Joyland

Vancouver |

The Lodger

by Alison Frost

The basement lodger comes packing precious metal. Plastic sheets of commemorative coins. Heavy bars in a duffle bag. Shiny wafers wrapped in thin velvet. This treasure is in preparation for the collapse of the Western economy, its inevitable crumbling into stone and dust. When the paper all blows away—and it will, he says—there will be gold and silver, something shiny and substantive with which to navigate the void. *** The lodger leaves at the same time every morning with a thunk of the basement door. He leaves in disguise as a normal man in a ball cap and clean blue jeans with a worn leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder. In one hand he holds a cigarette and in the other he clutches a bagged loaf of organic bread from the bakery at the end of the block. Every day the lodger catches the #17 bus so as to reach the Museum stop while the ducks are still hungry. The pond is sizeable and is reflected in the glass of the museum’s flat southern wall. They come to him en masse, across the watery expanse, these ducks he sustains with chunks of expensive bread full of seeds and nuts and pure sun-kissed grain. *** The lodger returns at dusk with bags of cans stretching the plastic thin. There is perspiration on his brow. He doesn’t see me watching at the upstairs window as he disappears around the side of the house. There is the sound of locking, of locks too heavy for our hollow wooden door. The disconcerting clunk of phantom locks. More lock than door. *** At night he is noisy. There are clumsy sounds and heavy footsteps. We think he is sorting the cans on the shelf, turning our basement into a bunker. I worry that he is forgetting about water. Water is more important than the tuna or the beans or the matches and whiskey. *** I don’t sleep well because of the door. With every cigarette there is the door and the locks and the thuds. Even the soft click of the Zippo sneaks up through closed windows into the crisp quiet of our bedroom. *** I watch him through the slats in the blinds. He’s at the back of the neighbor’s garden tugging lettuce from the ground. Filling a coffee cup with small blue berries from their spindly bush. I mean, a guy who will do that in the middle of the night--what else should we be looking for? *** The news says there is not one, but several, missing statues, intricate statues carved of gold. Native artwork from the museum, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and of great historic and cultural significance. This is a big deal. The museum wants them back. The public has been alerted. *** The sweating lodger returns with heavy bags. He tells us the ducks will walk up onto his knee for the bread. What an amazing thing, to get a duck to climb on your knee. Isn’t it? He hollers up to us from the bottom of the stairs. His voice is quite gentle and kind. Sometimes my husband and I come to the top of the stairs to look down at him, so we all see each other clearly. That makes it normal, like people sharing a house. So, what does it feel like to have a duck on your knee? Well it’s the webbed feet. They are wide and put this weird pressure on your muscle. I keep giving him bread to keep him there. It feels like enlightenment or something. I think that’s what it is. Damn peaceful anyway. *** The lodger does tell us certain things. We talk about his topics. The ducks of course and the silver coins etched with rats and horse’s heads. The towering cans of tuna. He worries about us too. That we don’t know enough, that we’re not taking it all seriously. *** I am taking things very seriously. Like the lettuce and the Native artwork missing from the museum by the duck pond. *** The lodger is kind and good and pays his rent on time. He is clean; he does a lot of laundry. The machines tumble loudly like rocks under our floor, like he is washing boots. Meanwhile, up here, the heaps of our own dirty clothes grow. I refuse to go down there. The prospect of my own echoing steps to the laundry room makes me nervous. The proximity to his raw uncarpeted bunker. The prospect of opening the dryer door to find moldy jeans and a First Nations sculpture of pure gold. A duck choking on precious metals and sheets of Bounce. *** There is an excavation taking place on our neighbours’ lawn. Voices are dull and jumbled, serious and harsh. There is substantial equipment. The awful shaving of metal, some sort of saw roaring intermittently through the air like low fliers. A chisel? Is it chisels, the ting ting ting? The sound of planks and dirt. *** The rectangular space of the neighbours’ open doorway casts a distorted plot of light on to the lawn. There is an aluminum ladder against the wall, its lower rungs glowing silver against the grass. A heavy duty spotlight and head lamps slash the yard white and raw. The leaves of the trees are tipped with lamp light. The thin scarlet petals on tall stems falling out of the shady edges will soon be burning up. This is the way hidden things are retrieved, with hot white lamps, shovels and rope and the blanket of night pulled tight. *** The men’s bodies move like miners, casting long thin shadows on the street. Big heads, long dangling hammers at the waist. My husband is one of them; in fact, he seems to be in charge. He’s the one who knows how to build a basement suite, how to tear down walls, divert the plumbing, how to punch neat new windows in the stucco walls. He knows the value of a paying tenant. *** This appears to be a rescue mission, a disaster site, a secret midnight investigation. As if there is something else my husband knew. *** But then the feeble, exhausted clapping. And the sudden shifts in light. The loss of the surreal precision. Finally! It fucking fits! If the door fits… Ha! The wife brings beer and adds a higher pitch to things. Almost there! she says. *** It looks heavy and awkward, putting the door in place, closing up the gap. They are drilling in the hinges. They are coiling the wires and moving the ladder and soon they will flick off the hot surgical lights. The chiaroscuro dumbs to muddy night. *** If you look carefully, there is no hole in the ground, no clods of cold dirt. The rope is miscellaneous. There is no treasure swaddled in dust, gingerly lifted into the light. There is just a door, a fine new suburban door, honey-coloured and over-glazed. *** This is nothing but aesthetics. The kind of thing that attracts the whole neighbourhood, like a garage sale or fireworks. The sort of thing about which everyone has an opinion, to which everyone, however inept, will lend a hand. Because time is of the essence. A doorway cannot remain unclosed through the night. *** Under normal circumstances I would have been there, perched out of the way, handing out beer, shining a light, clutching a handful of shiny screws. But this is the danger of sleeping too long in the afternoon and waking up too far after dusk. This is the risk, squatting on a dark concrete step waiting for the ground to break open. *** The lodger lumbers down the dark street with his groceries and a DVD. He stands with my sweaty husband who has turned off his head lamp. They step back almost to the road. Looks great! says the lodger. Hard to tell if it’s level, says my husband, wiping his brow with the bottom of his shirt. His stomach glowing slightly. He is open with the lodger, unabashed. No, it looks clean, level. It looks very handsome. Nice job guys. He pats my husband on the shoulder, waves firmly to the others. He yells to the wife, thank you for the produce! I won’t tell my husband how late I have slept or that I have been crouching in the dark like a thief. Still, I never asked for the lodger. The lodger was not my idea.