I INHERITED an Edwardian row house in Parkdale — or rather my parents sold it to me cheap when they moved to their condo. So I guess you can say I’ve never left home. Since my parents moved out, I’ve acquired a number of tenants. Some people would say too many — but I’m a sucker for a sob story — and most of my tenants were evicted from previous accommodations and have nowhere else to go. But I’m not that crazy. I have a strict landlord/tenant agreement. I wrote it out once — it’s tacked on the fridge, and I make sure every tenant knows and understands its meaning.
1. Accommodations are shared and the landlord assigns the rooms.
2. Tenants must stick to the territories assigned them.
3. Tenants must not contaminate the landlord’s food and water supply to the extent that it would compromise the landlord’s health.
4. Under special circumstances, i.e. flood, famine, and civic holidays, food and water will be provided to the tenants by the landlord. Amount, kind and timing to be solely determined by the landlord.
5. Tenants must stop short of irreparably compromising the structural integrity, utility systems and overall appearance of the house, garage, porch, deck, lawn trees, and garden plants on the property by excessive chewing or digging.
6. Tenants must restrict their excursions onto neighbouring properties to a minimum.
7. Tenants must clean up after themselves, or risk monthly territory scouring with harsh, chemical agents.
8. The landlord is not responsible nor in any way will compensate for children and/or family members being eaten by other tenants.
9. Any violation of these rules will result in immediate eviction.
A couple of years ago, when I was thinking about writing this agreement, after having to evict a troop of compulsive, binge-eating termites, a blue jay jeered at me, saying it was a stupid thing to do as none of my tenants could actually read. But the fact the jay even knew what reading and writing was impressed me, and so I decided to type out the contract and post it on the fridge anyway. Just the look of typed documents has a kind of authority even the tiniest minds recognize.
And for the most part the contract has worked — there’s some squabbling, some minor territorial incursions, some problems with noise — but for the most part we all get along fine. But now I have to amend the agreement to include visitor etiquette. I mean it really hasn’t come up before — my buddy Noah and my father don’t really count. They don’t care about the mess — and I don’t let my mother or my sister in. Last time I let my sister Deb in she vacuumed up 150 spiderlings. I cannot even describe to you the sound of a mother spider keening for her dead babies — it hurt my teeth — it went on for days.
But now, but now, I’ve gone and invited Evie for dinner. I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be wrong. Her real name is not Eve but Evangeline. It’s Greek for bearer of glad tidings — I looked it up once. And she’s Noah’s girlfriend — well, sort of — at least I know he wants her to be his girlfriend. Right now she’s Noah’s receptionist/dog groomer at his vet practice. Noah, of course, will be coming to dinner as well.
I don’t know what happened. I was in between eviction calls so I had stopped off to say hello to Noah at his office and we were just talking about hanging out one night. In she walks, and suddenly it’s dinner and she’s coming as well. Tuesday night…Tuesday night…7 p.m. Crap!
After she accepted my invitation, she immediately said — in this kind of soothing voice she probably uses on the dogs she’s about to shampoo and groom — that I shouldn’t fuss about food: “Just order a pizza — we’ll bring the beer.”
But cooking is the least of my worries. On Monday afternoon, I rushed home and stood on the sidewalk just staring at the front of my house. I was trying to figure out how to make it look normal in a day and a half. I looked at my neighbour’s front yard, with its clipped, dandelion-less, patch of bright green lawn, its neat rows of pansies, its trimmed cedar hedge. I looked at the neighbour’s front porch. It was dust- and spiderweb-free, recently painted, swept every day, its white wicker furniture with green-and-yellow-striped cushions arranged for afternoon tea. Then I looked at my house.
I decided to start with cutting my lawn — front and back. But first, I talked and temporarily moved the snake in the grass. I made a deal with the garter snake, moving her to a weedy patch near the composter in the back and telling her I wouldn’t cut there. Then I took out my father’s old push mower from the shed, careful not to disturb the pyramids of wood shavings left by my carpenter ants. It’s actually my push-mower now — but somehow I always think of it as his. By the time I cleaned it up — I admit I don’t use it a lot — and got my iPod and earbuds and plugged them into my ears so I wouldn’t hear the grass screaming, and then hacked at my little patches of lawn, and then swept my stoop and deck of cat tributes, raccoon crap, dust and last-year’s brown leaves, it was nearing dusk. I had a vague notion of weeding the front garden — the goldenrod and wild mint had taken over long ago — but my head was pounding and the thought of causing any more agony was too much for me. I’ll just tell Evie it’s a native-plant garden.
