Small Town Horror: Part Six

El desenlace

If I was looking for some sort of relief after the shit storm that hit 415 and forced my four housemates and me to the brink of homelessness and the ends of our sanity, I didn’t find it in Apartment 6.

Apartment 6 was a sixty second walk down a gravel road past a dumpster from 415 that our landlord, we’ll call him Mark, thought would serve as a suitable alternative to our little homeless problem. It was a two bedroom, unfurnished nightmare of  wood paneling. The carpet was dirty, and there was food t in a bucket in the kitchen that had sat there since the last people had moved out two months ago. Perishable food.

Mark said he would get rid of it. He never did.

The most mysterious element of Apartment 6 was pushed against the south wall of the living room, a huge yellow tanning bed from the 1970s. Sprinkled on top of the tanning bed was dry cat food, which was also possibly from the 1970s.

Mark said he was going to move the bed out. He never did.

The mysterious tanning bed. I honestly couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

We had to duct tape the shower head to keep it from leaking, and the hot water faucet in the bathroom didn’t work. There were charred marks on the wall from having installed a burner too close to the wooden cabinet that held the water heater. The doors didn’t open or close unless you lifted them up and shoved them against their hinges. Two of the windows were lacking blinds.

Mark never got any to replace them.

The following is an excerpt from an actual conversation (as I remember it) that I think demonstrates nicely the utter incompetence of our property owner in Kirksville.

MARK
Handing me a single key
Well…here you go.

ME
Taking the key slowly
We’ll need more than one key. There are five of us.

MARK
Oh…well I can give you this other one…

ME
With no patience left whatsoever
That’s two. We need five.

MARK
Um, well, ah…do you know a locksmith?

ME
Struggling to resist the urge to roll my eyes
There’s a hardware store right down Baltimore.
You can get keys made there. It’s a five minute process.

MARK
Oh…okay. I’ll go do that.

ME
Yeah. Okay. Call me when you have them.

Two of my housemates and I lived in Apartment 6 on air mattresses for the final week of classes. The fourth had a demon of a dog that was not allowed to stay in the apartment, and the fifth stayed with her, putting her arms and legs in peril of being bitten every twenty minutes or so.

We didn’t sleep much. Apartment 6 was exposed to the noise of the busy Illinois Street, which turned out to be a favorite route for truckers as they blasted through the town at three in the morning. It also turned out to be the secret fighting ground of the feral cats, as well as where a boy with a motorcycle loved to sit and rev said vehicle at random. Day or night.

I don’t think I have ever lived in a place with thinner walls.

After it was over, my parents came up to Kirksville to help me move my bedroom furniture out of 415 and into a storage unit. I remember sitting outside with my Mom looking up at 415 and thinking back on all the memories in that house, the good ones and the bad. We weren’t sitting very close. It still smelled pretty bad if there was a gust of wind.

So I sat back and thought about how hard we had worked at painting my room and making it look nice.

“It’s not fair,” I said.

“How’s that?” my Mom asked.

“We spent so much time on this house. But all along, it doesn’t matter if the foundation is shit. And you’d never know it until everything’s gone.”

I thought I had made a pretty neat metaphor for life. My Mom just shook her head and laughed. She’s used to me being a pessimist. I think I’ve earned the right to be one, after everything I’ve been through in Kirksville.

I have a lot to look forward for. Fall 2013 will be my last semester at Truman State. I’ll start my internship at the Truman Statue University Press. I’ll be Executive Editor of my school’s travel magazine. I’ll have my very first one-bedroom apartment, directly across the street from one of my best friends.

Let’s just hope this next one isn’t leaking, too.

Small Town Horror: Part Five

Shit Storm

We cleaned the sink with bleach. We went through bottles of Febreze in the hallway. My housemate gave her dog a bath.

It still smelled.

It was something we could only guess at. Maybe one of the many cats that lived under our porch had curled up and died there. Maybe it was the dank wetness of a heavy-snow winter and the inches of rain we’d gotten earlier that week. Maybe it was both.

