Automobiles can be a terrible burden, especially when they’re nearly 15 years old and drive about as well as a bent turd.
One day, while at my radio station work-place, Sunny 93.3 in Tupelo, Mississippi, my particular nearly 15 year old, bent turd-driving car developed something of a runny nose. Beneath my 1985 Blue Chevy Caprice Classic was an enormous lake of anti-freeze being caused by a leaking radiator. One of our station’s ad-sales guys, Laf George, suggested I take it in to a mechanic to have it looked at and said that I should pray that it was simply a leaky hose or I’d be paying out the nose to have it removed and properly welded. I, of course, balked at this idea. My vacation was coming up in a couple of weeks and I was planning to drive around various parts of Mississippi, Missouri and North Carolina in the company of my girlfriend, Ashley, who was flying in from her home in North Carolina. My parents had even offered to loan me their new Merc for the journey, so breaking down on vacation in my car was not a big concern. The last thing I needed was a big nasty repair-bill putting financial strain on my vacation fund.
Another reason to avoid the garage was that that I have an innate distrust of auto-mechanics simply because I’m convinced that they can smell my automotive naiveté and begin preparing to sodomize my wallet at the mere sight of me. However, the trouble with automotive dumbasses like myself is that we very often refuse to admit that we’re dumbasses except under the most dire of circumstances. This, along with the fact that Auto-Zone offers a wide selection of radiator stop-leak products, is what led me to believe that I would somehow be able to fix my radiator my own bad self.
After one application of STP Stop-Leak, my leak did not completely stop. However, it was at least slowed to the point that it was not creating a massive day-glow yellow/green puddle beneath my car, only a little one. This led me to falsely believe there was hope. Of course, the following morning the leak returned in full prompting me to purchase more stop-leak.
And so began my daily ritual. Every day I would find an anti-freeze puddle, go to Autozone and buy new and increasingly more expensive brands of stop-leak and pour them in—ignoring the printed warnings on the containers that if the leak were to persist I should seek professional mechanical assistance. I would drive the car home, where it would proceed to lightly drip and increase the size of the big stain in my favorite parking space. Then, during my 7:15 a.m. leak-check the next day, I would witness the full evidence of the stop-leak’s failure.
My morning-show co-host, Cathy Williams, suggested a more philosophical approach to auto-mechanics in which I should speak nicely to the car and send positive feelings toward it instead of swearing mercilessly and shaking my fist at it.
“The earth would be a much nicer place if we were all a little more positive,” she said.
I, being a generally negative soul that early in the morning, declined her advice and continued throwing radiator products at my problem.
So passed two weeks.
During this period a new neighbor moved into my building, specifically into the apartment directly beneath mine, where Ashley used to live. Now I never actually saw this new neighbor, but I knew they were there for two reasons: They owned a beat-up brownish compact kind of car, which they insisted on parking in my favorite space, and because of the near constant hammering which went on in their apartment for two days. I had no idea what was going on down there but I imagined that they owned a lot of pictures and were absorbed with hanging them. Still, there was an awful lot of hammering and I was grateful that they limited their decoration to hours when I wasn’t trying to sleep.
A week before my vacation was to begin I decided it was time to get serious. I went back to Auto Zone and bought a miraculous product called J.B. Weld. For those of you unfamiliar with “the weld,” it’s an adhesive that comes in two separate tubes that, when mixed together in equal parts, forms a dark gray substance that hardens into a final form that is not unlike steel. Stuff could hold an engine block together, or so I have been told. Over that weekend I drained all the nasty gray fluid from my radiator and put it in a big blue plastic Rubbermade tub. Then I J.B. Welded the snot out of that radiator. It actually took a couple of days to get all the leaks welded over, so my blue tub of anti-freeze got pretty full as I continued to drain and refill the radiator. My plan was to eventually take the tub of gray anti-freeze to a service station and see if they could dispose of it in an environmentally sound fashion, but I wasn’t going to worry about it for a while. I left it sitting in front of my car, parked in my favorite parking space by the side-walk, well away from the trees where the incontinent birds like to nest.
