Liza wasn’t sure when things began to change. One day it was the bed: made when she wasn’t one for making something you were going to unmake hours later. Another time, it was the walk, swept, and the dead bird that had kamikazeed in the front window weeks earlier, vanished. Then, the kitchen sink looked cleaner. Years of grease scoured, the drain as shiny as a new dime. It seemed as though someone had even taken a toothbrush to the spigot and the handles for the hot and cold. The heaped-up recycling: vamoosed, too. Even she couldn’t ignore a clean sink. She called her boyfriend Lloyd to see if this was his doing while he waited to plunge his coffee. Every Monday morning, he left at the crack of dawn to drive back to Phoenix where he worked at a big accounting firm. They spent weekends together. This arrangement, going on fifteen years, was fine with her. Liza liked a little elbow room.
“No, nope,” Lloyd said, “it wasn’t me.”
“Strange,” she said. “I washed the dishes, that’s all.”
“I seem to recall martinis,” he said.
“They make me want to do handstands,” she said. “Cartwheels and whatnot. They don’t make me want to clean.”
“You never know,” he suggested; but she did.
She went into the Arizona Room—nothing in its place there—back through the kitchen and into the living room where everything was as she remembered. Her computer was open on a stool, her coffee cup on a poetry volume—Small Animal Diagnosis—that she’d wound up using for the past decade as a coaster. Someone had lent it to her, though she could no longer remember whom. For most of her adult life—she’d be fifty-seven at the beginning of April—she hadn’t believed in things like coasters or soap dishes, or even bath mats for that matter. They seemed too specialized. Why buy a soap dish, when you could use the edge of the sink? Or a large oyster shell? Or even the lid from a pickle jar? She pulled aside the thick quilt that she’d hung at the entrance to the hallway and went halfway down and into her office. Her breath bloomed. In January, it dipped into the blessed teens at night, and these houses built with little insulation and shit-for-nothing furnaces got so cold you had to get resourceful. Before he left, Lloyd flipped on the mobile radiator in the living room. Then Liza pulled it behind her like a dog, heating only her immediate vicinity.
She was looking for something, but what suddenly escaped her. This was where she kept books, boxes of decorative papers for book making, paste, the computer modem, a busted printer, climbing gear, her mother’s old Singer. Was she looking for a book? Her eyes inched across the uneven spines, mostly poetry, most of it from a period of her life where she’d had the patience for caesura, compression, broken lines. It was weird, now that she thought of it, but she’d stopped reading poetry completely after getting stuck in a box canyon in southern Utah. She couldn’t concentrate. That was nine months ago. To say she’d almost been stuck wasn’t quite accurate. She’d been stuck. She was leading the way on a canyoneering trip through the Middle Fork of the Leprechaun. She knew the canyon would be tight; the night before, several of the bigger men in the group had decided to detour. But Liza was tall and lean and way under 180 pounds which the canyoneering guide warned was the upper limit for safe passage. The rocks scraped her shoulders in several spots, and she had to climb off the canyon floor and scoot, with her back pressed against one wall and her feet against the other, to pass. She was feeling good, making good time, not that time was relevant in these tight spaces. It swept by. You could come to a technical spot—a spot where you might test dozens of different hand holds, make thousands of miniscule adjustments to the angle of hips and shoulders—and an hour whooshed by. Then, without her really noticing, the canyon was suddenly so narrow above her that the space tunneled. Dropping to her hands and knees, she crawled until she ran out of room for crawling and had to lower her belly to the rock. She squirmed, tucked her chin, lowered her head, squirmed some more, tried to relax her shoulders. Her hands, straight out in front of her, frantically felt around for a nub or crack so that she could pull herself forward. She kicked with her legs. She was stuck. She couldn’t move forward, and she couldn’t move backward. “I’m stuck,” she yelled, hoping someone coming right behind her—her friend Carl, or another guy named Jim—could grab her by ankles and ease her out.
That’s right. She was looking for sunglasses. She was sure she had an extra pair with her climbing gear. She’d misplaced her everyday ones. They were probably in the car, but she hadn’t been able to find them, though she also hadn’t looked very carefully. In the closet, among her mess of backpacks, carabiners, chalk bags and climbing shoes, her ropes hung coiled from a hook. She never hung up her ropes. She slid the closet door back in place. In the living room, she opened the novel she was reading, had a sip of coffee. It was cooler than she liked, but she couldn’t risk going back into kitchen and noticing something else amiss. Best to stay put.
From the very beginning seventeen years ago, she’d disliked the house. She’d bought it because she was sick of the landlord she had back then. Sometimes he showed up in the middle of the night, too high to remember that he no longer lived there. Sometimes he came by to fix something and his dogs, two Dobermans, broke something else. The last time, the dogs were barking at the foot of her bed, and her landlord was yelling, “Goldilocks! Goldilocks!” when she woke up. Her mother gave her $17,500, and within a month she was out. The house was located in what was at the time a new development west of the city, the streets named after women (Shannon, Jennie, Sheryl) and famous racehorses (No Le Hace, Riva Ridge, Flying Fox). This was long before the resort and golf course went in. She could walk five minutes to the end of W. San Juan Drive, which was an exception to the names rule, and be in desert. This was the only thing she liked.
