Friday, 4 July 2014

Two Americas

The agent who showed us around the house smiled a lot, emphasising all that should be considered a positive. The yard was a desert with a dead tree at the centre against which was propped rusting barbecue equipment, one wheel broken off. The metal caps of a million beer bottles were trodden into the dusty earth. Three lively young men had lived here, and they had been keen on having fun and all the activities traditionally pursued by lively young men. They had been less keen on cleaning and domestic repairs. Indeed the evidence suggested that they found such activities a positive chore. A small hole had been either booted or thumped in the kitchen wall, and a few of the doors showed signs of having been kicked in at some point. The agent pointed to the greying metal and plastic skeleton of a large circular garden table, reduced to a sun-bleached ornamental wheel by the absence of glass. It was of a kind I'd seen on sale for about thirty dollars in the home and garden department at Walmart.

'You might be able to buy some glass to fix up that table,' the agent suggested helpfully. 'There's a large branch of Lowe's just around the corner.'

I didn't spend hundreds of dollars on a specially commissioned circle of glass for the repair of a fairly unpleasant bit of cheap garden furniture, although I did buy a small bottle of ReRack, a xylene based liquid plastic by which I restored the decrepit rusting shelving inside the fridge to a state suitable for storing something other than beer.

Despite its faults, despite that our landlady seemingly regarding the place as falling only a little way short of a gold-tapped mansion, despite all the work which needed doing and the fact of the garage door buckling in the middle so much that it no longer opens, we liked the house and said yes, and then moved in.

The street seemed quiet. The neighbours were mostly Hispanic and mostly pretty civilised. There had been a murder on the street behind ours about a month before, but it was the first incident of that kind in decades according to police records, which my wife checked before we made our decision. Also, a major dealer lived a few houses along, a dealer formerly of the kind popularised on the television series Breaking Bad, but more recently taken to a quieter life having been carted off to the stripey hole a few too many times for his liking. The cars would still show up, friends of friends of friends who would slow their vehicles to conduct furtive transactions with the motor running, but all the houses here are some way apart, so the trade could be relegated to just one of those things happening over there, a habit of some other guy which will forever remain happily none of our business. My wife's relatives came to visit, in one instance to cast a Hyacinthine eye over where we had landed and to offer the sort of veiled discouragement you would expect, just in case we hadn't realised quite how far we had fallen from Alamo Heights, from the lawn sprinklers and no socialism; but we took no notice. We preferred Junior's take on our relocation, which was specifically that we were now well situated for a great many cats and a wide variety of fast-food restaurants.

He wasn't kidding about the cats. The street is full of them, lounging in the sun across various lawns or patches of yard that would be lawn if there wasn't an el Camino parked there. That said, most of them now spend their time lounging in the sun across our lawn, having discovered that I'm a soft touch and will feed a stray cat if it looks sufficiently hungry. This habit began with SOF, a fluffy stray whom we suspect may be the Son of Fluffy - hence the acronym - our own hairy cat whom we were only able to afford to have fixed a few months after moving in. Naturally, we both felt fairly guilty about Fluffy's brief but successful efforts towards making more cats, but there wasn't really much we were able to do about it, besides putting out the odd bowl of food for SOF whenever he passes through following some itinerary known only to himself. We should probably feel similarly guilty that SOF himself now appears to have made even more cats with another stray whom Junior has named Emerald in recognition of her green eyes; although if it hadn't been SOF, Emerald would almost certainly have made additional cats with the help of one of the other four million felines apparently living under the shed in our next door neighbour's wilderness-themed back garden.

Emerald is small, so her waddling transformation into a silky, black pumpkin was difficult to miss. She resumed her figure after a while, and a few weeks passed before we noticed her sneaking back to temporary accommodation within an unused bedding trough attached to the neighbour's house. Inside, well sheltered from the weather by wooden boards, were three small but surprisingly chunky kittens, still with blue eyes. They were black of course, but fluffy like SOF and his father before him, and we spent an hour cooing over them.

'What chunky little monkeys!' Bess observed, melting, which became chunkamonks, then just the chunks.

'Have you seen the chunks today?' she took to asking me each evening as she arrived home from work. Usually I hadn't as Emerald had moved them elsewhere following our visit. We had no idea where, although it seemed reassuring that Emerald herself was still to be seen hanging around on a daily basis.

Weeks later, I am peering through the glass diamond set into our front door, angling my head to get a view of the drive, to where Emerald tends to wait around in hope of being fed, and where we've seen the kittens playing on previous occasions. Something catches the corner of my eye and I look over to Betty's house just across the way. Betty is the mother of Justin, who comes over to play with Junior from time to time. My wife and I get the impression that he doesn't have a particularly happy life at home and we often hear him arguing with his mother, whom he describes as crazy. He has a stepfather, some weasely looking guy who shows up every few months and is apparently on his third strike so will be inside for a long, long stretch next time he breaks into a house, steals a car, or whatever new means he chooses in pursuit of making his living. We don't say anything, but we're hoping that the magic third strike comes soon, providing it isn't our house he hits. Justin doesn't say anything, but we get the impression he's also looking forward to that day.

I see the movement again, a tiny puppy lolloping towards the rear of Betty's house, and then another, and another.

'Damn!' I step outside, then call to my wife. 'Bess, come and see!' We cross the street watching the stream of puppies. Betty is now out front with her teenage daughter - Justin's sister. The puppies bundle across the scrubby lawn, all crowding around the woman's feet. They are large and dumpy but still quite young, and there are eleven of them, or maybe twelve. It's difficult to count. We all stand around cooing for a few minutes. The puppies are friendly and still very much at the silly stage of their development.

