Friday, January 14, 2005

Elvira's ugly sister

Monday, January 3, 6:30pm.

Ding-dong! The doorbell rings.

Steph and I look at each other. "Who the hell could THAT be?" I ask.

Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

Why do people ring the bell repeatedly like that? I'm moving as fast as I can. It's a doorbell, not an accelerator!

I open the front door. When I moved into this house, one of the first things I did was to install a storm door. I really hated the idea that I could open my front door and someone could be face to face with me with nothing in between us.

Through the frosted glass, I see my neighbor, Linda. She's about 5'5", and thin, maybe 110 pounds or less. She's wearing a pair of dark slacks with an eleastic waist, and an old black and red sweater that she's had on every time I've seen her for the last several months. The sweater's got a little dog-emblem stitched near the waistline, but it's hanging most of the way off.

Her hair hangs past her shoulders, long, jet black and sticking out everywhere like stray wires. Her face is tired. Forget bags under her eyes; she's got trenches: Long, deep channels that run diagonally from the bridge of her nose to just above her mouth on either side. When you see her, the first thing that hits you is that she seems tired and old, but she's certainly no more than 50.

"My house!" she shrieks, her voice weirdly muted by the thick glass of the storm door. "My house is on fire!"

I unlock the storm door and open it. "My house is on fire! Can you please call the fire department?"

"Sure, sure, come in!" I say.

Stephanie rushes to the door. I walk to the kitchen, grab my phone, and dial 911.

"Emergency service."

"Yes, I'd like to report a house fire." I give him the address.

"Ok sir, are you a resident at that house?"

"No sir."

"We've already been called about that one. We've got units on the way right now."

"You've already been called? OK, thanks."

I look out the front door and towards Linda's house. No flames, no smoke, nothing.

I snap the phone closed. Stephanie is giving Linda a glass of water.

"They said you called already," I say to Linda. What the fuck is her issue, anyway? And I must sound like a real asshole too, because Steph glares at me. "Ste-eve!" she says.

"I think my father called. He's in the house too."

"Your FATHER is in the house?" Steph says.

"And Toby. And Charles too."

I know one of her kids is about 7 or 8, and another one is in a wheelchair. I thought she had a little girl, too.

"Your KIDS are in the house?!" Stephanie says. "Steve, we have to go get them right away!"

We hear sirens.

"Steph, the house is not engulfed in flames. There's not even smoke anywhere!"

"NOW!" she says, slipping her shoes on.

The sirens are deafening now. I open my storm door to leave.

There's a little old man of probably 75 standing there, bald and hunched over, shuddering in the cold.

"Can I use your bathroom?" He says. "I gotta go."

"Come on in," I say. "Are you Linda's father?"

"Yeap," he says, shuffling by me. "Gotta go bad." A little fart squeaks out of him as he passes by; I catch a whiff and almost fall over. It smells just like a full colostomy bag.

"Steve, come ON!!!" Steph says, grabbing me by the sleeve.

We run the 300 yards down the street to Linda's house. There are two fire trucks and a police cruiser in front of the house, as well as a phalanx of neighbors lined up watching the action, bracing against the cold in their parkas and scarves.

"You the resident?" A fireman says. "Where's the fire?"

"No, we live two doors down," Steph says.

Now, wait just a minute. I know a couple of kids might be dying in the house, but first things first: What do you MEAN, "WE live two doors down"? Don't you mean, "My boyfriend lives two doors down, and I visit him often, sometimes overnight, but I don't stay over too much because I'm tiptoeing gingerly around his fear of commitment"?

"Where is the resident?" The fireman says, as two firefighters enter the house.

"Here she comes!" Linda is walking unsteadily towards us. She appears unable to walk a straight line.

"Where's the fire, ma'am?"

"In my furnace!"

A fireman walks out carrying her son. He stops next to Linda. "Ma'am, Toby is just fine. I'm gonna put him in the fire truck for a minute."

