The couple renting it out had gone crazy with design ideas and power tools. Almost all interior doors had been ripped off their hinges and taken away, ending any possibility of privacy from one room to the next and giving the place the ambiance of a chicken brooderhouse. The walls had big square windows cut in them so you could pass plates of food through, or whatever. We never figured that out.
The floors and ceilings of that house tilted so that hanging plants dangled at weird angles, and spilled coffee flowed south. Vents in the rust heap of an oil furnace were installed upside down so that fumes belched into the upper rooms. You could kick stones out of the foundation right into the dirt-floor cellar.
We called that house The Shitbox.
The Shitbox was sunless by design. Its north windows stared across a pinched alley into the south windows festooned with catfood-colored curtains of another identical Shitbox. A solitary old woman was usually visible in the downstairs front room of that house, ensconced in a recliner chair with her feet up, bathed in the glow of her television.
The south windows gazed blankly across another musty alley into those of a third identical Shitbox. A cop and his wife lived there with several babies and toddlers and three Rottweilers with big boxy cloven heads.
Together the houses were The Three Shitbox Sisters, perpetuators of gloom. They perched like rotten-toothed witches on the side of that 45-degree hill with the screams of neighbors' domestic fights echoing down their gun-barrel alleys, fumes of backfiring trucks swirling up around them, and shawls of ancient tangled climbing roses splayed over their fronts.
I lived there for three years and kept my sanity by brightening the place with cats.
First came Charlie, arriving from the SPCA one afternoon in April. Out of the borrowed cat carrier stepped the sleek and handsome young white-chested silver tabby male. He padded around the front room in his white sneakers, calm as can be. He seemed to know this was now home.
Three days later Chickenloaf arrived. Sickly, half-starved, rat-tailed, and bloated with roundworms, she squirmed joyfully on her back and purred so loud she got the hiccups.
Cats know when they have been saved. Within the next few days, Chickenloaf scooted all around yelling "Woopee!" She began playing tricks like Peer Up Over the Bed and then Duck When They Look At You.
Charlie, he began singing in a sweet soprano voice.
The first time I heard this, he was three rooms away, singing all alone. My hands ceased typing. Six pure-pitched syllables, G over middle C, floated through the house like shining bubbles
la la la la
The dark Shitbox seemed to fill with the light of spring.
The next time he sang was in the evening. The moon rose up over Bassettville's clock towers and steeples. Charlie padded into the front room awash in moonlight, gazed up at me, and with an improvised arpeggio introduction, trilled the melody of the old song
b- b- b- b- b-