“When Mom said living in the Northwest meant we’d be able to go camping more often,” I complained to Taylor as we laid out the sleeping bags on the hardwood floor in the living room, “this isn’t exactly what I was picturing.”
Taylor was with me for a change. “We don’t even have anything to use as padding,” she said sullenly.
Mom came in, dragging her sleeping bag and shaking her head. “Looks like we’ll need to use our jackets as pillows.” Her usual perkiness obviously hadn’t made the last trip up the stairs with her when we got home after going out to dinner.
Not so, Dad. He seemed to be trying to compensate with enough cheerfulness for everyone. “Now, this is what I call an adventure!” he said brightly as he strode over to the east-facing picture window. When he heard no reply, he turned to find all three of us glaring at him.
“Christopher,” Mom said in her quiet menacing mom voice. “All three of us are done in. It’s been a long day traveling, after a hard couple of weeks getting everything packed and ready for the movers. I thought you would have things more…” her voice started to quaver, “more ready for us.”
“Wow, I’m really sorry, Honey.” Dad was going for his best apologizing dad voice. “When you suggested borrowing camping gear until the moving truck arrives, I guess all I thought was “sleeping bags.”
She gave a big sigh and joined him at the window. “It is a beautiful view, even at night.” I went over and stood next to Dad, and Mom gestured for Taylor to join us. We would soon learn that Augusts in Seattle are a brief window of dependably beautiful weather, with long summer evenings like this one. We gazed out at a nearly full moon, hanging brilliantly above the mountains in a darkening blue sky. Below them, the lights were already twinkling from homes and office buildings on the other side of Lake Washington and just a couple blocks below us were dozens of boats bobbing at their moorings in Portage Bay.
“Oh, my!” Mom gasped. We followed her gaze to the right. Just visible in the distance above Capitol Hill was the top half of Mt. Rainier. The white of the glaciers had transformed into a luminous shade of rose, reflecting the late day sun.
Dad pointed off to the left. “Over there is my office.” We just looked at him and he smiled. “Well, you can’t actually see it, but that’s the campus.” Just then, the lights came on around the top rim of Husky Stadium. All in all, a pretty impressive vista.
Mom put her arm around Dad’s waist and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I don’t know how you manage it, Dr. Wayne. You’ve just always had a knack for turning bad situations good.”
That night, we were so tired that we managed to get some sleep, but one night on the hardwood was plenty. Between borrowing more gear, a trip to REI’s nearby main store, and getting the kitchen stocked with groceries, we had a pretty decent “camp” set up to hold us while waiting for our furniture and boxes and stuff.
Finally, after about a week, the moving company texted Mom to expect them the next morning. After breakfast, I took up watch at the living room window. As soon as I heard a big truck’s air brakes as it eased its way down the hill between the cars parked along both sides of the narrow street, I called out, “They’re here!” and raced down to the sidewalk.
I was wondering why the moving van had stopped before getting to the bottom of the hill, when the driver rolled his window down and stuck out his head to get a better look. I could almost read his mind as he registered the distance from the street up to the house. The man in the passenger seat got out and walked over to me. “Hey, keed. Thees your house?” he asked, pointing up. I nodded. When I confirmed that we were indeed the family whose things they had in their van, he walked back to the driver’s side of the cab and the two men began a very loud conversation in a language that wasn’t English. Maybe it was all the pointing and hand-waving but, somehow, I had a pretty good idea what they were saying.
After an impressive job getting the truck parked along the edge of the hill without blocking the street, the driver had two or three more loud conversations into his cellphone. By this time, Mom and Taylor had joined me and we were relieved when it became clear that they were going to deliver our things rather than drive away.
It turned out that the movers were equipped with some cool equipment that was going to make the difficult job possible. Still, Mom’s attempt to cheer them up wasn’t exactly successful.
“Hey!” she said brightly as they came down the steps after their first load. “You’re actually lucky that we left a bunch of our things behind!” The driver, who was the heavier of the two men, frowned and started to say something but must have decided to save his breath for the next load.
Taylor, who had sat on the curb to watch the men, spoke up. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking more about that. I don’t really get why we kept our D.C. house and left some of our things there. Are you guys thinking we aren’t going to live in Seattle long? And how can we afford to have two houses?”
OK, I might need to explain something here. D.C. stands for District of Columbia, which isn’t in a state, just kind of a separate area with only one city and it’s where our nation’s capital is. Washington D.C. Right, you know that of course. But, our previous house, um, actually our other house, is in Arlington, which is a city in the state of Virginia. There’s a river, the Potomac, the runs between Arlington and Washington and lots of people live in Arlington and take the subway or go across the bridge into Washington to work. That’s what my parents did. Georgetown University is in Washington D.C. Yeah, it does sound pretty confusing. Just as confusing as it was talking to our friends about how we were going to leave Washington and move to Washington.
“No, Taylor,” Mom was answering my sister. “You know how much I’ve wanted to come back here. I hope it’s permanent. But with your dad having occasional trips back to the other Washington and my staying involved in the Fort Monroe site, it will be nice to stay in our own home when we’re there.”
“But, how can we afford two houses? You never answer me when I ask that.” Taylor was very serious and suddenly seemed much older to me.
