The men are on the roof, cleaning out the gutters, backpack leaf blowers blaring. My sons stand beside their playground, mouths agape, and gaze up at them like they’re astronauts.
…….“They’re on the roof, Otis!” Tucker shouts. “How are they on the roof?”
…….“But, Dad,” Otis says, frowning, “they’re killing our tomato plants.”
…….He means the mysterious green vines that had sprouted out of our choked gutters. Almost a year’s worth of rotted leaves. Clogged arteries. I tell the boys this will be better for the house, that now the rain has somewhere to go. A rush of relief watching the debris blow into the air and fall like black snow. The relief of a long-overdue job completed. The relief of I need to get to that and I should really take care of that, the months and months of pulling into the driveway and looking up at the sagging gutters, wondering how much more they could take.
…….After the men climb down their ladders, load their trucks, and back out of the driveway, the boys get to work. They dismantle the multicolored hoses from a water toy and wrap them around their backs. They climb to the top of their playground. For the next half hour, they pretend to blow the leaves.
Is anyone hurt inside?
…….The cop stood with one leg up on the curb outside our apartment. He chewed gum and watched me. He didn’t stare or squint as some cops do—he wasn’t looking through me—he watched like a cow beside a country road might look up and gaze at passing cars, mouth full of grass, chewing in slow, wide circles. He worked with clarity, precision. He was a surgeon knowing where to cut, which piece of the body to remove.
…….The EMT put my shoes on. She shined a flashlight in my eyes and asked me what I took. Why? Why did you do this? What did I say? I remember the ambulance ride so clearly. I was relieved to be on the stretcher, buckled in, each limb fastened and secured, this stranger holding my hand and telling me she’s a widow, that her husband killed himself two years ago. And I was crying, in bursts and gasps, trying to talk through it and not recognizing my voice, unable to control the shape of my mouth, and it was a relief, overwhelming, frightening relief, an open valve, a sandbag slashed and emptied.
“People Are Strange” by The Doors echoes from around the corner. It gets louder. Closer. A man on a motorcycle—the kind with trunks and antennae and a big, black wraparound windshield—roars up the street. Wicked, unwanted. Nine in the morning. A Tuesday. Day whatever of quarantine. This man in black is the only one on the road.
There’s a sewer pipe in our basement with a jagged crack in it. My father pointed it out to me the last time he was here. We made plans to fix it, before being in the same room became dangerous. All the materials are on the workbench—a stretch of PVC, rubber gaskets, a Sawzall and fresh blades—but I remember that day, years ago, when we had a party at my parent’s house, and their sewer pipe burst and a torpedo of gray water blasted my father in the chest.
…….When I take the laundry out of the dryer or bring up another one of my kids’ toys, I look at the crack, certain it grows longer and wider while we sleep.
Tucker wakes at three in the morning and calls for me.
…….What’s the matter, bud?
…….Something was trying to kill you.
That same morning, both boys walk into our bedroom, sweatshirts wrapped around their backs, empty sleeves aimed at me and Vanessa. In their deepest voices, they say, “We’re here to clean your gutters.”
The House on Sunset Hill sounds like a Robert Redford movie. It was one of the first houses Vanessa and I saw, so perhaps that had something to do with it. Our feet still planted in our apartment—the leak in Otis’s ceiling or the radiators that banged so loudly in the night (only the night), like a crew building a railroad in the basement. And it wasn’t ours. We wanted to own something.
…….Step back in time in this charming circa 1700s antique farmhouse.
Thick wood beams. The sewing studio on the sunporch. The writing nook in the attic. Come on.
…….“And the barn would be yours, too,” the realtor said.
…….We’d watched enough HGTV to know there had to be a catch. No asbestos or lead paint? No radon? Too good to be true. Go with the Flow, the sign said in the bathroom. A wooden whale nailed to the wall.
…….We made an offer.
…….“Before we move forward,” the realtor said, “there’s something you should know.”
…….The previous owner shot himself in the barn. He was a carpenter. He’d built the barn and the additions himself. I thought about the circular saw blades, still tipped in sawdust.
…….He was married. I don’t know if he had any kids. For a moment, the writer in me thought: Maybe this is fitting. Maybe we can breathe new life into this house. Maybe Vanessa’s sewing and my writing and Otis’s and Tucker’s laughter can redeem this home.
…….We withdrew our offer. We couldn’t afford it.
Is anyone hurt inside?
So many podcasts. So many voices in my head. I’ve listened to Marc Maron’s show for years. I find his neurotic, angry, self-reflective rants entertaining, inspiring, gut-punching. Today, his girlfriend, Lynn Shelton, is sick. Not “it.” Not the virus. Something else. Strep throat perhaps. That night, on her way to the bathroom, she collapses in the hallway. The ambulance comes. A day later, she dies.
