While he worked for his CBO, Dirk also bought run-down houses, renovating them cheaply, but without stinting on the craftsmanship. He knew, from his work, all the statistics on homelessness and sub-standard public housing. He knew that it was cheaper to house drug addicts and the mentally ill than to keep them in hospitals when they bottomed out, but for some reason that's not what was done. He thought he was being realistic about what he could do, imagining a family at a time. If, while he was hanging new cabinets and putting tile around the bathtub, he also thought about a parent making a meal or a kid in the bath playing with a rubber duck, he could feel that one house, or two or three, made a difference. Not to the statistics, which were appalling, but to people.
After he and Dorothy finished cleaning up the kitchen, he'd go off to the house he was working on for a couple of hours. He was always home by nine, in time to watch TV with Dorothy or put their kids to bed. If he couldn't sleep at bedtime, he'd sit at the kitchen table with his plans. He'd commandeered Kevin's large tablet of drawing paper, where he'd sketch out a kitchen or bath with its measurements, compare that to the brochures he got from Home Depot or Rona, write himself some notes about hardware, switch plates, glass for windows, and some cost estimates. He'd learned, after the first house, that to be organized and efficient saved incredible amounts of time, and had hit on the system of using one envelope for receipts and one piece of drawing paper—bath on one side, kitchen on the other. This also made his accountant happy.
Some weeks, repairs took as much time as renovations. A furnace pilot light went out or a kitchen sink got clogged or a toilet wouldn't flush, or a cupboard door would need to be rehung. The first three he simply thought were normal wear and tear; he never figured out the cupboard door, but the skinny woman who greeted him looked so tired he didn't ask.
The winter he was working on his fourth house while juggling loans and collecting rents, Dorothy took to sitting with him across the kitchen table while he planned and figured and listed. She sat in her bunchy terry-cloth housecoat and did the day's crossword or paged wearily through nesting magazines. Lately, she'd been buying them often; he'd asked whether she wanted to do some decorating or renovating, but she said no. Later, when the magazines made their way into the bathroom, he'd rifle them for ideas, things he could do on the cheap to make renters feel more at home
One night, he was called to rescue a rubber whale from a toilet. The call came at about 7:30 from Naomi, a harried mother trying to explain the problem to him while her two kids shrieked and splashed in the bathtub.
"Look, I'll come over. You can explain then.” When he arrived, she was trying to dry the dishes and put them away but was continually interrupted by the kids' demands for a toy thrown out of reach or a towel to wipe water out of their faces. She was an earnest woman who worked at FNUC part time teaching a couple of classes. It was barely enough to live on, he knew, but it kept her home when the kids needed her. He always got to know his tenants a little, finding it made things simpler, less confrontational when there were problems or when the rent was late.
“I haven't gotten them out of the tub yet. It's one way for me to get some time to myself in the evening.”
If this was time for herself, he didn't know what distraction was. He went over to the kitchen sink and started washing dishes while she kept drying. "So what's the problem?"
“I think Kyle stuffed Sheldon's favourite bath toy in the toilet. That's what Sheldon said, anyway, and we can't find it anywhere. I was afraid to flush the toilet in case it made things worse.”
“You've got two boys?” he asked, scrubbing at a large frying pan that had potatoes burned to the bottom.
“Yeah. They're good, but a handful.
“I can imagine. Listen, I'll just go on in and see if I can find out what happened. You can have a little more peace to yourself. Pour yourself that last cup of coffee,” he nodded his head toward the coffee pot, “and take a breath.”
“Hey,” he said, going into the bathroom and grabbing a towel to dry the face of the younger boy who'd just had water poured over his head. “I hear something's missing. Know where it is?”
“Yeah!” Sheldon said, standing up out of the bath for emphasis. “It's my purple whale. Kyle put it in the toilet. He said he did. I can't find it anywhere. It usually lives there”--he pointed to an ice cream pail of bath toys under the sink--”so it doesn't drown. It'll drown in the toilet.
Dirk opened the toilet lid to find the water pale yellow, one turd floating around the edge of the bowl. He had thick rubber gloves in his tool kit. He put them on and reached down into the throat and found something was indeed down there. He turned his hand this way and that to see if he could get a grip, and finally pulled up the whale
“Yeah! I want it.”
“It needs its own bath first,” Dirk said, putting it in the bathroom sink. Where there are whales, might there be whale food? He reached back in and brought out a Transformer.
“That's mine!" Kyle yelled. "It was riding the whale down the tunnel!"
"He needs a bath too." Dirk got some dish soap from the kitchen, filled the bathroom sink, and gave the toys a good scrubbing before he threw them in the bath tub.
"You guys clean yet?" He had meant to start cleaning out the next house, but this seemed more important right now. He put down the sodden bath mat and helped them one at a time out of the bath tub. "Do you know how they dry off in the Navy? My dad taught me this." He pulled one towel taut and gyrated it back and forth along Sheldon's skinny shoulders, back, and bum. "There. You can finish. Now you," he said, nodding at Kyle, who giggled as he let Dirk almost knock him off his feet. “Pyjamas? Whose are these?”
Ten minutes later he had their teeth brushed and the boys were ready for bed. Naomi looked like she was nearly asleep.
“That was so nice. So nice to get a break. Not to fight to get them out of the tub.”
Dirk went to the kitchen sink to give his hands a good scrubbing. Even though he used his gloves for the uglier side of plumbing, they still left his hands feeling grungy.
“I was here. Seemed the thing to do. Have a nice night,” he said as he let himself out.
At home, he found Dorothy already in her bath robe watching CSI New York. He settled in beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders. She sniffed the air. “You always smell different when you come back from your rescue missions. Like someone else's cooking or different hand soap. It's confusing sometimes.”