I’d moved to Houston in the summer of 1981 to work there with a rock and roll band. The humidity level was extreme, and I never did fully adjust to the rank, moist atmosphere that seemed to rob me of my faculties. I’d moved into a second floor apartment just a few blocks away from downtown and split the rent with an old girlfriend and several terrific cats she’d had for a long time.
Without warning, fall shifted into winter early that year, and suddenly, in mid-December, a band of snow draped itself over Houston’s rooflines. None of the houses in our neighborhood were properly insulated, and as a result, Shari and I would gather all of our quilts and blankets together, along with the cats, and shiver our way through the frigid nights.
We spent a lot of time watching a group of young men who lived downstairs and across the street from us, a gang of drunks who hooted and howled their nights away while consuming vast quantities of alcoholic beverages, often accompanied by a chubby blonde in her early thirties named Erna, a morose woman who endured constant torture and heckling from Tony’s drunken crew. At some point, Erna had been Tony’s girlfriend, but he’d grown bored with her, and he’d begun unleashing a cruel streak that usually left her sobbing. Tony once invited me over to his house for a beer, and the entire inside of the place stunk of cigarette butts and stale beer. He was, in some sense, a genius, with a classical education behind him, but he’d thrown all that away and sunk to the bottom.
If Tony was sufficiently motivated, he’d snatch up all of Erna’s belongings and toss them into the front yard, sometimes while she was nearly naked, and he’d let her bang on the door for an hour or more before he let her inside while Tony’s buddies chortled and guffawed.
Christmas was nearly upon us. Shari had decked out a tree and plugged in some lights, and our apartment had taken on a festive glow. Tony caught me out on the street one morning, drunk and woozy, wanting me to suggest how he should decorate the large window in the front of his house. I was in no mood to deal with him and I ignored him.
Early the next morning, Shari woke me and whispered “Come take a look at this.” Erna’s entire wardrobe lay scattered across Tony’s front yard, and he’d sprayed “Merry Do-Dah!” in enormous block letters across his picture window.
The only human who tried to help Erna was an obese, red-headed queen named Frank, who collected rent from his father’s neighborhood tenants along the street. “Those assholes”, he hissed. “Those assholes.”