Carla Sarett is a Ph.D. who has worked in TV, film and market research—and in 2010, for reasons unknown, began writing short fiction. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Every Day Fiction, Subtle Fiction, Eric’s Hysterics. The Linnet’s Wing, Lost in Fiction, Scissors and Spackle, and The Greensilk Journal.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Eloise Blackstone, sliding her hand up the banister. “And the skylight’s fantastic.”
“The light’s wonderful,” Kay Ford agreed, not wanting to seem over–eager. “I’ll miss being alone in the mornings, but c’est la vie, and it’s just temporary.”
How temporary was a matter of debate–two mortgage payments in arrears, out of work for months now with no prospects, or any that Kay wanted to consider. There had been a stint at the local Ann Taylor, but even that, which at the time had seemed a let–down, an unforeseen humiliation–even that was gone. And her savings, which had seemed adequate, had evaporated in mortgage payments and endless rounds of home improvements.
Eloise stood in the master bedroom. “I guess this is yours,” she said, not convinced.
“Ah, yes, and this will be yours,” Kay said, nervously pointing to a room down the hall–not as large, and not with the bathroom and closets attached.
“They’re both nice,” Eloise said. “Let’s go downstairs, and talk details.”
At the word details, Kay skipped down the stairs. She could keep her house, she could keep her furniture and her life. Besides–and this was no minor point–young Eloise Blackstone, with her designer suit and her short chic haircut, was decorative. Kay’s friends might consider Eloise’s presence to be social rather than what it was. And Eloise appeared quiet and well–behaved—she would not soil rugs or put fingerprints on the polished tables. She might even help with the cleaning, although that seemed less likely given her youth and carefully–groomed manicure.
Eloise took out her checkbook and laid it between them. “First things first––I have my own furniture so we need to figure that out.”
“Of course, no problem,” said Kay. Eloise seemed too young to own much of value.
“The stuff in the bedroom, we could put it in your basement, maybe? What were you planning? It’s not my style, and I’d like at least my own room to reflect my personal style. I mean, a lot of this is well, it’s not me,” Eloise said as though her perceptions were shared by the two women.
“I can hire a handyman, and maybe by this weekend even, it will be, um, in the basement—but you know, I do use the basement as an office, just as an FYI, I do work.” Kay laughed raucously when she said the word “work” since Eloise must sense, at this point, how flimsy the word was.
Her laughter appeared to float above Eloise. “I have other things as well, and that’s a bit of a problem with all your stuff. I mean, I’m paying half…”
Kay struggled to find words. “Well, it’s not really half, since I pay taxes and insurance and everything else.”
“Well, we’ll figure it out,” agreed Eloise pleasantly. She wrote a check, not glancing at her register – so she probably had thousands and thousands in her checking account alone, not even dipping into savings. “Two months in advance, that’s right, no?”
Two months equaled one mortgage payment. She saw that Eloise had also included the first month as well, so it was really three. Now, all she had to figure out was how to get the rest. She had exhausted all possible sources –– her sister, her friends, even her not–so–close friends, not including the bank.
“So, I’ll expect you this weekend?” asked Kay. “I can get a handyman here by tomorrow.”
Eloise jumped in. “I’ll get someone today. You don’t have pay for it, when it’s my stuff that we’re moving in, and he can take care of yours while he’s at it, and why waste money?”
An hour later, a crew arrived – first, Kay’s furniture was dumped unceremoniously into her office/basement, and then Eloise’s antiques moved in.
Afterwards, the men asked, “What about the rest?”
Eloise shrugged, “The basement. That’s OK, isn’t it?” She smiled at Kay helplessly
Kay said, “Fine, but I use that as an office.”
“You know I need an assistant—you might be the right person, if you’re amenable, I mean, it’s not full time.”
“Well, if it’s not full–time,” agreed Kay. “And it’s only temporary.”
“Yes, just for a while, I could pay, oh, maybe let’s say, ten hours at twenty–five, say, two fifty a week, so a thousand a month? But you wouldn’t have to count hours.”
A thousand a month, plus Eloise’s other half—Kay was home free or almost. “It’s a deal,” Kay said. “I’m very well organized.”
“Oh, I can see that,” said Eloise Blackstone. “I could see that right away”
That evening, Kay prepared dinner. “I bought extra for you,” she said to Eloise. “There aren’t any restaurants close by—and I thought you’d like a nice dinner.”
A week went by. Kay and Eloise ate dinner together, and began having breakfast together as well.
“Let me know what the food’s costing—I’ll pay for all of it, since you’re doing the cooking,” Eloise said, not even mentioning the cleaning since it was now assumed that Kay did all of that as part of her personal assistant duties. “And could you pick up my dry cleaning?”
“Sure,” said Kay cheerfully, knowing the mortgage and the food bills were taken care of.
The next week, Eloise came home for dinner with a man – he was about Eloise’s age, thirty–something, clean–cut and dressed corporate–style.
“Nice,” he said, admiring the house.
Eloise said to Kay, “I hope we have enough for three? Or if not, maybe you could run to the market and get something? I should have called, I know, but it was sort of last–minute.”
The man said to Kay, “Eloise never remembers anything. I’m Gordon Miles, by the way.” He spoke to her respectfully as if she were a much older woman.
His deference felt like a punch in the stomach. She was a quarter century older than Eloise, no longer in the same league, men–wise. When she had been Eloise’s age, she had her pick of men like Gordon–she had blown through many of them, because it seemed the supply was endless, and her looks a guarantee. Even now, without Gordon and Eloise, she could have pretended.
“I think we’re fine—I roasted a whole chicken,” Kay said. “The recipe’s from Gourmet, it’s delicious.”
