A few weeks back, Cousin Linda was making her usual stop at our desert cabin in Twentynine Palms, as she always does when she makes her monthly drive between her home in Mesa, Arizona and Long Beach, California.
Armed with a flashlight (electricity wasn't on yet), she entered the house to find a big raggedy American flag nailed to the wall, a serious detour from the usual mid-60s-Midwestern decor. Investigating further, she found the place essentially trashed. Not knowing if there was someone still in the house, she got the hell out of there, fast. She called the cabin's owner, my mom, who then called the cops.
A deputy found a broken window and clear evidence that someone was using the home as their own. We (my mother, Cousin Linda and I) were planning to head there anyway for Mother's Day weekend but now we had a mission.
Upon arrival, we called the cops to make sure Homeless Dude wasn't still in there. They sent out Det. Dibbell, a guy straight out of Central Casting with a neck the size of tree trunk and the tendency to speak only in cop code. "Ma'am, you'll want to step back while I secure the area, we may have a 5140 on our hands."
Bless his badged heart, he took the entire case very seriously which is exactly what we wanted but I had to suppress the urge to ask, "Haven't I seen you on an episode of 'Reno 911'?" The good detective did, however, provide the most accurate phrase for describing the scenario: "It's wrong and it's creepy." 10-4 on that.
Entering the cabin, which had been built by my grandparents, Wilbur and Myrtle, in 1960, I wasn't prepared for the scene. Sure, I knew about the flag but was skeeved out by the Blair-Witch-inspired sculpture in the living room. Gourd innards (I'd often bring them to my mom from desert walks) were everywhere. Broken light bulbs were embedded in the ancient green 60s carpeting and soda cans were stuck in corners.
The kitchen was thrashed - the cupboards had nearly been emptied and all the spice jars had been dumped. They'd found the leftover paint in the garage and put a few symbols above the sink - Anarchy, Pentagram and a Heartagram. (I looked it up later, a Heartagram is a trademarked symbol for Finnish rock band, HIM, and it has now become more famous than the band itself.)
And yes, it was kinda funny watching my sweet mother wash dishes under the symbol of Anarchy - I got a chuckle or two from that.
As Det. Dibbell took notes, I photographed and he encouraged my mother to list anything that had been taken. The boom box was gone - and I'd lugged all those CDs, dammit! The mini fridge in the garage was gone, along with the beer - double dammit! Later, we learned that neighbors had seen two teen girls rolling it down the street.
We also learned that the neighborhood kids had thought the house abandoned, found the open window and was using it to party during the day. Night came, and Homeless Dude would move in, using our oil lamps and toilet - even though the water was not turned on.
While Mom and Cousin went off to City Hall (to register for the Neighborhood Watch Program) and Wal-mart, I stayed behind to clean. Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I do not take naturally to mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners. (My first act upon winning the lotto? Hire a maid.)
But something snapped in me and I suddenly became a frickin' cleaning MACHINE. I got down on hands and knees, moved furniture like it was cardboard and even washed rocks in the window sill. I didn't even notice that it was 99 degrees in the house with no air conditioning until I stopped later to breathe and realized I was dripping with sweat.
My cleaning spree had been fueled by sheer rage and I'm so glad no one else was there since I was probably mumbling expletives the entire time: "Motherfucker comes in OUR HOUSE .... No right! ... Thinks a flag makes it okay .... motherfucking loser can't even use the toilet properly .... asshole .... idiot" and so on.
In the end, we had fun doing an amateur CSI profile all weekend. We determined that Homeless Dude was just looking for a place to sleep and, although mentally unstable, had not caused as much damage as the kids. They had marked up the new fridge and left kid-level gouges in the living room wall. Fucking desert rats.
Meanwhile, Homeless Dude - who had also taken care to sleep only on top of the bedspreads and not under the sheets - had begun to take pride in his new home. According to Linda, he had actually tried to clean the place up since she stopped in last Monday - there were half-filled trash bags everywhere. I had to laugh when I pictured a scroungy old man trying to keep the place in order: "Motherfucking KIDS! ... I finally find a place and .... no respect, I tell ya ... fucking desert rats."
But what to do with the American flag? Even though it was mangled, it's not something you just throw in the trash - especially when you are just down the street from the world's biggest Marine base where all those brave folks train just before being shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan. Didn't seem right.
And so, we dragged out the caged fire pit, threw in some kindling, folded it up in that mournful triangular way and placed it on the flames. "Shouldn't we say something?" I asked Cousin Linda.
"Um ..." she said. Then, placing her hand over her heart, she began, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ..." I joined in and there, under the desert stars, we gave that sad old flag a proper send off.
I pray that Homeless Dude finds a better home soon - preferably, one that isn't ours.