Betty points out the large cans holding up their sofa before I have time to comment. “My dad says they’re stronger than regular legs. He’s an artist.” I look at the cans. The metal has been painted a bright red. I wonder if they are empty or full. I tap tentatively but I can’t be sure because of the weight of the sofa on them. They sound full. I turn my head away and we keep on visiting. It’s the first time I’m invited over to play, and play is done in the basement in this house. She shows me the laundry room and the chute – a great hiding place. “I was hiding there once, and Mom dropped bedsheets on my head.” We guffaw.
“This is a closet.” She opens the door. It’s a closet. It’s got winter clothes and smells of wood. “It’s made of cedar to keep the bugs away. The bugs don’t like cedar.” I think of our cedar hedge and vow to check it for bugs. “This is the mud room.” She opens the door to it. It’s not true. There is no mud there. I was fully expecting long smoking pipes and a low entrance, some sort of ritual Indian room with tobacco offerings in a pouch. I’m disappointed. There are pegs to hang clothes, a flannel shirt, galoshes, a pair of gardening gloves. I shuffle my feet, a little angrily. She takes my hand and points to a door further down. “This one leads to the garage. Never, never go there by yourself!” She opens it halfway and I peer out. It smells of oil and gasoline. It’s clean. There’s a well-organized workshop and room for a car. Her mom has gone out to do the groceries. Her dad is in his home office downstairs behind the next door we open.
“Hi, girls! You’re going to be playing quietly here?” We nod. Even I can tell he’s young, with a beard that resists growing. He’s wearing a ponytail, like a girl, except it’s not tied with a coloured elastic but with a virile leather lace. His teeth are crooked, his eyes are kind. He is very thin. Mom talks of starving artists. I ask “Are you starving?” pointing at his bony forearm. He answers with a shrug “I’m an artist.” I shrug gravely, as though it says it all. I can’t tear my eyes from the bear skin on the floor. The eyes are glass, that much is clear. I crouch and run my hand on the coarse fur. The nose is leathery, the teeth are crooked. I bring my nose to the pelt. I was expecting a musky smell, but it smells… dry.
We go back to the room with the sofa. “What do you want to do?” asks Betty. I look around the room. There is an encyclopedia, records, an earth globe and a smaller one. It’s not really a playroom. “What’s that?” I ask. “The moon.” I grab the smaller metal sphere. It has crater drawings with names and dates. “Do you want to play astronaut?” She nods enthusiastically and we play Mission control. We safely land rocket after rocket, American, Russian, Indian, French, Italian. We have the crews eat with each other and speak with their hands as they float and play swim in zero gravity. Eventually, Betty’s mom comes down to wash a load. “Betty, you put it to dry when it’s ready, all right?”
In time, we transfer the wet clothes to the dryer. Betty climbs on a footstool and starts the dryer. We play some more. Her father comes out of his study, stretching. “You’re still playing,” he remarks. He sits on the sofa and listens to us awhile. Betty’s mom comes down to retrieve the wash. She’s brought carrot and celery sticks. “They’re astronauts!” says the father with pride. We look at Betty’s mom. She’s beaming. “Do you want to play too?” I ask hopefully. “How does it work?” she asks. “You can be bringing the food. It will be floating and we’ll try and eat it.” Betty’s father is dangling carrots in front of our noses as we move our limbs in slow motion, as though under water.
The phone rings and the spell is broken. “Time to head home,” says the mother. “Mission accomplished,” I reply as I slowly take the stairs.