“Kay’s meals are yummy,” Eloise said to Gordon.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he replied as Kay returned to the kitchen. “But where’s your stuff?”
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s downstairs, and we’re working on that,” Eloise whispered, but loudly enough for Kay to hear.
Gordon stayed the night and then showed up the next night, and after a few days, he moved his stuff in, too. “Hope it’s not a problem,” he said to Kay.
Kay said, “Well, of course not, but it must be a little crowded.” She laughed nervously at the implication of crowded.
“Well, you see, that’s what we wanted to talk to you about. We could pay the entire mortgage—and you could move into the smaller room. Of course, we’ll pay for the food, too, and maybe kick in a little extra for the inconvenience?”
Kay went stiff and then felt loose again. She sat down on the sofa. “And my furniture?” she asked.
“No problem storing it—the basement’s big and well, let’s face it, you don’t really need an office. I mean, with laptops and all,” he said, as if Kay had a professional life.
“You don’t want any of it?” she asked.
He touched her grandmother’s brass candlesticks, twirling his index finger around its base. “We like these. We’d like to buy them.” And then he tapped some other objects – an antique roll–top desk, a blue glass coffee table—and lightly stroked them, like pets. “A few thousand—you and Eloise can work out a number. And then we can store the rest, or maybe it’s time to get rid of some of it. I mean, all of us get us caught up in junk.”
The next day, Gordon and Eloise moved the rest of their own furniture into the house and wrote Kay a check. They allowed her to store some of her objects in the basement, but only some—the rest were carted away by a friendly junk removal company whose employees wore uniforms. By the time they left, Kay saw that some things, mistakenly, had been discarded – but it was impossible for the company to retrieve them. Picture albums, toys, vases—all had been thrown out.
That night, Kay slept in her new small room. She tried to block out the sounds of Gordon and Eloise as they moved around. She imagined whispers and laughter, and in her dreams she saw her old objects and even her family as it once had been. She woke several times in the night—outside it rained heavily and she was grateful for the roof.
The check had almost wiped out the debt, but not quite. Still, she said to herself, it was a step in the right direction, even if it felt like a fall.
“It’s good to purge every once in a while,” said Gordon.
“Absolutely,” Eloise said as Kay served her whole wheat toast and jam. She handed Kay a list of chores for the week, which, by now, included cleaning Eloise’s room as well as the rest of the house, along with oil changes and ironing and picking up prescriptions and dry cleaning, and purchasing luxury wines. “I’d love nice fresh salmon tonight, Kay, if you can find it, maybe with baby potatoes from the Farmer’s Market?”
With Gordon around, it seemed awkward to have a trio at the table—and she could hardly make demands since Eloise paid the entire mortgage, plus incidentals.
Gordon said, “We should have a Halloween party—that would be fun, wouldn’t it? Pumpkins and games and, well, Eloise and I would like our friends to see where we live now. Maybe around fifteen or so, that won’t be too much, will it?” He seemed to be soliciting Kay’s opinion.
“I love parties,” said Kay.
“We’ll need invitations,” reminded Eloise. “I hate electronic invites. Paper only, OK?” She handed Kay a guest list—already printed out, in alphabetical order.
Kay took it with pleasure. She adored parties, and even when she could ill afford them, she loved giving dinner parties of every kind and for every reason – birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, anniversaries, reunions—and now, Halloween.
“Costumes, of course,” said Kay. “You can’t have Halloween without costumes!” She giggled at the thought of skeletons and demons.
Gordon said, “Well, we’ll buy you one, too.” He smothered his toast in blackberry jam, and started reading a newspaper.
Eloise said lightly, “And maybe later, you’ll have another party, for your friends, Kay.”
“Of course, Kay can have her own party any time,” Gordon said, turning the page.
Halloween fell on a Friday night—Kay decorated the house with pumpkin lanterns. She bought bags of candy for the trick–or–treat children and filled them with Milky Way bars and candy corn. She glazed apples with caramel and hung paper skeletons with maniacal grins up and down the hallway. Her dinner menu was a rich coq au vin with nice crusty French bread.
Before she was about to go downstairs for her final preparations, Gordon handed her a dress on a hanger. “For tonight,” he said.
“Ah, my costume,” she smiled. She went into her small room, and she took it out. It was a maid’s costume, a short black dress with a square white apron that tied in the back.
When the guests came, she greeted them in her little dress, and served them her platters of hors d’oeuvres. She took their coats and hung them up—she prided herself on being a gracious hostess. The guests hardly took notice of her.
Kay had set up the dinner as a buffet. She handed out plates and silverware, and smiled at her masked guests. Her own costume made her feel flirty, with its cute short skirt.
In the kitchen, one of the guests—a tall man with silver hair—asked, “So you’re the fantastic maid Eloise raves about?”
Kay said coyly, “I’m not a maid.” She quickly wiped the counter, since he had poured wine on it.
He asked, “So, what kind of work do you do?”
“Well, the cooking and errands, and well, everyday kind of chores. But it’s a temporary thing, you know, this is my house.”
Though his mask, the man’s eyes went blank. “Interesting,” he said and walked away.
As the guests sat down, Kay counted the chairs around the dining room table. The table was one seat short, even though she had set up the chairs–– but she must have counted wrong, or perhaps there was an extra guest. She started to push a chair back into its place when she heard Eloise’s rock–hard voice.
“Kay, this is lovely—you can leave us alone now. Everything’s perfect.” Eloise grinned like the skeletons and sipped blood–red Cabernet.
“And take the rest of the night off,” added Gordon.
As she headed upstairs, she heard the guests chanting, “Happy Halloween!”