Okay, here’s the story. Imagine you’re having a party. What do you do? You clean. You neaten and straighten and dust the tops of the picture frames. You get some plants. It takes the entire day, but in the end you have warm, golden memories of all your friends standing around drinking and talking in one room, ignoring all the other rooms you painstakingly cleaned. (Like the guest room. Like the guest room closet. You almost wish they would go up and snoop, and come back with juicy gossip about the number of wire coat hangers you've gotten ridden of since the last party. Would it kill them to be prying little busybodies?) Now imagine that you don’t know any of the people who are coming over. What do you do? Same as above, really, plus a little more attention paid to lesser corners of the house, like the area behind the woodpile in the garage. You don't want strangers noting your failure to sweep up excess bark. That stuff hits the internet, there's no way you can fight it. Once it's out there, it's out for good. Someone updates your wikipedia page - with photos - and you're dead forever. So you really clean. The goldfish gets a coffee enema, that's how much you clean.
Now imagine the pretext under which these people are coming. Say it’s a Tour of Homes. What do you do?
You paint the utility room floor, upgrade the washer and drier, paint the backyard shed and replace the rotted wood, paint the porch railings and nail down the loose parts, get the china hutch, hire someone to do the stencils, hire someone else to clean the carpets, then spend the previous week eliminating the clutter and accumulation from every surface in every room, and spend 48 solid sleepless hours cleaning, knowing that Sunday afternoon your entire house will be JUDGED by utter strangers, programs in hand, wandering up and down unimpeded. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because you volunteered for this.
Why? Because your wife’s seemed a little too happy lately, and needed to experience what must be Every Woman’s Nightmare. Because if you’re testdriving your next deadly sin, and decided to take Pride out for a spin. Because it’s a good excuse to do all the things you’ve been meaning to do around the house. Gaping hole in the living room floor? Up to know you’ve put a rug over it, but this would be a good time to firm it up; your friends know enough to walk around it, but strangers might find themselves ass-first in the boiler room and get in suin’ mood. Because it’s your contribution to the neighborhood: proceeds from the event – ten bucks per program, which serve as your ticket – are used to pay for the printing of next year’s tickets. (Also, for the Fourth of July party and other events.) So you sign up.
We had a month to get ready. Naturally, it all came down to the day before. I rose hatefully early on Saturday and immediately commenced to wash the windows. We have a lot of windows, I learned. I used Windex and newspaper. (There’s something humbling about seeing the eventual disposition of my column, complete with my tiny face all smeared and filthy.) For the entire day I was a robot controlled by my wife. What was that old Underdog episode? He had some sort of flashing light on his head, perhaps controlled by Simon Bar Sinister, and it made him evil. (Simon was such a bastard.) That image actually scared me as a kid.
Side note: as much as I loved Rocky & Bullwinkle as a kid, the crudeness of the animation irritates me today – partly because this is what they knew kids would take without complaint. (Yes, I know, TTV kept the Flame of Animation alight in the dark ages, it’s really brilliant modernism based on the UPA studio’s rethinking of the genre, etc. I know. But it’s still cheap. On the other hand, the music could be quite entertaining, and there’s little in the kid-vid that touches the Underdog theme. For once, the accordian is ominous. And those harmonies! It’s the sort of music that seems like a reference to something, but you’re not sure what. Silent film serial scores? A parody of old serial scores? Whatever it was, it set the show apart, and made Underdog the Batman to Mighty Mouse’s Superman.
Yes, I just did write that, in all seriousness. Jeez. Well, here’s the theme. Is the villain in the second sequence “Riff Raff”? I believe he is. (And yes, I know, they’re making a movie version.)
