Playing House Badly

I once lived on a short dead end street in Morgantown, West Virginia, in a dilapidated house that had been occupied previously by a family who owned numerous ferrets. That family was evicted for failure to pay the rent. When I arrived on the first of the month with my boxes and suitcases, they were still moving their stuff out. We didn’t speak beyond an awkward hello. Their ferrets twitched their noses at me from inside a cage being lugged to the car by a ten-year-old. The toddlers played in a ditch in front of the house. The parents were shouting at each other.

Pretty soon, they drove off and I was home alone. It was the first time I’d ever lived in a place by myself. I had, until then, lived in Army barracks, shared apartments, boarding school dorms, and houses filled with my brother and sister and a changing cast of step-siblings. As soon as the ferret family’s car was out of sight, I felt like I was playing house. I stood for a moment on the front porch, looking into the dark house, then turning and looking out at the little street and my neighbors’ houses. I probably lit a cigarette to christen the house. I probably enjoyed smoking a cigarette as I leaned against the porch railing and surveyed my new domain.

There was a mysterious extra stove askew in the big, dirty kitchen and the refrigerator was splattered inside with sauces and sticky puddles of dehydrated soda pop spills. One slice of American cheese was stuck to the bottom of the crisper drawer. There was a lot of scampering noise coming from upstairs. I wondered if a ferret had maybe been left behind. I should have guessed it would be something like this, I realized. Who moves into a house they’ve never set foot in before? Who rents a house, sight-unseen, from Bernadette, the old woman who runs the corner candy store, the woman who seems to know all the bad news in the world — who’s in jail, who’s on probation, who’s up to no good? But I had a soft spot for that candy store. It was the same store I’d bought jolly ranchers at in fifth grade, and now, after what felt like a lifetime away from this little town, I was back, totally on my own, buoyed by $700 a month from the G.I. bill and a few hundred more from my job at Subway making sandwiches. From behind the high counter of her shop, Bernadette had said to me one day, “I heard you were looking for a new place? I’ve got a sweet little house just down that road. I’d let you rent it for $300 a month.”

The bathroom upstairs was carpeted with pea green shag. It had a old claw foot tub under the eves. Someone had begun to paint the outside of the tub brown, but hadn’t finished. My bedroom had low windows and a low ceiling. I had a mattress on the floor, which I made neatly every morning, and a desk beneath one of the windows. I put white curtains up. They were nice, hand-me-downs from my mom’s house, cotton eyelet, the kind of curtains maybe a farmer’s wife in Kansas would put up proudly in her little girl’s room. I was proud of them, too.

In the second bedroom, at the end of the short hallway, I put a day bed and all my boxes of stuff — papers from the Army I’d just finished my enlistment in, old uniforms, childhood pictures, out-of-season clothes, junk.

As has always been the case, my whole life, I was stuck on just a few albums, which I played over and over for months, until I got sick of them and moved on to others. In that house it was Sarah Vaughn, Sarah McLaughlin, Natalie Cole, and Mary J. Blige, but mostly Sarah Vaughn.

The downstairs was made up of three rooms, that dirty kitchen with the extra stove, a front room with a long brown sofa, and a room off the kitchen, which had the feeling of a downstairs bedroom. In the six months I lived in that house, I went into the downstairs room off of the kitchen maybe two times. I rarely went into the kitchen, except to get a beer from the fridge, or to just stand in the middle of the room and listen for small noises. I don’t know what I ate during that period of my life. Probably sandwiches at work.

There were two pathetic children who liked to walk down my street, probably because it was a dead end and never had any cars on it. I don’t remember how we met, but it must have been when I was out smoking on the porch, or when I was walking on my street, too, either to or from my job or school. The girl’s name was Roberta. She was a dark brown black girl with fuzzy hair halfheartedly braided. She was maybe seven or eight or nine. Her face was often dirty, with crust in the corners of her mouth. She smelled like the outdoors. Her constant companion was a little boy so pretty he looked like a girl. I can’t remember his name, but it was something masculine enough to assure me he was, in fact, a boy. He was a white boy with dainty, elflike features and the silkiest, pale brown hair, parted on the side, with bangs long enough to tuck behind one ear. He was usually dirty, too. He wore the same clothes every day. He lived in a house nearby and had a mother who was younger than me and whom I sometimes saw having loud, maybe drunken arguments with a man on the sidewalk. I gave Roberta and the little boy lemonade when I had any, plain ice water when I didn’t, and we’d sit in the front room and they’d interrogate me about who I was, what I did, what were my life plans? Did I have anything else to eat? Did I have any toys, or anything else they might like to see? Who did I know?

