Housesitter left his last family and moved on to his next, a man and woman in the northern part of the state who had engaged him to look after their house with their son Josef in it while they were away in Spain.
When he’d first taken up his profession, almost ten years ago, he’d moved around only in his own city, from one district to another, at first just from one street to another or even from one house to another on the same street, among families he more or less knew. But inevitably he’d started moving among the suburbs, and then reached the point of moving among towns, sometimes crossing wide swaths of open country from one house to the next, traveling a loose but effective web of word-of-mouth. He was now in among people whom other people knew but whom he himself could not until he was already indoors with them.
He packed all the things that he had stowed in the last family’s house, in their closets and cupboards, and the clothes he had hung on their hangers, among their clothes, and brought them onto the highway and across the state to the new house, on the new street where Josef, who was seven, lived with his parents, who were leaving. He had written the address, beneath the word “Josef,” in a monthly planner that he checked again and again as the taxi from the bus station drove him down the street. He was still checking it when the door opened and the parents said, “Welcome, Housesitter,” and ushered him in.
He was so tired he wanted to go right up to bed with his clothes piled on a chair blocking the door. But he knew he’d have to stay downstairs to hear the parents tell him everything first, all the phone numbers to call in case of all the things that could happen, and the nuances of the schedule they’d bound their son to.
He went to the downstairs bathroom to shock himself awake and remember that he could always pretend he was already asleep and dreaming in that guest-room bed he knew was waiting for him at the top of the stairs. He was so tired he couldn’t remember, couldn’t think about, whether he’d been tired on the bus and in the taxi down the street, or if it was only hitting him now.
He returned, ready to look like he was listening.
The parents showed him the cupboards where the dry goods were, and the door to the basement where the brooms hung — “Junior,” the one with a plastic handle and yellow bristles, “Senior,” the one with a wooden handle and yellow bristles, and “Moe,” the dustpan.
“One of our babysitters,” said the mother, “name of Vangie DeWardner, fell headlong down these stairs, end over end like a boulder, and was found in a crumpled heap at the bottom with two of her ribs broken up into one another so that at first the paramedics thought it was just one rib that’d swollen to the size of two.” She made sure he was listening. “And it wasn’t just the impact of the concrete bottom that broke her up,” she added. “It was each individual stair, one after another after another.”
She seemed very intent on his understanding that this story had to do with the particular flight of stairs they were now standing at the head of, and not another flight, unseen in another place. Nor was it a story about stairs in general. He wondered what it was about him that made her doubt he could grasp this.
The father trailed behind with a pad of paper, making notes. “A pharmaceutical company gave me this pad of paper,” he said, barely audible at the back of the procession. “At a conference. But you can ignore the dosage information and the long chemical names that adorn its borders, because all that we need you to know is the information that’s written mainly in the center of this pad of paper’s sheets.”
He had a pharmaceutical pen, too.
They kept going through the house. Housesitter’s feet dragged like his shoelaces were caught on something in the previous room. He would not have been surprised to observe himself falling obliquely onto the carpet, his face cushioned from the shock of impact by the slow motion of sleep, his nerves shutting gracefully down before he landed. He did not know how surprised the parents would have been.
“This is where Leon Garment, a film-club friend of my husband’s and not the most beloved member of our community, spilled nacho cheese on the carpet, and then tried to wipe it up with his shoe, not understanding that this is actually the sort of thing that makes something worse,” said the mother, and stopped to show the shoe-shaped stain. “It made us realize the value of stains, we thought,” she continued, “of keeping rather than erasing them, so as to always remember what has happened in the places where things have. But now we’re not sure. This is one thing we’re going to discuss on the veranda in Spain. We are planning to reorient our life, so when we come back it’ll be like the first time. It’ll be our second chance, but we’ll be so far inside it it’ll seem like our first, which, really, a second chance must if it’s to be a real one and not just a ‘second chance.’ We will stand before this house upon our return, with our bags in hand, and say, ‘What do you think, honey? Shall we settle in this one?’ ‘Yes.’ ”
He could feel sweat running down his thighs when he put his hands in his pockets. The inside of his belt was steaming and he knew how it probably smelled. He looked at the mother talking, the father writing: it was easy to tell there was something furtive, guilty about her; with the father it was harder to tell.
The father put the pad on top of the TV and picked up a plastic crate of travel guides, sighing like the weight hurt him. The mother held these up one by one, explaining how they had auditioned and rejected each possible country before deciding on Spain.
“Malaysia,” she said, holding up the Malaysia book, “turned out to be not quite what we thought. We felt a tiny bit betrayed.”