On Wednesday I was scheduled to drive to the Memphis Airport to pick up Ashley following her 2:19 p.m. arrival. My car behaved itself all morning. Not a leak to be seen. I was so happy with it that I began telling it positive and reassuring things, like Cathy had suggested. As I did this, a nagging voice in the back of my head told me to borrow the cell phone from the Sunny 93 van. I thought, Yeah, that would be a good idea, and completely failed to go get it. Instead, so as not to alarm the car with my lack of faith, I decided to fill a couple of empty 2 liter Diet Coke bottles with water and discretely hide them in the trunk when I thought the car wasn’t paying attention.
I left the station at 1 p.m., confident that with my driving skills I could get to Memphis right on time to greet Ashley at the gate. Still, there was a nagging feeling at the back of my head pointing out that this was Mississippi in the summer, complete with 98 degree temperatures not counting the heat index, whatever that is. This nagging voice told me to go rent a car just to be safe. I pushed the feeling aside and drove on, confident because I once rode across the Mojave Desert as a passenger in a 1976 Chevy Nova Concourse with a questionable radiator and no air-conditioning, in July. Surely, oh surely, I could survive the trip to Memphis in “the Bent Turd.”
Twenty minutes into my northern trek along Highway 78, the car’s temperature light came on to alert me to impending problems. I was instantly alarmed and angry at the same time, for my car’s earlier good behavior had been nothing but a clever ruse. I pulled over and popped the hood. The whole engine was hissing with heat and there was the very noticeable stench of burning oil. I didn’t dare open the radiator cap, for fear it would rocket up on a column of steam and, (forgive me), put a cap in my ass. The reserve coolant tank was completely full. The radiator itself was leaking, but in tiny hissing leaks that sprayed from the J.B. Welded holes. What ever could the problem be? I decided to get back in the car and try and make it to New Albany where hopefully there would be a service station that would know what to do. It didn’t matter that I had no idea how far away New Albany was, I didn’t see that I had much choice in the matter since I had a deadline to keep.
The car started but didn’t sound too good and wasn’t moving well either. I made it a quarter of a mile, cursing and praying in a nearly indistinguishable stream the whole way, before the car began to decelerate on its own. The engine stopped completely, just as I pulled over to the side of the road, and it refused to start again despite my anguished pleas. At that moment, I then did what most automotive dumbasses do when faced with this situation—I popped the hood and stared blankly at the engine for ten minutes. It’s as if I was expecting the Broken Engine Fairy to drop out of the sky, install a fresh engine and leave me a quarter. Didn’t happen. It finally occurred to me that action was called for, so I began doing everything that I knew how to do with the engine in the hope that one of those things would somehow fix it. This pretty much amounted to checking the oil, so not much was accomplished. Again I found myself staring at the engine, the stench of hopelessness mixing with the burning oil smoke around me. I paused, humbled myself as best I could, given the circumstances, and began to pray: “Dear Lord, I have no idea how to fix this car. Please send someone who knows what they’re doing.” I paused and looked around, hoping to see Mr. Goodwrench himself, or at least a Pep Boy, pulling up in an air-conditioned Winnebago. Didn’t happen.
Panic gripped me. Here I was, helpless, stranded on the side of Highway 78, miles from civilization, staring at the irreparable engine of the Bent Turd, no cell-phone to call for rescue, the Mississippi heat seeping into my underwear and an important engagement at the airport looming very much out of my reach. This was as close to utter desperation as I’d ever come. And it seemed to me that the last time I was even close to desperation, the Bent Turd had also been involved.
A few minutes later my mind partially returned and I began to weigh my options. I could either continue staring into the engine until it miraculously fixed itself—not a likely prospect given its history—or I could try to climb my way out of the pile of feces that had fallen on me and go find help. Memphis was about 90 miles to the north, so I started running in that direction with my thumb out hitchhiker style.
