"You the guys?"
We'd been waiting patiently at the corner of Cary and Randolph, Ron and I, as patiently as I wait for anything, when the purple hearse drove up emitting blue exhaust and the reek of cheap cigars.
"Uh, maybe," I said. "You the owner?"
The driver was a large... oh, let's be honest... an immensely fat man in cargo shorts and a too-small sweat-stained undershirt. He belched loudly, sucked on his cigar, eyeballed us for a moment, then blew an immense cloud of smoke in our direction.
"Yeah, I'm the fuckin' owner. Ya wanna see this place or what?"
"I'd like to check it out, sure."
He grunted, grabbed a set of keys off the passenger seat, and held them out to me with his kielbasa-sized fingers. "I'll be waiting for ya here. Don't take too fuckin' long 'cause I got things ta do."
"That's quite a ride you've got there," Ron said.
"Fuck you, asswipe."
"Yeah, Ron," I whispered. "Don't. Be. An. Asswipe."
"Okay, okay," Ron said, stifling a snicker. "Unclencheth thine sphincter."
The apartment was a run-down two-story affair, dim and dusty, with some random pieces of long-forgotten and well-worn furniture scattered about, but obscenely spacious for this part of Richmond.
"Bookshelves," Ron said, as we glanced into the a room facing the front. "The living room is full of bookshelves."
"The living room is full of pre-Columbian cinder blocks and pine planks," I said. "And how do you know this is the living room?"
"I hereby declare this to be the living room slash library. So it is written and so it shall be."
"Let's not get too possessive too fast," I said. "We've got a specific set of needs and you get attached to things whether they're reasonable or not. Remember what happened when you bought all those Zunes."
"Well, how was I supposed to know they'd be the electronic equivalent of an Edsel?"
"And that damned leather jacket you shelled out a thousand bucks for."
"Hey, it was vintage and it looked cool."
"Yeah, but when you wore it you looked like the bastard love child of Marlon Brando and Maynard G. Krebs."
Ron sighed. "Well, it's completely shredded now, thanks to the Girlfriend from Hell."
"And the world is indebted to her for that. What's back here?"
'Back here' turned out to be an immense kitchen space.
I glanced around. "Uh, not the most up-to-date I've ever seen."
"Pink? Ron said. "Who the hell has matching pink appliances?"
"A gay couple from the 'Fifties, perhaps?"
The refrigerator, the stove, a chest freezer, even the double sink were a shocking shade of pink. There were even a few small, heavily-used appliances on the white Formica counter, including a mixer, a milkshake maker, and an industrial-looking blender, all in pink and all clashing fiercely with the mint-green walls.
"No dishwasher? Ron said.
"We've each got two." I held up my hands.
"You so suck."
I wandered over to the sink and turned on the faucet.
Which was a mistake.
You know the opening to Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride?" The part with the shuddering, pounding, shrieking feedback just before "I like to dream, yes, yes / Right between my sound machine..."? Yeah, that. For a minute or so, that was the yammering of the pipes before a sputtering stream of murky, brownish gunk issued from the faucet.
"Jesus God!" Ron said. "What the hell was that?"
"That," I said, "is an omen."
Ron joined me at the sink. "Oh."
"'Oh' is right." I shut off the faucet. "Next question: what's with the back yard?"
I wiped the window above the sink with my sleeve, dislodging several dead flies in the process, and gazed upon a vast jungle of overgrown weeds and tangled bushes, some with scattered white flowers, the rest harboring large, shiny black berries.
"One thing's for sure," I said. "We're going to need a compass to take out the trash."
Ron stared at the overgrowth. "Jesus God, there could be an entire lost civilization out there. Pygmy suburbanites with ways different from our own. Or something."
"I guess we'll never know because there's no way in hell I'm ever going out there," I said. "I prefer to confront nature from a safe distance, say, The Discovery Channel or online. That's a spider and snake paradise if I ever saw one."
