though, I became quite paranoid about letting her out at all. One of my new neighbors had warned me about two large pit-bull / rotweiler mixed dogs that belonged to the owner of the Skyline Flea-market next door. These beasts were said to roam the area freely and were quite fond of devouring kitties. In fact, I was told they had polished one off as an appetizer the day before I moved in. Welcome to Skyline. Another neighbor, Ashley, my downstairs neighbor in Apartment #2, told me that these same hell-hounds had once attempted to eat their way through a screen door and have their way with her St. Bernard, who had been in heat. They were unsuccessful in their first attempt but Ashley wasn’t going to wait for round two. She had marched over to the Skyline Flea Market and informed the owner that should his pooches show their demonic faces round her dog again she’d shoot them. The owner tried to protest, but Ashley put up a hand and said, “No. It’s very simple. If they come over there again, I’m going to shoot them. I just thought I’d let you know ahead of time.” Next she called the police department and asked them how much trouble she would get in if she were to actually shoot the man’s dogs. They said, “None at all.” Then she called Mr. Willis and warned him of her plan.
“Well do you have a gun?” Mr. Willis asked.
“What kind is it?”
“Yup, that’ll do it,” he said. “You won’t even have to get close to them.”
The Flea Market man managed to keep his monsters from menacing Ashley’s dog. My cat, however, had brokered no such deal. Fortunately, the lower floor of the apartment house is larger than the top floor by one room-length, jutting out in front. This provides a nice balcony-like area for the upper floor, which extends almost completely around the house. Winston could wander around out there all she wanted and remain completely dog free. Still, because I wasn’t convinced she wouldn’t figure out a way to get down, I decided only to let her out while I was at home.
Late one Sunday morning, while getting ready to go in for the afternoon shift at my radio station of employment, I found that Winston refused to come back in from the roof. I coaxed and coaxed, but she was having none of it. After exhausting all options that didn’t involve chasing her around the roof myself, I decided to give up and left the window cracked so she could get back in at her leisure.
As I exited the front door of the house, I noticed Terry, from Apartment 1, downstairs, raking leaves into piles in the yard. I waved hello, got into my blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as The Bent Turd, and departed.
After slaving over a hot sound-board for six hours, I returned home. The first thing I noticed was that Terry had apparently burned the three piles of leaves he had been raking earlier and they were now mostly cinders, still smoking a little. The second thing I noticed was Winston sitting in the front yard, plain as day. I didn’t know how she’d managed to get down from the roof, but she seemed not to have been gnawed by dogs and was ready to go back inside. I snatched her up in one arm and then had to put down my satchel to open the front door to the house. As I did, another neighbor thoughtlessly started their car, scaring Winston, causing her to claw a gash into the side of my face while struggling out of my grip. She disappeared in an orange streak around the back corner of the house. I cursed, snatched up my satchel and stomped upstairs to my apartment, determined to wring me some cat neck at the earliest opportunity.
I got a paper towel to dab at my cut face and marched back into the hall and down the stairs to find the cat. Most likely she had run underneath the back porch, where she had taken refuge during previous escapes. It would take an act of Congress, or at least a can of tuna, to get her out, and I was out of tuna and had voted for the wrong congressman. Maybe reason would work.
As I reached the bottom of the stairwell, a man with a walkie talkie came through the front door and walked up to me.
“Did you call the fire department?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Where’s the fire?”
“Which one?” I asked, wondering how he had managed to miss the three smoking leaf piles in the front yard. He didn’t seem to get the joke.
“How do you get upstairs?” he asked.
Now I began to wonder if he was trying to be funny since we were standing directly in front of the staircase, which was uncharacteristically well-lit that evening. I helpfully pointed to it for him and he ascended with me following close behind.
“What’s going on?” I said, though he didn’t seem to notice.
“How do you get to the attic?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. There’s no attic door in my apartment, so it must be in the other apartment.”
I explained to him about the six apartments centered around or in the big white house and how even though I didn’t know how to get into the attic, I was pretty sure there was no fire in the house to begin with, though there were, in fact, three small ones outside. He listened to me and looked around at all the stuff that wasn’t burning and nodded agreement.
As we reached the bottom of the staircase, heading outside, two of his associates, both clutching similar walkie-talkies, came through the front door. The man with me greeted them, then walked past them and out the door without another word. The two new guys approached me, again directly in front of the incredibly obvious and well-lit staircase. They asked if I had called the fire department, where the fire was, how they might get to the second floor and where the attic was, in that order. I, again, pointed to the staircase, directly in front of them, and followed them up it, once again having to explain the structure of the house, the layout of the apartments, the mystery of the attic’s location, how there was no actual fire in the house and about the trio of burning ash piles they’d passed on their way up the front walk. The men then looked around at all the unburned carpet, paneling, and Mr. Willis’ choice of North Carolina travel poster décor, also unsinged. Then back down the stairs and out the front door they went, with me in tow.
Just as we stepped outside, three full-sized fire engines, two police cars, an ambulance and a dozen civilian vehicles arrived in a cloud of dust and parked in the yard. The first man I had met was running toward the fire-trucks, waving his walkie-talkie and screaming, “There’s no fire! There’s no fire!” but it was far too late. The firemen had already leapt from their trucks and were running through the grass garbed in full fire-fighting gear, complete with helmets, gas-masks, coats and axes, determined that hoses would be hooked up and something would be sprayed with water, regardless of whether or not it was actually burning. The people from the civilian cars soon joined them and within moments the yard had become crowded with around thirty fire-prevention personnel, most of who were very keen on finding out how to get to the attic. Some of them had even brought ladders in order to find it, but none of them seemed to care one whit that the house wasn’t actually in flames.
By this time Terry, from Apartment 1—the guy who started the leaf fires in the first place—and Marsha from Apartment 6—the owner of our resident World Champion Vicious Wiener Dog—had come outside to see what all the fuss was about. They didn’t know where the attic was either.
Several firemen pulled a hose over to the house, noticed two of the three pretty much extinguished ash piles, aimed the hose’s nozzle at them and opened the valve. A jet of water sprayed out, utterly obliterating all traces of both fires and sending a thick layer of mud and ash across the white paint of the house. After several minutes, they decided they had soaked the area thoroughly enough and shut off the hose. None of them had managed to find the attic, but they all clapped each other on the back anyway, climbed into their vehicles and vanished into the night.
I was left standing in the yard, bleeding profusely from the cat slash on my cheek, staring down at the remaining third leaf-fire that they’d all somehow missed, safe in the knowledge that after all the commotion the evening had brought I would never be able to get that damn cat out from under the back porch.