It was strongest just inside the kitchen door, and again at the bottom of the stairs.

We lived with the smell for months, just a dull assault when you first step in the door, dissipating soon after. Hardly noticed, getting used to it. Doing too much homework to stop. And breathe.

Which was, in retrospect, probably a good thing, the not-breathing, considering what was seeping through the floorboards of 415.

Friday afternoon the furnace went out. We’d had trouble with it before, the ancient finicky thing. But this time it wasn’t being finicky and turning itself down to sixty for no apparent reason. It was dead.

Sunday night I came back from a meeting on campus and saw two men standing on the porch. They were standing over the cellar looking down into it with the air to two men standing over a disaster.

“How’s it looking?” I asked, hunky-dory, trying to put myself at ease because of their dour faces.

“Not good,” the man closest to the cellar replied.

“Not good?” I echoed. Nervous parroting.

Then I saw why.

Water in the cellar. A lot of it. Murky, nightmarish, effluvious water.

No diving

No diving

Once the man swore he saw something moving down there in the deep. Washer and I agreed it must be an alligator.

“A gator!” he hooted. “Awwh help, thar’s a gator down here! Wounn’t that be somethin’?”

He said he would get the water pumped out overnight, that it would only take six hours. I went to bed that night thinking that when I woke up the next morning, everything would be fixed.

Everything was not fixed. Everything was worse.

It was worse. Twenty times worse. The air in my bedroom was thick and yellow, cloying and catching in my throat. It was hard to breathe. A big red rose of a headache started blooming right between my eyes. After thirty minutes I couldn’t take it anymore, got dressed, and made for the exit.

When I got to the bottom of the stairs the smell hit me full-on. Stepping into the living room was like stepping through a solid wall of stench. It was an entirely different world down there. Freezing and stinking, two things you don’t normally experience simultaneously. I put my forearm over my mouth and balked at the empty house.

What IS this?

I grabbed a granola bar and burst out the kitchen door, scaring the man who was scraping away at something at the bottom of the stairs of the now-empty cellar.

“Hi,” I muttered, more out of reflex than anything.

He was wearing a white zip-up suit with a mask that looked like a surgeon’s mask. He raised his hand and waved at me. I didn’t stay to talk. I jumped off the porch and marched down the brick street, making a break for campus.

That first day I had a headache until lunch, pounding at my skull. Washer and I met at a table in the Student Union Building and went through a surge of anger, self-pity, and anxiety.

What are we supposed to do? It’s so cold in there. It stinks SO BAD. I’ve been feeling sick all day—Me too. We can’t sleep there. Then where? I don’t know. This fucking town. What are we supposed to do?

It was the beginning of three weeks of hell, of a brush with homelessness and the stress of lemon-difficult final exams.

Here’s What Happened: In 1910, the house called 415 was built. When it was built, the plumber was either imaginative or illiterate. In any case, the plumbing was put in all wrong, an arrangement that no one in Kirksville—even the rental agency—managed to discover for 103 years.

(It’s almost like they weren’t looking.)

Sometime over that century, tree roots wormed their way through the old rusty pipes and blocked the sewage pipe. Normally when this happens, the water will back up through the toilets in the house. While undeniably inconvenient, water backing up through one’s toilets has a way of alerting a person to the fact that there is a very serious problem.

The erroneous plumbing in 415 did not afford us the luxury of knowing there was a problem. We have no idea when the first bit of raw sewage began seeping into the cellar, but it did. Raw sewage and water slowly climbed the walls until it submerged and thwarted the furnace.

A quick note about the furnace…it was located in the cellar, which was kept locked. None of us at 415 had a key, meaning none of us had access to a vital piece of equipment which was in very real danger of sparking due to the water and sewage rising around it. Luckily it didn’t and the house didn’t catch fire or explode with five college girls inside it.

