The Search for Intelligent Life

Posted on September 15, 2011


I wake up with a rare feeling of energy pulsing through me. I’m focused on a list of goals in my mind, important things I will either accomplish or at least pummel into submission. Without words, I tell myself this is going to be a productive day.

After driving my son to school, I steer my way back, past flat lawns glistening with early morning wetness. It’s mid-September, and I can see that the silvery shimmer includes spider webs in the grass, a sure sign that summer is about to depart, making way for a short autumn and the long, cold winter to follow. As I pull into the driveway, I’m comforted by the fact that I have a clear, dry path leading from the car into my empty house. The spiders have their work to do, and so do I.

Around the front door, too, webs stretch in every direction. As I glance left and right within three feet of my head, I see at least a half dozen spiders, different kinds and different sizes, all busy mending their traps and tending to their captured prey — mostly the pathetic crane flies that normally cover the walls and doors, now folded and wrapped like a selection of convenience store sandwiches.

Crane flies, if you don’t know, resemble enormous mosquitoes. They remind me of what an alien attack might look like: huge creatures filling the sky, then swooping down to carry off an unsuspecting dog, or a squirrel with an attention deficit. They look frightening, but they don’t bite and are shockingly fragile; their legs seem to fall off at the first sign of a threat. And while it may appear that the crane flies have all attached themselves to my house, I know better. A short walk across the lawn will launch a thousand of them out of the grass and into the air, like scrambled jet fighters.

I’m sorry, did I say empty house? That isn’t quite true. Our two cats are inside. Zoey is ten years old, docile and undemanding, save for her nightly three a.m. snacks, which I get up to provide, if only to avoid an hour and a half of head butting.

Chloe is ten weeks old and, I fear, possessed by demons I didn’t believe existed. Her daily tasks include climbing screens, doing sideways flips onto Zoey’s back, and dismantling a beautiful wicker chair, bite by bite. But her main job is bolting out the door every time one is opened. Even at her tender age, she knows to run under the car, and using sophisticated calculations of trigonometry, manages to find the spot where no one can reach.

As I open the front door just a crack, I see Chloe’s little face peering out, her eyes bouncing around as her small brain wrestles with compound fractions and square roots. I reach my hand in and grab her, nudging the door with my shoulder and then closing it behind me with my foot. Kicking off my shoes, I take a moment to hold her in my arms, giving her a squeeze that’s part affection and part victory dance. I will not be crawling around on the driveway today. Besides, I have too much to do.

In my office, I realize I’ve left my wallet in the car. I don’t want to push my luck by trying to go out through the front door. Tossing Chloe one way while running in the other doesn’t work, because she has the uncanny ability to land on her feet and change directions at the same time. And she’s really fast. I close the office door, sealing the room off from the rest of the house, and head out through the side exit. Then I realize the car keys are on my desk. And then I realize I’ve just closed the door completely, with me on the outside; the house keys are also on my desk. I hesitate for a second or two, relishing the last remnants of hope that maybe I’d unconsciously turned the lock on my way out. I reach for the doorknob and twist it, but get nothing but the hard, blunt facts: I can’t get in.

I think of calling my daughter, because she has a key. She’ll laugh at the fact that I’ve locked myself out yet again, but at least I’ll be inside. The next thing I remember is that I don’t have a cell phone. And then my own mind comes to the rescue: There’s a spare key in the shed. The shed has a lock, and so does the gate in the fence around the backyard. Luckily, they share the same key. True, the key is part of the set resting on my desk, but there’s another one hanging secretly on a nail under the front deck. I am somehow managing to stay one step ahead of my own stupidity.

With secret key in hand, I walk through the wet grass and spider webs in my white socks. I could take off the socks, I suppose, but I don’t think of it until I feel the soaked cotton on my feet. The spider webs may have also contributed to my forgetfulness. Trudging through the back lawn, hundreds of crane flies explode out of the grass, and for the first time they don’t seem so pathetic. I consider screaming, just to see if their legs will fall off. I unlock the shed, grab the spare house key, and walk back to the side door. There are two keys in the shed, one for the side door I’d come out of minutes earlier, and one for the front door. I’ve grabbed the wrong one, so I have to walk around the house and go through the front. As the key turns, I savor a split-second of relief before seeing an orange-and-black blur race between my legs. I spin around just in time to see Chloe disappear under the car.

