Keeping House

Keeping House

A Story by Kees Kapteyn

Derived from the prostitute abductions and murders that happened in Vancouver a while back.



Here is the satisfaction of clean things:   crisp lines and sharp corners, the contrast of light and shadow, the soft filters of sheer curtains and the uniform flatness of newly laid carpet; the harmony of organized belongings. Dust might return, reclaiming the freshly polished surfaces, but for now the apartment is gleaming. Ruth sighs deeply with the fresh fatigue of completion. She’s satisfied that she’s brought the illusion of life back to the room, to the chrome and glass coffee table, the cream corduroy couch, the papas an chair, to the art deco lamps and the framed posters of pop photography. As she replaces the last of the candles to the black laminate entertainment center, there is the fragrance of wildflower in the lungful of air that she inhales to sigh out again. She stands and admires the tasteful arrangement of furniture and knick knacks, until a sudden explosion of profanity from a schizophrenic down on the street outside startles her. It sounds close by, as if on the balcony. She then sees that the patio door is open and the sounds of the street are coming in unfiltered. Realizing this, she ignores the shouting.
THUNK! Thunk! THUNK thunk!
A sudden percussive sound resonates through the plumbing and pulls her out of her thoughts.
Louis; Ruth’s husband of 22 years, is fixing the p-trap in the bathroom sink of the apartment, venting on the errant piping that stubbornly holds an angle that won’t allow the trap to hold a seal. Effluvial smells from the city sewer enter the bathroom whenever the tap would run.
“How is it?” Ruth asks Louis, who she finds laying hidden shoulders-up in the vanity cupboard. Louis stops suddenly, braking at the question. His body goes limp.
“Wish I’d never started.”
She could take that as an insult, and in a way that was how it was meant. It was Ruth, herself after all that had asked to have it fixed on behalf of the absent tenant. Even though the girl had not been in the apartment for months now; a missing person in the eyes of the law and media, she still deserves to have a drain pipe that works properly.    Louis was superintendent of the apartment building and Ruth reminded him that the rent was still being paid and the woman could still come back one day. She knew that Louis would gripe and procrastinate, but the logic, the morality of it was too strong. He had no real choice, being the good man that he is. So there is he, sawing at the offending piece of plastic PVC piping, sawteeth grating upon the plumbing system, their sounds resonating throughout.
Ruth inspects the bedroom. There are living pictures on the wall, photos of someone’s family and friends, an old hawk winged Forgotten Rebels poster and a paint-by-numbers picture warping in its ill-matched frame. Teddy bears populate the quilted bedcover. The dresser and headboard are painted with a satin crib white. Ruth tries to open the dresser, but in doing so upsets the arsenal of makeup sitting on top. Numerous small glass bottles fall with an alarming clatter. Ruth tuts and huffs at herself as she sets the bottles upright again. She notices that there are colours in these tiny bottles that she would never have chosen for herself; gun metal grey, black, army green, although there is still the usual red, blush and rouge. It seems like an impossible amount of makeup for just one person, Ruth thinks, too wide a spectrum of personalities to adopt. She inspects the clothes in the dresser and can tell they need a good washing, getting musky from their extended disuse. It will have to be done later, without Louis’ daunting presence in the room. Her involvement with this missing person’s room seems to upset him, so these and other things like replacing spoiled food in the fridge, paying the festering bills, changing the sheets on the bed, have all been done behind Louis’ back. All to make sure that the girl who lives here can come home and pick up right where she left off, with as little to reacquaint herself as possible. Ruth closes the drawer, more carefully now. She slides open the closet, looking in and finding more strangers, black clothes that would never have fit Ruth even in her slim and trim days long past. Lace and leopard, silk and spandex. They bear boldness that Ruth is embarrassed to behold; blaspheming and swearing, purring and sleeping. There is a shoebox atop the suitcase on the closet floor. She lifts it up and finds it heavy. Although she realizes it’s not her place to look, her curiosity pushes through. She takes the box to the bed and opens it, finding it full of pictures without frames or envelopes, collected naked over time. There are photos of the missing tenant as a young schoolgirl in stiff, compliant poses, baring fake Sunday smiles. Another is of a group of young friends joined arm and arm amidst a backdrop of trees. The girl is not immediately to be found in this picture but she is there, blending into the group seamlessly. The picture was taken at the very second  mirth was bursting from this young group, and the girl is there, full of animation, in the moment and participating in it. 
When the girl moved into the apartment, just a year or so ago, her face looked older- obviously because of years, but it seemed as if those years had stolen more than youth from her face. Louis would sometimes call her “the druggie in room 304” to stand her out from the ones in 110 and 509 and all the others. Ruth was never convinced of any such thing. The girl would always pay her rent, however late at times, and there was never any complaint of nor by her. She used to pass Ruth in the hallways, just a whisper of a person, a ghost even then, with eyes downcast and arms closed tight over her breast. Sometimes she would meet Ruth at the door to pay the rent, with a timidity that would always make each of those minute encounters too painfully long though uncomfortably brief. Shy to a fault herself, Ruth could never bring herself to engage the girl and would let her quietly pay and leave, although every time, Ruth felt there were things left unsaid. At least that is what Ruth feels now in the girl’s extended and mysterious absence.
