“What are you doing this weekend?”
The short list in my head went something like this:
*make rice balls for this week’s lunches
*pack the kitchen
*move stuff to storage
*check on apartment applications
*keep looking in case plans fall through
*be pestered by Godsons
So what do I tell my father, on the other line, who is calling because he wants me to house-sit for two days?
“Good. I’ll leave you some gas money. The key will be under the mat.”
About my parents’ place:
My father and his wife live two miles West of Sumas, which is thirty miles North of Bellingham and the town’s main industry is the border with Canada. Second to dairy farms.
There’s no Internet to speak of, and the heat source is a woodstove. It’s a two-story house that an architecture prof. from Western built in the sixties as a retirement project. It’s a cold house, being as my parents keep a divider between upstairs and downstairs, where the stove is. In high school, my brother and I hauled wood for the stove and used space heaters upstairs.
My duties were simple:
Feed the animals, which consist of my father’s geriatric, neurotic terrier, his pet crow that he rescued from the side of the Badger Road, the barn cat, and an aquarium of tropical neon tetras, which have an orange stripe and are about as big as the first joint of my thumb.
Build a fire at night so my stepmother’s prize orchids don’t freeze.
Lock the door when I leave.
I’m halfway through a cup of Jonathan’s thick, black coffee at the Time In Cafe at noon Saturday morning and I realize I was supposed to be in Sumas two hours ago to let the dog out.
Dammit, Dad. I’m too old to be worrying about curfew.
The North county floods after it snows, and what snow remains usually stays in traces on the ground for weeks after it’s melted in the city. I skid in the puddle of slush at the mouth of the driveway, mirroring a near-miss I accomplished in high school that put me inches from the split-rail fence. No tire tracks to incriminate me this time.
The walk is unshoveled and I have to kick the mat loose from a thick crust of ice to look under it–and there’s no key.
“Dammit, Dad,” I mutter, sloshing through ankle-deep, half-frozen water to get to the side door. Maybe he meant THAT mat.
Or either of the back doors.
By now the wind has picked up and I have to pee.
My parents’ house is like a fortress when it’s locked; there’s no obvious access point and the only point of entry I know of that does not require breaking glass is a tiny window on the Northeast corner of the house that’s ten feet off the ground.
When I was in high school, this was my bedroom window, and it’s one of those old-school crank-windows with slats that can be taken out for cleaning. The structure of the window makes the room the coldest on in the house.
Like a reasonable person, I refrain from breaking in until I’ve left my dad a message on his cell phone, which he likely has off for air travel–
“Dammit, dad; I can’t find the key, it’s really cold out here, and your dog is probably defiling the living room floor as we speak. I KNOW you left me a key; you’re not the sort to forget about me.” The last bit is a pure paranoia–my father has never forgotten about me, even when I wanted him to during my angst-ridden teenage years.
The wind is awful and I’m so not going to deal with being a latchkey kid at the age of twenty-seven. I drag a big stump and a five-gallon bucket to the ivy patch under the window, stripping off my long jacket and the schoolbag that is permanently slung over my shoulder these days, dumping them on the ground. I don’t know if I’ll fit through the window even without them–I’m bigger and less nimble than I was in high school.
The screen is rusted to the point that I can cut it away with my car key, but it creates a serrated edge that I will have to avoid climbing through unless I feel like getting a tetanus shot.
The slats are filthy enough that I wonder if anyone’s cleaned them since I discovered that they could be taken out. I remember thinking that the last thing I wanted was for my stepmother to see my fingerprints on the glass and think I was planning a midnight escape in the middle of one of those lectures where she’d cornered me at my desk. My parents were paranoid about my behavior because I was argumentative and fought at school until we moved to Washington, so high school was pretty much like being on lockdown.
I scrape my arm on a protrusion in the windowframe and hope it’s not a nail while I straddle the sill, sliding a leg down until I feel the baseboard heater under my toes. They’re bound to be off; I seem to remember they smell like burning dust when they run and my parents are convinced they will set the house on fire.
My old room is now storage, as is my brother’s and two spare rooms downstairs. They are mostly filled with things falling into one of three categories:
*The family’s library, which was upwards of fifty boxes when we moved and is now larger.
*My stepmother’s hoard of knickknacks that she switches out seasonally to create a kind of “wardrobe” for the house.
*My father’s hoard of defunct technology. He has everything from a functional astrolabe to parts from semiconductors he helped build in the eighties, when he and his wife worked for Motorola.
My parents are packrats.
Speaking of rats, the terrier has emptied its bowels predictably onto the living room floor and is now aware of my presence. it shakes and yaps and glares at me through cataract-greyed pupils.
“Dammit, Dad. Why couldn’t you like smart little dogs?”
My phone rings.
“Did you check to see if the key is frozen to the mat?”
“Yeah, it’s there. Thanks, Dad. Have a good trip.”
“Love you, Spike.”