The summer travel season is under way, as the Times puts it, which means that the winter parking season is over, and it’s cat-chauffeuring time. I moved out to the beach last Saturday, luring one reluctant cat into her box with a sprinkling of Kitty Kaviar, while the other, the Amazing Norbert, was eager to go wherever the cat food was going. I gave a ride to my friend MQ, who lets me park my car (formerly her car) in her driveway, and who lent a hand with the cats. They were quiet in the back seat, and I got them all the way to the door of the bungalow before three helicopters roared over, flying low, probably on their way back from the air show at Jones Beach, setting off every dog and car alarm on the peninsula, and incidentally terrorizing two newly arrived cats. It reminded me of the Concorde.
I had turned the water on in Rockaway earlier in the month, surprising myself with my studliness. Now it was time for the hot-water heater. Usually, my neighbor T. fires up the hot-water heater for me—a fireman’s daughter, I am a little afraid of explosions—but he and his wife, also T., were getting ready for a party, so I thought I’d try to do it myself. I got out my notes. Step 1: “Turn cock in pipe.” That’s easy enough: just take a small wrench and turn the valve on the gas pipe from horizontal to vertical, permitting the gas to get to the heater. Then, “Press down red button (2 min.).” T. has always had to fooster (my mother’s word) with this red button for quite a while before enough gas comes through for him to light the pilot. “Set top dial to Pilot”; “Set temp to off (vacation)”; “Light pilot”; “Turn up knob slowly”—“That’s so it don’t blow up in your face,” T. said.
I must have known, despite my good intentions, that I was going to end up asking T. to come over and help, because before I did anything else I cleaned up the area around the hot-water heater. It was all furry with dust. While cleaning, I noticed a phalanx of ants on maneuvers in the direction of the cat-food bowls. I attacked the ants with Windex, which is my improvement on my grandmother’s method, which was to pour boiling water on them. (I mean that it is an improvement not in the Buddhist sense of being less cruel but in the housecleaning sense of being faster and more convenient: it takes long minutes for the water to come to a boil as the ants come marching, and then your kitchen floor is awash with the corpses of parboiled ants.) Every summer there is a plague of ants, but this year, catching them early, on their way past their first redoubt at the hot-water heater, before they summitted the sink and the kitchen counters and turned the corner into the living room, I tracked them to their source: the chinks and gaps in the bathroom floor. Since you can’t spray Windex on every individual ant in creation, I set out ant traps and later bought a gel dispensed like caulking from a pump . . . but I digress.
Once the floor was relatively clean, I got my kitchen matches and my needle-nosed pliers and prostrated myself before the hot-water heater. I positioned the dials and held the red button for a long, long time, finding a use for a Pilates move called the Swan as I managed to keep the pressure on the red button with the hand holding the matchbox, strike the match with the other hand, fit it into the pliers, and stick it inside the heater, in the general direction of the pilot light, though I couldn’t actually see where the pilot light was. I repeated this exercise about six times without success, then gave up and went and got T.
“Didja press down on the red button?” he asked.
“Oh, DOWN.” I looked back at my notes, and that is exactly what it said, but for some reason I had been pulling up on the red button. I must have primed it, though, because T. had the pilot lit almost instantly. “I don’t know how hot you want it,” he said, turning the temperature dial. There was a whoosh as the fire ran around the ring, and I was in business.
I bought T. a six-pack of Budweiser, and went down to the beach. You can do a lot with cold running water—drink it, clean with it, boil it and kill ants with it—but there is nothing like a hot shower after your first dip in the Atlantic Ocean on Memorial Day Weekend.