In the shoebox, Ruth finds  a medal for the Niagara South Girl’s Soccer League, patches for rowing and orienteering, birthday cards from friends and family. There is a section of newspaper folded at the bottom of the box. Feb. 10th, 2004, The Niagara Falls Review, the Local News section. Ruth opens the paper and reads, curious of stories from afar, obsolete and irrelevant or not. The lead article is about a boy that survived cancer by prayer, love and pluckiness. The boy was offered a trip to Disneyland, as terminally ill children often would be, yet he refused it, insisting on keeping it in waiting for his return to health. When the cancer finally crept beaten into remission, he went to California and enjoyed the trip as any other child would.
In the washroom, Louis has finally righted the angle of the pipes and applies a noxious glue to seal the junctions shut. Soon that glue will dry and Ruth will be happy to know that sewer smells will no longer invade the room.
“There!” he declares. Ruth comes into the room to investigate.
“Can we try it yet?” she asks.
“No, no. Let the glue dry first.”
He notices that she sees pieces of pipe on the floor; he will have to take them out before he leaves.
“Is it the glue that smells so much?”
“Awful stuff.”
“Well, it works and if that’s what it takes...” Louis stops talking when he discovers that Ruth has already disappeared back into the bedroom. Gawking at those god-damn pictures on the wall again. Ever since the new carpets had been laid, she’d been coming here, more and more often, becoming more and more bold. She had been caring for the missing girl’s affairs, saving mail, dusting the furniture. Deadweight expenses were thrown out, like internet and cable.   She’d succeeded in holding off the corporation from evicting her for truant rent, somehow getting the women’s shelter to foot the bill, so the suits are quiet now receiving their pound of flesh alive or dead. How would you evict a ghost anyway?   He’d told Ruth a few times already she would never be thanked. The girl was a crackhead, maybe even a w***e. Ruth would only sigh with that tired look of resignation. There is the deeper constitution of human dignity to abide by. He’d never been able to argue because of this. He knows that Ruth is infinitely right and her strength lies therein.
Louis tests the water in the bathroom sink. From the gush there comes only the fresh scent of chlorinated water. Clean air. He checks beneath for leaks. None. He knows he’s done well. He is satisfied and knows he can leave. Another job done, on to the next.
“Well it’s alright now.” he says loudly, hoping to jolt Ruth out of her reverie.
“It works?” she asks, nearly running into Louis at the door.
“Yep. Good seal. I’ll try it again tomorrow to make sure it holds.”
“Good.” says Ruth as Louis sweeps up the plastic rinds from his sawing and throws them into the trash basket. He takes up the garbage bag and Ruth touches his shoulder lovingly as he passes by.
“I’ll go down and make lunch.” Louis says. “Ham alright?”
“That’ll be fine.”
As Louis opens the door, Ruth catches sight of a pubescent boy with peroxide hair and baggy pants passing by into the hallway. Louis double-takes as he recognizes the boy as a neighbourhood vandal that he’d banished from the building. Someone keeps leaving the security door open.
“How did you get in here? I told you to stay the hell out!”
“I’m just visiting my friend.” The boy tries to sound convincing and brave but accomplishes neither.
“”I don’t care if you’re selling life insurance, you ain’t allowed here no more so get lost!”
“Holy s**t, old man!”
“That’s right! Get!”
Ruth goes back to her reading in the bedroom. In the folds of the newspaper, there is a story of an incest that happened years before the paper’s report. The details were coming to light in a criminal court case, ringing from throughout the victim’s puberty and adolescence, a long sad history of violations, oppression and perversions of power. It had set the victim on a tangent of chemical consolation and struggles with addiction. There was petty theft, assault and battery, weapons charges, prostitution pimped by heroin. The father was found guilty and sent to jail, though the damage had already been done. She sees the name of the victim and her find leaves her breathless. She looks around the room, wishing someone could be there. She feels emotion start to well up in her and she starts to cry. A wretched, self- loathing cry. She decides hastily that she must put everything back. Papers go back in their box and the box goes back in its closet, where it belongs, closet door shut tight. All the while, she apologizes...
The phone is ringing. The phone in the apartment is ringing. Two rings, three, four, then five...
From outside, through the patio door screen, comes the sound of a man trying to cough, barking like a Pekingese with throat cancer. A truck’s engine is whining, clutches changing gears.   The voice mail is now likely picking up a message in some faraway computer in a Bell Canada office. Does this message radiate to the police, indicating a location? A conspicuous voice? Will they sweep in again with their legal license, their dust and their gloves to try to excavate her memory for information once again? Are there alarms going off anywhere in the world? Who was it that called? Another telephone solicitor pitching another charity into this void? The mother? A boyfriend? The girl herself?
Ruth could not have picked up that phone.  She knew it would have been wrong. It would have meant knowing. Knowing could have completed the circle and started the cold process of closure.    She would then have to surrender the beautiful life of this apartment to all those finally concerned, watch it spread out and dissipate. The family would cast her belongings into lots, the police would write down their numbers and the corporation would finally be able to rent out their empty one-bedroom apartment to a steadier host. The room would become white and empty, tightly echoing the noises from outside with nothing to stop them.
The wind is picking up and cooling the room off quickly. Ruth goes to the balcony door and slides it shut to try and preserve the warmth. She then leaves the apartment in a hurry, forgetting to lock the door as she does.