I knew Bernadette, which must have been reassuring. And I knew Herc. Herc, whose full name was Hercules, was an interesting, crazy man who sometimes visited me, too. He lived off social security and had a plan to use radio signals to discover intelligent alien life. He was a white man, maybe thirty years old, with a handsome, open face. He wore jeans, a very major belt, and tight white undershirts. As with Roberta and the boy, I felt torn about Herc. On the one hand, I found them all attractive and full of potential. Potential to be fixed by a little attention from me, or potential to reveal themselves as glorious souls even without any of my patronage? On the other hand, I was afraid they were asking too much of me. The kids and Herc alike were very hard to get rid of. Conversations would just go on and on forever. And during those conversations, you always had to hide your skepticism. Our lives were becoming more entangled with every passing minute. The little boy wondered if sometimes I could drive him places in my car. Herc wondered if I would read a paper he’d written about radio waves. I peered down the street, toward the rest of the neighborhood, and wondered when I’d be back with more normal people.

One weekend, my mom and sister came to visit me. I gave them my room and slept in the second bedroom on the day bed. That whole night I felt squirmy. Was the mattress moving slightly? In the morning, Mom mentioned wanting to take me apartment hunting. “This place is not good,” she said. But we didn’t end up apartment hunting, of course.

It was an extra hot summer. One day, after I’d lived there for a few months, I ran a cold bath and lay in the tub as the water went from chilly to body temperature to lukewarm. It was 100 degrees outside, maybe more in my airless house. Sweat trickled down my upper lip. I stepped out onto the shag rug, grabbed my towel from the toilet, wrapped it around my hair so I wouldn’t drip all the way to the bedroom. Halfway between the bathroom and my bedroom, something made me turn around to look behind me. There, exiting the bathroom and turning the other way down the hall was a fat, grey rat as big as a guinea pig. He turned toward the day bed room and waddled at a leisurely pace, his hairless tail sashaying, before disappearing under the day bed.

“Don’t ever tell that story again,” my friend Eliza said when I told it to her. Eliza, a war reporter who has been detained by Pakistani police, who has interviewed women around the world about blood feuds and horrific crimes, felt that this story about the time I lived in a house with rats was too much. “Really, don’t tell it,” she said.

Seriously skeeved out, I dressed quickly and went outside to sit on the cement steps that led from my front yard to the road. After a minute, I went back inside and called the man I’d been dating, a math professor from Poland. He wore suspenders, smoked a pipe, and had recently been sending me enigmatic museum postcards of Renaissance paintings. On the postcards, he wrote out excerpts from love poems by Rilke, Neruda, Milosz. His handwriting was extraordinarily neat, like typewriting, but also curiously decorative, I thought, for a grown man’s. I liked him. I liked that he knew the history of every country, that he constantly made references to World War II, as if it had just ended. I liked how crazy for me he was. He kissed me like an old-time movie hero, with a closed mouth, but clutching me tightly to his chest and for a long time, not moving.

“Move in with me today,” he said when I told him about the rat. After we hung up, I sat on the stairs for a bit, wondering what I should do. Fuck it, I thought. I can’t stay here. I stuffed most of my belongings into bags and drove to his house.

A few hours later, I was at his gleaming, bare apartment, unpacking my dishes and putting them away in his cupboards. His apartment was three big rooms and a kitchen and bathroom. His bedroom had a queen sized futon low on the parquet floor and a large freestanding wardrobe that reached the ceiling. His center room, which was probably meant to be a dining room, held a butcher block top table and four chairs, nothing else. His living room had nowhere to sit except a desk and chair, where he did his math. The room was lined with plywood bookshelves suspended from the wall by metal brackets.

On his covered sunporch the next day, I continued with my unpacking. I’d stuffed all my many throw pillows — leftovers from boarding school, where chintz throw pillows had been de rigeur for some reason— into my Army duffle bag stenciled with my social security number. I pulled out the last pillow and recoiled when my fingers brushed against something unexpectedly fuzzy. I worked up courage to upend the strangely heavy duffle and the pillow plopped to the floor. A hole had been eaten out of the fabric and white cotton stuffing was spilling out. Something dashed by in the corner of my vision.

An hour or so later, as Andrzej and I stood side by side at the kitchen counter, preparing English Breakfast tea, a small, sleek, dark grey rat raced by our feet and into the dining room. I found myself an instant later standing on top of the dining room table, screaming, “Was that a mouse or a rat? Was that a rat? Was that a rat?”

I don’t think I ever saw Herc or the kids again. Maybe only in passing, on the street. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had really cleaned that house up, gotten rid of the rats (that’s a thing you can do), driven that little boy places, fed Roberta more often, and planted a garden in that tilted, scrubby lawn. I’m sure that’s what I was supposed to have done. Sometimes I dream, all these years later, about the room off the kitchen, the room I almost forgot was there. In my dreams, I’ll suddenly remember, with horror, that my house has a whole other room that I could have been using all this time.