A quarter mile from the car, I realized that running was probably a bad idea in 98 degree weather while wearing dress pants and Sunday shoes. I slowed to a walk and immediately realized that it would have also been a good idea to have taken some of the water I’d bottled earlier. Great! Now I’d probably die out here too.
By the time a trucker took pity on me and picked me up, the “New Albany Next Four Exits” sign was within view. I didn’t catch the trucker’s name, for I was too busy heaving cool truck-cab air in and out of my lungs to notice much. I gave him the short version of the above story (“Radiator… over-heated…. girl-friend…. at airport…. Doomed…. Need phone…”) and he agreed that fate did seem to have shat upon me. Turns out he was on a haul to Memphis, but I decided that I really didn’t want to go there just yet. I needed to let Ashley know what was going on as soon as possible. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, New Albany, MS, is a much safer place to be stranded at a pay-phone than Memphis.
The pay-phone I chose to be stranded at was in front of City B.P., in south New Albany. City B.P. was run by a middle-aged lady named Sharon, who explained to each new customer who walked through the door that she had been up since the butt-crack of dawn, but her relief worker had called in sick so she was now stuck at the B.P. until her son could get there. Yeah, join the club, I thought. Beneath her tired, grouchy exterior, though, she seemed nice enough. I purchased liquid refreshment from her and hoofed it back outside to the pay-phone by the street. There was no phone book, of course, so I had to use my MCI calling card to call the radio station and ask our receptionist to look up the number for East Main Service Center in her phone book. I then used the card to phone East Main and arrange a tow truck to come and rescue my car at some point before sunset. That was easy enough, considering that my brain was no longer functioning properly. I was pretty impressed that I had managed to pull it off.
My next plan was a simple one: Call the Memphis Airport, put in a page to Ashley (whose plane had surely arrived by this point), and see if she could rent a car to come rescue me.
After struggling with a couple of irritable MCI operators and then a fairly well-balanced Tennessee information operator, I finally got the number for the Memphis Airport. A very nice Memphis Airport lady answered and was more than happy to give me the Delta Airlines paging desk number. I hung up and called it. The line was busy. I called again. Busy. And it remained busy for the next five minutes. Keep in mind that each of these calling card calls takes an average of 40 seconds to complete due to the near infinite string of numbers one has to press, in proper order, during the course of dialing. And if you screw it up, one of the irritable MCI operators comes on the line, supposedly to help you, asks you what number you’re trying to call, then after you give it to her she rudely tells you to use your calling card and hangs up before you can explain that this is exactly what you were trying to do before she interrupted.
On my next try the line began to ring. And ring… and ring… and ring with no answer. I tried calling again and it was busy. For the next few minutes the line fluctuated from being very busy to ringing unanswered for all eternity. I cursed and took another 40 seconds to dial again. This time, after a dozen rings, someone finally picked up on the other end of the Delta Paging Desk line.
“Mphisarprt,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Delta paging desk,” I said, grateful to have finally gotten through. “I need to page a passenger who came in on flight 1592 at 2:19.”
There was a brief silence.
“Hld on,” the man said, and put me on hold. Dinky Muzak played in my ear for five minutes as I waited, the sun beating upon me, the sweat pouring off me, the phone numbers I’d just written on my hand fading fast. It felt much hotter than 98 degrees. My “dress up to meet your girlfriend at the airport” clothes were rapidly soaking through. I didn’t care. I downed another swig of now luke-warm liquid refreshment, hung up and called the Delta Paging Desk line again.
It was, of course, busy.
