One day, while snow still clings to the edges of sidewalks and rooflines, you stop going to work. I worry you’ve lost your job, and try to console you by insulating you with the warm air blowing through my veins, still tinged with the aroma of chocolate-chip cookies baked in the oven yesterday.
A few days later, Caroline stops going to work too. I wonder if you’ve both lost your jobs, and will soon have to scoop out your belongings from my every crevice, leaving me an empty shell, like the family before you did, and the one before that.
Nora and Evan stay inside for all of spring break, which is not too unusual. But at the end of the week, they do not leave. In the mornings, they ignore Caroline’s knocks and lie burrowed in my dark hollows until the sun clears the top of the neighbor’s giant oak. Have they both been expelled from school? Could a quadruple calamity have befallen us all at once?
In search of hints, I begin eavesdropping closely on dinner conversations, which have grown sparse in words but thick with meaning. There are veiled references to a crown, a plague, doors slamming shut around the world. Your children flout your no devices at the dinner table rule. You do too.
There is a change in the air, a familiar hum, but not of the vacuum inhaling dust bunnies, or the dryer tumbling winter blankets. It takes me several days before I can recall when I’ve heard this sound before. It is the sound of pattering footsteps the year Evan starts kindergarten, when he keeps running into your room to escape his night terrors. A gasp in the darkness, when you wake to the muffled thumps of strangers slipping into the living room through an unfastened window. The tapping of fingers against the kitchen counter, the light grunts of throats being constantly cleared, and whispers of not in front of the kids, before another call from the doctor and a sigh of relief.
The buzz of fear is outside too. I notice that people cross the street now to avoid each other, but instead of retaliatory frowns and snorts, there are relieved nods and raised palms, gestures of acknowledgement typically reserved for cars stopped at crosswalks and balls kicked back to children playing on the lawns. Only now there are very few cars at the crosswalks and no children at all on the lawns. One morning, I see a pair of mallard ducks waddling down the street, the male in emerald and sapphire like a king inspecting his subjects. It only takes a brief absence of you for the wild to reclaim the land.
The other houses and I gossip, through the sewer pipes and power lines that connect us, swapping stories about the abrupt changes in our deed holders. They all say the same thing too. Everyone is shut-in.
I start hearing the word gratitude a lot. You are grateful for your job, for your family, for your health, for this unexpected gift of time, for me. Evan draws signs and hangs them from my windows, thanking doctors, nurses, first responders, mail carriers, sanitation workers, supermarket cashiers, even the slaughtermen who transform cows into beef. He gets upset when he realizes he forgot truck drivers and warehouse stockers, and there is no more poster board. In the evenings, you help Nora with her trigonometry homework, though the word asymptotic makes you think of asymptomatic, and Nora has to summon your mind back from the rabbit hole it falls into.
On Saturdays, Caroline fills me with the scent of warm sourdough while you go to the hardware store and come back carrying lumber and paint and power tools.Finally, you have time for all the little me-improvement projects you’ve been meaning to do. The splintered railing on my deck finally gets fixed, loose screws on the kitchen drawers tightened, creaky hinges oiled. You clear the musty attic of its junk to transform it into your office. Your spouse works from the dining table.
There are hardships, of course, for everyone. Evan fidgets all day in front of the screen, unable to find an outlet for his pent-up energy, now that basketball at the Y is canceled and the hoops have been removed from the playground courts. When Nora’s hand slips under the bread knife and blooms red, you clean the cut yourself and hope for the best. Urgent care is a little risky right now, agrees Caroline, but we’ll go if it starts looking infected.
While running a wifi extender to the attic for your new office space, you accidentally step through a section of unsupported drywall flooring between my joists, leaving a ragged hole in the ceiling of the master bathroom. You and Caroline debate whether it’s safe to have a contractor come in to fix it, decide it isn’t, and patch me up with heavy-duty tape, a makeshift bandage over an ugly wound.