To complicate matters, our property manager at the time was out of the country. He arrived only a week before our heat went out and the cellar was opened, leading to the discovery of the water and the pumping of raw sewage into the street.

Raw sewage. Into the street.

Raw. Sewage. Into. The. Street.

Looking for a real Medieval experience? Forget fairs. Come to Kirksville, Missouri.

The Results: After the water was drained, 415 smelled like an outhouse in high summer. The smell penetrated, proliferated, clung. It was impossible to stay there with no heat and that stench.  The five of us scattered, relying on friends for a place to sleep and shower.

I alternated between futons, floors, and air mattresses. I lived out of my backpack and my car. I felt guilty, like a burden, sorry for everything, but with nowhere else to turn. I was disorganized, sleepless, running out of money because I had to find every meal on campus or at a restaurant.

I called my parents to ask for money and cried on the phone. Pathetic break-down time inside my parked car/mobile closet.

“Your friends want to help you,” my Mom told me. “You’re not a burden. You shouldn’t feel that way.”

I know, but I do.

“You need to be strong now. This isn’t going to last forever. You just need to focus on finals.”

I can’t focus. I don’t want to be strong. This is unfair. I want someone to see how unfair this is.

Washer and I met for lunch most days. It was tradition, the one thing that stayed normal.

“Have you been to the house today?”

“No.”

“I was there last night to get some clothes and it still reeked. My clothes smell. I had to wash them all at Airman’s house.”

“I don’t think they’re going to get this fixed.”

“I can’t keep up this homeless thing.”

“Me neither, I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

We researched. Sewage gas is dangerous. We realized we had been experiencing symptoms. One of our housemates was in respiratory distress and was given an inhaler. Mold is dangerous. It could be in the vents.

The property manager told me the only way he could tell if there was mold in the vents was when it eventually became visible by growing through the vents. There could still be mold further down which would be blowing spores at us 24-7. If this seems problematic and inefficient, remember—it’s Kirksville.

Our property manager offered to let us into an empty unit. Heat, running water, but no furniture.

We couldn’t go back to 415. I couldn’t spend the rest of the semester jumping around between friends’ houses, apologizing. I needed a home base again to keep me sane.

Besides, nothing could be worse than the Shit House.

…Right?

Small Town Horror: Part Four

Bump in the Night

Since becoming a college student, my sleeping cycle has been completely and most likely irrevocably altered. I now possess the ability to stay up until two in the morning playing Minecraft, then wake up five hours later and write a passable English paper. Or finish the Spanish homework I tend to neglect.

During the day I’m swamped with classes, practice, and meetings. These night hours belong to me.

Me—as I learned throughout my stay in 415—and the things that go bump in the night.

These things are usually the townies. Revving trucks, motorcycles, having sex outside in the yard, or generally undifferentiated and unintelligible shouting. Sometimes it’s the fight clubs of feral cats.

One night I heard someone jogging down the street. Heavy boots, clop clop clop, the kind with steel toes. Then stop, breathing heavily.

“Hello? Hey man, you gotta come get me. What? Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? Where am I?”

The man was stuck on repeat. Inference: meth-head. I didn’t even look up from my computer screen.

“Hey, no, listen. Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up shut up shut up!”

I rolled my eyes. Debated whether or not to shout No, YOU shut up at the man. Decided against it.

After a while he ran off again, out into the blue. But not everything in the dark is harmless.  What happened one night in March reminded me just how much I hate Kirksville and the people in it.

Midnight. Minecraft. Puppy was barking. Townie neighbors were raising their voices and threatening each other. The usual.

Then: “I’ll git yer dog now!”

Puppy started yelping, then crying. Someone was hurting him.

I jumped up from my bed and yanked the blinds apart. The orange light from the only streetlamp on our street flooded my eyes, washing out the street and throwing the deep shadow of the townie house over their yard, making it impossible to see from that angle.