She pressed herself back into her husband and he leaned in around her, reflexively kissing the back of her ear with the tips of his lips after putting the crate down.
Housesitter looked away. He’d been in similar moments with other couples on the nights before their departures, though he’d never been this tired. While he was looking away, he tried to regroup. “This is all just par for the course,” he whispered. “The part of the job before the good part.”
“This is the slot where the mail falls from,” she interrupted, pointing at the front door. “It can fall very quickly and startle you, so be on the lookout throughout the afternoon and well into the evening.”
She paused to let this sink in, then went on. “This is the closet, which we call the ‘Front Closet,’ where my husband, who used to have a sleepwalking problem, used to pull his pajama pants all the way down and pee on the shoes.” She stood in mimicry of her husband’s former problem in such a way that both men could tell she was taking a moment to imagine how it might feel to have a penis.
“The shoes are now clean,” she said.
“Please don’t look away,” she said. “You come very highly vetted, but we need to know for ourselves that you’re right. It’s not too late to call things off.”
“This is the couch, for example,” she went on, pointing to a futon under the windows, “where a political canvasser was once invited in, off the doorstep, for a glass of iced tea, but then requested rum, without having been offered rum, and our son, who knew where the rum was kept and was home alone at the time, went to the cabinet and got the rum and, when we came home in the evening, we found that this man had drunk the whole bottle of rum and had spilled his leaflets, here,” she scratched at an area of the floor with the toe of her slipper, “and our son was back upstairs, so this political man was drunk all alone on the couch, and could not be roused until morning. And we never found out his name.” She looked at him with concerned eyes, her expression loaded with a kind of objectless empathy.
He realized this was the first time she’d mentioned the son, and was fairly certain that if he asked to meet him now, or asked even what the boy liked to eat and do, he’d be shushed with a tone that would communicate the opposite of “ask us that again in a few minutes.”
She led the way back into the kitchen where they’d begun, showing him now the hook by the door that held the car keys, and the car they were leaving him to use, and the envelope of spending money.
He tried to picture the room where this boy lived, directly over their heads no doubt, as they sat in the kitchen, the mother grasping for words to convey their loathing of rotten lettuce in the crisper drawer and their method for avoiding expired milk at the shop, where some cheaters were employed.
The mother warmed turkey soup on the stove while the father sliced the end of a loaf of rye in three, and put the slices in the toaster oven, and got out butter and a jar of fish in water or brine. Housesitter pushed aside the pharmaceutical pad to make room for his bowl.
He watched the deepening colors settle in around the kitchen windows, spilling out the last of the blue across the hanging plants behind the dishwasher. His eyes wanted to sink down into the center of his skull like two cherries in a bowl of gelatin.
After a few bites, his shoulders and elbows fell slack by his sides, his spoon resting on his knee under the table. The mother said how important the vacation was to her and her husband, and therefore how important it needed to be to him, because he was now part of the family. “Things have just reached a point,” she said. “And beyond this point, for us, lies Spain, and for you … here you are.”
She’d changed her voice in such a way that it felt both like she was trying not to wake or disturb someone, and also like she was trying to mask the sound of something she didn’t want to be heard.
“We are packing a kit of prophylactics,” she continued, “because we want it to feel as though we are at the beginning again. We will go through all the motions that starting a family involves, without this time bearing those motions’ consequences.”
All Housesitter could think, as he peered at her talking with his head nearly in his soup, was how much he wanted to call them a taxi for the airport right now and force them to get in. Thinking again of the boy upstairs, he professed to understand what he’d been told and asked if he could please go up to bed.
In the guest room at last, he thought about tomorrow when he’d move into the parents’ room and begin to sleep in their bed.
The guest room was where he always started, in all the houses. Always the same pastel sheets and blanket half-folded at the foot of the bed and pillowcase with yellow stripes or a border of green ivy or pink hearts.
The room and sheets were cold. After the parents leaned in to whisper goodbye he began to hear low, elongated screams, filtering between his body and the sheets, which were soon dirty with the smell of sweat. This warmed them up.
The screams filled first his room and then every room, like a gas leak. The father’s pharmaceutical pad fluttered off across the kitchen floor, away to a place where those who stayed behind would not find it.
Housesitter waited in bed until the screaming died down. Then he put on a bathrobe and walked downstairs, through the living room like coming down on Christmas morning to find his presents piled up in the dark. His bare feet clenched at the tiles and the grout between them as he filled a glass with water.