© 2009 Kees Kapteyn

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Kees, this is beautiful. As soon as I saw you posted it I wanted to read it, but haven't had the chance to until now. Anyway, I think the tense you put this story in was perfectly suited for it. I loved the opening line, very eye catching. I also really like the way you have of describing things. You put a word that doesn't really seem like it would describe it, and it really does..

The one thing I would have to say about this is that it does seem to have a couple tense issues.. Let me see.. "Effluvial smells from the city sewer enter the bathroom whenever the tap would run." maybe 'whenever the tap runs.'? And 'Even though the girl had not been in the apartment for months now; a missing person in the eyes of the law and media, she still deserves to have a drain pipe that works properly.' maybe 'even though the girl has not..'?

Oh well, the story is fantastic, and your attention to detail is excellent. Really good job.

Posted 12 Years Ago

Dear Kees,
I put this very touching story in my reading list, because I want to keep it, so I can read it another time. From your writing, I can derive that you must be a very caring person yourself. Maybe you know I have been working as a counselor for nearly 20 years and during that time I did a large variety of people, some of whom at one time in there life had worked or were still working as a prostitute whether female or male. Some people can be very judgemental when it comes to the subject of prostitution.
Therefore I found your story so refreshing: Ruth taking care of the girl's appartment, as if she was due to come home any minute.
On the other side, while reading, you feel this is never going to happen and the reader learns about the sad past of the timid tenant. This story made me think ... What if this girl's ordeal had been discovered before she fled into prostitution and substance abuse. What if Ruth had been able to establish some closer relationship with the young woman.
What if people were a little more aware about what is going on right under there noses ...
I admire the Ruths of this world. She cares and you depicted her feelings and emotions so vividly.
You care too, thank you for sending this to me!

Posted 12 Years Ago

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2 Reviews
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Added on January 19, 2009
Last Updated on January 19, 2009


Kees Kapteyn
Kees Kapteyn

Ottawa, Canada

Resides in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Self-published his zine 'rhododendron' and two chapbooks: 'grubstreet' and 'coffee salt.' Has been published in,, Novella, Corv.. more..

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