November 23rd, 1997
The neighborhood was located in a little triangle formed by the intersection of two major highways. For once, the highway designers had gotten it right, placing the on and off-ramps in such a way that they were both invisible and practically inaudible to the homes of the neighborhood.
My friends Holly and Hugh both worked at Intel and had just purchased the house. They jokingly called it “Mr. Blandings’ Dream House” because of all the money they were having to spend fixing it up. It wasn’t all that bad. A bit outdated, as houses built in the twenties can be, with a bad kitchen and small bathrooms. Holly is a perfectionist and they were planning on being here for a while, so she and Hugh ponied up and it was “This Old House” all over again. My first visit found the place in utter chaos, with walls ripped open, two-by-fours studded with bent nails , coffee cups with cigarette butts sitting on the floor– a regular workman’s paradise.
I stayed in a hotel.
Several months later I was in town again and they both insisted I come up to stay with them. My job had not been going well and I could ill afford to spend money, so I agreed. I rented a car at the airport and drove out.
As I pulled in to the driveway I saw that the gardeners were hard at work. Bags of mulch and fertilizer, lengths of irrigation pipe and various tools were distributed about the yard, which looked like the French countryside circa 1916. Trenches and dirt piles were everywhere, and racks of bedding plants were stacked under the eaves of the house. I worried about what I’d find inside.
I needn’t have. The place was immaculate. The lighting was soft and warm, coming from gallery lights hanging from the vaulted ceiling. Interior walls had been moved, creating an elegant space with graceful proportions. The furniture was of superb quality, and beautiful Turkish rugs covered the polished floors. The kitchen was a dream with a Wolf stove and granite counters. I could see they spent a bundle.
They made me welcome and even prepared a dinner in my honor. Afterward I did the dishes, duty of a grateful house guest. As I rinsed basil from the blade of their expensive Sabatier chef’s knife, I noticed that it was quite dull. It seemed criminal. The knife was the best you could get. I checked the rest of the set. Same story.
When I was twelve, my grandfather gave me a twenty-dollar buck knife and showed me how to sharpen it. A dull knife, he said, is the worst thing in the world. It was not only dangerous, it was a symbol of deterioration and decay, of laziness and of incompetence. Sharpening a knife, really sharpening it, was an exercise in both patience and skill. It was easy to do wrong and you could ruin a good blade with carelessness. Still, if you weren’t willing to go the trouble of keeping your knife sharp you shouldn’t own one.
He was a hard man, my grandfather, but he and I must be alike in some way because this lesson rubbed off on a me and I can no easier leave a knife unsharpened than a mother can leave a screaming baby.
So I rummaged around in their professional kitchen until I came up with a whetstone and some mineral oil, and I sharpened all their knives as we played Trivial Pursuit. When I finished, every knife could shave hair off my arm. I wanted to show them how to use the steel for honing, but we agreed that we’d all had too much brandy by that point to avoid a trip to the hospital.
The next morning was Monday. Hugh and Holly were out of the house long before I awoke. As my business in town wasn’t until the evening, I decided to give myself the unheard-of luxury of a slacker’s morning of coffee and the newspaper and perhaps even a bath. Holly left a note saying that the workmen might be around out front and to let them in if they needed to use the phone or toilet.
I ran the hot water into their deep, Japanese-style tub. It was the size of a small cattle tank, with high sides of polished granite and nickel fixtures. It gave me pause to think of the kind of money a married couple without kids had available when they both worked high-paying tech jobs.
As I lay back in the hot water I relaxed for the first time in weeks. My mind unhinged and I thought about pleasant things. Hope began to seep back into me, and I felt that things were going to work out in my favor.
The doorbell rang.
But I didn’t have to get it, did I? In fact, I shouldn’t get it. It rang again. I ignored it, feeling delightfully bad. After a few more furtive rings, the caller went away. I lay back, untroubled.
I saw the bathroom door, which was unlatched, begin to move inward. At first I thought it was one of the cats, but the door stopped in mid swing and the head of a Latin man peeped around the corner. When he saw me his eyes nearly popped out of his head. He vanished. It must be one of the workmen, I thought.
But he hadn’t said anything. Surely he would have said something.
Maybe he didn’t know anybody was home. He certainly seemed surprised at seeing me. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard the workmen, no truck, no talking.
I jumped from the tub and wrapped a towel around my waist, running out into the living room.
There, on the coffee table, was a little pile of my friends’ valuables: camera, camcorder, jewelry box, silver urn. My blood ran cold.
Out front there were flashing lights. I saw that beyond the wreck of the yard a state trooper had pulled a motorist off the highway and was writing out a ticket. I ran out, towel and all, and told the cop that I had just been burglarized and that the perpetrator might still be inside. He called for backup, and two minutes later a couple of cop cars screamed up, sirens blaring. They went into the house with guns drawn, just like on TV, me standing there in my bare feet on the dirt holding the towel around my waist like an idiot.
The thief had rung the bell, come around back and slit the screen on the kitchen window, slipping in light as a cat. He quickly found the valuables and was making a final sweep when he discovered me in the tub. Just at that moment, the trooper had pulled up out front with his lights flashing to write the ticket. The would-be thief saw the cop car, panicked and bolted out the back door.
On the deck outside the back door lay the fourteen-inch Sabatier chef’s knife which I had turned into a razor the night before. The cops figured the guy had dropped it as he fled.
I’ve always wondered if the guy grabbed the knife before he saw me in the bathroom, or after.