Mom hesitated before replying, “I’m not supposed to say anything, but I don’t want you to be worrying about our finances. We’re fine. The government agency that Dad does consulting for agreed to make the payments on the Arlington house. They didn’t want to lose him, so they made that part of his compensation.”
Taylor looked at her suspiciously. “Really? What kind of government agency would do something like that?”
A familiar voice interrupted whatever Mom was going to say, and she looked relieved as she turned to greet Mr. Swenson. “Good morning, Ned!”
“Yes, yes. Good morning. What on earth are those guys doing?” It was actually fairly obvious what they were doing, so Mom didn’t see any need to answer. “No, no, no. That’s not right, not right,” he said emphatically as he waved to the two movers hauling their large hand trucks down the bottom of the stairs.
The men plopped down together on the bottom step and were wiping the sweat from their foreheads, as Mr. Swenson approached them.
“You should park your van up there,” he said excitedly, pointing up the sidewalk that ran up the steep hill alongside our property and that of the house above us to the next block. “Unload from that street and you will be carrying the weight downhill instead of lugging everything up!”
Hmm. I hadn’t even thought about the sidewalk. But the movers obviously had. “No. Sidewalk ees no good. All broken and uneven. And too steep. Muy peligroso!”
Mr. Swenson was unmoved. “I tell you, it is much easier and way faster to work from up above. You will be here all day hauling everything up the steps!”
This time, the driver answered completely in Spanish. Mr. Swenson looked at him blankly for a second, but quickly recovered and made his next argument in what I can only assume was Swedish. Then, since neither could understand the other anyway, they stopped bothering to take turns and became even more incoherent. They didn’t notice as Mom guided us around them and up to the house.
They must have worked it out, because the unloading eventually continued. I glanced out the window to see Mr. Swenson still in the street in a supervisorial stance, but ignored by the movers. While Mom directed the placement of the furniture, Taylor and I were responsible for unpacking boxes. We would carry them to the appropriate room according to the label written on the outside, then open them and put the contents away. After an hour or two of this, I reached for a carton that was labeled, “STAY.” It also had in bigger lettering, “S-A”. I wasn’t sure what “S-A” meant, but “STAY” meant that it was one of the storage boxes that was supposed to remain in the house in Arlington. Somehow this one got loaded in the truck.
Curious, I carried it to my room. It wasn’t very big, but it was heavy. I set it down on my desk, next to my unassembled bed and sliced through the tape with my utility knife. On top was a fringed, multicolored shawl. As I picked it up and unfolded it, something fell out and clanked on the floor.
It was a small Aladdin-style lamp. I had seen a couple like this before that I figured my parents had bought as souvenirs. It fit in the palm of my hand, but it felt pretty heavy for its size. Solid brass, I guessed. On the spout where the flame comes out was etched a palm tree and around the opening where you would fill it with oil the name “Saudi Arabia” was crudely engraved. On the bottom was a sticker that said, “Made in India.” It was the kind of trinket Mom or Dad sometimes brought home after one of their trips for work. S-A, I thought, of course. This box was full of stuff from when Mom and Dad were in Saudi Arabia before we were born.
I set it down and returned to the box. There were two stacks of books filling the left half of the carton. I flipped through two or three, then I noticed something about the next books in the stack. I had seen text like that on books and papers my father often had around. It was Arabic.
Tucked next to the books was a photo album. I had seen these in our house before. Nearly all our family pictures have been digital. But when my parents were first married, before Taylor and me, the pictures they took were with film cameras and were printed on a special paper. I opened the album and saw pictures of them I’d never seen before. They never talked much about the year they lived there while Dad went to school. Lots of sand and sun; pictures of men in white robes and red and white checkered cloth things on their heads, a few with women in black robes covering their whole bodies, including head and face; pictures of western men and women, too, including my parents. And the buildings. Wow. Talk about a different world.
As I bent to put the album back, I realized there was one more item that had been under the album. The tan fabric had blended with the cardboard, so I hadn’t noticed it. Setting the album aside, I reached in and found it was wedged tightly. With both hands I tugged to free a sack with an intricate embroidery design. Whatever was inside was pretty heavy and oddly shaped.
I pulled at the top and realized it was fastened with something. Weird. The elegant and obviously old bag was cinched shut with a very modern clear cable tie, the kind you have to cut off. Well, I thought, picking up my utility knife, I’m pretty sure Mom wouldn’t be stopped by a little thing like this.
I cut the cable tie and spread open the top of the sack. I reached in and felt something cool and hard. It was wide enough and heavy enough that I couldn’t lift it out with just one hand. So, stepping on the bottom of the bag with my toes, I pulled it out with both hands.
I found myself staring at a king-size version of the lamp I had held moments ago. Well, sort of. This one certainly wasn’t a trinket. It must have weighed at least 5 pounds, possibly brass, but very tarnished. Even so, holding it up to the light streaming through the window, I could tell it was covered with elaborately etched designs and figures. There was more on the base, but it was too darkened to make it out. It seemed like a real lamp that had once been used before electricity. The spout was blackened at the tip and it was certainly big enough to hold enough oil to burn for a long time. I sniffed the spout, expecting a sooty, burned smell. Instead, there was a sharp burning sensation inside my nostrils and I had to quickly lower the lamp and rub my nose, while my eyes watered.