…….I listen to the last show before Lynn’s death. Then the first one after. A different man’s voice in his throat.
…….“I don’t even know if I should be out in public talking. But this is what I do.”
Tucker is still in Vanessa’s stomach and Otis is too young to remember. They unload groceries at the back door of the apartment. My laptop is open. My cell phone is beside the sink. Only my shoes are missing.
…….For years after—sometimes still—I read into Otis’s questions, wonder if he’s trying to tell me something.
…….If Daddy dies, we’ll just get a new one, right?
Years before the virus, the workers in the hospital hallway tighten their respirators. One of them picks up a big spool of wire and carries it up the ladder. He rests it on the top step, removes a section of ceiling tile, and stands up straight. The other worker does the same. Their muffled shouts, their heavy breathing—two blue-collar Darth Vaders arguing about measurements and time.
…….“Should we be wearing masks, too?” I ask.
…….The clinician tucks her clipboard under her arm. “What was your name again?”
…….“Anthony.” She nods and rips off a nametag from the stack in her hands. She glances at the workers and smiles widely. “I’m sure it’s fine. They would have told us if our health was in danger.”
…….I nod and smile and say OK. She walks down the hall; I wait until she’s in Group Room 1 before following her. One of the workers pokes his head out from the ceiling, his respirator and hair dusted white. I fill out my nametag against the cinderblock wall and stick it on my shirt. When I walk into group, I can still hear the men arguing through their respirators.
…….I fill out name tags three days a week for months. When I get home after the meetings, I peel my name off my chest and throw it out. And then one day, after wheeling the garbage cans from the curb to the side of our apartment, I see my name stuck to the inside of the can. Upside down, smudged, but legible.
Otis’s and Tucker’s pet caterpillars enter their pupal stage. They crawl to the top of the canister and hang like little thin bats. The boys fight the urge to handle the canister, shake it.
…….“Are they dead?” Otis asks.
…….“Yeah, Dad,” Tucker says. “They look dead.”
…….I shake my head. “They’re changing.”
The logo on the plumber’s truck matches the insignia on his mask. His tan, bald head reminds me of my father. He walks into the basement and glances at the pipe, the crack now running the entire length of it. “Piece of cake,” he says, a smile in his eyes.
His son, in a matching mask, helps him. They work in silence. An hour later, the father hands me a carbon copy of the receipt.
…….“Just labor, pal. You had all the right materials.”
…….I had all the materials. I just needed help.
Rose, bud, and thorn. A game we play with the kids during dinner. Tell us something you loved about today, something you’re looking forward to, something you didn’t like. Their roses are Cheetos or SpongeBob or that we’re all together as a family. Their buds are Cheetos or SpongeBob or when we can go to the water park again. Their thorns, for the last three months, have been the virus.
So many passwords. I make them all the same, turn them into daily mantras.
…….After years of group meetings and dosage adjustments, after seeing Otis meet Tucker for the first time, after leaving the apartment in the city for a house in the woods, after learning that pipes don’t have to burst and sandbags can be moved, I use a different password:
…….The butterflies hatch. They cling to the side of their netted cage. The boys leave them orange slices. After a few days, we take the cage outside and set them free.
…….One butterfly doesn’t want to leave. Otis reaches in, guides it up the side of the netting. He holds it up high, on the tip of his finger. The butterfly flexes its wings but doesn’t fly.
…….“He’s scared,” Otis says, more to the butterfly than me.
…….“Yeah,” Tucker says. “Maybe he’s scared of the virus.”
…….Otis turns toward the house, and by the time he looks back at his hand, the butterfly is in the air, flying drunkenly across the yard.
Vanessa orders masks for all of us. Soft, thin cotton. Green and black stripes. We tell the kids we’re ninjas.
…….We stand on the front lawn, this family of ninjas, holding signs. Honk for Otis! Otis holds a sign that shouts, I’m Six Today!
…….A parade of strangers beeping and waving. Motorcycles revving engines. Tractor-trailers blowing air horns. A construction worker pulls over, puts on his ninja mask, and leaves a ten-dollar bill. “Happy Birthday, Otis,” he says. We never learn his name.
…….Then the grand finale. The slow police cars and fire trucks, lights flashing, officers, firefighters waving. And a two-fingered salute from the EMT, drifting by in her silent ambulance.
Anthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman, 2012), which received the PEN Discovery Prize. His work has appeared in Boston Magazine, The Literary Review, Sport Literate, and elsewhere. He currently directs the M.F.A. in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.