Tuesday, January 17, 1978
Miss Randal is a delightfully batty old lady who hires me for a day of "chores." In an upscale town, Palo Alto, she lives in a downscale house shaded by sycamore trees. The white wood siding needs paint. In fact, everything needs paint. In fact, looking closely, most of the house is rotten and infested with termites.
She sees me studying the soft post on her porch. "It's a game of chicken," she says. "Who will cave in first? The roof? Or my body?" She giggles girlishly. "I was born in this house. My father had just finished building it when I came along. This house and I are practically twins. And now we both have bad plumbing."
Inside the house, the furnishings are sparse and threadbare. A sofa tilts at an angle, missing one leg. She says, "Can you do something?"
"I can slip a board under that corner so it doesn't rock. You'd need a professional restorer to match the leg."
"I should throw the whole thing away. But then where would I sit?"
"It's an antique. You could sell it."
"I bought it brand new." She laughs. "Does that make me an antique? I was interviewed by the Palo Alto Times. I was here, seventeen years old for the 1906 earthquake. Stanford fell apart. People died. San Francisco burned. This house was just fine. And so was I. See? We're twins. When one of us goes, so will the other."
Miss Randal follows me, chattering constantly, as I repair two faucets and a toilet. She asks if I can repair a clothes line. I use a dowel and epoxy while she explains that she never bought one of "those drying machines." She cleans her clothes in the bathtub with a washboard from Montgomery Ward.
She picked the oranges from her tree in the back yard and won the blue ribbon for marmalade at the Santa Clara County Fair. "All those farmer wives - and I beat 'em!" Palo Alto used to be a fine town but now it's not. She wishes she could live some place in the Sierra where people don't steal. "I should've married," she says. "I had my chance. You have children?"
"So how do you feel about your house?"
"I'm just renting. And my place is even worse than - uh, I mean, my place is just a tiny cabin. I have to sweep the termite wings off the table every morning."
"So it will collapse," Miss Randal says. "But your life won't."
"Would you let me replace the post on the porch? So the roof won't crush you?"
"How much would it cost?"
"How much will I owe you for today?"
"I'm sorry. I can't. Maybe next year."
At the end of the day I come home to my tiny rental termite cabin. My one-year-old son is having a bubble bath. My wife is sitting on a bathmat next to the tub. Puffs of bubbles are caught in her hair. She looks up. "I'm pregnant."
I sit on the toilet. "Okay," I say. We'd sort of suspected.
With one finger she's idly peeling shriveled caulk at the edge of the tub. From the wall, dirty black water oozes through the crack. Pointing at some Mason jars on my lap, she asks, "What's that?"
"Marmalade. My day's pay." I explain that I haggled Miss Randal down from fifty dollars to three jars of marmalade. "Tomorrow I'm going back to fix her porch. For that she'll pay me fifty dollars."
My wife is smiling. "I always knew you had a great future in business."
"Let's build a house somewhere," I say. "And live in it forever."
"Okay," she says.