When he put down the empty glass, he heard soft steps. A girl in a blue nightgown came into the kitchen and stood in the doorway, looking at him.
He looked back at her as she went to the sink, took another glass from where it was drying, and filled it. Then she went back to where she had stood and took a long sip from the surface as the water that had come out white turned clear.
When she finished, she put it next to the sink, again to dry, and sat down at the table. The two sat together very quietly until he got up and asked her what she’d like for breakfast, and then poured two bowls of cereal and milk and sat back down, pushing hers into reach.
As they ate, she said, “I crept into the bathroom and unwrapped a blade. I was in there for hours, doing it. They thought I did it before. That’s why they tried to escape. But I waited until they left. I was very patient.”
He looked at her again, preparing to accept the fact of her. When he had, he asked her name. “It’s Johanna,” she said, like no one had ever asked her until now. “I knew you were here when I heard you snoring in the guest room.”
“Hi, Johanna. I heard you last night too. Screaming.”
“That wasn’t me,” she said. “Now he’s gone, off to be quiet.”
She finished her cereal. “He had to go. What about you?”
He was stuck on an image of the parents high in the air, feeding each other pretzels with the rest of the world and everyone in it five miles below, under a layer of clouds as solid as ice.
“I just got in, from another town. I’m here with you now,” he replied, shaking it off. “In this house. Just the two of us.”
Johanna got up from her seat, put her bowl next to the sink, and came back to the table, taking the other seat now, on his left, while he stayed fixed in the middle.
“Do you think we should go up and have a look at that bathroom?” he asked her. “To see if it’s all clean?”
“It is. I stayed in there all the rest of the night, working. I went down to the basement and got the whisk broom and the cleaning bottles and everything.”
“But I heard screaming all through the night.”
“This house is sticking up from the ground and straight into the world. You can hear almost anything that’s going on.” She shrugged and looked away, back to where those things were likely going on still.
He looked over at the drawer that held the kitchen knives, guessing how long it’d take to grab one, if it came to that, and if it’d do any good.
He wanted to ask, “And there’s no one in there now? No one buried, or stuffed away?”
But he didn’t. He asked, “Have you taken a shower yet?”
She looked at him like she knew there was another question behind this one. “You mean to wash off what I did?” Her voice was almost accusatory, like he was the one that’d done something.
“No,” he said. “Just to get ready for the day. Let’s go out somewhere, get lunch, walk around in a place you like.”
She stayed next to him for a further moment, then nodded and went upstairs.
He went to the parents’ room and was in there when he heard her shower start. He stood very still, waiting until the water got warm.
He was aware that she was naked now, and now covered in soap. He picked up the parents’ clothes hamper and was about to take it across the hall and into the laundry room, but didn’t. He looked down at the dirty clothes, recording the last few days of their lives, and then poured his own underwear — yesterday’s underwear, from the long bus journey — on top, and his socks and undershirt on top of that. Now, also naked, he walked over to the dresser, opened a drawer in the middle and looked at everything in a row, folded and fitted exactly to the rectangular space. He opened the other drawers, feeling their cold polished wood against his thighs, looking at himself from the waist up in the mirror that reached from the dresser to just under the ceiling. Behind him he saw the bed, where the child had been conceived.
Just after noon, Sunday, they went out.
He’d put on clean clothes from his suitcase in the guest room, and then they each put on their shoes and got in the car. He drove them into town with the spare keys he’d taken off the hook. They looked everywhere for the binder of CD’s but couldn’t find it, so they turned on the radio and it played Johanna’s favorite song.
It was the last weekend of November. The pane of days that obscured Christmas grew clearer by the minute. They left the windows of the second-floor bathroom open so that clean air could drift in, easing southward from the Arctic and upward from the Earth.
Each wore a winter jacket and enjoyed wearing it. He’d taken a long red scarf from the downstairs closet and wrapped it around his neck, and Johanna had taken a scarf from her room and wrapped it as well, and they each wore a pair of gloves and a hat, to pretend it was already late December, the days dark by three in the afternoon.
He asked Johanna where to park in town, and she told him. Flyers for bell choir and choral concerts clung to the streetlamps, which were already on, filling the dark afternoon with an especially romantic glow. Two boys rang a Salvation Army bell, and two girls rang another across the street.
This was to be their one day in the open air, out of the house, browsing in all the stores, the joke stores and the clothes stores and the toy store with a nearly full-sized stuffed horse peeking from a stable, and a model train set called The Santa Fe Howler, which chugged out of sight on its track and returned a long time later. The bakeries all had fresh cakes and cookies for the new season, filled with almond, ginger, and cinnamon. The smell of baking butter filled the narrow streets, and they drank chai and hot chocolate in a café, nodding benignly to other pairs of children and parents.