Puppy was still yelping, men and women were screaming at each other.

What do I do?

I made for my bedroom door, threw it open, and nearly crashed into one of my housemates. Her eyes were wide, her hands up near her mouth. In that moment she must have been my reflection.

“Are you hearing this?” I asked. “I couldn’t see anything.”

She nodded. She had heard the same, but from her window she was able to see Puppy limping off. Men got into a white truck and drove away.

Gone. Too late to call the police. What could they do if they showed up with no truck and no description of the abusers? Nothing.

We stood in the doorway listening. Feeling…what? Helpless? Angry? Furious?

Scared. Scared of the dark.

After that I was glad I hadn’t signed the lease for next year. I was going to get out of that horrible neighborhood for next semester, get an apartment of my own. I only had to last one more month in that house and then I was out.

But 415 wasn’t going to let me go that easily. (Yes, this story does get worse.)

Small Town Horror: Part Three

Assault and Battery 

One Wednesday afternoon I had the house to myself. I went upstairs to my room and spread my homework out over my bed. El colonialismo en Hispanoamérica

The shouting started all at once. I had been in 415 long enough to know that the townie neighbors were like Black Cat fireworks—short fuses, big explosions.

My room had six windows, two groups of three. One group faced north, toward the side of the townie neighbor’s house. The other group faced east. As soon as they started shouting I jumped off my bed and ran to the north-facing windows. I peeled the blinds apart near the bottom corner, half-hidden by the curtains.

I spied on them a lot, mostly to try and understand how a group of people could be so loud, and also to keep tabs on what I was almost sure was a drug dealing business. I was pretty good at recognizing several of the vehicles that made regular stops there—a beat-down gold minivan, a red truck—people running in and out at all hours of the day. Definitely a drug dealing business. Probably meth.

There were two men in the side-yard, Brown Shirt and White Shirt. Brown was accusing White of stealing a chainsaw. There was some shoving and much cursing, and a woman on the sidewalk screaming at them to stop.

Eventually White got in a white Escalade with his friend and drove off.

Hunch supported: Nobody owns an Escalade in Kirksville unless they’re rolling in dough from dealing meth.

Brown stayed out in the yard. He paced back and forth, talking to himself. He got on the phone and yelled about the confrontation to the person on the other end of the line. He kept pointing south down the street and telling his cell phone that the motherfuckers were down there.

Five minutes later Black Shirt showed up. He was carrying a chain saw. I was never able to find out if this was in fact the chainsaw that Brown had accused White of stealing—but it didn’t seem to matter. Black and Brown went inside and closed the door.

I waited. Nothing. I sat back from the window, thinking it was over, dreading going back to my Spanish textbook.

Then I saw the white Escalade coming down the street. They must have made a huge circle around the block. Driver slowed down in front of the townie house, nearly stopping, while White stuck most of his body out the window to glower at the townie house in a very menacing fashion. Driver revved the engine.

Seconds later, Brown and Black burst out of the front door. The Escalade drove half a block then stopped so that I had to move to the east-facing windows to see them. Brown and Black chased the vehicle, gangly arms and legs pumping, both armed with baseball bats.

Then White did the stupidest thing I have ever seen another human being do—he got out of the car.

“Oh, God,” I said.

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed my Dad’s number. He’s always the first person I call.

“Hey, Sweetie. How—”

“Dad! The neighbors are fighting. There’s these two guys with baseball bats attacking this other guy.”

Two women were on the street corner, screaming at the men to stop. One of them was on her cell phone. Brown and Black were marching slowly toward White, the bats up against their shoulders.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in my room. I can see them through my window.”

White had his fists up, walking backwards. Brown and Black moved in jerking motions, hoping closer, then away, almost like a hesitant dance.

I can’t remember which one of them swung first.

A bat went through the air, way out of range. White jumped back, Brown and Black kept coming.

“Oh God. Now they’re swinging at him.”

“Have you called the police?”

“No.”