"Yep," she says, not even looking at him. She's staring off into space, whispering to herself, as if trying to remember her shopping list.

Another fireman comes out, pushing a boy in a wheelchair. The boy's got a heavy blanket wrapped around him.

"Where are we bringing the boy, ma'am?" The cop asks.

"How about our house...YOUR house?" Steph says, tentatively.

OK, so just to summarize, we've got an old man with the shits, and now we're going to add a kid in a wheelchair? Throw in a couple of disabled veterans, and we'll have enough for a telethon!

I'm not sure how the hell I can actually say "no", so I agree to it. God help me. "OK, let's go," I say.

The fireman pushes the wheelchair slowly along the sidewalk, over the melted snow and slush. Steph talks to the boy all the way to our house. Charles is his name. "NOT Charlie," he says. "And not Chuck!"

We pull Charlie's wheelchair backwards up the steps in my garage and into the house. As I pass the bathroom, the door opens.

"Thanks a looooot," the old man says, smiling. The smell is enough to make me gag; it's foul and putrid, like dogshit baking in the sun on a hot summer day.

I walk back over to the fireman that we were speaking to. He's talking on the radio. He turns to look at me.

"Chimney's a little clogged," he says. "She was getting some smoke in the house. Or so she says. We didn't see any."

"She said fire," I say. "She said her house was on fire!"

He shakes his head. "We went through the WHOLE house. There's NO fire. That woman's a little......." he bobs his head, left to right, as if trying to decide what to order for lunch.

"Where is she, by the way?"

He points his chin toward the house. "Back inside. I advised her to get the chimney cleaned. She also should have the furnace inspected, but it seems fine. Ideally, she ought to turn off the furnace, sleep somewhere else, and have the chimney cleaned first thing in the morning, just to be sure, just as a precaution. But she says she has to sleep here. And I'm not the chimney police. I'm not gonna tell her she can't stay."

Sleep somewhere else? Bad idea. BAD, I say. I think that's probably the worst idea I've ever heard of since Cop Rock. There is NO fucking way they are sleeping in my house. I'd have to wash all the sheets. No, I'd have to BOIL the sheets. No, I'd have to BURN them.

If they don't want to stay at their house, I'll pay for them to stay in a hotel. That's how much I don't want them at my place. But if Linda is going to stay home, the kids might as well stay with her.

"Is the house safe?" I say.

"Yeah, I'm sure they're ok, but they should get that chimney cleaned. They ought to do it TOMORROW, since they were having a problem. Or since they THOUGHT they were having a problem. And they ought to clean it at least once a year, every year," he says, holding a finger out. "You know, these chimneys are nothing to fool with!"

"Come on, Toby," a fireman says, carrying the boy away from the fire truck.

"NOOOOOOOOO," screams Toby, his pajama-clad feet flapping at 100 MPH. The fireman carries Toby back into the house.

Tomorrow morning, I'll help Linda call and make the appointment for the chimney cleaning, just to make sure it gets done. Now, all I have to do is get Charles and that old guy out of my house. And then install a six-foot electric fence around my yard.

I walk back into my house. Steph and Charles are playing Connect Four.

Not to go off topic here, guys, but remember the commercial for this game, where the girl says, "I win," and the boy says, "Where?" and she says, "Here, diagonally!" to which he replies, "Pret-ty sneaky, sis!"? Yeah, a slanted line is REALLY fucking devious. Because, in the history of the world, no one has EVER won a game of tic-tac-toe with anything other than a straight line. What, does the kid have some kinda head injury?

"Where did THAT come from?" I say, pointing to the game.

"It was in Charles's backpack," she says, pointing to the bag mounted to the back of the wheelchair. "He's a man who's well-prepared! How's it going over there?"

"It's fine. There's no fire, there's no smoke. The chimney's dirty, but that can be cleaned in the morning. So it looks like everyone can go back home."

No one budges.

I look over at the old man. He's asleep.

It's gonna be a long night.