Home > Fiction > The Instructions
Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Instructions

The first thing is, you are not allowed to wear your shoes in the house. There is a rack in the front entry.

If you need to go out by the pool there are slippers there that you can put on. Otherwise, just carry your shoes through the house and leave them on the back patio.

The cat food is in the cabinet out by the washer and dryer. Take out two cans of Friendly Feast and one can of Purina and bring them into the kitchen. Open one can of Friendly Feast and put it in a crystal bowl. Then open the remaining two cans, mix them in a larger bowl, and then divide this into two portions, putting one in a purple dish and one in a crystal bowl.

The cats will probably join you at this point.

You must microwave the cat food for twelve seconds so that it isn’t cold. If you do it for fifteen seconds or more, the cat food will start to pop and splatter and get all over the inside of the microwave. Trust me on this.

Place the three dishes as far apart from each other as possible at the edges of the kitchen. The cats don’t like to see each other when they eat. Often you can use the “island” for concealment. Here is a diagram:

A = “Scot” (tabby). Mixture in a crystal bowl.

B = “Jake” (black and white). Fancy Feast in a crystal bowl.

C = “Gaia” (manx). Mixture in a purple dish.

It is essential that each get its own little water dish as well, though this can be Tupperware. Change the water every day. Don’t just let it sit there, even if it seems like they aren’t drinking it.

And always serve the cats with clean dishes. Please do not serve the cats out of crusty dishes! I will know if you do.

Also, do not use any of the dry food in that huge unwieldy bag next to the washing machine. This is what Ben ALWAYS fed cats when he was growing up poor (I’m sure you’ve heard the story) so it was “good enough for us.” Well, the cats hate it and I’ve been meaning to throw it out for a long time but it’s a little heavy for me and it’s kind of at an awkward angle to pick up. Emily, would you be a dear and get rid of it for me? (Garbage day is Tuesday.)

Water the inside plants as needed. Every few days or so. Use the spray bottle on the leaves. Do not drown them.

Water the outside plants as needed. Once a week, perhaps. Use the turquoise watering can that’s rusting out so beautifully. Do not use a hose!

Remember, this is not a housesit. You are merely feeding the cats and keeping things up. You may not invite anyone over, even if it’s just to “watch a little TV” or “have a dip” in the pool. Do not bring your boyfriend over. Do you have a boyfriend?

Do not answer the phone. Just let it ring.

It is possible that Michael might show up when you’re here. I am still missing a key and fear that he might have it. He will probably ask who you are. Just be honest and try not to make eye contact. He will then probably make a pass at you, which should be easy to resist (he is my son, yes, but not the most attractive creature on the planet). If he gets physical, call the police. If he does drugs in front of you, call the police. If he’s in the house doing drugs in secret, just ignore him and go about your business. He will leave eventually.

Take the mail out of the box every day and put it on the kitchen table. If possible, divide it into five piles: personal, bills, junk, banking/accounts receivable, and other. Occasionally there will be overlap, like bills/other or junk/personal, but do your best.

Do not spread the newspapers all over the living room floor and then forget to pick them up.

If you are desperately hungry and cannot wait until you get home, you may fix yourself a snack. Do not do any cooking, though! Making, fixing, or assembling something to eat is fine. No cooking. I recommend cheese/crackers or celery/peanut butter.

Please remove any offending items if the fridge starts to stink. More often than not it’s something in the crisper.

Be sure to activate the alarm once you leave. (Your mother says you are very responsible. I was too at your age. Maybe girls are different—my son has never been responsible.)

If you want, you are more than welcome to read my newspapers to stay abreast of current events (so long as you do not spread them all over the living room floor and forget to pick them up). You can even take these newspapers with you, if you wish to read them at home. I will not be needing these so it’s okay for you to have them. They will have newspapers where I am going.

Do not worry about the pool becoming polluted by those leaves coming from the neighbor’s maple tree. This is a Lost Cause. While it would be noble for you to fish these leaves out, I understand why someone would not want to do it. The neighbors are quite standoffish about the whole situation. Even if you are very strict about scooping leaves out of the pool there will always be more leaves the next day.

I am including a list of names of people you can call if there is a problem and I can’t be reached. You will notice that Ben’s name is on there, but try not to call him unless it’s a REAL emergency (someone dead or dying) and you can’t get a hold of anyone else. Technically we are still married, but only technically. (I’m sure your parents told you.)

I know it must be hard sometimes going to public school. I read about conditions in the newspaper sometimes. So you are welcome to stop by and read from our humble library in Ben’s old den (now storage). All the books in there are first editions, some very valuable, I think. Ben used to forbid anyone from touching them, let alone reading them. Especially me. I would go in there and he would just tense up. Near the end I’d pull some book off the top shelf and just open to the title page and he would be shaking, SHAKING, in kind of this nervous rage. Like totally psychotic, my husband. Fuck him, though, he’s gone now, right? Read whatever you want, honey. That’s what it’s there for. Dog-ear whatever you want, make notes in the margins, I don’t care. Books are not furniture, they are meant to be read, right?

By the way, the books are organized from left to right, top to bottom, but they are not alphabetical. I think they are organized in terms of value, believe it or not. Actually, now that I think about it, there are shelves on either side of his desk. The books on the right side of the desk are organized in the way I just said, but those on the left hand shelf descend in value from right to left. That is, the closer to his desk and the higher a book is, the more value it has. Here is a diagram:

If you find some other explanation for his cataloguing style, please let me know.

