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Archive for August, 2010

The garret oven, and Hannah's food/water bowls

Hannah and I have been around the block when it comes to landlords. We know who’s trustworthy, who’s dependable, who’s safe. My current landlord is a nice person, but he’s incredibly cheap.

Last August, when we moved into the garret, I had to check my bookcase, writing desk, loveseat, and Hannah’s cat tree at the door, literally, because they would not fit up the narrow stairwell. When I arrived, there was a mini-fridge under the mini-sink in the mini-kitchenette, where a half-gallon carton of milk never stood a chance.

A week into my lease, I managed to get my landlord to purchase a 4-foot tall refrigerator, claiming “medical necessity.” While I had to defrost it once a month, it could hold enough food for a full meal, maybe two or three.

When the “on/off” button of my bathroom light switch broke off, I called my landlord. Refusing to pay an electrician, he unscrewed the light switch plate himself and, with his bare hands, felt around inside. “Oh!” he grunted, then stood back, pulling away his fingers in shock. He asked, “Is the circuit breaker box in your apartment or the house basement?”

Hannah appeared quite irritated as we waited.

I pointed to the wall, then went to sit with Hannah in the living room. As we waited for it to be done, we listened to the sounds down the hall: tapping, breathing, a pill bottle opening. Hannah appeared quite irritated. Several minutes later, my landlord emerged, then concluded the switch was broken. A new one would be installed, he said, but he was busy, so it would take another day, or so.

When my gas oven refused to turn on this past week, and the pilot lights (all three of them) were steadily-lit, I knew there’d be trouble.

“That’s my exercise for the day,” my landlord huffed and puffed as he ascended the steep stairs to my attic unit. How do you think I feel every day? I wanted to ask.

Standing in front of the stove, my landlord turned the burner dials to “high,” and waited for the four of them to light up. One did. He grabbed a paper towel and stuck it into the eye of the stove-top pilot light, let it become fire, then brushed it alongside the other burners, trying to ignite them, even though I said the stove was fine, I just wanted him to fix the oven. Once or twice, he came close to burning his thumb before throwing the disintegrating material into the sink.

Garret Stovetop, aka Rusted Carcass

“I have a box of matches,” I said, opening a cabinet.

“Oh I have a lighter in my pocket,” he answered.

The garret began to smell very gas-y. I opened the windows and ran the fan. The smell of gas triggers me. I was worried I might pass out, or, worse, that Hannah would die: “It’s the PTSD, it’s the PTSD,” I repeated my mantra to calm myself as I watched my landlord get down on his knees, stick his head deep inside the mouth of the oven, and light a match.

Eyeing my fire extinguisher, which I have (thankfully) never had to use, I stood back then, as my landlord ran the flame along the periphery. I waited for an explosion, poised to grab Hannah and escape.

Nothing.

Again –

Nothing.

My landlord paused, then shrugged. “I’ll have to have one of my men take a look,” he said. “Otherwise I’ll have to buy a new one, because bringing in a repairman will cost the same amount.”

“It’s a tax-free weekend,” I offered, trying to move things along. A woman can only do so much boiling and microwaving.

“I don’t feel like going shopping today,” he said. “And it looks like a pretty new oven.

“It’s rusted out,” I pointed to the carcass.

“They all are,” he countered.

Two days later, while I was out with a friend, my landlord entered the apartment with “one of his men,” who apparently cleaned out the oven’s ducts. I was assured that it worked, but that I’d have to wait 30 seconds for it to “kick on.”

Mystery piece of oven

This evening, as I contemplated the function of the cigar-like hollow piece of rusted metal that “one of his men” left on the counter – was it a kind of oven’s appendix? There but of no use? I wondered – I decided to try heating a slice of pizza. Five minutes into 325 degrees, the mouth of the oven began vomiting smoke. A smoke detector, one I assumed was dead because it never went off in the entire twelve months of my residency, began wailing.

Hannah ran into the hallway, her tail a question mark.

— TLS

Writer’s Note: I will be reading from Hannah Grace at the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge, Ma. this Saturday, August 21, as part of the Ibbetson Street Press #27 “Open Bark” Series.

Has your pet been your witness to experience? Tell your story, or leave your comments below. Want to read other Hannah Grace stories? Check out the archives.

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I packed the car, programmed the air conditioner timer, placed extra prescription duck and green pea kibble in Hannah’s food bowl and an ice cube in her water, then sat down to brush her before my drive to Provincetown, Ma., where I was going to attend a week-long memoir workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and work on Hannah Grace, the book.

“I’m going to miss you,” I said as I scratched under her chin. Hannah squinted her eyes, lifted her nose to my forehead, then sat back, purred, and looked into me: “Go off and write the book,” she seemed to say, “I’ll hold down the fort.”

Hannah’s history makes trusting humans difficult. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2008, my loud-voiced landlady took care of Hannah, who refused human touch for twelve days. When I returned, Hannah looked ragged from lack of physical contact; she huddled in a corner for several hours as if I were a complete stranger. The following summer, I attended the Southampton Writers Conference and hired a young lab-tech cat sitter who delivered a voice mail message stating “Hannah is eating, peeing, and pooping normally, but she hides under the bed and won’t let me near her.”

I received this photo with the note "Hannah misses you."

This time, my friend Stephanie, who volunteers with me at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (and who has five terrific cats and a dog of her own), checked on Hannah daily. On the first day, Hannah sniffed at Stephanie, then rubbed her face all over her hand (a huge accomplishment), then quit the scene to hide under a chair in my bedroom.

At the Colony, I was blindsided by a PTSD reaction to my designated housing: something about the front door and the dark entranceway made me shake. An odor I could not place but knew from the past sent adrenaline through me. “I’m sorry,” I said to the Colony administrators, completely embarrassed, “I can’t stay here.”

They graciously switched me to another location, an open and airy condo, which had a cat-flap.

As I sat at the condo kitchen table late in the day, feeling unsettled and trying to write, suddenly I heard meowing. I looked up to see a large white cat at my door, head butting the screen. I went over and knelt down. The cat leaned up against the door then, rubbing his whole body back and forth against my hand.

Zaphod, shaking his head

Every morning, when I opened the door, the cat was there, waiting. When I left to attend my workshop or to meet fellow writers for dinner, the cat was at my feet, rubbing up against my legs, circling me. When I returned, the cat was in my path, blocking me. Whenever I sat at the kitchen table, trying to overcome moments of doubt about my writing, the cat appeared.

“Did Hannah send you?” I asked, watching as he pressed his nose in the door screen, making indentations.

Eventually, I learned he was owned by a lesbian couple who lived nearby. They had named him Zaphod, after the character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He enjoyed eating mice, and birds. I saw him once with feathers in his mouth.

Zaphod and me

Each day, Zaphod accompanied me through the steps of my journey working on Hannah Grace. And, each day back home, Stephanie accompanied Hannah through the steps of her journey learning how to trust another human being: on the sixth day of my absence, Stephanie emailed: Hannah greeted her with a meow-full story of her loneliness, then rubbed her face all over Stephanie’s hand, and then… flopped herself down on the floor and showed Stephanie her belly.

When the week came to an end, when I arrived home and stepped through the garret door, I saw Hannah curled up in the middle of my bed. She raised her head and started meowing.

“Hannah, Hannah!” I called excitedly. Hannah jumped down off the bed and bounded towards me.

— TLS

Interested in the Norman Mailer Writers Colony experience? Ibbetson Street Press publisher Doug Holder asked me to write about it for the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. Click here to read my short essay, “A Writer’s Journey: At the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.”

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