Originally short-listed for the Bronwen Wallace Award, this later appeared in Coming Attractions 2011.
It isn’t a complete surprise when, ankle deep in vermiculite, I get the call that there’s a trail of blood across the old braid rug, spattered from the ratcheting of the dog’s rear leg against his melanoma. The extractor’s running full tilt in the attic and it’s a pain to reach the cell because I’m suited up in my haz-mat one-piece. At first I think it’s just Lacey letting me know the girls got in early from the airport. But the damn phone won’t stop vibrating, so I throw the vacuum switch and pry the receiver between my ventilator and Tyvek hood.
My wife’s a hair split away from losing it. I hear her long, thin fingers drumming the side of her neck. The girls will be home in three hours. The dog won’t stop scratching.
“Take him to Dr. VanderMeer.”
“There must be something else.”
“Goddamnit, Gordon, I’m not doing it alone.”
She wants me to walk her through a patch job.
“In the mud room, I’ve still got some blue antibiotic powder. The old neck cone’s at the bottom of the chest with my work gloves.”
The dog follows her, its nails clicking across the hardwood, oblivious.
Anyone could see the dog wasn’t going to make it past Christmas. It was spending most of its time sleeping on the hand-me-down rug, the melanoma bubbled up near its tear duct, round and crusted like an old tree ornament. I hadn’t wanted to leave on a job with things hanging, but Lacey insisted on waiting for the girls. “We should wait until he’s in pain,” she’d said, working her hands under my shirt. “Wait until it can’t be helped.”
The patch was already thick as a thumb. But the dog was cooperating, hamming it up with big, dopey stares and making a go of playing fetch. Animals can hide their pain, I’d thought. By the time the dog’s showing, it’ll be too late.
The attic hatch swings open and the woman hoists herself though the gap. I try to wave her back, shout for her to leave, but she can’t hear over the fan. For the second time in an hour I shut the operation down.
“You need a respirator on.”
She tucks her chin into her T-shirt. She’s still a child. “Can you come downstairs?”
It takes half an hour to seal off the room, get out of my suit.
The two of them are in the kitchen, drinking tea on weird plastic bar stools shaped like saddles. The seat depressions must be moulded for a different ass though, because I can’t get comfortable.
“We were thinking,” she says. “Did they have to disclose it?”
“Or the realtor, the home inspector.”
“Not in this province.” Quebec’s the only place where you have to declare if you’ve got vermiculite insulation.
She’s got that swimming look in her eyes again, like she’s drowning and too polite to shout for rescue. She’s working the reels, desperate for any kind of bailout. “Does the insurance cover this?”
No, insurance doesn’t cover this. That’s not how this works. A house is like a child. Once it’s yours, there’s no sixty-day return policy, no extended warranties. There’s no checking with the realtor or previous owners. Keep it or sell it. When the shit hits the fan — and with an older house it’s going to — it’s only you, the rag and the bucket.
This is something that they should have brought up before, when the asbestos results came back positive from the lab. Back then, they’d eyed me like I was a doctor with an amputation order. “You can always seal it back up.” I give all my clients that option — don’t go in the attic, caulk your door seams, don’t rip out any walls. Undisturbed, it isn’t doing any harm.
Soon as people hear the A-word though, they want it out. They don’t want the stuff raining down every time they nail a hole in the wall or bubbling out from the gaps in their floorboards. They think asbestos fibres are creeping through the walls as their family sleeps, coursing straight for their lungs. They don’t realize that almost every house has some form of it — pipe insulation, acoustic tiles, flooring. Before the ’90s, everyone used vermiculite — contractors and weekend handymen alike — all pouring it down the walls by the bagful.
“You still want me to keep going?” This conversation is wasting time. “I can get the attic done today. You want me to wait until tomorrow before starting on the walls?”
“No, no,” she says. “The sooner the better.”
He just nods, hair in his eyes, slouching in jeans so tight he mustn’t need to wear rubbers. Not such a bad thing for the human race.
“The house has good bones, though, doesn’t it?”
Hard to tell if she’s asking or telling.
At night it’s defrosted chili and creamed corn slopped over toast in the living room of my parents’ bungalow. From the card tables nested between two hutches, and the boxes of papers we’ve never sorted, it looks less like they’ve been dead for five years and more like they’ve packed it in for the winter.
