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The House Sitter

Robert would be overseas for six months or more, depending on how well the project progressed and whether any follow-up work would result. He’d asked his old friend Evan, knowing his availability, to look after his flat on the second floor of a 19th century Italianate building in the heart of the city’s old immigrant district.

Robert considered Evan his equal in talent and intelligence but, perhaps due to differences in drive and perseverance, their fortunes had diverged significantly. Evan was reeling from his third failed marriage and the most recent of countless lost employments. Evan landed on his feet after each disaster but age was catching up with him and his friend of long standing feared for his mental health.

The flat was owned outright and the cost of the heat from the aging but hardy boiler in the building’s basement was allocated among the four flat owners through an annual assessment which wouldn’t come due again during Robert’s tenure abroad. There was no air-conditioning in Robert’s unit. He didn’t believe in air conditioning with the fervor of a sweaty evangelist. There was also no television or telephone. Domestic entertainment came from an ancient stereo system with a turntable, an impressive vinyl collection and an equally robust library of classic and modern fiction and history housed in what was meant to be a second bedroom.

Robert’s Luddite tendencies had been discussed. Evan playfully countered Robert’s contention that most consumer technologies were wasteful, expensive and unnatural things by pointing out that everything about modern man’s milieu from clothing to breakfast cereal was unnatural from that perspective. They had a good laugh but the hot reality of lack of air conditioning and pre-paid heat meant very low monthly utility bills. Evan’s major expenses would be food, drink and whatever he needed in the way of socializing to sustain himself. The walkable neighborhood provided everything one might need save an occasional escape from urbanity which some needed, others not.

Robert had passed the keys and a slip of paper with his overseas contact information to Evan after an introduction to Mrs. Shapiro who lived in the first floor flat and served, ostensibly, as the building’s manager. Mrs Shapiro eyed Evan suspiciously as he clutched the valise containing his meagre wardrobe. Evan who liked to imagine how people, who were getting up in years, may have looked during their flowering couldn’t get a fix on Mrs. Shapiro. She looked as if she had always been and would forever be her sixty something year old persona. He couldn’t imagine being sixty. Or forty four, which would be his next birthday.

During his surveillance of the flat he subconsciously took note of the considerable height of the ceiling and the chandelier hanging from the main room. He noticed a chair which, if positioned beneath the chandelier, provided the appropriate drop if kicked away. And he noticed the stove conveniently powered by natural gas.

During his first week of inhabitance, Evan had laundered his clothes, including the pair of jeans containing the scribbled slip of paper Robert had passed to him on his arrival. He supposed Mrs. Shapiro had the missing information but he would wait to ask for it until he felt it was needed. Anyway, he would have to phone from her unit as they had previously discussed. He would wait because the information was not yet needed and because he found Mrs. Shapiro terrifying.

The flat was not lavish but well appointed and Evan settled in without much difficulty. Rising early he had coffee, juice and a buttered English muffin. He’d read or listen to music or both until lunch when he would dine at the inexpensive cafe nearby where a plate of pasta and a glass of wine could be had for not much more than the cost of the raw materials needed to prepare the meal himself. After lunch he would wander the roughly six block neighborhood. He began to embrace life in an eco-system that, as New Yorkers and Parisians know for example, exists as a series of small villages that make the larger city irrelevant and unnecessary. Indeed, as he had been told, he found everything he needed within a short distance and had become acquainted with a few of the locals although he had tight social boundaries as a result of his paucity of funds and his injured and wary spirit.

On his walk to the cafe, jay-walking across Rubicon Avenue which ran one-way and had few traffic lights allowing the vehicles to gain a considerable head of steam, he would note that a poorly timed step from the curb, whether by accident or design, would….

The flat, which seemed familiar from the first day, quickly became as much a friend to Evan as Robert. Like any true friendship, the flat and he seemed to enjoy one another’s company without the need for mutual acknowledgements and reassurances. Of particular enjoyment was the library. Four walls of floor to ceiling bookshelves that could not hold the entirety of the collection. When Evan wasn’t repositioning and climbing the ladder to examine the upper reaches he was digging through the boxes that obliterated fully half of the floor space. The library allowed for the sparsest of furnishings. A writing table with a single chair. Evan had to clear the books stacked on the table to restore its intended purpose. A worn leather sofa accompanied by a floor lamp. The sofa was, in many ways more inviting than the bed which he found a bit too firm. He spent many nights on the sofa, the slope of the arms provided precisely the correct position for prone reading whereas the four poster required a stacking of pillows that refused to remain in position.

He was on the sofa, lounging in his boxer shorts, the coverlet pulled to his collarbone with the floor lamp positioned perfectly, when he heard the key in the door. He was reading James Purdy’s Malcolm.

Evan didn’t panic, didn’t scramble for his trousers. Rather he lay quietly, book in hand, considering the possibilities. Could Robert have returned without advanced notice? An unfortunate event, it would be, since it might spell the end of Evan’s tenure in the flat. Or could it, God forbid, be Mrs. Shapiro?

It was neither. She entered carrying a small overnight bag like the one Grace Kelly used in Rear Window. 

“Hello,” she said without the faintest hint of being startled. Evan retuned her greeting, standing before her in his boxers.

Her name was Alice. She was a friend of Robert’s, a former lover who had retained a key. She knew of Robert’s extended absence and had decided to take advantage of the opportunity without knowledge of the arrangement with Evan. She did not apologize or offer to leave.

