welcoming front porch with a white wicker chair
[ This image is in the public domain. ]

After the guest went out for a walk on the bosque path, Leo was startled to find her scarf on Liebe’s mosaic table on the front porch. As if she owned the place, as if she had the perfect right to just drop her things anywhere. He couldn’t hear the dry flap of her sandals, once she rounded the corner. It may not have been a good idea to start inviting people in to his house. Liebe probably wouldn’t like it. Wouldn’t have liked it.

He thought about fixing some tea, putting it in the refrigerator to get cold while she was gone. He hadn’t asked if the guest was thirsty, or if she liked tea.

When her white blouse flared above the sage bushes on the second hill, he walked into the bedroom that used to belong to his daughter Sylvia, where the guest’s things were. He was fairly sure he wasn’t supposed to do this: Not supposed to go in there now.

But he needed to show Liebe, see what she thought. Her gaze relied on his eyes now, he had to see for both of them. He pushed the pink curtains aside to let in more light, then remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be there. That he had given up — or no, he had sold, that was more accurate — he had sold his right to move freely in the house. He tried to fix the fabric back exactly as it had been, arranging the folds with clumsy fingers.

The guest’s suitcase sat open on the bed, with everything still folded neatly. Something red was on top, a blouse maybe. It was garish, the brightest thing in the room. She had laid a book on the pillow, face down. He turned it over and looked at the cover, keeping his index finger in the place where the pages were spread. The title told him nothing. A novel, with a blurred picture on the front that he couldn’t identify. He put it back, fanning open the pages carefully against the pillow. Sylvia had liked reading. Did like reading. He had kept some of her books on the shelf in here, even though she told him it was fine to give them all to Goodwill.

~~~

Leo, this is what you want? Strangers in our house?

I’m just trying it out, he told Liebe. You don’t know until you try things.

You don’t know. Other people know ahead of time.

He supposed she was right. He was slow. But now without her to speed him up, he just had to be slow.

He carefully clicked Sylvia’s door shut, retreating safely into the kitchen, and breathed in relief that he hadn’t been caught.

Anyway, it was the children’s idea, he pointed out to Liebe, while he took his afternoon pill. Kevin and Sylvia thought it was good, they posted the photos and put it all online. Take it up with them.

But Liebe was silent. He scratched all his itchy places after he took his pill. When the guest came back, it wouldn’t be polite to scratch in front of her. But maybe she would go into town for dinner. He wasn’t supposed to cook dinner for her, that was what Kevin and Sylvia had told him.

“But the people will be my guests,” he had argued.

“No, Dad, Airbnb is like a hotel. You’re running a hotel with one room. Think hotel.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do, just cook for myself?”

“You don’t cook,” Sylvia pointed out. “Heating stuff up in the microwave doesn’t count.”

“I cook spaghetti,” he said. “And macaroni.”

“Dad. They’re not going to want your macaroni. They’ll probably go out to dinner. Or maybe they’ll cook. Especially if you get a couple, they might want to cook one night. You’ll have to show them where the pots and pans are.”

He looked at Kevin, appalled, then shook his head assertively and got up from the table. “This isn’t going to work.”

But they’d circled back around to it, of course, because the money had been impossible to argue with.

“Look, you’ll easily get $110 a night. If you have just six nights, guests just six nights in the month, you’ll have enough.” Kevin had lined out the budget for him. “And if you have eight or ten nights. Well.” Sylvia smiled at him. “You can fly out to visit us sometimes. Or go to Mexico, to that place you guys always went.” He stared sourly at her until she shrugged and looked away.

“Well, anyway. Just try it.”

 ~~~

The guest came back while he was playing solitaire on the computer. Opened the door and walked right in with her turquoise scarf in one hand and a bending bit of greenery in the other. He turned from the screen to look at her all the way, and she stood there looking back at him.

She held up the small branch: feathery leaves and pink peppercorns clustered on it.

“Do you have a vase or jar I can put this in?”

He got up and went to the cupboard, pulling down one of the quart jars they used to put honey in, before Liebe gave away her beehives. The air in the kitchen seemed to have unusual depth and dimension as he moved through it. As if snowflakes — or bees — were whirring through it in currents. He filled the jar with water and handed it to her.

He expected her to take the jar, the pepper tree frond, and herself into her room. The part of the house she was paying for. But instead, she put the jar on his kitchen table, and went over to the refrigerator.

~~~

“You have to let them use the kitchen, Dad. People have to eat.”

“You said to think of it like a hotel.”

“Well, a hotel room with a kitchenette. Like a suite.”

~~~

The second afternoon, she carried two full bags of groceries into the kitchen. He was taking laundry out of the dryer, and they met, laden. He rearranged his armload, trying to wrap the bedspread over his threadbare boxers and discolored socks. Later, she took down two Turkish bowls from the top shelf, where he and Liebe kept all the things they didn’t use.