A layer of dust is starting to gather on my windowsills. But cleaning products are scarce, and you must conserve your dwindling supply for kitchen counters, groceries, and delivery packages. I whistle lightly in the wind. It’s understandable. All of us are making sacrifices.
Not all of us, you scowl, pointing at the pick-up trucks parked along the curb and the rented dumpster down the street. Look at those assholes, adding a goddamn guest suite to their house at a time like this.
Caroline tilts her head, looking out the window in the direction of your finger. Well, the executive order does list construction as an essential business.
Sure, maybe for critical infrastructure, you say. But the Beckers are clearly abusing the rules.
Caroline sighs and rubs the small of your back. Who knows, maybe they have a good reason.
Facebook informs you that a former classmate is visiting Cancun as soon as the resorts reopen. You read out her captions about mental health and safety protocols in a mocking falsetto. Does she really believe she can socially distance on a plane that’s two-thirds full? You look up the airline she is flying and find out the seats are eighteen inches wide. It would take three empty seats—plus an aisle—between passengers to stay six feet apart. You clutch at your heart, which goes out to the poor Mexicans who have to go to work so this woman can get fresh towels and room service.
Another friend announces he’s relocating to the family beach house for the foreseeable future. The kids are going stir-crazy and we need our sanity, he pleads preemptively, in vain. You growl that he has always been a selfish bastard. But I see how your thumb lingers over the photos of wet sand piled high in toy buckets, a yellow cottage with white trim, palm trees etched against a pastel sky. You wish you were there.
I wish you were there too.
There’s a chorus of agreement from the other houses when the thought trickles out of me. In normal times, we would take turns taking beatings from the hordes of family scuffing our walls, muddy shoes not left at the door wearing our carpets thin, and heathen little cousins somehow spilling sticky things on our ceilings.
Your Grandma’s Queen Anne townhouse might babysit everyone for Christmas and your sister’s ranch gets Thanksgiving, but everyone squeezes into my Craftsman bungalow frame on the Fourth of July. Last year I got so sick of the firework scars on the back lawn that I ‘arranged’ an injury. Nothing major. A bubbling cauldron in one of the toilets, it was big enough to sway everyone to gather elsewhere, but small enough to be an easy fix after the holidays. For the first time in years, I had a break, from the constant stomping, yelling, chatter, fireworks and tears. And I didn’t have to smell like smoke for a month.
But now, there’s always someone here. All four of you in different rooms throughout the day, screens babbling nonstop. Occasionally, you or Caroline leave me for a trip to the supermarket, donning your face covering like a badge of faith, but you are back before I can even exhale properly. Meanwhile, Nora scratches moody symbols on the underside of the bed frame where you can’t see, and Evan, whistling like an agitated teakettle, pounds on my door with a ball, leaving a bruise on the paint with each bounce.
You are perpetually restless too, muttering profanities about people you suspect to be skeptics. I can’t remember what you studied in college, but I don’t think it was immunology, or statistics, or constitutional law, though you rant with the fervor of an expert in every field at dinnertime. Nora seems embarrassed by your litanies of grievances. She avoids eye contact, pokes at the food on her plate and announces her departure to her room at the first opportunity, typical teenager behavior. Caroline puts a hand on your shoulder. You shrug it off.
After an initial spurt of activity, the supplies from the hardware store move into a forgotten corner of the garage. I discover that you do not quite live up to your name, Mason, which in my mind always conjured up the image of a self-assured, competent artisan. Many of the projects you’ve long promised me turn out to be beyond your capabilities, and you hide evidence of the failures behind the gardening tools. On the weekends, you lounge on the sofa, endlessly doom scrolling through charts of undulating curves and photos of people congregating maskless, while Caroline occasionally yells at Evan to take a break from the video games he now plays all day.
The dust on my windowsill has thickened visibly, forming the opposite of a chalkboard. A small spider, wispy as lint, has built a web in the corner of one window. When Evan finds it, he squishes it against the wood and lifts his finger to contemplate the sunburst of legs splaying out from a flattened body.