Evan, considered Robert somewhat effeminate but had never questioned his sexuality, had never delved into the nature of his longstanding relationship with the man but wondered now whether the rights of a former lover might trump the rights of a mere friend no matter the duration of their friendship. He refused to consider the advantages that the practice of homosexuality would have conferred on him in advance of this dilemma.

Alice spent considerable time in the bathroom, looking relieved and refreshed when she emerged. Evan said, “So. You mean to spend the night.” Alice merely nodded.

Evan settled back onto the sofa thinking there was nothing more to say at such a late hour, assuming Alice could find her way to the bed of which she was, presumably, all too familiar.

In the morning, after another lengthy session in the bathroom, Alice padded about barefoot with wet hair. Evan offered Alice a buttered English muffin. She helped herself to juice and coffee. They talked about Robert. Alice confessed that their relationship had been sexual but not really intimate, a condition that Evan could understand. They had been close enough to result in her key which she had copied without his knowledge. Evan found Alice’s candor surprising and oddly reassuring. He knew he should visit Mrs. Shapiro for Robert’s number. He should phone him to inform him of the turn of events and ask Robert to vouchsafe for his guest but he was not entirely displeased by the company and there was, of course, the issue of interaction with Mrs. Shapiro. His only request of Alice, at the appropriate moment, would be that she provide her own English muffins.

During his turns in the bathroom, Evan noticed, since he had walked away from his former home without a shaving kit, that Robert used an electric shaver, hypocritically contradicting his views on technology. A straight razor would have delivered a better shave with other potential uses thrown into the bargain, Evan thought.

Evan had begun to wonder, in the final days of his first month of residence in the flat, about the lack of communication from Robert. Most likely he was busy with his work but his lack of curiosity regarding goings-on in his home was curious, at best.

During a frank discussion with Alice, as they shared a cheap bottle of Chianti, Evan offered details about his distressed circumstances having already heard about Alice’s own travails. He told her about his weakness for beautiful women with character flaws or a lack of intelligence which he didn’t suppose was all that uncommon but the insight made it no easier to break ingrained habits. He and Alice formed a pact under the old theory that two can live as cheaply as one, agreeing to pool whatever resources they had or might gain in the future. This was an arrangement considerably superior to the one he had recently left in his marriage.

Alice was at a considerable advantage since women, in contrast to men, especially if the woman is, like Alice, young and attractive even though, in the case of Alice, not particularly stunning. Women can always can rely on the generosity of men especially if they grant them certain benefits. Evan would not assume Alice’s modus operandi, nor ask of such matters or consider it any of his business so long as it didn’t affect him.

It wasn’t long before Alice began arriving at the flat late in the evening, tipsy, with “friends”. The friends were male or female or both or of ambiguous gender. The gathering would disrupt Evan’s reading or music but offered the booze and food they invariably brought with them. Evan got accustomed to these soirees and since they were mostly on Friday or Saturday evening he could plan for and even gratefully anticipate the events.

One Friday afternoon, Alice informed Evan that she wouldn’t be returning to the flat until the following morning having been invited to a party that would run into the wee hours. Evan was disappointed but took the opportunity to get his first sleep in the bed for quite some time.

Stumbling through the door and through the series of rooms, for the flat was without proper hallways, Alice tumbled, stinking of booze and cigarettes, into the bed alongside Evan. He was unsure if she was aware of his presence but she draped a thin arm around his waist and snuggled into his back. He was unsure what this meant, if anything, given her condition.

In the morning, Evan quit the bed before Alice had awakened and sat at the breakfast table with coffee, contemplating the night before. He had never considered, let alone attempted, a romantic advance on Alice but the smell of her, corrupted though it was by a layer of party residue, had inspired desires that had been extinguished by his  recent humiliations. He thought about Alice’s warmth on his backside and how it had left a sort of glow. When she arose she smiled in a different way than the day before and, for the first time, pecked his cheek with a kiss before eating her muffin voraciously which suggested the lack of a proper meal the evening before. She relayed her tale of the party where she had intended to sleep off her drink until the host made it clear that the fare was sharing his bed, driving her back to where she now believed she belonged.

On the next next night, as Evan rested comfortably on the sofa with a copy of The Master and Margarita, Alice came to him from the bathroom, stark naked and cool and damp to the touch. She extended her hand and led him to bed.

After months still with no word from Robert while deftly dodging Mrs. Shapiro, Evan felt that in some occurrence his stay in the flat would soon surely come to an end.

On a late afternoon Evan returned to the flat with two bottles of wine and a hunk of cheese, an extravagance intended to please Alice. She wasn’t there. Neither was her overnight bag, her purse or other personal belongings. There was no trace of the woman. In the middle of the night he opened and drank both bottles of wine and ate enough of the cheese for both of them.

For the next several days, Evan visited their regular haunts – the cafe, a bar called The Rook, and even Washington Park though the pleasant gazebo and benches where they had sat and read or talked were seasonally cold and unpopulated except by bums which he imagined he was coming to resemble. Alice was nowhere to be found. He took to asking the regulars about her and when they said they had no recollection or hadn’t seen the woman he described in affectionate details he became increasingly despondent. After a while he settled into a hermit like existence, staring at the door, waiting for the turn of a key. He began to wonder if Alice had ever existed at all.

In desperation, Evan consulted Mrs. Shapiro to ask for Robert’s number in hopes that he might be able to shed light on Alice and her disappearance. She stared at him curiously. Mrs. Shapiro had no number.

Mrs. Shapiro had smelled the seeping gas, entered the flat with her master key, turned off the stove and bent over the man, breathing into him a foulness of corned beef, sauerkraut and rotting teeth. Evan’s mouth hungrily engaged hers thinking the woman of his dreams had returned.


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