Wednesday, March 26, 2008

true housekeeping

When you work as a housekeeper the second worst thing you can find when you open the door for the first time is a clean house. The worst thing is to find a clean house that's also creepy. I ran into one of those in Providence which, as you may or may not know, is one of the oldest cities in the US. At the time I got jobs from an agency and one autumn day they had a new place on their list and I went by for the key. Usually, the keys were like the ones we all carry but this key was of the big old fashioned skeleton variety.

I had a map, since I wasn't all that familiar with the city yet, and found the address on the East Side where it's mostly steep, narrow and cobblestoned. The houses are big but often built deep into the properties with narrow fronts facing the street. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design are both in the neighbourhood as is the amazingly enormous Swan Point Cemetary. But more on that another time. Providence was also famous as the junk jewelry capital of the country (Monet, Spiedel etc.) so there were tons of little factories that specialized in watch bands, pins, belt buckles and all the associated metal work with cleaning, degreasing and polishing. Many of them were closing back then as even cheaper stuff came in from other countries.

The house turned out to be closer to the Providence River than to the ivy league schools when I finally found it and to say the neighbourhood was deserted would be an understatement.

The front door led to a dim foyer with the livingroom further along a narrow hall. Inside, everything was neat and clean but musty and dark since the inside doors were all closed and what few windows there were faced the buildings on either side. The floors were dark oak, the walls half covered in over varnished wainscotting, and the furniture sparse but old and heavy. There was a black marble fireplace and the upper half of the walls were covered in the ugliest paper I'd ever seen.

The main floor also had a long, narrow dining room filled with cumbersome Victorian stuff - table, sideboard, curio cabinets and chairs. It was hard to imagine more than one person fitting the space. Further along the hall was a library that looked similar to the rest.

The stairway going up was in the foyer so up I went only to find another corridor with closed doors on either side. One door was locked so I passed on that but found four bedrooms and two old fashioned bathrooms - clawfoot tubs and ten gallon toilets. The next flight up led to what had been servants quarters - tiny rooms and almost no light at all. Since it didn't look occupied I decided to dust and be done up there.

I'd been turning lights on where I could find them but the place wasn't bright and neither did it look inhabited. There was no dust or dust bunnies; the fireplace was clean; the bathrooms unsoaped, unstained and unsullied; the bedrooms made up but unslept in. I was in serious need of some grime so it was time to go and find the kitchen. Just beyond the diningroom door were more stairs going down and that seemed the logical place to look.

Ah, kitchen! Geez! That was clean too but I went ahead and found the vacuum cleaner and other stuff in a pantry. I also found a wine cellar, another fireplace with a couch and a couple of chairs, a completely walled-in courtyard beyond some new glass doors, and best of all.. a radio which I turned on.

Have I mentioned I'd been reading H.P. Lovecraft? He lived on the East Side of Providence all his life and is buried at Swan Point. Every year on Hallowe'en an unknown group has celebrated a black mass at his sepulchre.. or at least the signs of that have been found the next day. Lovecraft is easily laughed off if you read one or two of his books at the beach but my experience was reading him while living in Providence and he was very knowledgeable about the old city and its foundations and architectural history. So when he wrote about tunnels and underground chambers inhabited by pale, slimey, slithery, sucking beasts it started to gain a subconscious hold.

So there I was in the kitchen with the lamps and the radio. The house felt heavy and portentous above me but there was a job to be done so, ready or not, I picked up the vacuum cleaner and carried it up the stairs. The lights had gone out so I turned them back on as I went all the way to the top.

I worked up there doing the usual things even though nothing looked cleaner as I worked but I needed glass cleaner so went back down to the kitchen to find some. All the lights were out on the main floor again and once again I relit them. As I went down the back stairs to the kitchen the lights went out behind me. When I got to the foot of the staircase the lights down there shut off and the radio clicked off. I stood stock still and looked all around but could see nothing different and nobody was there. I would almost have been happier if someone was there but there wasn't. I'd had enough.

One minute later I was up the stairs, down the hall and out the front door. I decided to cut through the river park on my way back to the agency to return the key. It was only later I realized a duster was still hanging out of my back pocket.

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