The back door handle was hopelessly broken. The outside half was dangling by a single bent screw and you could see daylight through it. We tried, repeatedly, to fix it ourselves and it would be not completely terrible for a few days before all coming loose again. We needed a real locksmith. For the first time in this pandemic, we had to introduce someone who was not one of the five of us into the house.
The locksmith was supposed to call first before he arrived, but it was okay that he didn’t. The girls were down in the kitchen, making breakfast for themselves and possibly the cats. The ring of the doorbell sent us all into a frantic scramble. “Lock up the cats and go upstairs.” I grabbed the dog and flung him in the laundry room, then realized that he wouldn’t be very happy on the linoleum flooring, so scrambled back to grab his cloudlike bed and fling it in after him. The girls shut the cats up in the bathroom and promised to lock the Tiny Grim, who did not associate with those Other Cats, safely in their room upstairs and silently vanished.
On the other side of the front door, the locksmith waited patiently. His t-shirt was navy and probably advertised his company. His mask was the pale blue paper kind you could find readily in the drugstore now and it covered his mouth and nose securely. It looked safe. I opened the door a crack. “We’re just putting the animals away and then I’ll open the back gate and let you in.” I grabbed a mask of my own (Star Trek science officer blue) and he was waiting to follow me as I unlatched the back gate.
Kevin was on a work call; some new crisis had erupted, so I lingered awkwardly in the range of six to fifteen feet away, which mostly meant meandering between the kitchen and living room as I tried to stay out of his way but also answer any questions. My mind raced, trying to think of what the very safest practices were for intentionally breaching our inner sanctum. Ventilation is important, right? Yes, I needed to ventilate. I open the front door so that the breeze can flow easily straight through the house. The locksmith went straight to work, adeptly disassembling the handle, and laid the pieces out neatly on the kitchen counter. They were all broken. He laughed and as I stepped anxiously forward, he pointed out each and every break.
“You have used it all up. I have never seen anything so completely used.”
I grimaced (which he probably could not see beneath my mask).
“It’s the dog. He jumps up at the door handle all the time.”
“Can he open it?”
“Yeah…we have to lock the door to stop him.” (Dalmatians are very smart, but I don’t bother explaining this to him. Better to keep our talking to a minimum. It’s less risky.)
If I wanted the door handle to match the old one, he’d have to order it and it would take a few weeks, because absolutely every company that makes anything is backed up right now. He has a handle he can put in its place now. It is silver, blocky, and looks like it belongs in an office building. It will work beautifully and if I do not mind having him back in a few weeks, we can just “borrow” it instead of having to pay for it.
The job done, for now, he pulled out his phone to figure out the details of getting paid for his work. His reception was terrible, because of course we live in some weird Bermuda Triangle of bad cell reception. Everyone does these days. I gave him our wifi password, writing it down on a slip of paper and holding it as far out as I could reach so that, technically, our noses could stay six feet apart as our fingertips came within inches of each other. A similar dance followed with Kevin’s credit card and at last, he was done.
He gave a faint wave and a promise to get in touch when the new handle was in. The colloquialism is funny; almost, but not quite, ironic. The last thing we were going to do under the circumstances was “touch”. With a wave, he closed the back door and walked out the back gate. I rushed after him and reopened the back door to preserve the air flow, using my shirt sleeve as a flimsy barrier so I would not touch what he touched. I opened the side door as well, encouraging as much breeze as possible, then hunted for the alcohol wipes and wiped down every surface he touched, the credit card, the key to the borrowed handle, the countertop, the toaster oven, and every part of the door.
I removed my mask and tossed it on the washing machine (being careful not to let the dog out) and washed my hands. The slip of paper with our wifi password was unceremoniously tossed, the alcohol wipe folded over one corner, just to be on the safe side. The dog barked, annoyed at being restrained. The cats meowed with the same indignity. The breeze continued to flow through our house, ruffling the little banner of paper stars and enticing the odd fly. My breakfast, unceremoniously left sitting on the couch, grew cold.
Am I crazy? I feel crazy. Months ago our family had sat down together to watch the show Monk, hopeful that the compulsions that drove him to meticulously clean everything would be relatable. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is far more than just a desire for order and precision. It is terrible, dark, disturbing thoughts, a constantly bubbling brew of intrusive fears, and an endless search for the absolute perfect ritual that might afford some measure of protection against new traumas being heaped atop the old. I had watched it from the outside as it devastated my child and now, I stood at its doorstep.
Clean, clean, clean, against the invisible, creeping horror. Everything the stranger touched and then everything that touched what he touched and then everything that touched those things too. Be safe. Throw open your doors in the hopes that a mighty wind can sweep danger from your most intimate places. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Half an hour? An hour? Is it enough?? Be safe.
Whatever you do, don’t give voice to the words that bubble up in your head as you skitter away from the stranger. “It’s not you. I don’t think that you are dirty or sick. It’s just…I can’t really know and I am deeply sorry that i have to think less of you to protect my own.” Maybe if you don’t say it, he will never know you thought it, even though you know and find yourself filled with shame.
Because biology and medicine are not really my areas of expertise, I have spent so much tie over the past months reading through the science, trying my best to understand it and to engage the most rational and objective parts of my mind. Here, though, is emotion laid bare. When push comes to shove, I surrender to my instincts and my instincts are primitive and raw. Too quickly, what is smaller or larger than our own narrow worldview becomes magic, superstition, witchcraft, and it is a shock when it strips rational thought away.
I let the dog out and he unerringly and meticulously sniffs every place the locksmith stood and everything he touched. I have read that a dog can smell one rotten apple in a barrel of two million fresh apples. It’s no surprise that they can smell when a person has been infected. Our dog is merely curious, not alarmed. That’s not surprising. He smells for entertainment, much like the children endlessly sift through YouTube. The stimulus is its own reward. Slowly, I reassert my rational self. I took the recommended precautions and probably a few more. I should go tell the children it is safe to stand in the kitchen again. I am sure they are ready to have lunch.