She ladled some kind of squash soup into the brilliantly glazed bowls, and put one on the table in front of his chair.

“Come and have some soup. I found the most beautiful squash at the farmer’s market.”

He stopped folding clothes and came back to the kitchen. She was looking down, poking around in her bowl with the spoon. Her hands were straight and linear. No nail polish or coy plumpness.

“Tell me if you think the onions are cooked enough,” she told him. Sylvia had been the only one for a long time, she gave him things to eat when she came, but it was more provisioning than event. She would cook giant casseroles and divide them up into plastic containers in his freezer. He kept them because seeing them there made him happy, and then right before her next visit he would empty them all out in the compost and wash and dry the containers.

They ate silently for a few minutes, spoons gently tapping bowls, reaching mouths.

“They’re done enough,” he said.

~~~

The next morning was stormy, one of those Taos spring storms where snow flurries appear and then vanish the next day in May heat. The guest brought the white blanket, the new one, from her bedroom and settled herself on the sofa. She kicked off her slippers and curled her legs up underneath the blanket, setting her coffee cup on one of his magazines and opening her book. She ignored him, but in a companionable way, as if they were both enjoying each other’s presence. As if they both had something to do.

He felt ashamed of playing solitaire. He closed the tab without finishing his game and clicked over to email. There was nothing interesting. After lingering long enough so it wouldn’t seem as if he was leaving in response to her arrival, he walked purposefully into the kitchen.

Solitaire soothed him with its pure interplay between determinism and randomness, the fact that so little was left up to the player. Kevin had spent some time trying to interest him in a series of chaotic animated online games, but Leo just thanked him and went back to solitaire the next time he sat down. He found its relentlessness reassuring. The games punctured undue optimism, kept him grounded in what was and wasn’t possible. It was a familiar drug, like the sleeping pills he took on nights when it was only 3 AM and the darkness became spiky and treacherous.

In the kitchen, he stood empty-handed. The refrigerator hummed, the towels nested quietly on their hooks. He had taken out the trash and compost yesterday. He was planning to eat a baked potato for dinner, a tomato sandwich for lunch. But it wasn’t time for lunch yet. The rain ticked at the window, the wind rattling the laundry room roof. He walked down the hall into his bedroom and stared out that window, along the ridge of the mesa. His house was shifting around him, becoming something other. The bedroom felt dim and small, inhospitable.

“Liebe?” He wasn’t sure of her now. Not anymore, with the house like this.

“Excuse me.” The guest’s voice, from just a few yards behind him. “Do you eat chicken?”

~~~

He got up just after sunrise the next day. Putting on his jacket, he headed straight to the car without taking time to have his cereal or make coffee. He broke up the three hour drive by stopping for gas, to pee, to get a chocolate donut to go with the gas station coffee. The sun had come back out, sliding around the inside of the car as he slipped through traffic and onto the highway.

It was Tuesday. He pulled in to the library near Kevin’s office, read two newspapers and a long magazine article about an Italian billionaire who was trying to steal seventeen billion gallons of water from the Plains aquifer. At exactly 11, he phoned Kevin.

“Dad? Where are you?”

“Oh, I just felt like taking a drive. Do you have time to step out for a sandwich?”

“Oh, hey, I told you… Look… Well, sure. Fine, yeah, sure.”

The sandwich was overpriced.

“Are you sure you’re OK to drive all the way back?”

He watched Kevin being businesslike. That rangy, curious kid, always reaching for the next thing. Scouts, go karts. His pale bravery when the doctor was setting his broken arm. How he’d changed overnight when he found out his best friend had drowned a stray puppy. “Sorry, Dad, I’ve got to take this.”

~~~

The drive home always seemed longer. He stopped five different times, once at iHOP to have pancakes and bacon and syrup for a too-early dinner. It tasted good, but afterwards he felt sleepy and it was even harder to drive. His hip ached, and he couldn’t find a way to bunch up his jacket so it would take the pressure off. He pulled out at a rest stop, shook the crampiness out of his calf, walked around the periphery of the grass. His body was becoming a nuisance to haul around, like a sullen child.

She was already in her room when he got back, the light from Sylvia’s window making a pale patch in the rockery. He went softly into the bathroom and locked the door, ready for hot water and steam, aspirin, the comforts he’d looked forward to.

Hung over the shower curtain rod at eye level were two pairs of white women’s panties and a pair of socks with flowers on them. Without touching them, he could see their wetness, hung there to dry after washing. On the sink and the tub were more things. Tweezers. Scissors. A roll of deodorant, a jar of something, a tube, an orange plastic razor. He was still orienting himself to these insertions when something red in the sink caught his eye. Two round drops. Obviously blood; nothing else was that color. He backed up until he was standing against the door and leaned on it. He thought of checking with Liebe; but then immediately shut his eyes. This was not a situation he wanted to subject her to.

Eventually, he had to open them again. His hip was still sore, he could use that bath and aspirin, and anyway he needed his bedtime pills. Getting a towel from the linen cupboard, he made himself take down the socks and then the two pairs of underwear. They felt cool and silky, clinging along his wrists and the backs of his hands. He laid them on the towel on the counter, and got another towel for himself. Before stepping into the tub, he dampened some toilet paper and wiped the blood out of the sink, flushing the wad of paper away without looking at it.

It was not one of his good nights. Kicking the covers away, he fought to free himself from ropy dreams that were dragging him underwater. He turned on the reading light and lay there breathing hard until the cold air began to chill him through his pajamas. He started to get up, to go for one of the sleeping pills that he carefully rationed to last each month. Then he heard the guest’s door open, and the bathroom door close. Faintly there was a cough or sneeze, and some water running. But she didn’t come back out, and the toilet didn’t flush. He thought about the blood drops again and wondered if something was wrong. Was he responsible? What if a guest died in his house; would he be arrested? He gathered his blankets and sheets back up and straightened them over himself, turned off the light, and lay back down to listen.

