A rumor making the rounds in Traveler’s Joy* is discouraging, if true.  I’ve been told that the town’s government was bilked out of $25,000, maybe more, when the money was paid to a contractor to start building a fire-truck museum for the town.  This dream of a museum is held by the mayor, mostly, and is reportedly not shared by a majority of the town’s residents (especially considering that Traveler’s Joy only possesses one fire-truck at this time).  Even before the money was rumored to have vanished, people questioned why those funds weren’t being spent on code enforcement, or trash collection, or infrastructure repair, or a scholarship fund at the high school, or the subsidizing of dog and cat spay/neutering clinics in town to cut down on the staggering number of unwanted pets that roam our streets. (I’ll admit it – that last one is my idea). 
Traveler's Joy suffers from lack of code &
ordinance enforcement
            Now that the contractor has disappeared with the cash and is not responding to phone calls or letters, and now that the Town Council has been informed that no functioning business exists at the address he provided, the funds probably won’t even be spent on the antique fire-truck.
            This contractor apparently earned the admiration of Traveler’s Joy administrators for the flipping jobs he performed on two old homes on Granite Street*. The first was generally known as Dr.Tarleton’s* house, after the family practitioner who lived there years ago and tended to patients in his clinic on the first floor.  After he passed away it changed hands a few times, ending up as a tenant house (sharing the fate of so many houses left to absentee heirs after the original owners die – see my earlier posting, “The Tenant House”).  Residents who were in the house in its heyday describe it as an elegantly proportioned Southern bungalow in a modified Low Country style.  A decorative railing graced the porch, with more wrought iron wrapping around the second floor balcony.  Even with the ravages imposed by the shifting tribe of people who inhabited the house in recent years, one couldn’t help but admire the remnants of the doctor’s garden out front, where a very old Japanese maple graced the path to the front door, and where mature gardenias, philadelphus, camellias and peonies brightened the shade under the massive willow oaks.
The last members of the tribe moved out during the recession’s peak, leaving their trash spilling into Granite Street and one bewildered, pregnant cat crouched on the porch.  The bank notice tacked to the front door announced that the mortgage was in default and declared the home property of ABC Savings & Loan, etc.  It did not address ownership of the cat.  On my walks down the street I tried to approach her, but she was too skittish for company. 
            Months later, a convention of panel trucks on the lawn signaled that the bank had found a buyer.  Whoever this person was, he was clearly not a horticulturist.  That’s because the enormous Acer palmatum, an arboretum-quality specimen the likes of which landscapers typically pay two to three thousand dollars for the privilege of salvaging intact, was chopped down to allow access by construction vehicles.  A front-loader made quick work of the gardenias and the peonies.
Granite Street
             Then, just as suddenly as it began, the remodeling halted.  I assume that the house changed hands yet again, because a new set of trucks appeared one day and a new boss-man seemed to be in charge, someone who drove a flashy Town Car with custom rims.  This gentleman set his crews to work in earnest, and a ‘For Sale’ sign appeared in the spongy spot where the Japanese maple had once stood.
            I wasn’t in town the day the Open House was held, but several people told me about the transformation of the interior.  The contractor hadn’t aimed to remodel the house in keeping with its architectural style or period.  Instead, he had made the house merely inhabitable, installing drywall, new flooring, and working appliances.  This bare-bones level of improvement must have appealed, because in due time the house sold. 
            I only discovered that fact because one cool spring day I parked beside the abandoned house next door, a hideous pile of cinderblock painted the yellow-brown hue of infant poop, to leave dry kibble for the two kittens born to the abandoned cat from Dr.Tarleton’s house.  These timorous felines – one solid black and the other a zany, patchwork-patterned calico -- had taken shelter under the Poop House but were clearly starving to death now that their mother had moved on.  By this time I had burned up the telephone lines trying to find a state or county resource that would help me trap, neuter, and adopt out the feral kittens.  If such organizations had ever existed in South Carolina, they had lost their funding with the double hits of the recession and Gov. Haley’s ruthless hatchet-chops to state funding for social services and animal welfare, so when I got an answer, it was always ‘no.’  I also knew from experience that I couldn’t effectively trap the cats and bring them to my house with any hope of keeping them there.  Feral cats, once moved, light out for home, and with ‘home’ only four blocks down the road from me, distance would be no deterrent to them.  My only recourse was to call back to the Tomahawk County animal shelter and get a trap delivered.  Once I trapped the cats, I would have to summon the dog-catcher to pick them up one-by-one and take them to the shelter, where their odds of being adopted were so negligible as to approach impossibility.  So I postponed the inevitable, giving them a minimal amount of food and watching for signs of pregnancy in either cat.  Eventually, the littermates were joined by a scarred, pinkish tomcat who seemed grateful for the company.  I called this cat ‘Gramps’ -- his swollen glands and testicles suggested he had already used up eight lives on his journeys, and was eking out his ninth life as long as he could.
