Who Owns What – James Cato

        The doorbell had not quite completed its note when the door swung wide and a young mother greeted the plumber. He knew she was a mother because a boy no older than six peeked out from behind her dress.
        “Go hold the dog,” she murmured to her son, before turning to her visitor. “You’re here to fix our pipes? Can’t imagine anybody else would wander to the end of this dirt road.”
        “Yes. Nice house. My name’s Carlos.”
        The woman ushered him inside. The foyer smelled of fresh, simple incense, and she took his coat and hung it on a thick black peg. Her simple yellow dress riffled with pleats by the bottom, her profile willowy but shapely.
        “I’m Kelsey. I’ll show you where the basement is, just follow me.” He did so, admiring her streaky blonde hair and slender neck. She was his kind of lady—humble but peppy, beautiful but not exactly sexy. Cute is the word, he thought to himself. I need me a girl like her.
        In the kitchen, Kelsey’s son braced against a filthy wolfhound, his back nearly parallel to the tiles. The plumber made kissy sounds at the dog but this only prompted a snarl. “Sorry about Mr. Dobs,” the child said, his tone respectful. The dog inched forward, dragging along the boy’s socks like little droopy Zambonis.
        “No sweat, bud! Is he a rescue?”
        “No, we’ve had Mr. Dobs since he was a puppy,” Kelsey said, taking Carlos by the arm to lead him downstairs. “He’s just cranky.” Her fingertips sent a jolt corkscrewing up his belly, and he winced inwardly at his own pathetic excitement. He was no Lothario but tried charm anyway.
        “I could get used to a life like this. No neighbors, protective dog, polite kid? How’d you and your husband manage that?” And does she have hips! Probably other interesting equipment to match. Then a risk: “If you do have a husband?”
        Kelsey did not reply, but left her hand on his wrist as she led the way down into darkness. A warm, rancid musk hit his cheeks like a shallow grave in midday mulch. When she tugged on the cord of a naked bulb, it shed light on compost piles, old toys, and patina stains.
        “We don’t have garbage pickup, is all,” she explained quickly, blushing. “The big landfill company bought our land, cut down the trees, and drained the lake. Then they lost their permit for polluting, so we can’t even give our trash to them. Government owns the land now.”
        “Interesting concept, storing your trash in-house.” He had expected snaggletooth cheapskates out on this dirt road but instead had found charming folks with one strange quirk born of necessity. Very forgivable. Kelsey turned and smiled, admiring his shapely profile. “We call our basement the Yard,” she said, “since we don’t have a real yard. I’ll let you get to work.”
        Carlos set about mending the cellar pipes, finding one clogged with a black banana and another dripping like a split pig’s belly. Aside from “the Yard,” he liked this house and its people. After clearing the upstairs bathtub, which was paved with plastic bags, he took a long look at the master bed, which was only rucked on one side. Then he plopped himself down on the living room sofa. I should stay here and take all this, he decided. Who would stop me? There’s no husband, no internet or phone service. The girl and her house could be mine.
        Carlos returned to the Yard to dispose of the bags and to devise a plan. I’ll ask to stay for dinner. Then I’ll overstay my welcome. He discovered Mr. Dobs urinating on a pile of coffee grounds like he owned them. “Listen here,” Carlos hissed, lifting a boot in warning. “I don’t understand how two nice people raised such a nasty dog. But I’m going to be running things here from now on and you’ll obey me or else.” Dobs growled, not getting the hint, until Kelsey appeared.
        “Shoo, mutt. Everything in order, mister?”
        “Well, I plugged the leak and scooped the plastic out of your bathtub. Hid all the scraps down here where nobody will notice them.”
        “Garbage isn’t the only thing we hide down here,” she replied. Her hand flashed, whipping a bowie knife from a sheath hidden in the pleats of her dress. Before he could so much as squeak she dipped its tip toward the slit between his third and fourth ribs. “Go stand against the wall, and balance something on your head so I know you won’t move.”
“Yes, okay. Please don’t hurt me!” Dropping his toolbox with a splat, Carlos wobbled around like a whipped pup. Had Kelsey figured him out? He considered a plate-sized mushroom, an apple core, and a sock before landing on a soggy throw-pillow. He planted it atop his head like a crown and shivered with his spine stuck to the wall. I’m dead, he thought. If she treats me how she should.
        “Yah!” Her knife came arcing through the air, goring the pillow to pin it on wall with a thup. Cold liquid dribbled onto Carlos’s shoulder. “Thanks for being brave!” she laughed, curtseying. “Don’t get to show off much—I used to practice knife-throwing for the circus. Just another wasted thing best left in the Yard!” Carlos stammered some pleasantries, refused her check and forgot his toolbox as he staggered out the door.
        Still, the trip did not leave the old plumber entirely empty-handed. Safely locked in his truck, he watched the boy toss a tennis ball for Mr. Dobs on the government-owned land. Technically, it was illegal for anyone to use the plot, but who would report it? Not Carlos. This place had learned the plumber a lesson, a sort of property in its own right, and that’s all he’d really wanted anyway—Your notions about who owns what is bullshit.