'I'm going out to buy some food for these.' Betty is not happy, but then I'm not sure I've ever seen her crack a smile. She has a puppy in her arms as she glares across to the neighbour's house on the right, speaking loud as though addressing a person hidden behind the curtain. 'Someone has to take responsibility.'

'They're from that house?' My wife glances across. We don't really know the people who live there, except that they are Mexican and seem to have a yard sale every other weekend.

'She don't know how to look after them. Every time is the same. They get animals and they cannot take care of them.' Betty's venom is delivered with righteous volume. 'Fucking wetbacks!'

You can tell that she wants the insult to be heard. I understand the term to refer to illegal immigrants from south of the border, but my wife later tells me it has come to serve as the Mexican equivalent to white trash. It's strange to hear Betty deliver such an insult given that she too is Hispanic.

'Stupid crackhead.' There is no anger, just powerful disgust.

I see another dog, an adult boxer, trotting along at the end of the street, just past the purple house in which there resides the Wiccan family, as denoted by a web address stencilled on the trunk of their car. A few months before, the house opposite the Wiccan residence declared itself an evangelical church of some persuasion, although the banners and flags came down after a few days, presumably because you can't just declare your home to be a church if you happen to feel like it. I was glad as it had seemed kind of rude, even confrontational. The Wiccans were hurting nobody.

'Do you know who the mother is?' I myself imagine it may be the boxer, but as usual I get the impression that everyone is confused by my English accent. I am a piece that does not fully make sense in this jigsaw puzzle.

'Are you working at HEB?' My wife now has one of the puppies in her arms, whilst Betty is presumably about to get in her car and drive to HEB - the local supermarket - for dog food. Justin told us that she had applied for work there. She handed in her notice at Walmart, and none of us could really blame her, considering the long hours and everything.

'They didn't want me.' She shakes her head. 'They escaped from back there. They were in the garage, no food or water.'

She means the puppies. I am losing track of this conversation.

'Those idiots don't know how to look after their animals.' Betty regards the boxer as it approaches, sniffing the grass. 'I don't think that she is the mother.'

'I hate that thing.' My wife catches herself, realising how harsh it sounds, but we all understand.

'I think it is called Boy.' Betty turns, looking across to our side of the street, to where friends of friends of friends slow their vehicles to conduct furtive transactions with the motor running. 'The dog is from the drug house. It is a terrible animal.'

Bess describes the time she came home and found Boy stood snarling at her on our porch. I recall several occasions of this also happening to me, but I'm not sure if it was the same dog. San Antonio has a real problem with strays.

Boy disappears around the side of the house, and we hear a voice calling out.

Just you git back here, Boy!

The call echoes from our own house across the street, a peculiar ricochet effect, and I hear the mention of someone shooting a dog, shooting a puppy, although not one of these puppies.

'I called the police,' Betty tells us, 'but they say they can't do nothing. They say he has a right to shoot an animal if it is threatening him, but it was a puppy!'

'Who shot the puppy?' I'm beginning to wonder what the hell I'm hearing. This tale is getting stranger by the minute.

'It was just with a BB gun, but it is still no good. You cannot shoot a puppy like that. What is wrong with him?'

'This is the drug guy?'

'No, the yellow house.'

I look past where Cabbage Man lives, but the yellow house is out of sight around the curvature of the street. Cabbage Man grows cabbages and tomatoes in wooden frames on his lawn out front. He's very good at it, and knocks on our door to give us free fresh vegetables every few weeks over summer. The only thing with which I've had much success here has been zucchini, which I can grow by the ton, so Cabbage Man in return gets the run offs.

'Is that the guy who always seems to be out there working on his truck? That redneck type, is that who you mean?'

Again Betty doesn't seem to have quite followed the gist of my question, and the neighbours have now returned in their own truck, the alleged wetbacks. They look across to us, and the puppies flood over the lawn to meet them. The woman seems a little thin, but not really crackhead material from what I can tell.

'Look.' I point to the wood fence at the side of Cabbage Man's house. Two tiny black kittens have emerged from a gap to watch us. 'Bess, it's the chunks!'

Puppies and now kittens. It's all too much.

After a while, Betty drives off to buy dog food, despite the escaped puppies now apparently reunited with their owners, and we return to our own home, at least glad to know that Emerald has her kittens somewhere safe. For a while it felt as though we might have been labouring under an illusion, my wife and I, with our quiet life in the hood, blind to the John Singleton film going on all around us.

'You think those people are really crackheads?'

Bess sighs. 'I think Betty tends to exaggerate, you know?'

We close the door and recall all the drama that Justin has had with his mother, enough at least to give him the idea of moving away for a while. It's a shame as he's a nice kid, and a good example for Junior - very responsible and level-headed. I think of the puppies kept locked in the alleged wetback garage without food for days at a time.

'You know, those little guys seemed pretty plump and happy to me. They didn't seem underfed at all.'

My wife agrees with another sigh, then shakes her head.

Neither of us bother to remind ourselves that we like living here, because regardless of everything, it still goes without saying.


  1. Very good sketch of your neighborhood, Lawrence.

  2. Live Shit Towne - do you know them? Mid-90s sort of post-grunge band, I forget where from. Your post reminded me of this tune a little!