You still sit down in the evenings to help Nora with math, though both of you now approach the dinner table with dread. You snap at her for not grasping the equations for exponential growth, an anger redirected from not understanding them yourself either.
My hinges begin to whine again and my drains grumble. But with no guests to impress, you no longer see the point of keeping me presentable; merely habitable is good enough. When you take video calls for work, you pair ironed button-down shirts with grease-stained sweatpants.
Caroline suggests calling a plumber for the slow drip of my kitchen faucet, but you balk at the idea of strangers violating your sanctuary. If you’ve managed to make do all this time with a hole in the ceiling, surely you could suffer a few extra dollars on the water bill until things go back to normal. Once it’s safe again, you’ll call the plumber, first thing.
I moan under the weight of your four pairs of feet, incessantly tramping on my floorboards. You turn down proposals of a backyard barbecue, a professional haircut, a visit to the dentist. Instead, you sit patiently, piously beneath Caroline’s scissors hacking your hair into unflattering shapes. I recognize the thought from your face: what is an asymmetrical buzz cut, or the sharp throbbing in your jaw whenever you sip a cold drink, if not the exquisite pain of martyrdom?
My hopes rise when I hear that for Caroline’s birthday, you are planning a rare pastoral outing: a full-morning family hike in a nearby nature preserve, followed by a picnic. I watch as you drag the kids out of bed early on Sunday morning and make them excavate their wrinkled outdoor clothing from closet corners, while you stuff backpacks with sandwiches and apples and chocolate-chip cookies. A shudder of delight runs down my timbers as I watch the hatchback retreat down the driveway and disappear around the stop sign. You neglected to shut off the heat and one of the bathroom lights before leaving, but at least, at last, there is room to breathe.
Then suddenly, your car is back again. The four of you return far too early, in stormy moods, judging by the staccato crunch of gravel under sneakers. The backpacks land on the kitchen counter with the heavy thud of uneaten provisions. You huff that it’s not your fault, there were too many barefaced runners on the trails, spewing their polluted breaths into the air, covering miles of distance for their own pleasure but unwilling to grant you even six feet of indulgence. Caroline says nothing, just goes down the hallway and shuts herself in. So does Nora. Evan pretends not to hear the slamming doors over the rat-a-tat sound effects from his console.
I know what I need to do.
I cut myself, in the dark of night, at just the right depth. The pipes burst with an arterial gush of murky water, rendering the entire first floor sopping wet within minutes. All of you rush outside and huddle on the lawn, shivering in your fragile bedroom clothes. The sight makes me think of startled newborns, freshly ripped from the womb, still slick with amniotic fluid.
My breakdown reveals the truth. You’re capable of giving me some peace and quiet after all. Hardly an hour later, an assortment of bags and boxes, haphazardly packed to overflowing, are being loaded into the hatchback. Caroline is on the phone; she has already found a place for all of you to stay, a nearby motel desperate for business that offered a bargain basement weekly rate.
The professional who comes to examine me treads lightly, respectfully on my floorboards. His hard hat brushes against my wall when he peers gingerly into my wounds with a flashlight. He jots down notes on a clipboard and I hear him say the sweet words full rehab. It’ll take at least four weeks, he tells you, maybe six. The pipes will have to be refitted. Drywall rehung, cracks resealed, electrical wiring replaced. And his men have to work more slowly, farther apart. Governor’s orders.
Not to mention, he adds, it’s a busy time for his crew just now, demand for remodels being as high as it is. He is juggling three other projects. But yours will be top priority, he promises.
I settle onto my concrete slab, joints popping every millimeter of the way down. The next four weeks, maybe six, are mine to be pampered and cared for as I had hoped you would have done. I wonder if, in the cramped connecting rooms of the Deluxe Inn, maybe you’ll finally reach an epiphany about the other squeaky doors in your life and face some of the truths I’ve seen inside my walls.
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