Tuesday, August 28, 2012

episode 5, taking care of Erika

Lohbado stumbled into a hole in the cement and nearly fell. Ben Kahn stopped his beige Lincoln Town Car. Ben rolled down the passenger side window and asked Lohbado if he was all right. Lohbado said no. Ben said to get in. Lohbado got in.

Ben was on his way home to his wife and five-year old daughter, after photographing a wedding. He felt terrible. He needed to talkLohbado could have a ride, but he would have to listen to Ben. Lohbado didn't mind.

“I hate weddings,” said Ben, cruising into the middle lane, “They nauseate me. I’ve been doing it for twenty years.”

 Lohbado could provide cheap therapy. All he had to do was sit there and listen. He was dying for something to drink. Ben pointed to the cup of coffee in the mug holder next to the gear shift. He didn't have any water. Lohbado drank Ben’s coffee.

‘“We’re more like room mates than a married couple,” said Ben, referring to his unhappy marriage, “You get two things from marriage, no sex and having to hear the same conversation over and over again.”

His wife Caroline was getting on his nerves. He was glad she wouldn’t be there when he got home. She left at noon to attend a weekend shaman workshop in the country. She planned to go on a vision quest to find her spirit ally animal. 

“It’s going to be just me and Erika all weekend,” said Ben, “She’s our five year old daughter. I’m really not in the mood for staying home. She’s going to want me to play games and read her stories.”
“That sounds nice,” said Lohbado.

“Yeah, maybe it’s nice, but not when you’re tired after bossing around a group of teary-eyed geeks. Trying to get people to drop the forced expressions, to quit puffing out the lips, to stop making half closed eyes, tilting the head back to make the chin look more defined; it’s exhausting trying to explain how such posturing makes people look dumb and ends up ruining the picture. This wedding was particularly bad, a forty-five year old man marrying at nineteen-year old. You could cut the tension with a knife. The girl’s father was a total sleaze. The mother kept crying. You don’t want people crying in wedding pictures.”

"It's a wonder people still get married," said Lohbado.  

“Sometimes I yearn for bachelor days," said Ben, "I'm glad Caroline will be away all weekend, even thought what she's doing is totally flaky. She introduced me to her guru. He’s about fifty, sleeps with the younger women. He exploits people with low self-esteem and tries to make them feel like they have supernatural powers. From what I can see, it only makes them more loopy and miserable. The guy can say anything and his followers believe it. Forget about critical thinking. Fantasy rules.”

The coffee didn't help much. It unclogged his throat, but didn't quench his thirst. He felt chilled to the bone from the air conditioning in the Town Car, after sweating in direct sunlight. Ben’s words came in waves. Lohbado hummed and hawed, until the car turned down a two lane street into a subdivision and pulled up in front of a one story house. Ben didn’t bother putting the car in the garage. Lohbado followed up the steps, past some patio furniture and into the air conditioned house. He went to the kitchen sink and gulped down three glasses of water. He bent his head under the faucet and let water splash over his head. Ben handed him a tea towel.

Erika was with the babysitter, in the recreation room in the basement. Ben went down to check on her while Lohbado drank more water and gazed at the kitchen cabinets and the large microwave on the counter. Ben invited him to stay for dinner. Erika wanted an egg salad sandwich. Caroline had mixed up a bowl of the stuff and some left over noodles and beef stew in the fridge. She made sure there would be enough for Erika to eat while she went away to find her spirit guide animal at the new age workshop. Ben said he and Lohbado could finish the garlic sausage and microwave the leftover rice and vegetables.

A few minutes later, Ben dragged Erika from the basement and introduced her to Lohbado. A thin sixteen year old, Nancy, stood awkwardly by the fridge.

“I’m going to take Nancy home,” said Ben, “Could you keep an eye on Erika, while I’m gone?”

Erika smiled at Lohbado. He nodded his head and said sure.

“She likes to make pictures,” said Ben, pointing to her art supplies on a small table by the sliding doors leading to the back yard, “I’ll be back in half an hour.”

Lohbado felt a little uneasy, being in charge of a five-year old. Nothing made sense anymore. He’d been through so much in the past twenty-four hours. Everything felt exotic and vivid. Erika’s shiny dark eyes charmed Lohbado. He wasn’t sure what they would do for half an hour.

“Don’t worry. She’ll warm up to you,” said Ben.

Ben didn’t wait around for Lohbado to change his mind. He and Nancy were out the door. He heard the car doors slam, the engine start. The car backed out of the driveway and drove down the street. Lohbado and the girl froze in dead silence. Lohbado drank more tap water and looked at the girl, who looked at him. He was seized with the urge to run out the door. She wasn't his problem. She'd be all right alone for half an hour. For about thirty seconds, it was dead silent in the house, except for the hum of the fridge. What if she started to cry, or got hurt? What if she suddenly missed her mom? Lohbado wouldn’t know what to do. She was so small, it scared him. 