I then began a string of curses that, if Cathy’s universal positive attitude theory was correct, should have melted the phone into a plastic puddle and done something to the Delta paging people akin to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I dialed again, this time calling the nice Memphis Airport lady, the only phone person who had actually been helpful thus far. She was still very nice and sympathized with my situation but explained she only had the one number for the Delta Paging desk and repeated it to me to confirm that I’d copied it correctly. She did have the number for the Delta baggage claim area, though, so I copied that one down and called it. Someone picked up.
“Baggage. Ron speaking.”
“Ron! I’m desperately trying to page someone who just came in on a flight.”
“Oh, you need to call the Delta Paging Desk,” Ron said.
“I’ve been trying to do that for 40 minutes, Ron. I got a guy who doesn’t seem to speak any English who put me on hold forever!”
“Doesn’t speak English?”
“None that I can understand.”
“I’ll transfer you.”
“No! Wait! Don’t do that! It’ll either be busy or just ring forever.”
“Well, I’ll stay on the line and make sure someone picks up, okay?”
“Uhhh… Okay, I guess.” I didn’t like the sound of it, but what choice did I have? Ron transferred me, I heard a few rings in the ear-piece and then someone picked up.
“Mphisarprt,” a man’s voice said. It was the Expatriate Elbonian from before.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Delta Paging Desk. Please. I just called a few minutes ago to page someone and you put me on hold….”
There was some background noise for a moment as the phone was lowered from the man’s ear followed by a very audible *Click* as he hung up.
“Hello? Hello? Ron? ANYONE?” No one answered. The bastard had hung up on me! I seized the phone, cursing wildly, and began dialing my string of calling card numbers, having to stop and restart twice because I kept angrily mis-dialing. Finally it began to ring.
“Baggage. Ron speaking.”
“Ron! I just called and you transferred me to the paging desk.”
“The dude up there hung up on me!”
“He hung up on you?”
“Yes! He hung up on me!” I paused and tried to calm down. This was the only man who could help me at this point so I shouldn’t piss him off. “Please! My girlfriend just flew in on Delta flight 1592, I was supposed to pick her up but had car trouble and I’m stranded at a pay-phone in New Albany and I need to get a page to her and let her know and the Delta Desk just rings and rings and rings and the asshole hung up on me.”
“Are you at a pay-phone?” Ron said.
I nearly broke down in a crying rage, but somehow managed to croak, “Yes.”
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“Ashley. Ashley Holloway.”
I heard Ron type on a keyboard for a bit. “Yeah. She was booked on that flight so she should be here. I’m gonna go upstairs and page her. You wanna wait on the line?”
“Yes. Please. That would be great!”
Ron was gone for a couple of minutes. Distantly I heard his voice over a loud speaker paging Ashley. A couple of minutes later he came back and picked up the phone.
“I don’t see anyone up there.”
“Please! I know she’s there! I have to speak to…”
“Excuse me,” Ron interrupted. I didn’t realize immediately that he was talking to someone else. “Excuse me, but are you Ms. Holloway?”
Like a stray member of some heavenly choir, I heard Ashley’s voice say, “Yes.”
I’d done it! I’d finally reached her! Everything would be all right now! My eyes were tearing up as she took the phone from Ron and said, hello.
“Oh, my God! I finally got through to you! I can’t believe I finally got through to you!” I blubbered, nearly collapsing from joy and relief. I tried to explain what happened but it was all coming out sounding suspiciously like the ravings of a desperate and deranged soul. Ashley was calm about the whole thing, interrupted my ravings and said she’d rent a car and would come rescue me. She even knew exactly where I was, since Blue Mountain College (her alma mater) is a bit further North on the very road where I was standing. I really didn’t want to hang up the phone, having fought for so long just to get this particular connection, but Ashley assured me that she wouldn’t be able to come and rescue me until I did hang up. Seeing the logic in this, I hung up and returned to the air-conditioned interior of the B.P. where Sharon, the grouchy manager, allowed me to wait and even gave me a discount on some tea. Like kindred spirits, we shared the tales of our rough days with one another.
“Just called in sick!” she would occasionally say.
