Rent was our greatest financial burden. So we left our dark and seedy and totally wonderful apartment off Central Avenue and lived in a series of houses around Albuquerque for free as house sitters for the next three years. I called our lifestyle “The Goldilocks Contingency” and tried to parlay the idea into a guidebook for house sitters. The proposal was turned down because the editor said it wasn’t a book-length idea. He was right. Really you just put an ad in your local newspaper and you’ll start getting calls to move into houses while the owners are away. We stayed for three months to a year in each house, maintained the property, plants, and pets, and the owners kept their homeowner’s insurance current and property safe. We didn’t get paid, and took care of our own utilities, so we bundled up in the winter and sweltered in the summer. We still lived a much higher standard of living than when we paid rent; we just had to be nomadic. The hassle of moving so often was offset by the excitement of living in another beautiful home for free. It’s an adventure when you can move everything you own into a one-car garage.
No longer teaching, I wrote. First, I phoned Ken Kesey. He and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead were partying when I called. That was exactly how I imagined an author’s lifestyle would be. I interviewed my literary hero about his latest book, Caverns. But I couldn’t publish the article. Twenty-four years later I published it online, but I’m not sure if that counts as a real publication. Publishing today has a much broader meaning than in 1991. I kept in mind that people who experienced the most pain grew the most. Remember, I was one of those people who turned rejection into motivation to perform better.
We got gigs in an elderly preacher’s house, a rocket scientist’s house, and finally in The Knick-Knack House. The owners of the Knick-Knack House were retired IRS agents who went annually to Guatemala for six months. It had dark, low ceilings, Guatemalan wooden antiques, and wrought iron bars. They also brought back candles, sculptures, and masks that appeared demonic. It was scary for me, but I didn’t tell anyone except Renni. She spent most of her time at school, so I was alone except for a black fourteen-year-old agoraphobic cat named Gigi. I caught glimpses of something in the shadowy corners and had to decide whether it was a phantasm, ghost, or the skittish cat. Gigi was too old and shy to be a good hunter, and as I wrote I heard scratching in the cupboards and walls. A metallic snap informed me that another rodent corpse awaited disposal, and was proof that evil spirits didn’t torment me but very material mice. I was relieved it wasn’t Murgatroyd, but felt bad about killing those mice. I justified it by the owners having set the mousetraps; I just followed orders, SS-style.
Sometimes strange men peered inside through the iron bars, and then pretended they had the wrong house when I answered the door. Other times they sat in a pickup truck across the street and waited. It must’ve frustrated them to see me still inside that fortress guarding all that Guatemalan loot. Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I spun around, but nobody peered through the window, only Gigi spied on me. I reminded myself that I was the interloper; she wanted me on the other side of those bars. Eventually I made peace with the old cat, and she curled on my chest while I watched Lobo basketball. I’m allergic to cats, but it seemed fairer to Gigi and not a terrible burden on me. So together we peeked out the kitchen window bars at the beefy men still in their pickup truck, fins circling.
When the homeowners returned with more masks and candles, I told them their neighbors had all been burgled but their stuff was OK. Gigi was fine too, just hiding somewhere. “Oh,” they said, “is she still…”
Yes, she was still alive, still haunting me.