The Squatters (#1)
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by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
To see all available chapters of “The Squatters” click here
Part 1: Rick becomes a vigilante
At the time of Rick Dubrovksy’s semi-castration, he weighed two hundred forty pounds, fifty of which he was not tall enough to carry gracefully. Long having passed the “pleasingly plump” stage, he had been flirting dangerously with “sloppy fat.” That he lost nearly twenty pounds in the three weeks that followed his forced removal from his home was not due to the excision of part of his anatomy. His missing testicle contributed little to the loss of weight. His missing Jaguar along with fear for his life were greater factors in his noticeable slimming.
Money was not a problem. He had cash in the bank and a respectable portfolio of stocks and bonds, and he owned a couple of houses from which he was supposed to derive an income. As Rick searched for a new place to live he considered these two residences. One house had been leased to the United States Postal Service that served a rural community in Kentucky. This one, he wisely decided, could not be considered a replacement dwelling. The other, a once desirable ranch-style house located at #124 Lafayette Street in a small but prosperous enclave called Frenchman’s Park, that lay somewhere between Holbrook and the Petrified Forest in Arizona, was occupied by squatters who had caused so much trouble for the real estate agency hired by Rick to manage the property, that the agency had refused to renew its contract with him. His homeowner insurance company followed suit and also declined to renew his policy.
It was this latter issue – squatters – that assumed unnatural proportions in Rick’s cogitations. It was especially humiliating that it was low-life thugs who had collected a debt from him, a debt incurred by a mere acquaintance for whom he had incautiously vouched or otherwise assisted, and who had quite literally forced him to sign over the deed to his home and the title to his car, and, as a Shylockian souvenir, had removed somewhat less than a pound of flesh. He had loved his Las Vegas house – with its palm trees and sculptured flower beds – and he had loved his Jaguar – with its cats, a single chromium Leaper on the bonnet and a half-dozen Growlers in the cabin, and while he had never made any overt signs of affection for his missing testicle, he surely loved that too. He had done nothing and yet he had been callously dispossessed of his property; and it was the same there, near Holbrook, Arizona, where he owned a house that strangers had simply stolen from him by moving into it when no one was home. There were ten or more of them, hillbillies from Appalachia the Agency said, who lived like those Irish Travelers except they had stopped moving and were sending down roots, destroying the neighborhood with their broken down cars all over the lawn and street and their jury-rigged installation of old stolen air conditioning units, and their theft of water and electricity from the neighbors.
How was this possible? Where was the law? He refused to consider buying another house… no, not while he owned a perfectly good one in Arizona. All that stood between him and his house were a bunch of redneck thieves. He was on a mission… a mission for the Right, for Justice… and if he couldn’t defeat them, he deserved to be homeless and alone. Well, he thought, not exactly homeless since he’d probably buy one of those Winnebago RVs… and he did have his little dog Bruno with him. He was a knight errant. He’d buy a mobile home and if he failed in Arizona, he’d drive on or kill himself.
He put most of his furniture in storage. Fortunately, the new owner’s taste did not run with Wassily or Barcelona chairs… with Eames… or Rietveld….Starck, or van der Rohe… and he was asked to remove his ugly stuff. The new owner – a thug’s daughter – liked blue and cream French Provincial and wall to wall shag carpeting and lava bowls and candelabra mounted on the walls. It was insult after injury. On the morning of his last day the carpet layers came and covered the floors with purple loops and a discount furniture store unloaded blue and cream versions of Louis Quinze in a bucolic seraglio… brocade… everything was brocade. Rick wept as the salesman from the Winnebago dealership picked him up, for at that moment delivery men were lugging a cream and gold baby grand piano that had fur trim… white fur trim… rabbit possibly? ermine? His tear-brimmed eyes wouldn’t let him get a close enough look.
He needed a new householder’s persona. Carrying his shelter with him sounded like a crab or a snail. But wasn’t that what a Winnebago was? He’d be inside his home, steering it… and if that didn’t sound like a crab, what did? But it made him uncomfortable. Crabs and lost testicles just didn’t go together. No. And then the salesmen showed him a Sunstar model and talked of horsepower. A horse! “I like the horse concept,” Rick said to the salesman who did not have the slightest idea of what a horse concept had to do with anything.