The house itself was a nondescript desert ranch with three bedrooms and one and a half baths. It had a carport and a paved driveway. In the front yard stood a saguaro and a blue agave that eventually shot up a twenty-foot high flower and died. This seemed ominous. A screened-in porch ran along the back. The poured concrete floors were covered in linoleum, except in the master bedroom, which was carpeted, the ceilings were popcorned, the windows rattled in their metal frames when the front door was opened. The builder had spared no expense, installing a cheap electric stove, hollow core doors, ugly fake wood kitchen cabinets, laminate counters, and a plastic bathtub. The rooms were small and claustrophobic; the flat roof was covered in black tar. Even the exterior bricks were fake—just a scrim of stone applied over sheetrock.
She valued her house so little that she couldn’t imagine anyone else buying it. This, along with other idiosyncratic habits of thought, was how she wound up staying for so long and letting so many things go. She rarely vacuumed, and she never scoured the whole tub, only the inside because she did enjoy a good long soak. She didn’t dust. She didn’t wash the windows, didn’t wash the sliding glass door between the kitchen and the screened-in porch, she neglected the grout around the kitchen sink. Water dripped into one of the closets, but she never fixed the crack in the plaster. When it rained, which wasn’t too often, she just moved a garbage can into the closet and tried to ignore the irregular ticking. Her mother would have pitched a fit; she was the kind of woman who dusted her light bulbs and cleaned the refrigerator once a week. But her mother only came to visit once, and that was long before the kitchen linoleum grew brown and sticky and her utensil drawers became so chaotic it could take ten minutes to find a garlic press.
She had coffee with her friend, Jan, at a coffee shop that had changed hands several times. The French country loaf and baguettes were good but the carrot cake and other desserts had gone downhill. That was the problem with living in a place for a long time. You saw that change almost never truly represented progress, just tradeoffs.
“I think my house is haunted,” Liza said.
“Yeah?” Jan said, sounding not especially surprised. She tipped a straw of sugar into her cappuccino, but did not stir. She liked her foam to have crunch. She and Jan had been having coffee for decades, and there was almost nothing they hadn’t talked about. They’d met at the university swimming pool where each dutifully swum seventy-two laps every morning. Jan sometimes wore two suits to create more drag, which impressed Liza, even though she would have preferred to do her workout naked.
“Little things are weird,” Liza said. “Someone took out the recycling and scrubbed the sink.”
Jan snorted. “You have a ghost that cleans? Where do I get one?”
“You can laugh,” Liza said, “but I’m seriously freaking out. What if it’s the same one that…” It was the first time she’d made the connection. Something mysterious had happened in Leprechaun Canyon. She preferred not to dwell on it.
“Your guardian angel is back?” Jan said.
“More like meddling angel,” she said. “I like my house the way it is.”
“You like your house? That’s the first positive thing I’ve heard you say about it in years.” Jan suddenly smiled and waved to someone over Liza’s shoulder.
“Who was that?” Liza asked.
“Bill,” Jan said, her face resuming its natural state.
“Oh jeez. Is he coming over?”
“I don’t think so,” Jan said, “but so what if he does? He doesn’t bite.”
“He owes me money,” Liza said.
“I didn’t tell you I leant him $2,300?”
“When was this?”
“Months ago. He needed to rent a truck that he could drive across the border. He was picking something up in Oaxaca.”
“For $2,300?” Jan asked.
“What’s he doing now?”
“Talking to a woman. The new girl who works behind the counter.”
“The old new girl? Or the new new girl?”
Jan laughed. “The one with the snake tattooed…Oh god.”
“He just kissed her.”
Liza still hadn’t turned around. “Bill’s been a horn dog since the beginning of time.”
“He’s probably got thirty years on her.”
“Go Bill, go!” Liza said. “Get it up!”
“What do you care?” Liza asked. “You’re a lesbian.”
“It’s just such a cliché: the old guy and the girl. And the girl’s thinking, this is no cliché, we’re different than everyone else. But they’re not. Her guy is just like every other old guy—he wants to stick his pecker in some yummy, preferably hairless, pussy.”
“Woah,” Liza said. She thought she knew Jan, and then Jan would come out with something so totally surprising. This was another reason they’d remained friends for as long as they had. “I dated an older man once but I wasn’t particularly young. Does that count?”
“It’s all relative,” Jan said. “When I was thirty-one, I dated a guy who was forty-eight. You know what he told me? He said, ‘You’re the oldest woman I’ve ever been with.’ Then he stuck a pencil under my breast to prove they were already sagging.”
“You dated men?” Liza said. “I thought you’d always been a lesbian.”