Monday, September 05, 2005

Traveling Mercies – By Dan Ewald

I try to be an accommodating host when people come to visit me in Los Angeles. I change the bed sheets and wipe egg yoke from the wall over the kitchen trash. I even place factory-sealed soap in the bathroom, because is there anything more unnerving than standing in someone’s shower working up the courage to touch their soap?

Not everyone appreciates company in their home. For a recent business trip to Nashville I asked my friend Greg and his wife Theresa if I could crash at their place.

“Suuuu-re,” Greg said with certain uncertainty. Odd. The year before I helped pack boxes in Greg’s living room and he had specifically said, “Hey, if you’re ever in the Nashville area, please come and stay with us.” I had taken him at his word, just as I do the Lord.

The problem is, I don’t think his mousy wife Theresa ever liked me. I can’t blame her, I’ve met me.

They were childless in their early forties, yet their weekly highlight was watching ABC’s TGIF line-up, famous for Hope & Faith and other programs rocking the cultural landscape. Greg and Theresa were Lutherans who’s marriage banked on their shared interest in eating pot-pies in front of the TV and making small talk during commercials.

When I arrived in Nashville, Greg greeted me with a hug. Theresa was cordial, but not elated by my presence. I brought out the spirited side of her husband. In my presence, Greg was known to chuckle aloud. Such frivolity didn’t fit into a world where a switch to low-energy light bulbs was considered a topic of interest.

Greg suggested we go out for dinner. Theresa peeked at the wall clock. Seven-forty. “I’m not sure anything will be open. By the time we get there, it’ll be eight,” she frowned, paralyzing an expression that would remain on her face for the rest of my stay. Greg suggested the special pizza place they frequented every year on their anniversary. “Fine,” Theresa gave in.

Seated at an Italian dive owned and operated by two Turks, we split a medium mushroom pizza. Greg and I swapped stories of our days in retail. We recalled the rude customers we used to serve. We remembered the sweet ones we loved. We gossiped about our former colleagues and shared a lot of laughs. Theresa sat and picked the mushrooms from her slice.

“You know what?” Greg said, seizing the bill, “I think this one’s on us.” Theresa rolled her eyes and mumbled inaudibly. “Are you sure? You don’t have to,” I said. Greg gave the waitress twelve dollars. “Tell you what, you leave tip and we’ll call it even,” he answered.

We were home by nine-thirty and Theresa made it understood that social hour was over. I was shown the guest room. “I vacuumed in here,” Greg said, “And Theresa moved her sewing machine.”

“Thanks,” I answered, giving a swift yank to the hide-a-bed that wanted to remain that way. Greg left to find bedding. I tried and tried to open the couch, increasing aware of how my presence imposed on their lives. I had interrupted their routine. Greg had paid for my pizza and Theresa had moved her damn sewing machine.

I heard the shower in the adjoining bathroom. Theresa was obviously washing my evil from her pale skin. Ed entered and handed me a set of sheets. “Here goes,” he said, “All set?” I swear to Judge Judy it was forty degrees in their house. It was late October and Greg said they didn’t run the heat until mid-December to keep the electric bill reasonable. I asked for, maybe… a blanket or something...? My friend looked like I had asked him for something ridiculous, like a nine-inch springform cake pan.

“Uhhhhh, I’ll ask Theresa,” was his response to my excessive request. He ran to the bathroom door and asked his wife where the blankets were kept. At first, she couldn’t hear him because she was loudly humming the hymn, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb? When he finally got her attention, she retorted, “On the couch.”

Greg returned to my room with a thin, pathetic throw. I thanked him and said goodnight. He went to his bedroom where he crawled into a cave of down-filled quilts. I, on the other hand, shivered from the bitter temperature. Near the window, a draft invaded the room making the chill chillier. It was colder than a witch’s index finger.

I lied on the bed and pulled the sheet over me. The throw was 4 by 3—perfect for a Smurf.

When the clock on Greg’s computer turned three a.m., my lips had turned blue from frostbite. I flipped on the light next to the bed. As the bulb heated up, I pressed it against my face for warmth. I think I smelled my flesh burning, but I was so numb it didn’t matter.

At this point, I was wearing everything I had brought in my suitcase—several shirts, my blazer, layers of socks, and khakis pulled over two pair of jeans. I even wore the wide part of my tie around my neck as a scarf. Still, I was freezing. I got out of bed and looked in the closet for additional clothing. The only thing I saw was Theresa’s bridal gown wrapped in plastic.

It was enormously tempting.

I hit the jackpot with an old wedding gift—an iron still in the original box. They’d been married for fifteen years but that machine worked like a dream. I plugged it into the wall and began ironing myself in bed. It was wonderful. I was able to get my body back to a survivable temperature.

I finally got sleepy and unplugged it. Suddenly, I went back to freezing cold. I thought about plugging the iron back in and igniting a house fire, dreaming of the warmth it would provide.

The next evening, the Nashville temperature dropped to the twenties and I worked up the nerve to request one more blanket. Theresa frowned, but located another verb--another “throw,” if you will--from the basement. It was equal in size and discomfiture.

All night I froze like a rack of lamb in a meat locker, without the luxury of being dead. At four a.m., I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to do the unthinkable--to take a bath. It was the only thing that would stop the shakes.

The bathroom was next to Greg and Theresa’s bedroom, which was unfortunate. I knew they would hear the water and it would wake them, but the stakes were high and I had to think about survival. I curled up in the tub for the next four hours, falling asleep, then waking up every thirty minutes in a pool of cold water. By that time the hot water heater would reheat a fresh batch and we’d start the process over again.

“Did I hear the bathtub last night?” Greg asked inquisitively the next morning.

That was it. I had had enough. I packed my bags and made plans to stay at a hotel for the remainder of my trip. You learn a lot about your friends when you mooch off them. I discovered, for example, that I no longer liked Greg.

And furthermore, his wife’s wedding dress was ugly and didn’t flatter my body in the least.

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