By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"Health department!" Emge yells. "Hey! Your yard looks great!"
Three knocks later the unlocked door swings open, revealing a wall of garbage lurking in the darkness, along with its attendant stench and the murmuring of several TVs tuned to different channels.
"Health department!" Emge yells again.
"Hey!" screams a voice from behind him. The resident has snuck out the back door in an attempt to surprise Emge. He is about fifty, very large and almost certainly deranged. Immediately, Emge closes the gap between them.
"Your yard looks terrific," he yells in the man's face. "I'm very pleased. Let's take a look inside!"
"You don't understand!" the man yells back. "The thing of it is, my autistic son, he's seventeen, and he comes over and breaks things, and I can't control him, and--"
"Sir, if your son is living here, let's definitely take a look inside!"
Without a backward glance Emge marches into a warren that makes the basement in The Silence of the Lambs look like a cheerful suburban rec room. The autistic son's bed is a slab of plywood covered with a filthy scrap of blanket. All sinks and toilets have long since sunk beneath the tide of squalor. Few of the windows have glass; the man claims this makes it easier to vent the kerosene heaters going full bore to counteract the lack of a furnace.
"You can't live like this, sir," says Emge. "I'm going to have to placard your house as unfit for human habitation."
"Oh, great," the man says, beginning to cry. "I been down to the bridges and all the good places are taken. Now I'm gonna have to live in my van. My doctor wants me to take more tranquilizers, but I DON'T WANT TO! There's gonna be BLOOD ALL OVER, that's what my DOCTOR's afraid of! I don't sleep but THREE HOURS A NIGHT!"
"Now calm down," says Emge. "You don't have to move if you can clean this up by..."
"You don't understand!" the man yells. "I don't got time! You only come here during good weather, and she comes by all snooty and tells me it's MY fault, and my wife, she's flipping burgers all day, and I put notes for her! I did! ON the TV! I wrote notes that said HELP ME, and stuck 'em all over the TV!"
"Now look," says Emge. "What's our deal? You're going to clean this up by when?"
"February," the man replies. "And then you can...?"
"Stay." As Emge drives away, the man is leaning on a tree, staring into space. The Labrador runs around his feet in a tight circle.
"I detected anxiety syndrome back there," Emge says. "That's when you really gotta watch it. You can't let these guys get excited or they'll hit you over the head with a pipe. You gotta keep control."
The last time Emge visited his next client, he was struck by the sight of a nine-month-old baby being bathed in a five-gallon bucket fed by a hose that came from a neighbor's outdoor tap. "On top of that," he says, "there were able-bodied people around, but they were all drunk. It was a trash-out--with children. I feel different when kids are involved. Kids are our blood."
But a pleasant surprise awaits him. Not only is the house's exterior freshly painted, but the teenager who answers the door is polite and clean. His grandmother, who owns the place, is lying on a neatly made bed eating a corned beef sandwich. Furniture is crammed against the walls--but tidily.
"Well, well, well," Emge says, so happy he appears ready to kiss the grandma. "What happened here?"
"I cleaned up," she says with a shy smile. Although the bathroom has no floor to speak of--much less any plumbing fixtures--you can actually see the walls. And they're clean. This is a rare sight in Emge's line of work.
"Now this next one," he says, "is a Crip-and-Blood deal. We got a single mom living here, her two sons killed a guy at her house, and the cops told us there were other children being kept in a dungeon." Several months ago Emge established that no such thing was happening, but he continues to worry about the single mom. She is so afraid of gang retaliation, he says, that she has barricaded herself inside a house that was already on its last legs. "Look at this," he says, swinging open the front screen door. "She's not coming and going by this door, but someone's been trying to kick it in. She's got all the windows covered with plywood. She must be terrified. Looks like she fixed the brickwork, though."
His knocks draw no response. If the woman is home, she is hiding.
"Well," says Emge. "Looks like we have time for one more. You want cat feces or leaking raw sewage?"
Leaking raw sewage would seem the juicier prospect. The very description reminds Emge of a past assignment. "This gal called and said she had sewage running down her walls from the bathroom upstairs," he recalls. "It wasn't. The guy up there had died sitting on the toilet and it was hot. After a few days, he ripped open at the seams. What was running down her walls was him."