“Horses are good,” the salesman replied.
“Yes, there are many famous steeds,” Rick offered.
The salesman tried to be helpful. “Ya gotcher Trigger, and Silver, and Fury. As a courtesy, we have a professional painter write on both sides of your vehicle, whatever name you want to call it. It’s sort of like WWII with the bombers.”
“I was thinking of a horse’s name that would convey more of my persona.”
“Well, what’s yer persona tryin’ to accomplish by drivin’ around?”
“Trying to dislodge squatters from a house I own. I’m told that it’s impossible to get them out.”
The name came to him instantaneously. “Rocinante. Have your painter put that name on both sides. If I am not Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, with my little loyal sidekick, Bruno, my Sancho Panza, who am I? I truly must be mad yet I defend the Right. I am a knight errant.”
The salesman had him write the name out in clear letters and thought to himself that as long as Rick’s money was good, the name suited him fine.
And so there he was on a fine morning late in September, driving south in his new Winnebago Sunstar, newly named Rocinante, with his dog Bruno sitting in the seat beside him. He was, at forty years of age, shocked to think that he could have blundered so egregiously in the prime of his powers. He now doubted, with good reason, the principles by which he lived. He had been born with a very high I.Q. and had regarded himself as being more superior to the average man than the average man is to the ape. He did not associate with persons who resorted to brute force, preferring instead to profit from the more intellectual type of mischief. By keeping unsavory persons at arm’s length he assumed that he had rendered himself safe from their antics. Well… that was wrong. For spending money – and because he liked an intellectual challenge – he’d help to further someone else’s schemes, and then he’d charge a portion of the profits as his fee. Aside from such tainted sources of income, and, of course, his legitimate investment income, he would write theological articles under one of several pseudonyms. Rick was a seminary school graduate and possessed the rare ability to recognize as drivel much of what passed for religious commentary.
As he climbed the highway that led out of Las Vegas, he grew restive.
Why, he wondered, was he on a mission instead of on his patio sipping Tanqueray and Schweppes? Why suddenly was he becoming a victim of stupid people? Thugs and Hillbillies. Had he misread his opponents? Or was it possible that he had misread himself? He had often quoted Heraclitis, “All things are in flux.” Good Grief! Rick thought. Was it possible that he was one of those things?
Change. He felt like Moses leaving Egypt and then told himself that if only he believed that crap in the Bible maybe he’d discover something useful from Exodus. He needed a sign.
He came to Railroad Pass and decided to take a right and head south towards Blythe, California. He passed the turnoff to Laughlin, Nevada… but he didn’t care to gamble. On he went until he encountered Blythe which he found to be completely uninspiring and he wondered why he had decided to turn right back at the Pass. And then he saw signs that indicated he was on the way to Glamis. Macbeth was the Thane of Glamis. Well, if that wasn’t a sign, what the hell was a sign? Wasn’t he aristocratic in the true sense of the word? Aris.. as in Erin… as in Iran… as in Aryan… cognates all of “noble.” True, it was not on his way to the interstate 40 route that would take him to Holbrook; but he had no schedule to keep. He’d stop there. For all he knew he’d meet someone glamorous in Glamis who would restore his sense of self that seemed to be disintegrating. What was the feminine for Thane?
He saw Glamis… nothing but sand dunes. He read a road sign that said that quite a few scenes from the movie Dune were filmed there. When Rick saw Glamis a competition was being held and suddenly dozens of three-wheeled ATVs scattered over it like so many cockroaches when the light was turned on. Rick decided to reverse direction and go back through Phoenix up to U.S. 40. It was just another disappointment.
His urologist had told him he could still have children. He’d make a good father if only he could find an acceptable woman to be his mate. He’d have to lower his expectations, of course. Any man who had his property taken from him by thugs and hillbillies – as easily as candy could be taken from a baby – and who had only one testicle, could hardly require perfection.
As he drove, he called his former real estate agent to tell him that he, himself, was going to 124 Lafayette Street… that he, himself, would do battle with the squatters… a one-man army… a knight errant. “I know you’re not contractually obliged to give me any information,” he said, “but if you feel generous, I’d certainly appreciate a few tips if you have any.”
