The flag pole in the front yard has no flag. It’s just a pole with a metal cleat and halyard. We’ve been having heavy winds, and tonight they whip the halyard against the pole in a steady beat. Under the full moon on this winter-bare street a block from our house, with no streetlights, the effect is spooky. Kind of sounds like a dead Jacob Marley on the move.
“Can’t…get…it,” my daughter says as she struggles with the key. It’s an old brass thing losing its patina, probably dating back as many decades as the house. “You try,” she sighs in resignation. After the lock turns, we share a half-second hesitation and serious nod. It’s the look buddy cops give each other right before they kick in the door to a crack house.
Welcome to the Worst Pet-Sitting Gig Ever.
Three months ago, my daughter walked the neighborhood with homemade pet-sitting fliers, still high on the joy of caring for her first charge—a fat teddy-bear cat shaved to look like a lion. She gleefully imagined days filled with fuzzy hamsters, round-bellied dogs, chinchillas soft as alpacas. She did get a two-day job caring for a blind Cocker Spaniel named after a Vegas casino, but now? She’s got two pissed-off cats in this gloomy house. It’s full of what feels like bad juju, dark and dreary and cold, sparsely furnished and covered in lint. The joylessness I felt from the woman who hired my daughter, well, it’s reflected in the home itself. One of the cats bites. The other hides under the bed and glares at us. I’ve owned cats like these myself. They’re no fun for visitors.
My daughter heads down to the basement on stairs carpeted in old, scratchy, multicolored carpet that smells like the underside of an old wig. Rainbow never looked so depressing. Bright orange thread is everywhere, crisscrossing up and down the stairs and scribbled around the basement. This is the third day one of the cats has disturbed a shoebox full of thread that rests under a card table.
As I help my daughter wind up the thread, I wonder if it’s okay for us to be touching the spools. They’re so bright and cheery, the only sign of life in this house of gloom. Even the toddler toys upstairs look lifeless, even the riding ones, all of them piled haphazardly on a built-in bookshelf. Maybe the spools are sacred to the homeowner? Maybe they’re the last remnant of her once-happy self, or the hope for a future happy self, or both.
The rest of the giant basement is empty, save for a shallow litter box with one sad turd that the cat barely covered. From my coat pocket, I pull out a balled-up plastic grocery bag for collecting such treasures. A similar bag was left for us by the owner, but it was just one, for a six-day stretch. There was a hole in the bottom of that bag anyway. I can almost picture the young and hollow-eyed mom hanging it there on the doorknob, her mind on other things or her heart just not in it. Sad sack, I think. Now, THAT’S a sad sack.
My daughter opens a hollow-core door to get to the litter box scooper. In the fluorescent light, her skin seems gray-green, likes she’s nauseated. Still, she goes about the scooping as if her life depended on it. Thorough doesn’t begin to describe it. The box has a rancid layer of cemented litter on the bottom, but she works at it good. By the time she’s done, there’s not so much as a nano-pebble of poo left behind. First real job, I think. Picking up other people’s shit. “This is actually like most first jobs,” I tell her, without elaborating.
Afterward, we go upstairs so she can put food and water in the cats’ bowls. The social cat—if you can call glowering social—comes out to quietly judge us. Looking at the bite-mark on my daughter’s hand, I tell her she doesn’t have to try to pet or play with the cat this time. But my daughter’s insistent, saying, “I’m supposed to do it. I’ll do it.” Then she reaches with a heavy heart for the cat brush.
From day one, the cat has treated this brush with disdain, more like it’s a stick of deodorant we’re trying to rub on her. Something tells me that the brush was left out in the same numb spirit the sad sack was hung on the doorknob, like a decorative-fruit centerpiece in a hoarder’s house. It’s a gesture. The cat hisses at it. Her tail is bent all funny, so that it naturally rests on her back and points toward her head. It was a birth defect, according to the owner. “She doesn’t seem to mind if you touch it,” she’d said in a monotone, making no effort to demonstrate the point.
Unable to break down barriers with the glowering cat, we head to the back room to make sure the other one is still alive. We walk past an old comforter crumpled in a laundry basket. It has a fur-filled depression in it, the approximate size and shape of a cat. My daughter offers to look under the bed to if see Angry Cat is there, but I beg her to let me do it. The floor hasn’t been vacuumed in…ever. I manage to look under the bed without making face contact with the carpet. The cat is there, and she looks violated when she sees me. We try to get her to come out by shaking a toy. No dice. So we take the toy back out to the first cat and drag it around under her nose. She is not amused. She just stares at it. Can a cat be suicidal?
“This is the worst pet-sitting job ever,” my daughter says as we walk around turning off the lights we’ve used. The house is completely dark when we’re done, just as it was when we arrived. “I mean it, Mom. Worst. Job. Ever.” Hearing her say this makes me laugh, which makes her start to giggle, too. I pat her on her curly head and ask her if she’s ever heard of first-world problems. “What’s that?” she asks.
“I’ll tell you some other day,” I say. “Right now I’m proud of you.”
As I look around the room waiting for my daughter to zip her coat, I can’t help but think of some gray days I had when she was a baby, some really depressing, gray days that felt like they’d never end. Days that made me want to vacuum the carpet never and let the litter box fill until it caked. Days without color. Days where I wanted to hide. Now we slip back into our winter boots together, her foot nearly as big as mine. When she stands back up, she puts an arm around my waist and leans into me gently. Then we step back out into the wind.