I went in and nuked something in the microwave for dinner. I sat down at the kitchen table and tried not to look at the mess around me. Then I stood up and went into the dining room and yelled: “Attention please! A thorough scouring of all corners will take place — within the next day. Nests will be dismantled; webs will be destroyed. Please keep your children safely away from the vacuum cleaner. A curfew and noise restrictions will be in place this Tuesday evening — that’s tomorrow evening. Thank you for your cooperation.” Then I repeated my announcement on every floor of the house. There were a few grumbles, but most of my tenants know how well they have it here and they soon shut up.
Tuesday evening I was ready by 6. I waited for them to arrive. They showed up at 8:30. I wasn’t surprised. Noah had once been two hours late for his own birthday party. I wonder if there’s a sociologist out there who’s tracked what percentage of the world’s population is chronically late — and what percentage of the late-comers actually know they’re chronically late. My dad insists that anywhere between five to 20 minutes late is basically on time — so when he’s 30 minutes late (which is usually the case), he is — in fact — only 10 minutes late. This doesn’t wash with my mother, of course. And as kids, Deb and I weren’t allowed to be late.
So I hate waiting — I really hate waiting — even though I wasn’t surprised they were late. Finally the old doorbell buzzed and I let them in. Evie slunk in through the door — her long black hair sashaying as she moved her head to look around the place. She was smiling, showing her blinding white teeth and trailing her sharp red-painted nails along my arm as she passed. She wore a summer dress — with bare shoulders, bare legs. I ushered them through the main floor to the kitchen. All the while, my eyes scanned the corners of the front rooms for signs of my tenants. I strained my ears for any stray squeaks — forming explanations for weird noises in my mind. I babbled, some inane stuff about the importance of native plant species and how warm the weather was.
“I thought we’d skip the pizza and have a BBQ — I know you’re vegetarian, Evie, so I bought some veggie burgers,” I said, my voice lifting higher at the end like some tween girl. I was up-speaking. “Glasses are in the cupboard on the right,” I said to Noah, lowering my voice by two octaves. Noah had been putting the beer he brought in the fridge, but took one out for himself.
“Nah, bottle’s fine with me. Evie, wanna beer?”
“I’ve got red wine.” I jumped in. “If you prefer.”
She smiled at me. “Sure. Wine would be nice.” She was curious — looking around. I knew it was only a matter of time before she saw the cracks in the walls, the lopsided kitchen cupboards, the sticky dirt on the baseboards. I concentrated on pouring the wine. “Nice house,” said Evie, as I handed her a glass. “Very retro. Lots of character. But I thought you owned not rented.”
“I do, I do own the house.”
“Then what’s this Landlord-Tenant agreement on the fridge?”
Noah laughed. “Just a little exterminator humour — you’ve got to read it.”
“Let’s go out on the deck,” I said, nearly shoving Noah out the patio door. I put down the No-Frills fruit and cheese platters on the table and motioned them to sit.
“Well, I’m impressed Adam. You’ve cleaned up all the dead bodies,” said Noah.
“What?” said Evie, jostling her glass so that a drop of red spilt onto my new plastic tablecloth.
“Relax, sweets,” said Noah, coaxing her with a hand on her arm to sit down beside him. “Adam’s got this thing with the neighbourhood cats. They like to leave him their kills — all lined up by the back door.” Noah left his hand on Evie’s bare arm.
She shrugged away from him. “Why do cats do that?”
I answered her. “I think they’re show-offs. There’s this marmalade-coloured tom down at the end of the street. He takes down squirrels.”
“Really? I don’t believe it,” she said, leaning toward me.
“Yup, good old Adam,” said Noah, and in a cliché move, actually stretched out his arms and placed one around Evie’s shoulders. I saw her grimace for an instant — I’m not making this up — like she was embarrassed for him. “Good old Adam and his animals. Animals always loved Adam.”
“And yet you’re an exterminator?” asked Evie.
“No, no,” said Noah, “Not a nasty exterminator — he’s gone green. He’s a pest whisperer.” He made quotation marks with his fingers — awkwardly with one arm still locked around Evie’s shoulders. He finished his beer with a long swig.
“Yeah, I read that. Good article by the way. But how do you do it? I mean you must use some pesticides,” said Evie. She was looking at me again. I think she was genuinely interested. I was looking back at her — blood rushed through me and white noise filled my head — I couldn’t hear anybody — anybody else — not the microscopic worms on her lashes — not the earwigs under her chair — not the moles digging up Mrs. Kobelka’s garden next door.
I could only hear Evie — that is, until Noah said: “Yeah, tell us Adam, how do you whisper to a cockroach?”
I refocused my eyes and shrugged. “Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration — about the whispering. I use organic non-toxic stuff — humane traps for the larger animals.” I told her my standard lie — the one I tell to all my customers, to my family. I didn’t like lying to her.
The conversation drifted — I tried to think of interesting things to say. Noah kept smiling at me as if I were a batty old aunt that had to be humoured. Eventually, I put on a veggie burger for Evie and beef burgers for me and Noah. We ate and then Evie got up to go to the washroom. I directed her to the second floor, speaking loudly enough so that any of my tenants on the landing would have time to scamper. I went back to the patio, where Noah was working on another beer.