“Here’s one,” said the agent. “If the squatters are able to prolong their occupancy of the house for another ten months, they will meet the first requirement of Arizona’s Adverse Possession laws: the two years of continuous occupancy. So don’t dally. I wish you good luck,” the agent said, “although I am certain that no amount of good luck will be enough for you to succeed. Those sons of bitches,” he added, “know every goddamned angle in the book. Everybody in the neighborhood wants them out; but they are the stuff of Pacific Heights. You will not win. Be careful. They will get more than your house from you.” He took a deep breath. “But I’ll give you “E” for effort anyway.”
According to the agency’s now-expired contract with Rick, they had paid all utilities and taxes on the property and then collected the money from the tenant; and if the tenant (or squatters) failed to pay, they’d bill Rick and he would reimburse the agency. On Rick’s behalf they would immediately proceed to use every available legal remedy to recoup the monies due, but their efforts to secure payment from the squatters had not only failed, but they had been warned by a court that if they persisted in harassing these individuals they might very well be held to account. At that point, the Agency surrendered.
Rick had been given “blow-by-blow” accounts of the Agency’s efforts, but for some reason – he didn’t know why – he had not given the problems any attention. It all seemed so far away… not in mileage, perhaps. But in some other more important category.
He stopped for dinner at a fast food joint and pulled into a rest stop to get a good night’s sleep.As he lay there, unaccustomed to the bed, home, setting, and noise, he made some decisions. It was time that he turned over a new leaf. He’d adapt to his new semi-castrate state. No more bi-sexual nonsense for him. No, he wouldn’t waste his swimmers on dead-end receptacles. He would clean up his act, settle down, be a good man instead of just a smart one. This appealed to him. Good instead of smart and what always seemed to be its corollary, bad. He wouldn’t make Macbeth’s mistakes. He would be content to occupy his own home – once he got the squatters out. He would be kind and reasonable with these homeless “wretched refuse from some teeming shore” folks. He’d show compassion. He wouldn’t refer to them as “stupid hillbillies” anymore. They couldn’t be all that stupid if they defeated the agency with such regularity. “Every man has two sides. I’ve shown only my smart, superior and occasionally naughty side. I can show my normal, average and accessible good side.
Rick Dubrovsky did not know to a certainty that he possessed a good side, but if he did, he formed an almost religious determination to show it when he reached his destination -124 Lafayette Street – just on the other side of Holbrook.
He awakened early and stopped at an all night diner to eat breakfast. Physically refreshed, he continued to think about his principles as he headed for Holbrook.
He arrived too late in the day to do anything constructive about the squatters, but he did drive past his property and was stunned to see the condition of a building he owned. He, who personally coiffed his hedges and flower beds and had been the acknowledged owner of the finest landscaped house on the block, saw a scattering of weeds, assorted junk, broken windows, torn screens, dead trees, and a vehicle perched on cinderblocks instead of wheels. Both garage doors, one for the large two car garage and the other for a single car were scratched, dented and filled with graffiti. He had also noticed that the disassembled parts of a Harley were strewn around the driveway. This was heresy to him and he muttered, “Swine!” as he passed.
He pulled into the driveway of the house next door that belonged, according to the mail box’s legend, to Ms. Helena Clark Maxwell. Leaving Bruno in Rocinante, he walked up the driveway, climbed the portico steps, and rang the bell. Ms. Maxwell, opened the door only as far as the security chain would allowed. “What is it?” she asked.
“Ms. Maxwell, My name is Richard Dubrovsky. I happen to be the legal owner of the monstrosity next door. I’d like to begin eviction proceedings against those squatters and I’d appreciate it if you’d talk to me and tell me what’s been going on. My real estate property managers have refused to renew their contract with me. I’m a bit on my own and I truly need a friend.”
Helena Maxwell shut the door, unlatched the chain, and opened the door again to allow him to enter her house. “I take it that that’s your mobile home parked in my driveway. I’d appreciate it if you’d get it off my property since it’s likely that it will be damaged there. I’ll wait here while you move it… preferably across the street.”
Rick could not take his gaze away from the scars on Helena’s face and neck. He said, “I understand. I’ll move my vehicle immediately.”
When he returned to her house, she had put the tea kettle on and was setting the kitchen table for tea, bread, and a plate of cheese and cold cuts. “Have you eaten lunch?” she asked.