“I think you should hang up and call the police.”

“Okay. I’ll call you back.”

“Okay.”

White was on the ropes, all but running backwards. Brown and Black were furious now, no longer dancing. They swung to hit. White blocked a blow with his forearm, then held it against his body.

For the second time in my life, I dialed 911.

“Kirksville Police Department, what is your emergency?”

“Um, yeah, I’m at 415. There are two men attacking another man with baseball bats. They’re hitting him. He’s running now, behind the houses. I’m watching them from my window.”

All of the words came out in one breath. My hands were shaking from adrenaline. It felt like I was in the fight as much as they were. I even had the absurd notion of running out there and trying to stop them. I thought they were going to kill White, knock him down then bash his head in.

That’s what I get for obsessing over Quentin Tarantino movies.

“Okay, hon.”

She said “hon” because she could hear that all the words came out in one breath and she was trying to calm me down.

“We’ve already received calls from that area, officers are on their way.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

I hung up, looked out the window. I couldn’t see them anymore, blocked by the houses across the street.

“Dad. She said the police are already on their way.”

“Good.”

“I can hear the sirens now. Here they come.”

The cavalry. Five patrol cars, two of them parked directly in front of 415.  I went downstairs to see if I could get a better view of them being arrested. Put away forever where they couldn’t interrupt my Spanish homework or rev their engines or shout incoherently in the middle of the night.

I couldn’t.

“Stay inside for a while.”

“I will.”

“The police might ask you some questions.”

They never did. And a few days later, the townies were all back in the yard, working with the chainsaw Black had brought over.

I explained what happened to my housemates when they got home. None of them were very surprised.

“I heard the sirens,” Washer said, laughing. “I was walking home. I thought, ‘Ahwp…Wilke’s dead. The townies got her.'”

Small Town Horror: Part Two

Los Vecinos

Here at Truman State,  the students have a special term we use to talk about the people that are not students. When used in this particular context, the word townie refers to a native of Kirksville who is at least one of the following:

1. Frightening in appearance due to an unruly beard or lack of teeth

2. Linguistically underdeveloped and intellectually challenged

3. Addicted to and or dealing methamphetamine or another controlled substance

4. The owner of one or more large pick-up trucks

5. Fond of revving the engines of said pick-up trucks

6. Extremely conservative

7. Unemployed and living off government benefits

8. Loud, volatile, and profane (especially between 12:00-4:00 am)

9. Racist and or sexist

10. As annoying as they are scary

After having enough of dorm food and malfunctioning fire alarms, four girls and I rented a house for our junior year. Two stories, five bedrooms, and two full bathrooms.  Over the summer my Mom, sister and I repainted my bedroom. I came up with a color scheme of white, turquoise, and well-oiled teak wood. I sanded, painted, and finished my bedroom furniture myself. The place looked like the inside of a spa resort when we were done with it. It slanted a bit, but we put Styrofoam stabilizers under the dressers and let that be that.

Image

My sister (right) and me (left) before paint

Image

After paint

415 is located about a mile north of campus, a few blocks up from the Square. It is also surrounded by townies.

The neighbors live in a two-story house that must at one time been painted white. Now the paint is an intricate, crackling, gray mosaic clinging to the planks of warped wood. The windows are dark, blocked by blankets.

The front entrance, framed by four beams whose job it is to hold up an extended portion of the roof over the patio, leans severely to the left. The whole thing gives the impression of a very poorly planned Jenga tower.

Under the patio sits a large sofa. Gray and squashy, probably close to becoming the world’s first water-couch. The man on the sofa is a snowbird who has traded sitting stonily in front of the undulating waves of the ocean for sitting stonily in front of an undulating brick street in the armpit of the Midwest.

While he sits—stoically liquefying the couch—the other occupants move around him like insects in a time-lapse video of the rainforest floor.

One man drives his Ford through the patchwork lawn of weeds and dirt, bowling with the trashcans. He uses the truck as a stereo to share his music with the entire neighborhood.