"Well, we'll deal with that later, if at all. What I'm curious about is whats behind Doors Number One and Two."
Door number one opened on a pantry of sorts, empty shelves, some prehistoric cleaning supplies, a rusting mop bucket with a particularly toxic-looking scum in the bottom, and a variety of rodent droppings. Door number two, however...
"There's a basement," Ron said. "A big one." Wooden steps led down into Stygian darkness.
"Where's the light?" I said. "Oh, shit, check it out." Ancient porcelain insulators stuck out of the wall, supporting what appeared to be asbestos-covered wiring. A large Frankenstein laboratory-style knife switch completed the circuit.
"Oh, this is so not good," I said.
"Relax. Obviously, the place hasn't burned down yet."
"The operative word here being 'yet.'" I took a deep breath, grabbed the switch, and braced myself for flying sparks and humming generators.
The lights came on.
"Well, that was anticlimatic," Ron said.
As was the basement. I don't know what I expected, maybe an operating table with restraining straps surrounded by unfathomably complex laboratory equipment, maybe a fully outfitted S & M dungeon, but what we found was a slightly musty, partially finished basement with linoleum flooring, knotty pine walls, a large furnace, a water heater, a washer and dryer in pink, and a tool bench running the length of the room. Pipes and duct work ran helter skelter beneath the ceiling. In the corner was a large galvanized sink next to a sump pump. The only odd thing was the windows, of which there were several; they had been painted over with the same mint-green as the kitchen walls.
"We're in business," Ron said.
"What?" I stared at Ron in amazement. "This place is a dump." I walked over to the sink, turned the tap with some effort, and covered my ears as the pipes began to rattle and thrum. Oozing brown sludge splattered the drain.
"Yeah, but it's cheap, it's spacious, and the basement is perfect for our little, uh, business venture. Hell, with a little TLC and elbow grease this place could be downright livable."
"Only if they sell elbow grease in fifty gallon drums."
"Negative waves, man. You've got to stop with the negative waves. Dumpiness works in our favor. It's just another distressed property in another distressed neighborhood. So long as we're not cooking meth and filling the area with toxic fumes, who's going to suspect or even care if we're running an illicit distillery here? Hell, our neighbors might wind up being our best customers."
"I suppose you're right, but still, I don't know."
"You got a better idea in our price range?" Ron said. "Look, we'll stock up on Pine-Sol and Lemon Pledge, scrub the place from top to bottom, add some thrift shop furniture, and call it home. Besides, we not going for glamorous digs; we just want a place to eat, sleep, and make illicit liquor quietly and quickly. McMansions come later."
"Okay, okay. Trendy squalor it is."
"Cool. Now let's check out the upstairs."
The second story was, well, interesting, consisting as it did of two huge rooms filled with wooden furniture and bric-a brac on opposite sides of the narrow hallway. Someone with borderline hoarding tendencies had stacked piles of odd pieces of driftwood, aged barn timbers, and 19th Century wooden farm implements along the walls of both rooms. Everywhere I looked I could see dusty spiderwebs.
"Interesting décor," I muttered.
"Actually," Ron said, "it kind of is, in an Addams Family kind of way. A little artistic arrangement and we've got a showplace."
"A showplace for whom? The police? ABC agents? The BATF?"
"Well, a showplace for us. Maybe a few female acquaintances or something."
"You're thinking about Tara again, aren't you?" I said.
"Dude, you have got to stop that. This place will never be a love shack and Tara is never going to be your love slave. Give it up." I brushed a few cobwebs off my sleeve.
Ron sighed, a bit dramatically as far as I was concerned, but said no more on the subject. We continued our exploration.
"Ya know," Ron said, "one of these front rooms will make a great model railroad layout. It's got enough room for a workbench and some display shelves as well." I noted the dreamy look on his face.
"'Will.' You said 'will."
"Well, yeah." Ron looked at me.
"So, we're renting this place."
"Well, yeah. I think so. Big basement, decent kitchen, some furnishings, some appliances, roomy, what's not to like?"
