Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

The Case of the Carmichael Critter

© 2001 A Short Story by Susan Canavarro

I am on my way home. Lost again. For some reason I get turned around when I try to get home by way of Edison, Cypress and Winding Way. That whole area is a mess of turns and winding roadways. I make turns in the direction I think I should be going because I can never remember street names or their sequences. I like to believe I’m guided by instinct, but geez, how many times have I gone past the location of the proposed new Children’s Receiving Center? Once, twice, three times? Surely I’m lost.

When I find I’m marveling at the glorious sunset I realize I’m headed in the wrong direction! Carmichael is east. I should be driving east, not west. Some homing instinct! Okay. Turn east. Now I’m okay, not lost, on my way home, at last! Heading east.

What my soul is really telling me is to continue driving west, straight over to the Bodega Coast to bask in the glorious mixture of sun, wind, fresh air and misty ocean spray. Alas…

When I arrive home, I drop off my purse and walk down the long sidewalk across the courtyard to the main office to the mailboxes. I notice a young lady standing in front of Fern’s door.

Fern, our resident Assistant Manager, rented the apartment to me, and proceeded to give me confusing answers to my questions, and left me wondering if I had just been the victim of an old woman suffering with dementia or if Fern was actually a very clever, almost evil landlady who had just snookered me into renting this place! She raised my rent by a hundred dollars two weeks after I moved in. Blatantly illegal. Oh yea, Fern and I have had our go-arounds. This apartment complex is not at all what it was cracked up to be. After I send my letter of complaint to Fern and Viva, Fern has been ordered by Viva, her supervisor, not to talk to me. Hm-m-m.

As I get closer and closer to the young lady at Fern’s door, she disappears quickly into her own apartment. Thirty seconds after I pass her door on my way to the mail boxes, she comes out again to knock on Fern’s door. Fern’s apartment is dark. No one answers. The girl continues to knock even though clearly no one is home. The girl appears nervous and frightened. Agitated. Distraught. I think maybe she needs medical help or is a victim of spousal abuse, so I walk back, I stop and ask if she is okay.

“Are you okay?”
“Uh, well, no I’m not,” she murmurs.
“I don’t think Fern is home right now. Can I help? What’s the matter?”
“Oh no! She’s not home?”
“No, her place is dark. What do you need?”
“Oh. I think there’s something awful in my dishwasher.”
“In your dishwasher?” I ask.
“What do you mean by awful?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean like a critter?”
“You know, a live critter?” I ask again.
“What’s a critter?”
“A critter? Well, you know, a small animal, like a mouse. A spider or cricket?”
“Oh. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.” She moans.
“Is it alive?”
“Well, no. I don’t think so.”
“Then it’s a dead critter?”
“A what?” clearly, she doesn’t know what I am asking.
“Is it a dead critter?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. It’s just awful.” She’s on the edge of panic.

By this time I am thinking it’s something really gross like human body parts or something more weird or obnoxious! Wild things zipped thru my head as I tried to pry more information from her.

I wonder, again, what kind of a place I’ve moved into. I really want to be in Bodega.

“I’m afraid. I haven’t been able to go in the kitchen since I got home,” she said. “I can’t use the dishwasher. Oh, I think I’m going to have to move again,” she moaned.

Exactly my thoughts! Move to Bodega Bay.

“Would you like me to have a look at whatever is in your dishwasher? I could tell you if it’s something to worry about, or if it’s worth losing any sleep over or worth having to move, at least.”
“Well, yeah, okay, I guess, but my kitchen’s a mess.”
We walked back to her apartment. “I don’t mind the mess,” I said. “Really, I don’t.” If she only knew the mess I live with all the time.
“How long have you lived here?” she asks.
“A few weeks.”
“Do you like it here? What do you think?” She’s clearly scared and unhappy.
“Hm-m-m. Let’s see, how much time do we have,” I say.

At the moment I’m sure her problem can’t possibly be as bad as what I’m dealing with at my own apartment, but then again, could it be? I have the building’s open sewer drain just outside my door, feces and toilet paper and god knows what else floating and bubbling on the surface; noisy motorcycle muscle-boy and his music next door, who doesn’t seem to care about the bubbling sewage problem and its noxious smell, who continues to flush his toilet; and the old Russian couple upstairs having a multitude of raucous family football dinners and running their garbage disposal every thirty seconds. For what? What were they grinding up there?

Fair Oaks and Carmichael had long been a destination for Russian immigrants and there were many rumors of a Russian mafia in the valley, perhaps even headquartered in my building in Carmichael. When I moved in, I noticed many old cars in the back parking lot, covered in dust, spider webs, dead leaves fallen from oak trees. Tires flat. Dead cars. Parked there unattended for years. I assumed they once belonged to poor people, transients, who leave dead cars behind when they disappear because it’s cheaper than legally disposing of them.

The apartment building next door was recently fire bombed. The carport now a pile of charred posts and beams, I see it everyday as I drive up the driveway. Evidence of some kind of organized bullying.