            On this particular spring day, I only got one foot out of the car before a stranger was yelling in my face.  This young man had been tipped off by a neighbor that I was feeding the cats and had been waiting to confront me; he warned me to get off his street and not come back.  He turned out to be the new owner of Dr. Tarleton’s house.  He was not interested in the plight of homeless animals, not even if the two young ones were the legacy of his home’s previous owners, and he was clearly so territorial after just a couple days of ownership that he saw no distinction between my feeding the cats out of sight on the lot next door or on his own front doormat.  He promised to solve the problem by killing them, if I couldn’t come up with a better solution.
            I set about obtaining a trap from Animal Control and placed it under the big cedar in the Poop House’s yard.  The next morning on my way to work I stopped on Granite Street and found Sissy, the calico, bleating inside the trap.  Gramps was nestled beside her protectively.  (Ever pragmatic, he might also have been waiting hopefully for his own chance at the shreds of tuna fish still clinging to the bait can.)  I called the shelter for pick-up.  However, when I drove past the house again at the end of the day, no one had retrieved the cat.  It was a very hot day, with Sissy clearly stressed from fear and dehydration.  The homeowner’s threats were ringing in my ears, but her suffering affected me more.  Knowing it was probably a pointless exercise, I lifted the howling, trapped calico into the back of my SUV and raced home with her.  When I opened the wire cage in the shade of my backyard, she exploded out of it like she’d been shot from a cannon, tearing for the shelter of my neighbor’s shrubbery on the other side of Kent Street.  I estimated that it would take her two days to find her way back to the Poop House, but considering how stressed she was (and Sissy was not the brightest one in that bunch, which is precisely why she was so easily trapped), it was three days before she joined Blackie and Gramps in the long grass beside the empty house.  I was happy to see her alive, but I despaired for all three of them. 
            That pessimism deepened when I stumbled on a Tomahawk County real estate website a few days later.  I was looking up the details of another property in Traveler’s Joy when I clicked on the listing for the Poop House, which had been for sale for years.  Judging from the quality of the photo, the local agent must have been in a prodigious hurry the day he snapped it, as if he were shooting with one hand while steering past at thirty miles an hour with the other.  The snapshot depicted the mustard-colored façade of the house with the dark spire of the cedar slicing vertically across it. In the foreground, the blurred images of two small cats had been captured in the act of rushing reflexively towards the sound of a slowing car.  The agent had signaled dinner.
            Not long after that, trucks were parked in front of the Poop House, as was the Town Car with flashy rims.  It looked like the Tarleton house contractor had settled on his next quick-profit project in Traveler’s Joy. 
            Sissy disappeared first, followed by Blackie two days later.  I had a chance to say good-bye to Gramps the following afternoon.  He was sitting in a pool of sunlight on the last day I fed him, as contented as a king.  The next day, no cats came out to eat.  It was the same the next day.  I searched all over the yard, and even up to the brush pile in the back, but I never found their bodies.
Tree down
            Before starting work inside the house, the contractor toppled the giant cedar.  Once felled, it covered half the front lawn and jutted into the street.  Apparently, most of the people who buy property in Traveler’s Joy want to start with a clean slate, no baggage.  Take the trees, please.  Take the nineteenth century craftsmanship.  And by all means, get rid of the homeless cats.   If we want any of those, we’ll make our own.
            I’m sorry about the town’s financial loss, if the story of the contractor is true.  (That’s a portion of our 2012 taxes down the toilet, after all.)  But such a mishap makes me hopeful in another way.  Maybe when people in Traveler's Joy think on the Folly of the Fire-truck, they'll consider more critically what the pressing needs are in this town, and what kind of effort ought to be directed at those needs.  Maybe, in future, they’ll give some thought to what has value.