Lacey and I talk about retiring here some day, living on one level. Too much like wearing their old clothes. We only kept it because my brother wanted the Gainesville condo. I warned him, offered to sell both places and split the profits. The construction was shoddy, mould already showing through the stucco cracks — five years on and they’d need to re-skin. He liked the granite countertops.
I wish there was some great story about how we got the dog. Rescued at a job, half-starved, trapped in a nest of fiberglass insulation. Stray, and begging, following me home. The dog came from the mall. We were shopping for a gift for Lacey — me and the girls — her last day in hospital after they took her gallbladder. Nothing special, just big eyes and my two girls promising to walk it, me a big sucker. Two hundred cash and the damn slippery thing in my arms all the way to the car.
Lacey says he’s settled down enough to take the cone off. She fed him the rest of my Philly cheese sub to make up for the afternoon and now he’s sleeping on the foot of the bed, squeezing out rank gas. I want to talk to the girls, ask if they’re ready to put the thing out of its misery, but they’re off with friends.
That dumb dog. Too dumb to know it’s on the way out.
Morning, it all goes to shit. Vermiculite’s down the exterior walls and I can’t reach it all from the attic. It means drilling holes between the studs, big enough to feed the vacuum attachment through. Going room by room, creating a negative air pressure, so none of the dust leaks out. Insulation removal, I can do. Babysitting homeowners, I can’t. The problems start when I punch a hole through the spare-room wall and a hunk of plaster rips out. The keys have fallen off the lath and the wallpaper is holding up the plaster. As soon as I pierce the barrier, out it crumbles.
She’s in the hall, like a kid waiting for teacher.
“Can we help?” she asks. “I’ve stripped furniture.” She’s all scrub-faced and pale, lips pulled into a toothy smile. She must be the same age as my girls, but this one’s nothing like them. They took time to come into themselves; she’s still got the smirk of a third-grade know-it-all.
I tell her about the condition of the plaster. “I can patch the holes, but you’ll probably want to drywall.”
She doesn’t relax her grin.
As I move to the next room, I can hear the banging of the spare room opening and closing. They’re already fighting. She’s trying to hide it, but it’s showing through. When I kill the power, they don’t lower their voices before I’ve heard their tone. He’s cutting her off. She’s correcting him in clipped sentences.
They probably watched too many home reno shows — all those thirty-minute miracles — and got the confidence to buy this place. They only found the vermiculite after watching a YouTube video on installing octagonal electrical boxes. As soon as they cut into the ceiling, it started raining tiny taupe beads. Judging by the pile on the floor, it took a solid five minutes before they plugged it up with paper towels. They posted a photo on a forum; someone recommended me because I’d done their cousin’s place.
Where the wallpaper’s stripped, I can see the eggshell finish on the plaster, the final coat over the grittier, horsehair mud. It’s still smooth, still perfectly hard. There was probably a bad roof; water got in and that’s what made it fail. Otherwise, it would have held up, loyal as a dog waiting outside a store for its master. I feel sad for the house, that it’s inherited such a shitty succession of owners.
All I want is to get this job done, get home to Lacey and the girls. The oldest’s not too far away, in Guelph, studying environmental engineering, but the youngest’s out in Halifax with green architecture. Green, recycling, sustainable; Lacey and I were the ones who grew up in the ’60s, but they’re the ones turned out granola. They used to say they get it from me, like clearing out this stuff makes me some kind of eco-hero. Bat guano. Black mould. Asbestos. My brother thinks I’m a fool to mess with it, that I’ll pay for it later. He’s with the bank, started as a teller in high school, worked his way up to branch manager. Everything around their house has an RBC logo on it — fleece blankets, leather jackets, even a picnic cooler radio.
Grey Cup, he and his wife always throw an open house buffet. Too many people to see the TV and everything served on a toothpick. Each year he asks what I’m going to do with my life once I run out of asbestos to clear.
Vermiculite alone, there’s enough in southern Ontario to last my lifetime.
He won’t leave it, though. “Why risk your health on a job that’ll run dry?”
“It’s a deep well.”
Later on, lubed up on rye, I get down on my hands and knees and pry up a corner of the kitchen linoleum with a butter knife to point out the asbestos subfloor. We haven’t spoken since.