We have new owners now and they checked out all the old dead cars with the DMV. Turns out they were stolen! The back parking lots of large apartment complexes are perfect hiding places for old junky or stolen cars, dead sofas, tables, refrigerators, and god knows what else.

“Are you sure it’s dead?” I ask Maria again. With my erratic heart beat, I don’t want to have a critter jump out at me and cause me to have a heart attack as I open the dishwasher door.
“What?” She says from a distant world.
“The critter? Are you sure it’s dead?”
“Oh, I think so,” she said. “Oh god, I’m so afraid. I’m going to have to move. I just know it. Oh god, I don’t know…”
“Well, let me take a look. Okay?” She didn’t know if it was dead or alive. No point in asking again.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Susan. What’s yours?”

Maria’s apartment is dismal. A dirty gray/beige sofa shoved up against one wall, the walls dingy, in need of paint, the carpet a brown, dirtier than its own brown color, the curtains water-stained gray. I am simultaneously depressed and sorry for Maria. No obvious signs of life, no visible interests like music or books or art and crafts, just a lone MAC SE on the kitchen table under the harsh light of a ceiling lamp. A KGB interrogation room. Maria’s kitchen, Salvation Army. I am heavily depressed by it. I want to be in Bodega with the cool wind and foggy horizon in a quaint little beach cottage.

So the first words out of my mouth when I walk in are, “Gee, this is nice!”

In the tiny kitchen, not knowing what to expect, I gingerly open the dishwasher just a crack to see if anything was moving inside. Back-side up against the opposite counter top, there’s not much room to jump back. I’m nervous. Scared. My heart is racing. Beating hard and irregular. I really don’t want to do this. I want to be in Bodega.

At first, I see nothing. Then I look again closer and see something gray and fuzzy at the bottom under the racks. It’s an oddly shaped something. Dishwasher road kill, I think. But I can’t really tell what I’m looking at. Oh shit! Now what am I going to do? I can feel my heart in my chest, pumping adrenaline.  Carefully and slowly I pull the bottom rack out to get a better look. I see a large black plastic salad fork and a broken melted white plastic spoon hanging in the rack. I look around for something else long enough to reach in and grab the gray thing. I don’t want to use my fingers and I don’t want to touch the black fork that is already there…if it had rubbed up against a dead critter! Irrational fears.

“Maria, do you have any salad or barbeque tongs?” She is cowering in a corner by her front door and won’t budge.
“No, uh, I don’t know. Just use anything you can find. I don’t…I don’t want to know what it is. Don’t tell me. Oh God, I think I’m going to have to move,” she wailed.

My thoughts…

Dishwasher Kill
Dishwasher Kill

“Okay, okay, well let’s see. Ah, here’s something – a large spaghetti fork with curled prongs. This’ll do.” With a lot of trepidation, I hook the gray object with the pronged fork. It made a noise – a scraping of something hard against metal. My heart beats. I pull it out, slowly, carefully. I’m shaking. Finally, I drop it on the open door of the dish washer. It clatters and rocks a little when it lands. It looks like flattened road kill with ears sticking up, a little tail, and what looks like little legs splayed out away from its body. I knock it once with the curly fork. Dead for sure.

“You can come in now,” I say to Maria. She comes over to the edge of her kitchen and stands there, arms folded tightly against her chest, still not certain if she is safe.
“See? It’s just a piece of plastic, Maria. It’s nothing. It’s not going to hurt you,” I said as I tentatively tap it lightly on the counter and hold the object in question out for her to see. My heart is still beating fast and hard. And I don’t want to frighten her even more. What I pulled out of the dishwasher and what had scared me and her to death and sent her into a tizzy is merely a melted piece of gray plastic, probably a plastic cup gone astray in the agitation of the dishwasher.

“Oh no,” she moaned, “it’s one of the special glasses my ex-mother-in-law gave me.”
“Special glasses? Special plastic?” I ask.
I wrap it carefully in a paper towel so she will not have to see it or touch it and reach over to throw it in the garbage. She stops me “Wait. I want to keep it. It meant a lot to me.”
“What?” My nose wrinkles quizzically. “It meant a lot to you?”
“After all this you want to keep it?”
“I think so. Uh-huh.”
No longer afraid, she takes the gray thing from my hand and sets it on the counter, a precious remembrance of things past – a dead marriage, an ex mother-in-law, a gift that now looks like a dead critter.

My chest aches. I can still feel my heart beating uncontrollably. I really want to be away on the beach, but instead, I wind my way back thru the courtyard in the dark to my own gray, dingy apartment, to the morass of bubbling sewage at my door.

Simultaneously sad and seething, I listen to the garbage disposal and football screams, the rumble of muscle boy’s bike. Have a glass of wine. Flush the day. Email a friend.

© 2001 All Rights Reserved. The Case of the Carmichael Critter – a short story by Susan Canavarro

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