“Didn’t speak any English!” I would similarly vent.
Good to her word, an hour and a half later, Ashley arrived and rescued me and we spent the next couple of days driving around in a really nice rental car until mine was repaired.
As it turns out, my car had overheated because the radiator had blown its seams. Furthermore, the heat had melted the catalytic converter. It has since been theorized that the catalytic converter was not in the best of shape to begin with and it was causing stress on the exhaust system, which caused stress on the radiator, which caused it to leak in the first place. Nothing a new radiator and a section of pipe welded in place of the melted catalytic converter couldn’t fix, though.
The following Monday night, after returning from dinner, we found that my new downstairs neighbor had thoughtlessly parked his brown compact heap in my favorite parking space by the sidewalk.
I told Ashley, “What gives? Can’t that guy see that my big-ass tub of anti-freeze is practically in that parking space? Has he no respect for obvious markers of ownership?” But even as I was bemoaning the loss of my favorite parking space, I was making the mental note to one day get off my ass and get rid of the old anti-freeze. Since I’d already made about 20 such mental notes to myself, I rather doubted that I’d ever get around to it.
Around midnight, we were awakened by the sound of someone knocking on a door. At first I thought it was someone knocking on my door, but it was actually someone knocking on the new neighbor’s door, downstairs. And the flashing blue and red lights outside called our attention to the two Lee County Sheriff’s cars parked in the yard. About that time, the knocks below became quite insistent and were shortly followed by the sound of bodies heaving themselves against the door. It broke pretty easily. After this we couldn’t really tell what was going on. There was no actual screaming but raised voices were occasionally heard. What was very curious, though, was the return of the hammering sound. We began to put the pieces together and theorize that dude downstairs was involved in drug trafficking and had pulled up the floorboards to hide his stash then hammered them back into place. The police seemed to be pulling them up again. We really don’t know what happened for sure, but there was an awful lot of hammering for ten minutes or so and someone was taken out and put in the back of one of the cars. Eventually a third car showed up and then left with one of the other cars and, evidently, my neighbor. Within an hour or so the remaining car departed, leaving only my neighbor’s brown, compact, piece of crap, parked in my parking space, and the Bent Turd, which was not.
The next day, the police must have come and towed my new neighbor’s car away for it was no longer in my parking space. Also absent was my big blue plastic tub of anti-freeze.
It was with great trepidation that I ventured back to the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. Alas, it was necessary. Last month, April of 1998, after having not received an electric bill and being told that I no longer existed when I tried to pay it, I was assured that someone would be sent out to read my electric meter and I would receive a bill. Likely story. Not only didn’t I receive a bill for last month, but I didn’t receive one for this month either. So back to the Power Ass. I went, armed this time with my Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. Official Certificate of Membership. This document states in no uncertain terms that I, Eric Fritzius, am a member of the Power Ass. and have paid the $70 security deposit as of February 24, 1997. Note the date, cause it comes into play later on.
“Can I help you?” the jolly woman at the counter asked. She was a different jolly woman than the one who helped me last month.
“I’d like to attempt to pay my electric bill again,” I said. “I tried to pay it last month, but it didn’t take.”
“Oh, well then,” she said. “What name?”
So once again I go through the typical rigmarole that people named FRITZIUS have to go through to explain the proper pronunciation and spelling of their surname to public servants, or indeed to most anyone. (For the record, it’s pronounced kinda like “Frichuze,” with a short “i” sound.) The jolly woman typed it into her computer. She blinked at the screen a few times and looked suddenly less jolly. Then she called one of the other workers over to stare at the screen with her in the hope that one of them could shed light on whatever horror lay there. After several more seconds of this they gave up and told me to take it up with the service dept. in back. To me this sounded more like a lateral move along the power structure of the Power Ass. After all, this was the same service dept. that had all but confirmed my non-existence in the eyes of the office workers last time.