“Stupid cat,” I mumble. Then I say some words that I never say when people are around, and I begin a ten-minute battle that eventually ends with me holding the kitten down at my side, worried that if I look at her, I may throw her onto the roof. I wouldn’t mind throwing her onto the roof, but the ladder is in the shed and I’d have to walk through the wet grass and spider webs again.

As I open the door, four or five crane flies slip inside with us. I put Chloe down and she runs up the stairs, doing what I believe is a victory dance. Zoey appears and begins chasing a crane fly around the living room as I peel off my drenched, grass-stained socks and head back to the office to begin doing whatever it was I thought I’d be half-finished with by now. On the way, I decide to do a load of laundry, including my socks. I turn on the washing machine, pour in some detergent, and wait a minute to get some good suds going. Then I hear a crash from upstairs that causes me to crack my elbow down onto the corner of the washing machine’s lid. It slams closed as I run, clutching my tingling right arm, to see what happened. In the living room, I find DVDs scattered on the floor. Zoey is trying to climb a wall to catch a crane fly and Chloe is on the kitchen counter, about to dive into the sink for no apparent reason. I snatch Chloe and put her into my son’s room and close the door. Then I catch the crane flies, one by one, in a plastic cup and release them back into the wild. Before letting them go, I advise the insects to think before they act. “Use your head,” I offer. “Stay away from the spiders.” I swear I hear one of them turn and say something sarcastic.

Back inside, I sit down at my desk and get to work. I notice that the new operating system I installed on my computer the previous week is incompatible with yet another software program I’d been using for years. This one contains all of our bank and credit card accounts, as well as mortgage and tax information. The upgrade cost just twenty-nine dollars and promised to make me more productive. I call a new software company and after nineteen minutes on hold, I reach someone who tells me I’ll need to send our financial information to them so they can convert the files to their format. Then I’ll have to re-enter every transaction that has occurred during the transition. Feeling flustered, I hear the washing machine turn off and I go to take out the clean laundry. I open the lid and peer down into emptiness. I’d never put the clothes into the machine, and it had been running all this time, washing itself, but nothing else.

By now I’m tired of fighting the inevitable and decide to go to the grocery store, where I’ll stroll up and down the aisles and forget about the morning’s adventures. I hang my keys on the back of the shopping cart, as I always do, and begin to explore. I collect an assortment of items, including some fresh plums, a warm loaf of bread, some cheese, a package of tortillas, and a jug of orange juice. Feeling relaxed for the first time all day, I pay for my groceries, thank the cashier, and leave. I have just the one bag, so I drop off the cart in the designated area and walk across the parking lot, enjoying the warm sunshine on my skin. As I approach my car, I realize that I’ve left the keys hanging on the shopping cart. I run back into the store, but the cart is gone. I race through every aisle, slowing down just enough to look at the back of every shopper’s cart without giving them the impression that I’m looking at them. Several of the customers, all women, give me looks of alarm. One grabs her purse. I go to the customer service counter, where I’m handed my keys, which had apparently been turned in before I’d even reached the car.

On my way home, I make it a point to drive a little under the speed limit. I have no hope of catching a single green light, and I’m sneaking occasional glimpses at the sky, sure that if an asteroid were about to hit the Earth, I would be the exact point of impact. I also decide that if I ever again wake up with that sensation of energy pulsing through me, I’ll do the only thing that makes any sense: I’ll stay in bed until the feeling goes away.

Meanwhile, I park in the driveway and make sure I’m holding the keys before locking the car. I also concentrate on taking the groceries into the house on the first try. I check the front door for crane flies and spiders. Then I enter slowly, expecting to be confronted with Chloe’s cute little maniacal face. When I don’t see her, I remember that she’s still in my son’s room. I look down the hallway and notice that the poster that had been taped to the outside of his closed door is now lying on the floor. A large framed picture on the wall is tilted at a very precise forty-five degree angle. I hear something that sounds like fabric being torn into strips. I want to open the door, but I’m afraid. And I mutter the two words that, lately, seem to explain everything in my life.

“Stupid cat.”