Linda, the high school guidance counselor who convinced me to tutor ESL students in math because I was failing pre-calculus offered me a housesitting job the summer after my first year of college. By then, my grandparents’ strategic refusal to teach my father Spanish so that he could more easily pass as Anglo in school had succeeded into the next generation. As students that resembled my relatives passed exams that white classmates were mysteriously not required to take to graduate, Linda promoted me to faculty and staff as a kindly white girl uplifting the Other. The principal gave me a service aware placard and the local newspaper sent me a scholarship check for my “foreign” language abilities.
Linda would pay me to water the vegetable garden, crush Prozac into the cat’s food, and spray the carpet with ether to dissuade the anxious feline from peeing indoors. If I had any problems, the receptionist at the time share across the street could call the police, only fifteen miles away. If my now badge-holding former classmates didn’t come quickly enough, or arrived in time to kick me between the legs either for being a queer, having a Puerto Rican father, or enjoying “book learning,” I could cross the back fence to an abandoned dairy inhabited by a ex-fire-fighting farmer and the emus, llamas, and other animals he raised.
My dad had all kinds of suggestions for staving off loneliness while housesitting and avoiding “trouble,” which I took to mean an incident that involved me complaining. “Remember how my second-cousin Dino got shot seven times by cops while climbing a fence in his own neighborhood? You shouldn’t do that. Just read a book to avoid feeling creeped out alone in that house; you wouldn’t have gotten into college without reading.” He suggested Solzhenitsyn, whose trembling head-scratching hand was prominently, and disproportionately, featured in an oil pastel hanging in my parents’ living room. A fan of “living simply,” my dad had recited accounts of Siberian work camps throughout my childhood, culminating in a bartering war for the Solzhenitsyn portrait at an Orthodox Church rummage sale. Since alcohol sales enticed people outside of the congregation to make spontaneous purchases at the rummage sale, several other competitors for the portrait were drunk, and my always-sober father made the most coherent offer. For years he continued to recount this example of business savvy with the neighbor who invited us to the rummage sale, the only person old enough to remember Igor, who built the house my parents lived in. Instead of reading about freezing prisons where some of the old timers I grew up around had spent their young adulthoods, I picked up The Shining because my ex-girlfriend compared my repetitive sentences and general paranoia to the main character’s descent into alcoholic beverages and hauntings of the past in the present.
The first day of the housesitting job, azalea dusk purpled the green Swiss chard in the guidance counselor’s garden, my hose nozzle between soil and stem. This, I thought, is the poetic glory of Wine Country. I bent, pushing aside leaves, touched wet plastic, and came fingertip to serrated edge with a kitchen knife. The dewy sandwich bag was likely discarded by the guidance counselor while feeding crumbs to animals over the fence, but the cooking blade seemed out of place. A guttural moan groaned on the wind, overwhelmed by a voice with a snagged Oklahoma twang: “Linda told me to introduce myself to the house-sitter, and I’m guessing that’s you. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” Dropping the knife with only a little bleeding under the skin, I turned to face the farmer pointing one thumb backwards, elbow veins up. “My house is a half-mile back there. Even an old bomb shelter underground somewhere.” His other hand caressed a silver belt buckle, crossed hatchets for his fire department service beneath red plaid. I assured the farmer that his phone number was under a refrigerator magnet. “I used to think hiding in a refrigerator would protect me if the Russians nuked us. Funny what we believed then.” The phone rang, I turned off the hose, and excused myself inside. Behind me, the farmer’s eyes drifted off towards an imaginary mushroom cloud.
The caller didn’t need to introduce herself. “I was talking with my brother in the garden. He sends his love, and mentioned that we should expect a visit. I’d rather it be a visit from you than a visit from Death; you know your father and I are getting older.” I would need a drink later if my mom was in one of these spirals. I could hear the cat skittering into the bedroom closet, a place I resided because of my backwards upbringing, according to my Stephen King-reading ex, and I informed my mom that I would come to dinner as soon as I microwaved Prozac in the cat’s food for precisely seven seconds, as requested. I hung up the phone, turned off the living room lamp, locked the door, and drove towards my parents’ house, passing the graveyard where Linda had said her son was laid to rest after a fatal motorcycle accident decades ago.
At the door, I embraced my mother, her narrow shoulders shuddering at physical affection from the living. “Talking to my brother reminded me of the day I almost crashed into Death. He stepped right in front of the car when I had the right of way. That night I got the call that my brother was dead.” Before I could inquire how she imagined Death would be impacted by a car running Him over, she ushered me to a seat at the kitchen table and proceeded to berate herself for neglecting the wisdom of the deceased, with whom she conversed regularly. “Maybe I should start holding real séances, like my Aunt Thelma and Aunt Emily. You know they used to wear garlic necklaces every day; they were descended from people in Salem during the witchcraft trials.” As my dad readjusted our utensils into symmetrically parallel configurations, I wondered if those ancestors had survived to have descendants by framing fellow townspeople for witchcraft, breathing a sigh of relief at their neighbors’ executions.