~~~

The fragrance of something baking was the first thing he was aware of in the morning. And coffee. And something else — a sound. When he opened his bedroom door, he realized it was the guest, humming while she moved around the kitchen. Instead of his cereal, he ate orange coffee cake while she spread out his newspaper all over the table. She had retrieved it from the front step.

“Here, you can have the front section; I can’t face that before I’ve had coffee.” She pushed it towards him and settled herself down behind another page.

~~~

“She has all her things in the bathroom.”

“And that’s a problem why?”

“Well, I mean, they were all over.”

“So, give her a basket to put them in.  Did you go and get shampoo and conditioner for the guests, like we planned? You’re still at the store, right?”

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was sitting in his car in the Albertson’s parking lot. One of Sylvia’s boys yelled something in the background, and he heard Sylvia take a deep breath into the phone.

“OK, yeah, I’m here. It’s fine, thanks for reminding me.”

“Call anytime, Dad.”

~~~

It was when she brought the dog home that he knew she wasn’t going to leave. It was a thin, nervous-looking dog and it barked at him as soon as she led it into the house. Its hair was dirty white and kind of long, each strand hanging lank and separate. A bit of twine was around its neck as a leash.

“He was down under the railroad bridge in Santa Fe, by the dump. Someone must have shoved him out of a car.  See, his leg has a scrape on it.”

She unpacked a pet store bag containing dog food and dog vitamins, lining up the cans on the counter.

Leo and the dog both watched as she spooned the contents of two cans into a bowl. His cereal bowl.

“What are you going to do with him?”

“Look at the poor thing, he’s so hungry, doesn’t he just break your heart?”

When she untied the twine and put the bowl on the floor, the dog trembled and backed away into the corner, his toenails scrabbling on the linoleum. She squatted down and made cooing noises, holding out the bowl toward the dog so he could smell it.

The dog slept outside her bedroom at night. He wouldn’t allow her to touch him, but he followed everywhere she went, about eight feet behind her. He watched Leo closely when they were all in the room together, and sometimes he would growl if Leo moved too quickly.

At night now, Leo could hear the two of them moving around the house after he went to bed.  She talked softly to the dog in a particular voice. Around midnight, they would both go into the living room. She had to open the front door and then stand back until there was enough space for the dog to feel safe passing by her. He’d rush out and do his business in just a minute or two, slipping hastily back in through the open door while she waited.

~~~

Leo discovered it was a novelty, having sounds in the house that he didn’t have to alert to, that didn’t require a response from him. The house’s patterns of silence had come loose. The furniture no longer waited for his touch, and the breeze from an open window sometimes struck his face unexpectedly. He couldn’t predict when the last door would shut at night, or when he would hear the shower turn on in the morning. When he walked in the hall, he paid careful attention to where the dog was settled and made his steps gentle as he moved around him.

~~~

After a few confusing mistakes, Leo managed to follow the written instructions Kevin had left him and logged onto the Airbnb site. As he expected, her visit had officially ended six days earlier.

“I’m taking Edward for a walk on the ridge. Do you want to come?”

“No,” he answered. “I have to do something on here.” He looked through the site until he found the link for deleting his account.

She and the dog made a tandem clicking on the porch, and through the window he saw the dog following her along the trail. Another rain squall had passed over the hills, easing the oncoming summer heat. He went outside, walking just far enough around the house so that he could watch them head up the ridge. His house slippers cooled, soaking up water from the stones underfoot.

“Liebe,” he said, and the word tasted fresh in the sage-scented wind. She didn’t answer, because he was just being foolish, but that was alright. When he turned back to the porch, sunlight glinted on pooled water where her mosaic table had gathered the rain.