Finally, she went to the table, grabbed a crayon and drew an orange heart and gave it to Lohbado. He told her it was very nice. She handed him a sheet of paper. He sat down on a cushion, across the little table from her and drew his name, each letter a different colour: Loh ba do. She drew her name, in a similar matter, with different colours: Erika.

Half an hour went by in the blink of an eye. Lohbado gazed at the microwave clock and felt satisfied that he’d taken care of Erika for thirty minutes. He’d done something useful. Ben would walk in the door any minute. Erika wanted them to do more pictures. Lohbado didn’t want to make a mess. She spilled a jar of crayons then got a glass of water and opened a box of water colours. She tugged at his arm and told him to make a picture. Lohbado drew a landscape, the plains of radiation, with a triangular-shaped rock hill in the middle. She told him to draw the sun. So he drew the sun and a few clouds. Then she told him to add a dog. Lohbado took a ball point pen and drew a dog next to the hill. That killed another five minutes. Soon an hour had gone by. Lohbado began to worry. Erika said she was hungry.

Together, they went to the fridge and peered inside. Lohbado asked her what she wanted to eat. She pulled out the plastic container of noodles. She wanted it without sauce. She didn’t want the egg salad sandwich. She asked for a glass of apple juice. Lohbado heated up a plate of beef stew. They sat on the living room rug, since that’s where Erika said she wanted to eat. Lohbado didn’t know anything about how to organize or discipline a child. His mother would have had a fit if Lohbado didn’t sit properly at the table. Given the unusual circumstances, mother couldn’t complain about how he was managing with Erika. As long as the girl kept smiling, everything would be fine. She asked him to open a can of corn and a can of sardines in olive oil. Lohbado gave her the can of sardines. He opened the corn. He told her they should sit at the table. She didn’t argue. The situation was half ways decent. They were managing quite well. But his heart kept pounding as he wondered what was keeping Ben.

Erika didn’t seem upset. She told Lohbado he could sleep in her mama’s bed and they would have breakfast together. She said her dad’s best friend was Laura. Her mom didn’t like Laura. The five-year old seemed to know everything. It felt like she was the adult, trying to take care of Lohbado and make him feel at home. After supper, she gave him a tour of the house. 
Her mother Caroline was about forty-five, with a collection of red, black and blue lingerie hanging from hooks on the closet door. He saw a picture of her on top of a dresser. She had the confident look of a school teacher. A pair of reading glasses and an astrology book, overturned to mark the place, sat on the bedside table. The bed was a mess. The imprint of her head was on the pillow. Ben and Caroline slept in separate rooms. 

Lohbado was so tired, he wanted to go to bed right away. Erika wanted to play. Lohbado groaned. She started jumping up and down on her mother’s bed, giggling and shouting. She wanted Lohbado to catch her as she ran and jumped off the end of the bed. Lohbado pleaded with her to stop. She wanted him to give her a horsey ride. Lohbado said no. He went back to her play area in the little space between the kitchen and the sliding doors leading to the back yard. 

He agreed to play Chinese checkers. That kept them busy for another half hour. After that, they played hide and seek. She ran and threw herself at Lohbado and tried to climb on his shoulders. Finally, about 9 PM, she got tired. Lohbado told her to brush her teeth and go to bed. She made him read her a story, three times, same story, about a space ship. Then she fell asleep. Lohbado found a beer in the fridge. He refused to think about Ben. He knew if he started worrying about Ben, his mind would create horrific worst case scenarios. He would relax with a beer. Erika was asleep. Things were under control, no need to panic. He tried to find something to read. Her collection was pretty lame, mostly new age books and trashy fiction.

Lohbado took a shower. The beer made him drowsy. He lay down on Caroline’s bed and fell into a deep sleep. He woke a few hours later as Erika climbed into bed next to him and said she was scared and wanted a hug. He felt tense as she hugged him. Then she lay down and went to sleep. Lohbado rolled to the edge of the bed and kept his back towards her. About 7 AM, when the sun came in through the front windows of the house, she woke up and wanted him to play with her. He wanted to sleep more. His muscles were sore. She said she was hungry. She asked him to make pancakes. 

Fortunately, he knew how to make them, so breakfast turned out fine. He resigned himself to the fact that Ben was gone and probably wasn't coming back any time soon. Something was up with Ben. He tried not to think about it. The main thing was to keep Erika from worrying.

Lohbado would stay with Erika until Caroline got home some time on Sunday. They had a whole day and a half ahead. Lohbado groaned. He found a set of keys to the house, so that meant they could come and go. Erika wanted to go to the playground. Lohbado left a note on the counter, in case Ben showed up. He could find them at the playground. She led the way. It was about a five minute walk away. He brought along a travel mug of coffee and sat on a bench while Erika climbed on the play structures. Soon she was playing with a couple other children her age. Various women and a haggard looking man pushed toddlers to the playground, early Saturday morning.