There is a little nook on the second floor, on the southwest side of the house. This is a good place to curl up with a book. You will probably fall asleep and end up reading the same paragraph over and over.

(I am on my third glass of wine now. Please forgive me if my handwriting is becoming harder to read.)

If Michael appears when you’re here, make sure that he doesn’t take anything, will you? I have put all my jewelry in the safe deposit box, but you never know.

Oh, and be sure to use a coaster for your beverages. This may seem like common sense, I know, but I had to fire the last girl because she put a hot cup of coffee on an endtable and it burned a white circle into the wood.

Under no circumstances are you to enter the master bedroom. The door stays open, so you can look inside, but please do not cross the threshold. It is my sanctuary. Have a look at the four-poster bed I just put in, though. Isn’t it beautiful and princessy? Ben never would have stood for it. There’s something about all that sheer mosquito netting that makes me horny feel romantic. Let me know what you think.

Actually, I wanted to get your opinion on something else, and, well, you’re going to have to enter the bedroom to do it. So be it. Go to the dresser on the north side of the bed and open the bottom drawer. You will find a book there with some sketches in it. Won’t you have a look at my drawings? Your mother said that you had a keen interest in art. I feel kind of strange asking (I am almost three times your age, after all), but I wonder if you can tell me what you think of them. I’ve only started drawing again, since Ben left. I realize now that the men in my life have been squashing my creative impulse for twenty years. Don’t let this happen to you. When I was in college I was always very creative. I belonged to art clubs, I did collage and crochet, I was studying Spanish. Once we were married Ben always made me feel like a child for this, even when he was trying to be diplomatic. He would say, “Well, everyone has to have a hobby, I guess.” What an asshole. Of course he didn’t have this attitude when we were dating. He was smart enough to make me think he actually cared.

You may find that a lot of the drawings are sexual in nature. Don’t get the wrong idea. Actually, I usually start doing nudes (like we used to in art class), but they always look so lonely on the page, so I keep adding more people to the pictures. I can’t help myself. I haven’t shown these to anyone. Technically, I know they aren’t perfect, but I think they are good in their own way and I wanted to show them to you and see what you thought. Please do not think I am a strange old lady.

Keep the blinds closed in the master bedroom. There are some paintings near the window that I think were getting faded by the direct sunlight. Also, I don’t like people looking in, even when I’m gone.

You may notice the large walk-in closet when you’re in the master bedroom. I’ve been adding some cuter outfits to my wardrobe. I hope you don’t think they are too provocative/inappropriate for someone in their forties. You would tell me, right? You know what? If you have a date or something and you need some cute shoes, you’re more than welcome to use some of mine. I have more shoes than I know what to do with. We seem to be the same size so maybe they will fit you and if you need some nice shoes for a date but you can’t afford them, you can borrow from the shoes on the left side of the closet. The shoes on the right side are off-limits, but the shoes on the left are good too. Don’t think that these are the Bad Shoes or something. They are still great shoes and you’re welcome to them if you have a date. I notice you were wearing some old sneakers when we met the other day.

The closet is a great place to hang out although I’d prefer if you didn’t. I started sleeping in there after Ben left and before I got the new bed. There was something kind of small and comforting and cavelike about it. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I’d be surrounded by all of these shoes and jackets and things. Not that I’m materialistic or anything—it just reminded me of being very young and having this huge pile of pillows and stuffed animals around me when I slept. It kind of felt the same although in this case the stuffed animals became pumps and stretch boots.

I will mail you a check to this address every week. As I said, I don’t know how long I’ll be gone exactly. After Aunt Carla’s funeral I’m going to travel a little bit, see some people I haven’t seen in many years. And then, I’m not so sure. These have been some terrible times, quite honestly, and I’ve been doing a lot of crying lately. Sometimes I think that my whole life has been a waste of time. I don’t wish to sound maudlin here, but I’m not going to lie either. I haven’t told anyone this, but I’ve been thinking about leaving the house and just keeping going. I won’t do it of course—I don’t have the guts—but I will admit that I’ve been feeling that adolescent feeling of running away lately. You and I probably aren’t so different. I realize I don’t know you that well, but I’ve known your parents since high school and I think you know what I mean. When I was your age I felt so alone and I wished that I had someone older to help me in life, you know, mentor me a little. If you ever need any advice or help you know who you can turn to. I’d be happy to assist you with your troubles, talk about boys, whatever. I’ve had a full life, I’ve seen a lot of things and traveled to many countries. You could really benefit from my experiences and not make the same mistakes that I did. I’d be more than happy to counsel you on these matters. You seem like a nice girl—a little rebellious, perhaps, but rebellious is good sometimes.

Tell your parents hello. Perhaps I’ll invite them over for drinks sometime. I think they’d like it here.

Give the cats (Scot, Jake, and Gaia) lots of love. I’m not going to worry about them or worry about my beautiful house. Enjoy it while you can and remember about the newspapers please. I am trusting you with my life.

Please don’t screw it up.

Eric D. Anderson is the director of Way of the Puck, a feature-length documentary film about professional air hockey. He also edits Stories of Quitting, an online collection of true stories that celebrate giving up. He lives in Los Angeles. (updated 8/2013)

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