Fifteen Cats In The Basement

We were about to go into the house when the owner opened the front door. He was an older man, with gray hair and a green polo shirt over his belly. He wobbled out and looked at us.

“You were supposed to call first,” he said.

Our realtor said she’d made an appointment for Wife and I to see the house, and she sweetly explained that she hadn’t seen any note that told us to make an extra call. No, the man said, you were supposed to call first. It takes me fifteen minutes to round up the dogs. We could hear them barking somewhere inside the house. They sounded big.

It’s okay, our realtor said. There’s another house in the neighborhood we can check out. We’ll go there and come back, and that should give you plenty of time to round up the dogs. Okay, the man said, but I’d really prefer it if you call me fifteen minutes before you come back.

If you get your dogs right now, our realtor said, we’ll be sure to come back in fifteen minutes. That way, we wouldn’t have to fuss with the phone.

The man again insisted we call.

It was awkward. We had come to check out a brick-faced home in a leafy neighborhood. It had a large kitchen with granite counter tops. The deck out back was spacious. The place had potential.

The owner was quickly killing that potential. He wasn’t supposed to be there. Owners are always supposed to be gone. The whole point of this polite trespassing was to look around inside a stranger’s house and imagine how you could create your own memories there. If there was evidence of owners past — of a home’s true story — a coat of paint or a set of new appliances would conveniently cover it up. It’s easier to never know. It’s harder to forget.

It became clear, though, that we were going to learn plenty about owners past.

The man made a fidgety glance back to the house. The dogs were barking. You know what? Why don’t I just try to round them up now, he said. You don’t mind waiting, do you? The three of us forced smiles and said that would be fine.

He turned and walked back toward the house. After a few steps, he stopped. He turned around — a guilty look on his face. He didn’t mean to be rude, he said. But, you know, the dogs. He paused.

“There’s something else,” he said.

I just got married again a year ago, the man continued. I had no idea my new wife had cats. Fifteen cats. I’m trying to get them out of the house, he said. He shrugged. For now, they’re in the basement. So before you go in there, just know there’s a smell. It won’t smell good. But I’m really trying to get them out. But they’re in the basement. Fifteen cats.

His shoulders slumped. Let me go get the dogs, he said, and he went inside.

I glanced at the listing. The sheet mentioned nothing about dogs. Or cats. Or the wife. Or phone calls. Or odors. It looked gorgeous on paper. It was a house. But it was also somebody’s home. We didn’t want to look at the home. We just came to look at the house. Now, it was impossible to separate the two.We decided to give the house the benefit of the doubt. Once, we toured a crumbling bungalow in Dilworth and found a rotting squirrel that had broken in but couldn’t escape. This couldn’t possibly be worse than that.The man came back out. I just got the dogs corralled, he said. Come in. I’ll be in the basement.

We took a few steps inside and the smell hit us, a fetid thick stench. It was coming upstairs, and the deeper we went inside, the thicker the odor became. We looked around. The kitchen was great. The deck was large. But after two minutes, Wife’s stomach turned. I have to get out of here, she said, and she turned and ran out. The dogs barked. The leaves blew. For a second, the cats lurked below my feet. The owner never emerged from the basement. We left, never to know the home’s true story. We only knew we were supposed to call first.