A dog cried in her absence.
There was a stain.
A chipped dish.
A broken book binding.
The house felt funny.
Well, you certainly made yourself at home, they accused.
If Audrey later found an object among her effects that didn't belong to her, even a nail file or a pen, she returned it. She always left residences cleaner than she found them. She'd heard the stories: pets under the care of other house sitters were hospitalized after eating laundry soap or Kleenex; gardens drooped and browned with neglect; tubs overflowed. But these incidents were excused, while her method of towel folding was an offense worthy of note.
Nevertheless, people continued to take leave of their circumstances and she continued to make herself available. Her references were uniformly positive if not effusive.
She obeyed their admonitions with little expectation of appreciation.
"Don't put magnets on the refrigerator—they leave marks."
"Only distilled water for the Venus flytrap."
"No scented laundry products."
And then there was the case of the gentleman who had fastened shut the cupboards in which he stored his kosher dishes and utensils with immense lengths of mint dental floss. That had been in her second year of sitting. Not long after that a client accused Audrey of rearranging the dining room furniture, insisting that the room no longer felt like her own. It goaded her—that she wasn't given the benefit of the doubt despite her meticulousness. She sprinkled catnip beneath couch cushions. She returned CDs to the incorrect cases. She nudged curios out of place. She switched the forks and knives in cutlery drawers. She sprinkled wildflower seeds in English gardens. She continued to leave the houses immaculate. No harm done, not really. She might have expected house-sitting opportunities to dry up, but the demand for her services never waned.
David had said please. They sometimes did. Please keep an eye on Frieda when you open the front door—she's always trying to make a break for it. Please watch what you flush down the toilet—the landlord is incredibly uptight about her pipes.
Audrey had come over the night before David left for New Hampshire. This window won't open, this one needs propping. Weekday mornings and Saturday nights are the best times to use the washer and dryer, you'll have the laundry room to yourself.
"You have so many books," she said.
"You don't like novels?"
They were drinking whisky by this point.
"I stick to poetry and criticism," he said. "Novels are like one-night stands. When you're done, you're done."
When men talked like this it confused her. Was it her presence or the sound of their own voices that made their gestures grow expansive?
"Memoirs are just tits and ass and the tits aren't usually real," he said.
His perfectly wrought wrists and forearms were strung with ropy blue-green veins.
"But poetry... you want to slip beneath its skin and stay there awhile," he said.
He kissed Audrey in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. He showed her the special toilet handle jiggle. He fucked her against the bathroom sink. "Please," he said, as he lifted her hips to enter her from behind.
When she awoke in the early morning, David was hurrying to make his flight. "I left the keys on the kitchen table," he said. "I hope you'll like it here."
David used olive oil soap. Frieda hopped onto the side of the tub and licked the bar while Audrey got ready for work. Frieda chastised her if the shower curtain blocked her access. The soap didn't taste like olive oil, but it did taste green.
David made marks and comments in the margins of his books. His bedside reading included a stack of Jack Gilbert collections. In these, most of his marks were exclamation points and double exclamation points and most of his comments were questions. Beside "Failing and Flying" he wrote, "Really?" as if chiding Gilbert for trying to recast failures as triumphs. Though she was frequently irritated by Gilbert's sentimentalism, she couldn't deny a certain wisdom, at least when he took the long view.
Audrey had heard that David's ex was a poet, but she found no poems by Danielle, only letters from her, ten of them, stored in a shoebox in the closet along with seven rolls of dimes. Some of Danielle's letters complained about David's flaws and others bemoaned rejections, professional disappointments, and rebuffs. One letter contained an entire page on which she'd written "your tongue" from the top of the page to the bottom, from edge to edge. Crowded into the far bottom right-hand corner, in tiny, tiny letters, "my clit."
David, and now Audrey, burned verbena-scented soy candles and used lavender-scented fabric softener. He had remained faithful to Danielle's Laura Ashley bed linens, the rose and blue flowers of the top sheets that should have clashed with the blue and rose and green flowers of the pillow cases and comforter but didn't. Audrey tucked herself into the leafy, laundered sheets, taking note of all the places the cotton touched her bare skin—the backs of her heels and the tips of her toes, her calves, her knees, buttocks, shoulder blades, upper arms. She thought: shroud. She thought: how very easy to sleep and not to wake. She remembered Gilbert's line: Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
Title image "Books and Annotations" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.