Johanna smiled and said she felt like there were a few days off from school coming up, like Winter Break was here early. He smiled too. There was smoke and leaves and wind in the air, new books on the shelves of the bookstores and tables laid out with shining piles of cards and calendars.
They held hands and looked at the posters for the new movies that had come to the two-screen theater, and at the posters on the windows of the video store for the movies that’d played there before. They filled a plastic bag with comedies and cartoons, like there really was a long vacation coming up, or an unbroken chain of snow days, and they bought fudge and peanut brittle and butterscotch at a store called Emporium. They bought chamomile tea and cocoa mix and mini-marshmallows.
Just to eat these sweets together, at home, would make them both very happy, aware though they’d be that they wouldn’t go to town again.
The cool day surrendered to cold night. They got back in the car and drove home, picking up Indian food on the way, and came indoors, closing the bathroom window now that fresh air had come in, and ate with all the lights on, even in the rooms they had no reason to enter, and then they watched one of the comedies from the bag. It prolonged the feel of the day, but then it really was night, and there was no way to warm the house, not with dessert and not with tea. They went upstairs, each to their own room.
Just before this, they had unpacked the sweets, arranging them in the cabinets and cupboards of the kitchen, which already smelled sweet from the dried fruit and boxes of cookies that had been in there before. They also unpacked the other parts of the day, putting moments from it on top of the tins and in between the boxes, so that in the future when they reached in here for an Oreo or a cluster of caramel popcorn, they’d come away with a piece of this time they’d spent together, hand in hand in the waning afternoon.
He spent the night in the parents’ bedroom, having moved his suitcase in there from the guest room. His clothes surrounded theirs in the hamper, and his Right Guard stood next to the mother’s Speed Stick and the father’s Old Spice on the ledge atop the dresser.
He slept for several hours at a time, among their sheets on the big bed, but the house and the driveway and the front and back yards, and all the trees and hedges, stayed up all night. With the air blowing through, inspecting them, thinking them over, they started to change, taking on aspects and characters they hadn’t had before. The sticky sugar treats in the cupboards lay open, their plastic wrappers peeled back, as a tongue reached out to lick them.
One night, while Johanna slept down the hall, he got up and carried his pillow into an empty bedroom with a bed shaped like a truck, smiling faces painted into the wheels, and a poster of a smiling hammer climbing a pile of trash that stretched up toward the moon.
He believed he’d feel the tongue’s presence less in here, maybe just because the bed was smaller and he could fill more of it by stretching out. As soon as he closed this new door behind him, he knew he’d never go back into the parents’ room, not even to gather his suitcase. He was a little amazed he’d slept in there at all.
In the morning, relieved, he awoke and came downstairs and had his glass of water, and then Johanna came and had hers, and then they had their cereal, with water now that the milk was gone.
Thus began a period where they stayed indoors all day and played card games and board games, and rewatched videos they had just seen. Never before had time been spent so freely, nor had there ever been so much of it.
These were the days of socks on thick carpets and smooth wood floors, all-day pajamas and lying on stomachs, heads propped on elbows, moving plastic figures across boards that charted battlefields and lives wound along a path.
He slept now always in the truck-shaped bed. Some nights, though less frequently than when he’d slept in the parents’ room, the sounds in the house, that tongue, still woke him.
On one such night, he went into the bathroom and ran the bath. While the tub filled, he came out and stood naked in the hall, by her door. He kept very still. To wake her now would be to catch her before she was ready, when she wasn’t all here. If they couldn’t meet in the morning, with the night behind and the day ahead, she would become a stranger to him, and he to her, he thought, the wallpaper sticking to his back as he leaned against it. The plank on which they stood together over a long drop would tip and fall away.
As he listened at her door, he heard: … never quite empty … people too, feelers … bed … see and or, discern … grip … came over or called to, and … she … in its fingertips that … because she … and it would …
In that same upstairs bathroom where, he’d been told, Josef had left this house, the water filled its tub. Blind in the steam, he turned the lights above the sink as low as he could and turned on the fan, dribbled a little Epsom salt into the bath, and heard her voice whispering on, as loud in here as it’d been in the hall.
He sank into the scalding water, peeing and nearly biting his tongue, and lay back, turning on the jets, smelling the steam, closing his eyes. If it comes for me in here, he thought, it will have been the place of my choosing.