“No, as a matter of fact I’m starving, although how I can eat anything after having seen the mess next door, is a mystery. Thank you for your kindness. Would you be averse to my bringing my little dog in here. He’s a good old dog and I guarantee he will make no mess.”
“You can bring him in. But when you take him out to do his business, you have to accompany him. They have thrown many different kinds of poison pellets into the grass back there.” He agreed to the terms.
They ate sandwiches and drank several pots of tea. Helena had cans of dog food left over from her “late schnauzer, Greta.” Bruno ate the dog food and Rick took him outside and scooped up his poop, putting it in a special bag that closed so completely that no odor could escape. He put the bag in the trash can and returned to Helena’s kitchen to wash his hands. She was now satisfied that he was an educated gentleman and began to tell him her experiences with the squatters.
She wiped a tear from her cheek and began, “They lived in there for almost a year and aside from the drunken fights and loud music, they at least didn’t cost me anything. They had come in a rental truck and carried in furniture and dishes. I didn’t know that they were illegally occupying the premises. I thought they were simply new tenants. Then in May of this year, the utility trucks came and shut off their water and electricity. The house was quiet for a few days. I thought they had gone. And then on one Friday at the end of May a new woman from over there came to my door. She was pregnant and holding a toddler in her arms. She said she was a new tenant and asked me if she could use my water until her husband could get the utilities turned on the following Tuesday… when the Memorial Day holiday was over. I said, of course. I was happy to think that the old bunch had gone. Her husband was polite when he screwed onto the faucet a bi-valve device that allowed for my hose and his to be used simultaneously. I actually thought that having the ability to connect two hoses was a good thing.
“Almost immediately, my dog Greta got sick. The vet said that possibly she had been poisoned. He had tests run but couldn’t identify the poison. She died in my arms. I had her interred in a pet cemetery.” Helena began to cry and excused herself to go into another room to blow her nose and splash cold water on her face. For a reason Rick did not understand, he felt sympathy for this scarred woman who cried not for herself but for her dog. He knew how much Bruno meant to him. Yes, he could sympathize.
She returned to her chair in the kitchen and continued. “Next thing they had strung a three prong electrical extension cord under the fence and into one of my exterior outlets. I have a bush – since removed – that sat in front of the outlet and their cord was sort of camouflaged brown and green. It snaked up to the outlet around some flag stones and I honestly didn’t notice it. I was still grieving about my dog. I didn’t become aware of the electricity problem until I got my bill late in June. I brought my last year of electric bills to them and showed them how much electricity I normally used and asked them to make up the difference. They said they would, but it was one stall after another. They found a bunch of old air conditioning units and installed them in all the windows. The old squatters hadn’t moved out at all. This woman – she said her name was Babs Bristal – had just moved in with them. There were about fourteen people living in the house. The squatters also rented out rooms. You have big bedroom closets. They qualified as rooms.
“Mostly they were quiet during the day, but not at night when they were all home with their cars and trucks and using my electricity that they had connected when I went to bed. My attorney gave me a reason to hope. The agency had just won their case against them, and the constable was ordered to assist in their removal; but then at the last minute, they produced a disabled veteran who lived with them, and the judge reversed the order. That’s when the Management Agency refused to renew your contract with them.
“You have to appreciate the ancillary damage they did. I was not only faced with vet bills and cemetery plots and being desperately unhappy by the death of my dog, but I had these exorbitant utility bills. My life was all expenses and no income. At dinner time and weekends they’d play horrible music, and my nerves were beginning to suffer. I wasn’t sleeping well because of the constant fear. I’m a portrait painter and I just couldn’t leave my house during the day to drive off to a client’s house and do even acceptable work. The whole time I was away, I was worried about what the squatters were doing.
“My attorney told me to install a security camera to get proof of their thefts and then to file a complaint, but I was engaged and planned to move out in September when I got married. I had thought I’d simply sell the house here for whatever I could get for it and move down to Phoenix where my fiancé’s work had taken him Since he’d be including me under his medical benefits as of September 1, I let my hospitalization policy lapse because I had so little money.”