A mother sat next to Lohbado and asked how Caroline was doing and wanted to be introduced. Lohbado didn’t want to let on he was a complete stranger, so he said he was a friend of Ben. Ben got called away, so asked Lohbado to take care of Erika for the weekend. The mother’s name was Angela. She invited Lohbado and Erika over to her place. The children played in the yard while Angela made a fresh pot of coffee and offered Lohbado a slice of cherry pie. He was amazed at how easy it was to fit in to the child-rearing environment. She never suspected him of being a lost wanderer. He told her he was a veteran of the dome and would be receiving a small pension, once he found a place to live. Angela said her husband was gone for six months to the military fields, to clean up radioactive material from a battle zone. She resented having to take care of Lucy without help from anyone.
It was difficult getting Lucy to listen. Lohbado asked her how she would discipline Lucy. First Angela would ask Lucy to do something. When Lucy refused, Angela used bribery. When bribery didn’t work, she put her foot down. Sometimes you have to be firm. You don’t yell. But you gotta do what you gotta do, even if the kid insists on screaming and howling and kicking up a fuss. The worst is when people look at you as if you’re the worst parent in the world. They approach with useless advice. Such people don't know the first thing about children and yet they act like experts.

Angela invited them for a drive in her van to a fast food restaurant for lunch. Later, she took them to a park with a wading pool. Lohbado felt lucky, some sort of magical force guided him to make a distressing situation go smooth. Erika seemed confident and cheerful enough. The thought crossed his mind a few times that maybe Ben was in some sort of serious trouble, maybe even dangerous. The last thing Lohbado would do would be to call the police. He didn’t want them running a check on him and asking all sorts of humiliating questions. 

Angela invited him and Erika to stay for supper. Lohbado declined. Angela had taken a shine to Lohbado. He didn’t want to fill her husband’s empty shoes. She was a bit too intense and highly structured. Lohbado didn’t want to be in a controlled situation. He’d been through that before. He accepted her generosity and kindness out of desperation, to avoid a crisis, should Erika suddenly get freaked out and demand her mother and father. She already asked a couple times about her mom. Lohbado told her Caroline would be home Sunday afternoon.

 Angela dropped them off at the house. Erika wanted to take photographs. She took a pocket camera from a shelf of small cameras in her father's room. Lohbado had a pocket camera as well. They found some rotting food in the fridge and set it up in the driveway, outside the garage. Lohbado spread a large sheet of newsprint on the ground. They drew pictures and diagrams. Erika collected dandelions and taped them to the sheet of newsprint. Lohbado painted a few bold lines using India ink and one of Caroline’s brushes. They placed a cloth on the small table and spread out the mouldy food. Erika lit the candles and poured stale wine into two crystal classes. It looked like some sort of occult ritual. Erika ran around bringing things from the fridge and from her play area. By the time they were done, Erika was tired. That night, she didn’t argue when it was time for bed. She was fast asleep at 8:30 PM. Lohbado found another beer in the fridge. The rest of the night went smooth.

When Sunday morning rolled around, Erika kept asking every fifteen minutes, when her mother would be coming home. She wasn’t too worried about her dad. It was emotionally draining to deal with her anxiety about her mom. Her worry was contagious. The thought crossed Lohbado’s mind that maybe Caroline wouldn’t show up. If Ben took off so easily, maybe Caroline would do the same. Maybe he would be stuck with Erika for a long time. Then he would phone Angela and ask her for help. He was already on the verge of telling her everything. But he was afraid she might become suspicious and make him feel bad. He’d been put on the spot before. He’d been through intense interrogation. He couldn’t cope with that anymore. All he wanted was to receive the veteran’s pension and live in peace.

Lohbado kept imagining the moment when Erika’s mother would get home. He could foresee the shock and dismay. He rehearsed a few lines of explanation to use should she get angry. Ben said he would be back in half an hour but didn't come back. Lohbado was terrified of authority. He'd had bad experiences. That's why he didn't phone the police. There was no reason for Caroline to be angry with Lohbado. All he had to do was remain calm and explain, in as few words as possible, why he ended up spending an entire weekend with her daughter.

About 3 PM Sunday, a Honda Odyssey pulled into the driveway and parked in the garage. A tall, woman, like in the photos, got out. She wore a linen jacket, feather earrings and sported a small tattoo of a butterfly on her right leg, beside the calf muscle. Her face turned red and her olive green eyes bulged when she walked into the house and saw Lohbado playing a game of cards with her daughter. Just as Lohbado expected, she hit the roof and wanted to know everything at once. She wanted to call the police. 

Erika saved the day. She made her mom calm down. Caroline could see everything was fine. Lohbado had good vibes. Her daughter was happy. Had something gone wrong, it would be obvious right away. Lohbado passed the initial screening.

As he got up to leave, she told him he didn’t have to run away. She opened a bottle of wine and invited him to stay for supper. 

No comments:

Post a Comment