He slumped down, easing into the thoughts he’d had in all the baths in all the houses since he’d taken up his profession, since before he’d heard much in the nights, before he’d unnamed himself.
Toweling dry, he dabbed his groin and armpits with talcum powder and walked down the hall and back to the truck-bed room.
He turned on the light on the nightstand, shaped like a miniature streetlight, and took a pile of comics from a drawer. He knew that Johanna was still whispering, but, spreading the comics around his body on the mattress, he resolved not to listen.
He tried to read aloud, but soon lost his voice. It sounded hoarse, like he’d been shouting over something, and his ears hurt. Maybe water from the bath had seeped in. He pressed at his earholes, at first gently and then with some violence, but it only brought him further from equilibrium.
He could feel the tongue again, breathing up from under the bed, panting, as far from sleep as he was. Legs hardening into a tangle, he tried to lie very still and let its breath dry away the last of the bathwater.
It was whispering, or perhaps shouting against his stopped-up ears, echoing Johanna down the hall while adding what she could not know. He could tell that the truth about Josef was here in the room with him.
He could neither grasp it nor tune it out.
He decided to close his eyes but found that they were closed already. The effort to close them again pulled them open.
His spine, pressed deep into the child’s mattress, vibrated along with the tongue directly beneath, and he looked up at the dreamcatchers that Josef must have made at school or in an afterschool program, at this point more on the side of nightmare than against it.
The effort to sleep became too oppressive.
He stood up, shedding comics onto the floor, and could see the mistake he’d made in thinking he could sleep off the rest of his time in this room. He made as little contact with the floor as he could until he was out of the tongue’s range.
After catching his breath in the hall, still pressing on his ears, he resolved to force his way back into the parents’ room and from there face what was in the house, or was coming.
Johanna and he would wander the hallways from now on, pretending they were the streets of the neighborhood.
He lay back in the parents’ bed, stretching out as if to convince the sheets he’d never left, drying the parts of himself that the towel and the truck-shaped bed and the comics had missed.
He looked at his suitcase, which he’d left in here all this time, and felt both glad to see it again and suspicious of what changes it must have undergone in his absence.
He thought about Johanna and the time they still had together, in this house, and the fact that, during this time, they were free to indulge in the feeling of living here, truly here and not just provisionally so.
He was close to sleep but still couldn’t get the rest of the way.
He could look down and see it, the place he wished he were and the fullness of the new day beneath, but something he couldn’t see remained between.
So he got up again, opened the bedroom door, walked back into the hall. It was much colder out here, like it really was the neighborhood and the act of pretending had been pretending it wasn’t. Real winter had come.
He groped along the solid wall for a window.
It wasn’t hard to hear her shuffling from the other direction, though her toes barely escaped her nightgown.
Each recognized the other, but, for a second, because it was night and dark and they were only half-present, each looked away. Then they looked back, and he offered her his hand, and she took it. She knew where the window was, how to lead him there.
It was a long walk. The wall stayed solid a long time before opening.
When it did, they stood before it, looking out at the street.
He squeezed her hand tighter as cans and leaves out there stirred, and sacks of garbage tipped onto their sides.
After a while, a couple of delivery vans passed by, on their way to the small college a few streets over, bringing bulk canned and dry goods.
Then more nothing.
Then, as the first blue of dawn was starting up, a black car appeared in the window, its headlights in full blare.
Her hand tensed in his, and he could feel her body working, full of attention.
They watched as the car cut through the leaves and garbage, growing darker as the morning grew lighter. It turned its lights off. It came very close to the house, slowing as it approached.
The hallway was a bridge, a narrow strip of habitable land between the waste of the street through the window, and the walls and unknown rooms behind, cracking open and taking shape.
They stood on it, trying to keep their balance.
The car was gone. He fixed his eyes on the blank window, but couldn’t keep from imagining it in the driveway, letting the parents out.
Then they would come inside, leaving their luggage in the trunk for now. They’d take off their shoes and catch their breath at the kitchen table before venturing upstairs to see who was home.
A sound, a voice, reached them where they stood. It sounded partial, like some of it had been lost on the way. It crackled like the tape of an old answering machine, sharp consonants and missing vowels, frazzled and distressed as the tongue came down on it, mopping it up like bread in a soup bowl, sucking it down into a belly that lived, as Housesitter imagined it, in the basement, nestled among the roots of the house.
He knew there’d be an echo, mixing with the still-present echo of that first night, sounds combining, dwindling but never down to zero.
And he knew it would be a long time, days or weeks, before anyone made it up here, into the room where he and Johanna would be waiting.