I snorted. "Even though it may burn up in the middle of the night while we lie in our beds helplessly contorted from tetanus as the neighbors loot our valuables and later hold unspeakable rituals with our charred skulls?"
"We don't have any valuables."
"Okay," I said. "Let the record show I remain dubious, but you're the money guy in this instance. I live from one irregular paycheck to the next. You're the one with the steady income."
"Noted," Ron said. "Let's see a man about a house."
"Oh, and John?" Ron said as we stepped out onto the front porch. "I swear to you you won't regret this."
"Ron, I already do."
To my amazement, our future landlord was still out front in his purple hearse, puffing on another vile-smelling cigar and taking occasional swigs from an ill-concealed bottle of whiskey. Ron walked up to the driver's window, wrinkling his nose a bit at the combination of smoke and stale liquor.
"So," Ron started. "What do you want for this place?"
Future Landlord made a disgusting hocking noise and spat onto the pavement in front of Ron's feet. "I'm thinkin' nine hunnerd a month, you pay two months in advance and another month for a security deposit."
"And that gets us what, exactly?"
"Hey, asswipe. Did you even read the fuckin' ad? Ya get the whole fuckin' place, everything around it, and all the crap in it. Ya want a discount on the rent, ya do the yard work, ya clean the gutters once inna while, ya clean out the upstairs, and I'll knock off a couple a hunnerd bucks a month. That's a helluva deal. But don't be calling me alla time for maintenance and shit and don't do nuthin' that brings down the police. I got better things to do than deal wit' you two nitwits."
"'Nitwits,'" I whispered to Ron. "He's got us pegged."
Ron shushed me over his shoulder, then, turning back to Future Landlord, said, "Three thousand dollars in cash now, we do the maintenance, we clean and paint, and you charge us five hundred a month thereafter. That seems fair."
Future Landlord grimaced and spat again. "Fair, my ass. That's a prime piece o' property there. Nice central location. Cops patrol the area pretty regular so there ain't no crime to speak of and the firehouse is around the corner. Gimme eight hunnerd."
"Judging from the wiring, it's a good thing the firehouse is just around the corner. A building inspector would have a field day in that basement of yours. Six hundred."
"Jesus, Ron," I said.
Future Landlord started looking positively apoplectic. "Couple a wise guys, aren't ya? Seven-fifty and that includes the asshole tax."
Ron turned and smiled at me, then said, "Seven hundred. And no phone calls to the Housing Board."
Future landlord took a long swig off his whiskey bottle, spat yet again, then stared at us for what seemed forever. Eventually he said, "you got the three thousand now?"
"Yep," Ron said.
"You're screwin' me wit'out the lube, but you got yerselves a deal."
"You won't regret it," Ron said, handing over a huge wad of bills.
Present Landlord blew an immense cloud of smoke in our direction. "I already fuckin' do. Move in whenever the hell you want."
"One last thing," Ron said. What's with all the berry bushes in the back yard?"
"Fuckin' farkleberries," our new landlord said. "That was my goddam aunt's doin'. She ruined tha place growing that shit, said they had 'medicinal properties,' whatever the fuck that means. She made pies from 'em and brewed some kinda sweet wine she sold as 'tonic' she sold to summa the righteous assholes that live around here. Stuff would get you drunker than hell after a couple a glasses, but then you'd have crazy fuckin' dreams all night and your shit would turn purple."
Ron and I looked at each other.
"Interesting," Ron said.
"Chop 'em down, burn 'em up, sculpt 'em into fuckin' topiary, for all I care. It's your place now and I don't wanna hear shit about it. We done here?"
"I think so. Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. … uh?"
"Otto. You'll get a lease in the mail and don't be dumb shits and fergit to sign it or nuthin'."
Otto the Landlord took another swig from his bottle, stuck it between his gargantuan thighs, coughed, and drove off leaving a noxious cloud of exhaust in his wake.