I check my watch, give myself until five to bag up the rest of the insulation, scrape on some Durabond 90, and get home. We’ll put the dog down in the morning, then get on with Christmas.
I find her sitting on an old bedsheet, staring at a torso-sized hole in the wall. She’s ripped off more paper and the wall’s spilled open like a wound.
“I don’t know what to do.”
He’s gone for a walk.
“My in-laws are coming. We told them we’d host Christmas this year — we insisted. I’ve pre-ordered the turkey.”
Small, naive, blowing it all out of proportion. A house can go down to the stud on the inside, on the outside, and still be built back up on the same frame. At first I want to get mad at her, but her fear’s pushing through, brash as her confidence. They’ve probably sunk all their money into this, their parents’ money too.
“Didn’t you get a home inspection?”
She holds her finger up: Wait. There’s a pile of boxes by the hall phone. She retrieves a binder as wide as her forearm. “It got a B+.”
It’s all stock information about furnace types, electrical code, window grades. A few price estimates for upgrading deficiencies. There’s no mention of vermiculite, just the weak layer of cellulose on the attic floor.
“The senior partner recommended him.”
“You’re a lawyer?”
She’s not a kid at all. She’s just used to things going according to plan. Ten to one, she’s had everything handed to her, her whole life. This house was meant to be an adventure.
I grab the pry bar and start tapping, alternating between pressing lightly with my palm. It’s all sponge. It might have been a bad storm that did the damage. The old owners probably sopped up the water, best as they could, but still it went pear-shaped.
“When you drywall, you can get new insulation in there.”
“All of it needs drywall?”
“Sooner than later.”
“We’d figured on a boiler. Or maybe going to forced air.”
“You don’t have any ducts.”
“My in-laws said this was a mistake. They thought we should get something new.”
“And your parents?”
“They thought a condo in the city. Something with no maintenance.”
“Knock the plaster off. Then pry the lath. Wear a respirator.”
By the time I leave, she’s got the room down to a skeleton.
They’re going to pay me double to stay, to help with the room.
“So what’s that?” Lacey asks. “Six, seven hundred extra?” Lacey’s worked enough overtime at the plant, we don’t need it.
“Just the drywall and mud.”
“The dog’s worse.” She’s calm as she says it, so entirely reasonable. “Don’t you want to say goodbye?”
If my brother’s right, one day she’s going to be holding my hand at the hospital, negotiating all the family goodbyes. I’ll be doped on morphine, hooked to a ventilator, and she’ll be orchestrating a reconciliation with my brother. She’ll be right to do it, but I’ll hate it. Grey Cup, he’d said the trouble with the dog was probably toxic exposure — the clothes I work in, our old house. Said it as if I didn’t take precautions, thousands spent on respirators, goggles, disposable suits.
“Don’t you want to say goodbye?” she repeats.
“Put him on the phone then.” She’s stung but I plow on. “Fuck sakes, Lacey, the way things are going, the dog’ll be alive when I get home.” Sometimes an end in a road is just that, a dead end. That couple’s not going to fix up the place. My brother and I aren’t going to be close like when we were kids. The dog’s going to die.
We work late enough there’s no chance anyone will still be awake at home. She’d cleaned up all the plaster — worked until four boxing it up for the dump. The drywall slaps up pretty quick because there aren’t many electrical boxes. He’s useless, but she’s steady with the drill, doesn’t strip out the screw heads. By evening I think maybe, given time, she’ll treat the place with care.
On the drive back, all I can think about is the dog as a puppy. The thing got so excited to see me, it pissed itself every time I came home. It pissed itself and it wouldn’t care, just ran headlong, rear dripping. Running over to jump on me. So goddamned happy I was home.
Through the window, I see that Lacey’s left the tree on, the ornaments dusted off and refracting the light. Under the tree, there are new additions from the girls — bulky wrapped parcels covered in newsprint and decorated with paint swirls. I know the dog’s dead when I see the tinsel. Lacey hasn’t put that out since he swallowed it as a puppy.
I know the dog’s dead before I open the door. He’d have barked. I know that dumb dog’s dead. Still, my hand goes out to the treat jar. “Harvey,” I whisper from the black of the hall. It’s dark so no one can see my eyes. Dead dark. “Harvey.”