“Will you fuck off, Noah!” I kicked the back of his chair.
“WHAT?” He said, sputtering beer.
“Oh just fuck off — you know what.”
“Okay, okay,” he said in a sing-song voice. “Whatever you say — just calm down.”
I clattered the dirty dishes, stacking them to bring them back to the kitchen. Noah turned Evie’s empty wine glass upside down, trapping a wasp — who buzzed in panic inside the glass dome. Noah did it on purpose to annoy me. I freed the wasp, and ignoring Noah’s smirk, brought the dishes inside and kept myself busy in the kitchen. Noah stayed out on the deck — drinking.
Evie was taking her time in the washroom and it made me nervous, so eventually I crept up the stairs to find out what was keeping her. I found the washroom empty. Had she come back down the stairs? I hadn’t heard her. Like the wasp, I was seized with panic and began opening doors, looking for her. I found her in my bedroom, standing there, just standing there… looking around.
She laughed. “Sorry, Adam, you caught me. I confess I’m a snoop. I didn’t know you had a cat.” She was looking down at a bowl of kibble I had left on the floor for the mice. I hadn’t bothered to clean my room — I didn’t think she’d go in here. Now I winced to see the unmade bed, the pile of dirty clothes on the chair, the stack of books on the floor. “Where’s your cat anyway?”
I lied — I have no cat — my other tenants would object. “Oh, she’s shy…she’s probably hiding in a closet somewhere. Do you wanna go back down? Noah’s waiting.”
But now she was sitting on the bed — she picked up a book from the stack and turned it over to read the back blurb. She asked: “ What’s your cat’s name?”
I lied again. “Kitty.”
I laughed too. “I’m not very good with names.”
She looked up from the book. I stood, uncertain, by the door. “I like men who have cats. There’s something about them…something interesting.” She eyed me up and down with the kind of appraisal I’ve seen Noah use on women. It’s the kind of appraisal a predator gives to its prey. Evie stood up and walked straight towards me, stopping very close. She licked her lips, stretched out her neck and purred. “I want to make this very clear to you Adam. Noah and I have never hooked up and never will.”
I had trouble looking at her — she was too close. “But he…”
“I know what he thinks, what he wants, but it’s never going to happen. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, but I was far from okay and I knew it wasn’t going to be okay with Noah and I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by okay. Well, that’s not true — I knew very well what she meant by okay and really knew when she brushed past me — her breasts touching my chest and arm. “Come on,” she said, when I didn’t follow her, but stood shocked and delighted by the door. “Any dessert?”
We went down to the kitchen, where Noah had come in from the back deck and now stood — seriously pissed. He said nothing; Evie said nothing. I felt guilty. I opened the freezer to take out the chocolate ice cream, when Evie, looking over my shoulder asked: “What’s that in the Ziplock bag? Is that a bird?”
“Oh,” I said, trying to close the freezer door quickly. “That’s nothing. Just…just…just a mourning dove.”
Neither of them asked the obvious question of why I have a dead bird in my freezer. Instead Evie said: “Let’s see it?”
I reluctantly took the transparent bag out of the freezer and placed it on the table. Evie studied my sad, frozen friend intently. “That’s not a mourning dove.”
“How would you know?” asked Noah.
“My parents are big birders. When I was little I was dragged along to enough birding trips to know that isn’t a mourning dove.” I fetched my Peterson’s guide. She snatched the book from my hands and found the appropriate page. “See. It doesn’t look a thing like a mourning dove.”
Looking at the illustrations of species on the page, I had to agree. “But it is a dove, right? Could it be European? Or Asian?”
Evie took out her cell phone and snapped a picture of my dead friend. “Let’s find out.”
“Not now,” said Noah. Evie and I looked at him. “Don’t you remember Evie, we were going to catch that band at the Cadillac Lounge. We should go, now.” Noah said every word with clenched teeth.
Evie narrowed her eyes at him; she shrugged. “All right. Adam, why don’t you come with us?”
“No,” said Noah — almost shouting. “I mean… it’s punk country with ukeleles. I’m not sure you’d like it Adam — too noisy for you. Adam doesn’t like anything that’s too noisy.” He added a short laugh to lighten his tone — but neither of us were fooled.
Evie was looking at me. I think she wanted me to stand up to Noah — insist on coming. For a second I thought I might — that I could — that it didn’t matter about Noah because he was a jerk — that I could just hang out at a bar like a normal person, but instead, I said: “It’s all right. I should get to bed early, anyway — got to evict an opossum in the morning.”
Evie shrugged again and allowed Noah to drag her out into the Parkdale night. For a long time, I sat at my kitchen table looking at my dead friend in the baggie and listening as my tenants resumed their lives around me.