I went back to the service dept. clutching my Official Certificate of Power Ass. Membership and tried to vocalize for the guy at the service desk just what my gig was. Desk boy got the part about me not receiving a bill for two months and did notice my Membership Certificate but he completely ignored the part of my story about my not being in his computer and looked anyway. I’m not real sure what he saw on his screen, but it must have been mighty perplexing, from the expression on his face. I thought he was probably seeing the same lack of an account that I’d assumed the lady at the front desk had seen. He repeated my address to me and asked if I lived there.
“And you didn’t receive a bill this month?”
“Nor last month.”
“Well you need to take this up with the post office cause that’s the address we’ve been sending them to.”
I smiled evilly to myself and then proceeded to point out that, though I have been suspect of the post-office in the past, I was pretty sure that they weren’t at fault this time around. It just seemed like too big of a coincidence that my electric bills stopped arriving around the same time that my account COMPLETELY VANISHED from the Power Ass. computer.
Desk boy looked at me for a moment, then looked back at his screen. “Well, we’ve been sending the bills to that address since your power was turned on February 28. It’s been on for two months now, so you should’ve got a bill.”
“Um. Check the date on the certificate.”
Desk boy looked at the certificate. “Yeah, February.”
“No. The year.”
He looked at the certificate again and blinked a few times. I expected him to look for a calendar to make sure it was still 1998, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Oh. Did you just move recently?”
“No. I’ve been in the apartment since February of 1997, just like the certificate says and I have not moved.”
“Well the computer says you just got the power turned on this February.”
I was about to point out, again, that this was the same devil-machine that said I didn’t even exist last month so how could it be trusted to accurately report my status this month. However, my attempt was interrupted by a gray-haired lady, who seemed to be desk-boy’s superior. She came over and looked at his computer screen while desk boy tried to explain what was going on. He showed her my certificate and pointed to its discrepancy with their computer and eventually threw up his hands saying “This beats the heck outta me.” They moved toward the back of the office and began speaking in hushed tones. In my head I could imagine them trying to figure out what sort of stunt I was trying to pull off. I imagined that they probably suspected I was trying to horn in on the apartment of a friend and was somehow trying to get out of paying the deposit by impersonating him. In actuality, though, the gray-haired woman began leafing through computer print-outs while desk boy went to dig in the large chest of tiny card-file drawers, presumably to find some sort of paper record of my existence. They came back and conferred with one another for a bit and then the gray-haired woman came over to the service desk.
“Did you just move recently?” she asked.
“No,” I said slowly, trying to remain calm. “I’ve been living there in Apartment #3 for an entire year now. I’ve done no moving whatsoever. The only moving being done there is from my new neighbors who moved into apartments #1 and #4 in late Febr….” D’Oah! If it had been a snake it would have bit me! If it had been Kenny G., well he would have bit me too, but not before pausing to record a crappy saxophone version of an already crappy over-played song. The neighbors! This was all somehow their fault!
The gray-haired lady seemed to sense where I was going with this and she quickly went back and checked her print-outs and typed some more on her computer. When she came back to the counter, she was accompanied by a thick haze of apology. She seemed afraid that I was going to verbally take her head off. Desk boy too seemed a bit shaky. Little did they know that I secretly found the whole situation pretty funny and was not actually angry at them. But since she didn’t know this, she cautiously explained that when my neighbors moved in, the Power Ass. had managed to switch the wrong settings in their devil-computer, thus causing my account to disappear. And since they’d already sent out their bills for this month, I’d once again have to wait a month before receiving one astronomically high triple-ply bill for three months.
I smiled at them and assured them that this would be fine with me. After all, I hadn’t spent the money ear-marked for power yet. No worries there. Needless to say, though, I’m skeptical about the likelihood that the problem with the devil-computer has actually been fixed. I suspect my dealings with the Power Ass. are far from over.
It’s a harrowing thing to find out that you don’t exist, but that’s exactly what happened to me today at the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass.