She poured another cup of tea. “I always go to bed early and since I rise early to do the Suryanamaskar – the sun salute – I do yoga – I heard a noise one morning and that’s when I discovered that they were cleaning out their… your… swimming pool. My fiancé was spending the 4th of July holiday with his kids and parents in Tennessee so I called him and asked what I should do. He said, ‘Disconnect it!’ as if I had asked a stupid question. But I was afraid of them! They poisoned my dog! But he was adamant so I disconnected the hose as he said I should.
“That afternoon I was having tea in my tea house. I’ve been involved with Zen Buddhism for many years, but a couple of years ago I visited Kyoto and my practice just blossomed. I truly wanted to live a Zen life. So I built my own tea house… even used the green powdered tea. Wabi Sabi was so appealing to me. I had the fire pit for boiling the kettle of water…a window that let the morning sun in. I planted morning glories. My house was wood frame with bamboo slats for the sides and door. For the sake of authenticity I put a shake shingle roof on it. It was so pretty…
“While I was inside having tea and meditating, a firework of some kind… it seemed more like an incendiary grenade… went off at the side of the tea house and, as you can see, I was cut from shattered window glass and burned. I screamed and screamed and finally the people who live behind me heard me and called 911. I was holding a heavy brass candlestick at the moment of the explosion and it struck my face, damaging some facial bones. Cut, burned, broken and bandaged, I naturally couldn’t talk and was barely conscious. My parents came down from Idaho and got me. The police notified them and since I had no medical insurance, they paid the bill and took me back to Idaho. They refuse to tell me what it cost. I healed well enough to have the bandages removed, but the scars and the deformity was awful – part of my cheek bone had chipped off – it should have been corrected immediately, but it was July 4th and the E.R. was swamped. My fiancé took one look at me and his vision of a beautiful bride vanished. I repulsed him. I saw it in his eyes. He lied and said he was reconciling with his ex-wife and told me to keep the ring. It was a two carat diamond solitaire. I gave it to my parents to cover the cost of my medical expenses.
“My home owner’s insurance policy did not cover anything because the tea house was an illegal structure. I hadn’t given them the required notice of my intention to erect a building on my property. I also didn’t get a building permit. And then, while I was away recuperating, they filled your pool and ran those old air conditioning units day and night. A neighbor told me that an old apartment house was scheduled to be razed in Holbrook and one night they went there and tore out a dozen units and installed them in your windows. You had a perfectly economical evaporative cooler and didn’t need air-conditioning. But they didn’t maintain the unit and what with all that free electricity they got from me… well, when I got home I found my water bill was $3000 for July and my electric bill was $3800.” She put a small step ladder by the kitchen window. “Here,” she said, motioning to Rick to come and look down into his property, “you can see your pool.”
Rick saw children playing in a slime green swimming pool that was covered with leaves. As he stared into his once lovely back yard, goodness began to leech out of him… rapidly. But Helena was no Lady Macbeth spurring him to dreadful action. He was the property owner of that mess and was technically responsible for her tragic circumstance and still she did not blame him.
“What a nightmare,” he said. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am about this. It is a terrible thing to be someone’s victim. Some day I’ll tell you my sad story. Be assured, however, that my agents did all they could to dislodge these squatters. For a reason I cannot understand, the law is always on the side of the tenants and squatters. Landlords and owners don’t seem to have any rights. I begin to think I shall have to play a dirty game with them.”
“No game is dirty enough to suit me,” Helena replied as she cleared off the table. “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?”
“In my mobile.”
“Nonsense. I have four empty bedrooms and you’re certainly welcome to use one.”
Rick was genuinely moved. She was a complaisant follower, not a nagging bitch. And she was even offering her hospitality to him. “I will happily accept your kind offer,” he said. “I pray that my presence here will not cause you more misery.”
“What more can they do?”
“Evil people find a way. You and I, together, may have to learn a few evil tricks. And I begin to think we will have to learn them quickly.” He began to walk towards the front door to return to Rocinante for an overnight bag. He stopped to ask, “Did you ever get security cameras for your property?”
“No. I can’t afford them.”
“I can. While I go to get my things, look up a security expert who will work at night and install the least noticeable cameras around your property. I have a considerable amount of traveler’s checks on me. I can pay him immediately. Tell him we want a top-of-the-line installation.”