Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Living Alone, Part 1

I live alone--with a cat--in a small suburban house some miles from Washington, DC, where I spent many years. My home was built in the early 60s to meet the needs of returning Korean war veterans, and there are thousand such Monopoly structures dotting the Virginia landscape. Many have vanished because they were on one-third acre lots, which is precisely the size needed for the mini-mansions that were all the rage in the 90s.

I like my house and over a decade-and-a-half, I've fashioned it to meet my needs. I knocked down walls, tiled, repainted, added skylights and, in the words of a local real estate agent, pretty much made the place unsellable. There's a large bedroom upstairs converted from three smaller ones, a guest room in the basement, a study since I work from home, a room to play and record music, a yard with a small goldfish pond, a garage for the Avanti, too much lawn and just enough trees. I plant trees for people I have loved who have passed away, and my yard is now graced with an eclectic collection of corkscrew willow, bamboo, butterfly bushes and crepe myrtles. Each year I nibble away a the lawn by adding a redbud, a mimosa, a lilac.

All the treasures and trivia from a lifetime are there, including inherited furniture, a ceramic flying pig--Pigasus, of course--that hangs from the ceiling, plants, many books and the assorted scrap and debris one amasses by living more than a half-century. Kids love the place; they strum the guitars and make clapping, whirring, or whooshing sounds with the collection of strange noise-makers; in the kitchen they ooh and ah over wind-up toys that are so old they have become new. They like the radio controlled spider in the living room, the Stuart Little sedan, the antediluvian fossilized sharks' teeth.

Over the years, others have come to share my house for varying lengths of time but--and I have realized this only recently--the place has always remained my house, often despite my best efforts and intentions. Other folks' furniture supplanted mine briefly but departed when the guests did, save here and there for a surviving table and chairs, an old leather sofa, a framed print in the downstairs bathroom.

I don't know anyone else who owns and lives alone in a house except for an acquaintance in Richmond, and her place is an unbelievable sty. Mine is not. My situation means, basically, that the level of neatness or dishevelment, the number of dust bunnies, hairballs and tracked-in leaves and dirt, all are mine to control. I could (but wouldn't think of it) let the dishes accumulate in the sink, forgo laundry, leave the grass untrimmed, not collect the mail. Instead, I have discovered a strange and unsettling fastidiousness, an old-mannish need for clean floors, for things in their places. I do laundry far too often, vacuum the kitchen floor at least once a day, pay my bills early. I don't yet fold my underwear but sense this may be coming.

My house and I have been the object of both envy and pity. "You live alone? What a shame! Don't you get lonely?" Yes, I do. There are times when cooking for one is cheerless. Or, "You can do what you want, when you want! You're so fortunate!" That too. I am, as Seinfeld would say, master of my domain, fortunate beyond words to have purchased when I did. I couldn't afford my house now and, as a long-dead Roman--maybe Cicero--once said, "What is more agreeable than one's home?"

Here's installment 96 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 23

That same day at the evening meal the ship buzzed with rumors and allegations concerning the professor who had been forcibly removed from his cabin for allegedly dealing drugs.

Some claimed he wasn’t really a passenger. A gigolo, said more than a few who’d been on cruises before, actually hired by the line to keep older women clients happy. Some of the ladies resented this, particularly those who had spent a few entertaining hours with the fascinating man. The man’s female companion at the time of the arrest was not to be seen.

He had been dealing cocaine; no, heroine; no, surely it was a smuggling operation. At the captain’s table, one guest broached the subject but Captain Roderick Stuart politely shunted it aside, commenting instead that the salad that evening was quite tasty, which it was. The saucier’s kitchen staff had obviously outdone themselves.

People spoke of the professor at the bar, during the floorshow, between number calls at bingo, after the feature film. Clare Drake did not mention that she had seen the entire incident, and that it had frightened her. As the man had been led away, she had seen the defeated look, the vanquished eyes, the handcuffs. The passenger seated next to her at the diner table told of an earlier cruise where a similar incident had occurred and the entire ship had been searched while at sea. “They combed through each and every cabin. I remember it well, I was terrified. It was my first cruise and naturally I’d bought more than my allotted share of liquor aboard after a stop in the Caymans. Cigarettes and Cuban cigars as well. I was certain, absolutely positive, that I would be arrested and whipped or keelhauled or somesuch.” He laughed, forked some salad into his mouth. “I wasn’t, of course. They were hardly interested in my bit of amateurish smuggling. But they did find some drugs in the cabin of some twin sisters, 70 years if they were a day, can you imagine? And both acting as innocent as newborn babes! Well, it goes to show, doesn’t it, that appearances can be deceiving.”

Clare Drake returned to her cabin knowing there would be hell to pay for what she was about to do, but determined to do it anyway. Two days earlier, she’d seen a man lose a thousand dollars on one roll of the roulette wheel and it had struck her at the time that $10,000 wasn’t really going to change her life. But getting arrested for possession would.

She found the parcel Herbie had given them and cut a corner open with a pair of cuticle scissors, then squeezed a small stream of the white powder into her palm. She scooped a small amount out with a fingernail, snorted it, sneezed, snorted again, made a face, shook her head. She pinched her nose with an index and thumb but sneezed anyway, tears coming to her eyes. It took her a moment for the full impact to hit. She threw back her head and laughed suddenly feeling good, no, great. Then she took the parcel, placed it in a beachbag, covered it with a towel and, still laughing, put it back in the closet.

She found the unsigned message taped to her door as she left the cabin.

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