Anyway. I cleaned. I did not clean Wife Style, which is an entirely different level of cleaning (this morning I found her vacuuming between the headboard and the mattress. Who are you expecting to come? I asked. Superman? No one can see behind there without X-ray vision. But I understood. If she knew it was there, other people would detect her shame from miles away, form a small group, heave back the mattress on the count of three, deploy an electron microscope, identify a dust mote, and shout in one voice SHAME! ON THE HOUSE TOUR, WE HAVE FOUND YOUR SHAME! And then she’s in the stocks for a week, and people throw produce at her. Organic, of course.) But I cleaned well, and wisely. At the end of the night I went to the guest room to fix a shade; the strings that rolled it up had gotten tangled and left the runners. I gave them a pull. The filaments shot up and disappeared into the gears. Irretrievable. Uh oh. This was one of those things I should have fixed long ago; I’d waited until the last minute, and now the situation was dire. The entire project was in jeopardy. People would walk away thinking “pleasant enough house, but that shade was down for no reason I could imagine; ruined the entire effect, I think. Let’s come back later and burn it.” I conceived a plan to fix the shade, but it required twine and stealth. Twine, to bind up the shade. Stealth, to conceal from my wife the fact that I would be employing public twine. Twine where all could see. If it worked, fine; if it looked slightly conspicuous, I’d entwine the other shade, so it looked like it was part of the scheme.
Honest to God: I dreamed of the shade in the night, and woke drenched with sweat. It may have been a mild fever, frankly; everyone seems to be coming down with a cold today. Maybe the room was hot. I was having all sorts of nightmares, frankly. Although at one point I passed Boris Yeltsin, and he said “Hello, James.” I was surprised and pleased, since I’d only met him once. And he remembered! (I actually did meet him, once. In the dream he made the same gestures he made then: thumbs up and the peace sign, over and over, like some genial drunken Russian version of rock/paper/scissors. [Thumb up butt beats fingers in eyes.] I was en route to my DC office when I passed Boris; afterwards I went to get my car, and came across Dennis Prager picking organic burritos from a frozen bush outside an alley. He explained that it was the only place he could store them. I said he should do a show about that, and he said “Alan won’t let me.” The rest of the dream was car chases.) When I woke I realized I had to fix the window. But how to do it without alarming my wife?
I waited until she was downstairs, vacuuming the inside of the drier vent. But, dang: the twine was in the laundry room drawer. So I wanted until she was upstairs using a tweezer to pick mites from between the pages of an old dictionary, and snuck downstairs. I got the twine. (This entire scene is scored with “Alex F” by Harold Faltermeyer.) I cut off several lengths and stuck them in my pocket, then crept upstairs. Right away I saw I couldn’t get them between the shade and the window; I’d have to remove the shade, which trebled the chance of detection. But I worked fast. Got it down, tied it up, put it up, to paraphrase Almodovar. Stepped back, looked: if I say nothing, no one will know.
I said that knowing well I’d confess at the end of the night. If no one had noticed.
At eleven Gnat and I went off to church; she went to Sunday school, and I decided to cool my heels in the library. Some mornings you just don’t feel like singing. I’ve been working my way through a book on the relationship between the Nazis and the church, but couldn’t find it, so I picked up the Klemperer diary (vol. 1) and picked up where I left off. Back home to polish all the marble.
Wife and child and dog left five minutes before the tour began. The neighborhood provides docents who stand around and make sure no one hefts off the valuables, but I had offered to stick around and help. For the next four hours I led tours, told lore, and guided folks to the bowl of Walnettos. As I’ve mentioned before, the original occupant of Jasperwood ran a candy concern, and Walnettos was his most popular item; he also made the Scotch Loaf, which sounds like a euphemism for the end product of digestion. Walnettos can still be had, courtesy a company that specializes in discontinued candies, so I bought two big bags. I have less than a score left over. We had a lot of people through here today. Favorite moment: the guy who looked at me and named the address I used to live at.
“I was your carrier,” he said. “You ordered something about the Titanic.”
“Titanic coal,” I said. “Come with me.” I took him upstairs, opened the door to the Closet of Mysteries where the collections live, and showed him the piece of Titanic Coal he had delivered to my door nine years ago when he was my mailman.
They remember everything.
When it was done I microwaved some leftover pizza, staggered upstairs, laid down, and passed out for half an hour. Now I have to begin the week’s work; columns due tomorrow. If I finish quickly I can see “The Wire,” which would complete the weekend utterly. New Quirk at the pointlessly reordered non-intuitive link – bookmark it! I beg you! It’ll save me tsuris when I screw up the link again – and a new Matchbook. See you tomorrow.