By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"Where's your old man?" Emge asks.
"At the doctor's."
"Where's he sleep?"
"In there," the wife says, pointing to a tiny bedroom.
"What about you?"
"Oh, I sleep in the chair."
"Listen," Emge says, his voice beginning to climb into a higher register. "There are still flies in here. They are going to make you sick! I don't want to drag you out of here dead one day!"
"Well, I am sweeping up," she replies. "I'm going to give all this"--she points to a counter covered with rotting food--"to the neighbors. They have children, you know."
Back outside, Emge wipes the soles of his feet repeatedly on the grass. "I have absolutely failed," he sighs. Half an hour later, however, his spirits improve as he surveys the yard of a "schizophrenic gal who lives like she's still in the Ozarks and makes her house payment by selling food stamps" and finds it much improved. "Why, she's cleaned up," he says. "This is wonderful."
Unfortunately, the house's interior--seen through the paneless windows--still deserves trash-out status, smell and all. But the gal is not around to explain why. The only movement comes from a plastic Safeway bag swinging from the front porch. "Why don't you take a look inside?" Emge says wickedly. "Could be a cat head or something."
Emge's inspections next take him to a more urban neighborhood, where an old, run-down apartment house has been charged with having bad sanitation and possibly dangerous electrical wiring. And that could be the tip of the iceberg, Emge thinks. "What do we have here," he asks himself as he approaches the building, "a few little crack apartments?"
In the hallway a young woman with wild eyes talks to an imaginary friend and ignores Emge, even when he asks if she's a happy camper. The apartments are about the size of walk-in closets, twelve to a floor, with toilets at the end of the hall. Several doors have sprouted extra locks.
"That means how's the drug business, pal? A little on the dangerous side?" Emge mutters. He stops in front of a door and knocks. "Health department!"
"Huh?" replies a disoriented older man. "No, don't bother me."
"Drunk as shit," Emge whispers, moving on. By the time he reaches the second floor, the building manager arrives and launches into a litany of excuses.
"No, we don't got outlet covers, but that's because the tenants steal them...stole the fire extinguishers, the smoke alarms, I mean, these people..."
Emge listens politely, then writes the building up for roaches and unsafe electrical outlets. Other than that, slim pickings. "But interesting," he says. "What that place looks like to me is a landlord squeezing out the maximum amount of money per square foot, and a lot of people stoned and belligerent. Interesting. I love people."
Farther uptown, acting on a tip from the Colorado Commission on the Aging, Emge leans over the back fence of a half-boarded-up house, whistling at dogs he can hear but not see. "Smell it," he says, "it's a trash-out, isn't it? I think I smell fly shit. And look at this, someone tried to kick in the door."
No one answers when Emge knocks. No shades move. The neighbors, speaking from their manicured yard, say a young man has been coming in each morning to feed the dogs, but no one's seen "the old man" in weeks.
"Shoot, this could get interesting," Emge observes. "We could end up with one of those complaints like `There's an odor, and Mr. Smith hasn't been seen in sixty days.' Also," he adds, "if a person dies with their pets in the house, well, the pets get hungry. I remember one where the dogs had chewed away enough of the guy's face that it looked like he was smiling."
On a modest but neat street lined with Victorian cottages, Emge finally hits pay dirt. "It's a reinspection, and this guy was supposed to clean up his yard, and he did," he says. "Hey! Not a single dead cat! But the house looks worse." He's assessing it from a distance, held at bay by a German shepherd chained to a tree and a Labrador mutt--his hindquarters stiff and his lips dotted with foam--running loose. Emge considers the situation from the front gate.
"I bit a dog once," he finally decides. "He didn't bother me after that. Let's go." Clutching his metal clipboard to his chest, Emge reaches into the yard, grabs a heavy shovel, opens the gate and walks in. Throughout the next ninety minutes, the diseased dog sniffs around his ankles. Whenever the dog gets too personal, Emge simply bares his teeth.
There's another logistical problem, however. It is Emge's practice to stand to one side of a door after knocking on it. "Guys have been hurt on this job," he says. "One of us was shot. You never get callous. You never relax." But the entryway to this particular house is so clogged with trash piled in sedimentary layers--Christmas ornaments, ancient bakery products, soiled clothes and furniture--that there's nowhere to stand but directly in front of the door.