No Exit, Right This Way


“Feed the cats.” “Scoop the litter box.”

This is not rocket science. It is barely any kind of science. (Zoology, maybe, if you squint.)

So as my wife and I planned to go out of a town for a couple days, it didn’t seem unreasonable to ask our friend Vicki to come over once a day and do feline-maintenance duty.

This being New England, however, it turned out to be a tangle of complications.

Problem #1: guiding Vicki through the house to find the cats, the cat food, the litter box, and the compost bin where that disgusting used litter winds up.

Not easy.

Our house is 202 years old, except for the parts that are 222 years old. It seems Mr. Timothy Morse Jr. built a more or less normal Federal-style two-over-two house in 1817, and then decided to drag a 1797 barn from somewhere over near Rowley and attach it to the back of the house. Then someone — either Morse or a subsequent owner — decided to cut up the 1797 part of the house into two floors and various rooms and innumerable twists, turns, nooks, crannies, and whatever you call spaces that are even smaller than a cranny.

It would have been complicated enough under normal circumstances, but then, as we prepared to leave town, things got complicateder. Our water heater decided it had labored long enough — I believe it may have been the oldest continuously operating water heater in America — and it died a cruel death. So we arranged with some trusty professionals to come in and replace it. They would do the work while we were gone.

Our cats are of the indoor-only variety, and the workers would be coming and going through a variety of doors, so we had to isolate the cats by closing them into the downstairs guestroom and the stairwell to the second floor. This meant Vicki would have to come through the back door, close it behind her, choose the correct door to exit the mudroom, turn left in the kitchen, take the cat food out of the pantry, locate the passageway that leads toward the guestroom but doesn’t quite get you all the way there, choose the correct door (No! Not that door!), and navigate a sharp right through a dark nook (or is it a cranny?) through the door into the guestroom.

And there’s no turning back, after this point — I mean literally, because the door to the guestroom locks behind you, for lack of a latch on the opposite side. (Geez, I keep meaning to fix that.) So you feed the cats in the guestroom, and scoop the litter box, then leave (with the little paper sack of gross stuff) through the other guestroom door, which is the only way out, but which is almost impossible to open because it sticks, so you have to pound with your fist at a certain place on the door, and if it opens, you find yourself in the entryway of the 1817 part of the house, where you go through another door into the living room, and please be sure to close it behind you, and then cross diagonally to the passageway that leads you back into the kitchen, but on the opposite side from where you came in. And you’re not anywhere close to the compost bin yet.

Good luck.

There was no good way to explain it all — a fact which I have just now demonstrated — but my wife has spent four years as a tour guide at the Crane Estate, so she knew just what to do. She reverted to that sure-fire failsafe mistake-proof apparatus deployed by generations of pioneers: Post-It Notes.

When Vicki arrived, she found Post-It Notes on various walls and doors, with directions indicated in both words and arrows: “to cats” (arrow pointing straight ahead), “to cats” (arrow pointing left), “the way out,” “fist here” (X marks the spot), “other way out” (with not one but two arrows, one to the right, one turning the corner), “to compost” (bent arrow starting straight but veering left), and as a bonus, “recycling” (arrow pointing straight down).

We returned, after a total of about 72 hours, to find Vicki huddled in a corner, emaciated and quivering, nibbling Meow Mix. The cats were lounging on the guest bed, chewing gum and snickering.

The friendship is over, but the new water heater is working just fine.



Doug Brendel lives mostly in the 1817 part of his house on outer Linebrook Road. You can usually find him at (arrow pointing straight ahead) (bent arrow starting straight but veering left) (X marks the spot). To follow him more easily, click “Follow” here at — and check out his even simpler blog at


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