The blankets over the windows shift. More emerge from inside, bare-chested and blinking in the sunlight. Silver cans glint in their hands.

A middle-aged woman, rarely seen out in the open, peers around the side of the house. She grasps the corner of the wall with the fingers of both hands and moves her head just enough to see into the yard. Her eyes are huge. She is a Tarsier clinging to the branches of the canopy. Watching. Waiting.

A teen in baggy pajama pants and a plume of violently pink feathers in her hair shouts all the swear words she knows into the speakers of her cell phone.

A man with a long gray beard stands in the middle of the yard, swaying on his feet. Left and right, left and right, for hours.

I come back from classes  just in time to fully appreciate the man in overalls revving his engine. They have a dog named “Puppy” who’s always running away. They shout for him over the engine noise. Trashcans go down in the yard as the couch cushions sink a fraction lower.

There’s a definite divide between us and them, the townies versus the Truman students. I lock my doors and avoid eye-contact, thinking nothing would happen as long as I kept my distance. But maybe Puppy always knew better. He had the right idea all along.

Small Town Horror: An Unfortunately True Story

Part One: A Dismal Portrait 

If you used Google maps to get directions to Kirksville, Missouri, it may ask you if you’re sure you typed it in right. Do you really want to go there? Are you positive?

K-ville. The Ville. The Northern Star of Missouri. What happens in K-Vegas stays in K-Vegas.

They built a bypass on the highway just so people traveling north on 63 didn’t have to be subjected to it. Baltimore Street is the main artery, and it belongs to a man in his upper fifties who’s been eating excessively and failing to exercise for the past twenty years. The fast food strip is actually the entire length of the town, ending in a Wal-Mart and a slightly disenfranchised Home Depot a bit further up the road, toward Iowa. The last McDonald’s for 60 miles.

Kirksville is a town dedicated to inconvenience. The banks close at noon on Saturdays, and the only place open on Sundays will set you back 400 calories. The movie theater doesn’t accept plastic payment methods, and the Square downtown is all one-way roads and four-way stops. Even the convenience stores are inconvenient. In the winter they cut their hours, turn off the lights, and sit in the dark.

Darkness. A dearth of street lamps. Brick streets, abandoned buildings with the guts falling out, lead paint snowflakes blowing out of empty windows. Potholes so big they’ll knock your tires out of alignment. Broken glass, more weeds than grass, garbage cans, feral cats.

When I first came to Kirksville I was a senior in high school. My parents and I drove three and a half hours on a Saturday morning to tour Truman State University. I was sick that day and nearly fainted in the basement of the Student Union Building. Off to a good start. My first impression was that I hated it. I hated the campus, I hated the town, and I was not going to go there for college. No, sir. Absolutely not.

A platitude that should have applied: Go with your gut. But after several weeks I convinced myself that being sick had somehow tarnished my experience. I visited Truman State again, this time with my mother and my potential roommate, my best friend in high school, and her mother. It was a pretty day. I felt oriented and excited. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, I thought.

Wrong.

I applied to Truman State University and Washington University in St. Louis. I didn’t get into Wash-U, which is how I ended up here in this town that I hate. I’ve spent the majority of the past three years of my life here, a fact that shocks and horrifies me, makes me feel sick to my stomach.

Where I’m from there’s a pulse. Where I’m from one business closes and another one moves in to try and do better. People take care of their houses, their lawns, their cars. There’s a pride in ownership and a drive to repair and improve what’s broken.

Here here’s a murmur, a backwash of vital fluid through the clogged, plaque-filled arteries. Failed businesses sit with sagging ceilings and rot into their foundations, black vacant windows coated in dust. The houses are slanted, the yards are overgrown. There’s no pride in anything, no drive to renovate.

Kirksville is a stagnant, viscous pool slowly evaporating in the summer sun. And here I am, treading water.