Before me was a casserole leaking lukewarm mayonnaise, and my mother reached out her arms and wiggled her fingers to signify that my dad and I should join hands and encircle the watery mayonnaise in prayer to a “deity of our choosing.” Having been raised by relatives who spoke in tongues as often as in the Spanish that he didn’t understand, my dad counted even numbers under his breath during these moments in which my mother was uncharacteristically dry-eyed, not screaming that he better not think of inviting any relatives besides me to dinner, since “those traditional people” would surely criticize her housekeeping. For as long as I could remember, she had been suspicious that my dad’s entire extended family lurked nearby, awaiting an invitation to dinner, a chance to call her a bad wife and mother, presumably twirling their mustaches villainously. I figured that this last image was unlikely to be lived out, since my paternal grandmother firmly believed that anyone with facial hair was “criminally insane.”
Just as my mother opened her eyes and refused to be selfish enough to take the first bite of casserole, I caught a whiff of stale cigarette, out of place in a non-smoking household yet an odor I smelled often during my visits. The neighbor who invited us to that long-ago rummage visited often, so I attributed the scent to her chain-smoking epiphanies: “Everyone has something in their family to be ashamed of” she had replied pityingly when my father mentioned that his family might be Sephardic). The last nicotine-loving resident of the house was Igor, the original architect, who threw weekly accordion-pumping dance parties in the front yard for other friends who missed Russia, not the pogroms or the forced labor camps, but the neighbors they would never see again. I wondered if he would have read Solzhenitsyn or Stephen King, and if he ever offered that neighbor a cigarette as I walked out the front door.
The winding, inconsistently paved roads back to the guidance counselor’s house were so dark that I didn’t see the unseasonal black ice, and by the time I knew what had caused my car to slide spinning, the brake pedal was compressed, the car still in the middle of the not-quite-two-way lanes near the grave yard. High beams moved closer, and I accelerated, nearly driving into an oncoming truck. I thought I saw the farmer through the driver side window, but it was probably someone else with a fire department ball cap. When I parked, the lamp I’d turned off lit the front window of Linda’s house. The front door was still locked, and there was no sign of a break-in, so I turned on every other light in the house, borrowed a few drops of the guidance counselor’s vodka, and sat down to read. Linda’s son looked at me through cracks in a glass picture frame, forever 18.
Thirty pages later, the lamp turned off, reminding me that it was time to brush the cat exactly fifty strokes, as requested. Retreating down the hall, brown clots in the bathroom’s cream color scheme caught my eye, so I peaked in. Mud speckled the bathtub, damp sod hardening around the drain, as if someone covered in dirt had stopped in to get clean. While I admired the impulse to rid the flesh of germs, I wondered what flesh was being rid of germs, and whether its wearer hid nearby. Intending to drag the cat from the closet and flee the house, I tiptoed towards the bedroom, reached a hand through the doorframe, switched on the light, and felt my pores prickle. I screamed, the cat ran from the closet, and I dived for her, but she was too fast, having pointedly avoided the ether sprayed areas earlier. Falling to the floor, the carpet crawled under me. I scrambled back to the living room, where the lamp had turned back on. Locking the cat inside, yowling beyond salvation, I drove back to my parents’ place.
Walking into the kitchen’s light, coughing the odor of old tobacco onto my arm, I finally saw the ants swarming over my skin, their miniscule legs tickling me. For the remainder of my time housesitting, I sprayed them with the cat’s ether, plied them with liquor to no avail, and yelled at them until throat-dry. Dousing them with cleaning chemicals only strengthened their attacks, and my mother had to help me fix the collapsible dining table after I broke it while trying to punch a line of the invaders.
Ashamed that I couldn’t stop ants from invading her home let alone prevent corpses from lurching into her bathtub, I called the guidance counselor. The lamp was on a timer. The plumbing backed up in the bathtub, and she often found mud congealing there. “And you shouldn’t read genre fiction, especially horror, while house-sitting. Who knows if you would have gotten into college without reading quality literature?”
Linda returned from her vacation tanned and joking that she looked more like her Panamanian mother than usual. It was the only time she mentioned being white-passing and Latina like me. I never told her I was Puerto Rican, and I’ll always wonder if she knew, if she sent me to tutor in an ESL study hall to support la raza or to spread assimilation to my peers, a crawling, hungry, many-legged, ant-like organism that fed on my grandparents, the guidance counselor, my father, and me. When pressed for theories about the knife in her garden, she explained that strangers crossed into her yard from the time share across the street to feed bread to the lonely farmer’s wailing emu. A prehistoric-looking animal and its adoring tourist fans were the only real haunting I experienced that summer, except perhaps for Igor chain-smoking in the last doorway stolen from him by the living, with no home to return to even in the afterlife.
Jenny Irizary grew up in a cabin in the woods, the only Swede-Rican for miles. Searching for her father’s childhood in the San Francisco Mission District, she moved to Oakland and received a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and an M.A. in literature from Mills College.