As their name would suggest, the Power Ass. is a company in charge of supplying electric power to my particular neck of Lee County, Mississippi. They usually send out bills toward the end of the month and I usually wind up paying mine on the sixth of the following month, which is their cut-off day before they charge you a late fee. The month came and went, though, and I received no electric bill in the mail. This didn’t surprise me, for I have long since begun to suspect that the Post Office is conveniently keeping various bits of my mail from me as part of some Orwellian plot. Usually this only amounts to missing CDs from my CD clubs. As of this month, though, both the cable and electric bills turned up missing so apparently Big Brother is upping the ante. Fortunately, the Power Ass. is located right across the road from the radio station where I work, so I popped on over to pay my bill.
The Power Ass. itself has a unique atmosphere and smell that can only be the product of 1963 architecture. A giant teal-colored metal awning leads the way into a building filled with the kind of waiting-room furniture and Lloyd-Wright knock-off angular service-desks that were apparently the rage during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The place also has an aroma of bygone times, that made me feel like I was stuck in an episode of Bewitched; probably a Dick York episode at that.
A jolly lady came to the customer service desk and I explained the situation to her, saying I forgave them for not sending me a bill but would still like to pay it all the same. She asked my name. I told her what it was, which means I also have to spell it. No biggie. It’s standard routine for people with the surname of Fritzius. She typed it in then got an odd look on her face and asked the spelling again, typed it in again, then her odd look reappeared and she asked my address. A few seconds after typing that in, she developed an even odder expression.
“We don’t show any account under that name,” she said. “Could it be under another name?”
“No, it was under my name.” After all it was my apartment, therefore it should be under my name. I was the guy who signed all the forms and paid the $70 deposit, after all. “It’s apartment number three, if that helps,” I added. It didn’t.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
At this point I realized that something must be truly and horribly awry since the lady seemed as baffled by the whole thing as I was.
“And there are no other people it would be listed under?” she asked.
“Well, the owner’s name is Robert Willis. It might be under his name, I guess.”
She typed in that. “North Ione Street?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s his address, but that’s not where I live.”
“Well, do you know any of your neighbors names?”
Through some miracle I was able to recall the full names of three of my four neighbors. Yep, they were all in the computer under their respective apartment listings. However, according to her, my apartment was listed as vacant.
“Are you sure you haven’t recently changed addresses?” she asked.
I assured her that I would have noticed something like that.
“Well do you still have power?”
“I did before I left this morning.”
For a few moments she seemed to internally debate whether or not this was some sort of half-assed, late April Fools prank. My look of angry desperation must have convinced her otherwise. She wrote my name and address on a piece of blue paper and said she would go check it out with the Power Ass. Service Department. Then she disappeared down one of the back hallways, leaving me to admire the lovely decor.
I was now starting to get upset about the whole thing. I had never done anything to create such a problem. I’ve always paid my bills on time, even over-paying on a couple of occasions because I’m incapable of writing a check while reading the correct amount box on the bill. Under no circumstances was this my fault. I do bloody well exist and have been doing so for quite some time.
After a few minutes the jolly lady came back with a grave look on her face. She explained that as far as anyone in the service department was concerned I didn’t exist and never had. But they were, at least, willing to entertain the concept of my existence and give me the benefit of the doubt. They would send someone over to read my power meter and find out for sure. If I actually existed, they’d bill me. If not, they’d probably just cut off my power.
“But are you gonna stick me with a late fee cause I didn’t pay by the sixth of the month?” I asked. The lady smiled and said that since I didn’t technically exist they couldn’t exactly charge me any fees at all. I was safe. At least until next month.
Twenty minutes later I was still having doubts as to the status of my existence. After work I beat tracks to Comcast Cable to try and pay that bill. According to their computer, I did exist. I figure they’re probably right. They are the cable company, after all. “Talkin’ Power Ass Blues Part II: Next Month”
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.