Each house had its own unique smell dictated by the habits of those that dwelt within its hardy walls. This one smelled faintly of cigar smoke and coffee and roses, of cologne made from orange blossoms and the wood of the floor and of course, clean linens. Elsa washed these herself once a week and ironed them before folding them away in the linen closet. Now she changed the bedding, stripping the navy blue cases from the pillows and peeling away the old sheets from the large mattress in the master bedroom.
There was a bar of Belgian chocolate wrapped in gold foil under Mr. Gardner’s pillow with a wilted wild flower and a small note card hidden between the foil and the paper wrapper. The note card had only a time scrawled in the banker’s flowing script: 1:00. Elsa smelled the chocolate and the dehydrated little flower with a smile before pocketing these items in her cleanly starched apron pocket. Mrs. Gardner would get fresh roses this evening, but her maid felt that she was the one getting the better part of the bargain. At 23 she was still young enough that hot house flowers seemed befitting only of grave yards. She finished making up the bed with the clean set of avocado green sheets and pillow slips and moved on to the dusting and emptying of waste bins.
Mrs. Gardner would have friends for tea at 11:00 and enlisted Elsa’s help in preparing the table before she left. She was paid weekly with a check from Mr. Gardner’s book for basic housekeeping, but never minded being asked to help with something extra. In particular she liked handling the fine bone china with little pink roses painted on them. She couldn’t imagine bothering to drink from cups so small and delicate herself, and never coveted such items. She was content to handle all of the belongings of Mrs. Gardner only momentarily, becoming acquainted with their textures and shapes and odors without ever having to worry about loosing them. She even helped fasten the pearls around her employer’s neck before she departed, thereby adding their smoothness to the storehouse of her memory. She neither envied nor pitied Mrs. Gardner, but felt something like disdain for this woman who knew so little of her husband and her house that one could hide notes in the other without fear of discovery.
The Finch household was another arrangement all together. Elsa tripped on the garden hose left carelessly in the walkway on her way to the front door. The houses on this street were smaller than those on the street where the Gardners lived and nestled together like pigeons on a rooftop. The yards were composed of neat little squares of green grass protected by white fences and within their confines, clothes lines were strung flying brightly colored shirts like flags. The screen door hung crooked over the threshold of the Finch residence and Elsa opened it and let herself in. The odor of bourbon and old grease from frying greeted her nose along with the scent of stale cigarette butts and bleach. Dahlia Finch was hanging off the sofa in a nude toned satin slip surrounded on all sides by half drained glasses of bourbon and Jim Bean. She appeared to be sleeping with her mouth wide open and a burning cigarette dangled from the fingers of one hand.
Elsa gathered up the glasses and put out the cigarette, taking them all to the little kitchen. Elroy Dean, Dahlia’s brother was sitting at the round wooden table solving crossword puzzles in his rumpled undershirt and boxers. His greasy dark hair was turned every which way.
“Oh. Hi Elsa, how are you doing?” he asked her in his soft almost lisping voice glancing up at her over his thin spectacles.
“Fine Roy. You?” she asked, filling the sink with hot sudsy water.
“Uh, very well under the circumstance.” He said shuffling one black sock clad foot around on the linoleum under the table. His big toe protruded from the end of the sock.
“What circumstance would that be?” Elsa asked him.
He sighed deeply and stared intently at the crossword puzzle, penciling something in.
“Oh, uh, Bertrand hasn’t been home for a few days.”
Elsa shut off the faucet and dropped the glasses and an assortment of dirty dishes that she gathered from the countertops into the hot water. Then she turned to face him drying her hands on the apron.
Roy looked at her and nodded.
“Where did he go?” she asked and he shrugged.
They looked at each other silently for a moment, Elsa forgoing the formality of asking why. One glance around the house supplied enough “why”. The disheveled brother in law in the kitchen and drunkard wife in the living room were adequate explanation for the departure of any reasonable man.
“You want to smoke a reefer?” Elroy asked her after a while.
She shook her head,
“I have an appointment in an hour.” But then she walked across the kitchen and ran a hand through his stringy dark hair. She bent over him, bringing her face close to his. Breathing the scent of his unwashed hair and searching over his pale face with her blue eyes she brought her mouth to his and whispered,
“But I might take one for the road.”
She pressed her lips against his. Slowly she worked her way from his mouth, down his throat and chest under the shirt and beyond, until she had sunk to her knees and Roy unraveled her bun so that the blonde hair spilled out over his lap like liquid gold.
At 12:30 Elsa stole a shower and borrowed some black lacy undergarments and a dress from Dhalia’s closet. By then the Matron of the household was stirring and volunteered to help the other woman doll up. A cigarette dangled from her lip as she applied the make up to Elsa’s face in the bathroom. Roy, partially clad now with a pair of gray slacks and fedora to accompany the rumpled undershirt offered to drive Elsa to her appointment. She accepted and had him drop her off a block away from the hotel. Before she climbed out of the car, he fished three joints out of his pocket and pressed them into her hand.
“For the road, remember?”
She put them in her purse and walked the block to the Hilton.
1:00 at The Palace. Hotels too had their own smell, clean and impersonal. One might catch a whiff of polished brass or the detergent used to clean the carpets. Bell hops smelled like soap, desk clerks like after shave. There were lilies and carnations and roses mingling together in crystal vases in the lobby and under mirrors in the halls and in the rooms. The heavy drapes had been pulled shut blocking out the afternoon sun and a view of the street. Elsa felt the glorious starchiness of the white sheets on her naked body and the warm softness of Agnew Gardners great paunch under her arm. The scent of his cologne, familiar to her from her daily visits to his home blended with the impersonal hotel odors forming a collage of worlds in her mind. She pretended to sleep because that was the way he liked to leave her, no good byes, no promise of future encounters, and a fold of bills on the nightstand, to keep things fair and impersonal.
She let him slip out from under her arm, a great round man with thinning flaxen hair and large pouty lips that covered her whole mouth when they kissed. She listened to the shower run briefly, then as if it were all music, to the rustling of his clothes as he dressed himself, to the sound of the door opening and closing with a soft hiss as it scraped the plush carpet, and at last to his footsteps fading in the hall. She could picture him in his dark blue suit and hat strolling down the street, traversing the three blocks back to the bank, whistling to himself and tipping his hat to other pedestrians cigar in hand. She rolled over and tossed back the sheets, then paused before rising. There on the night stand rested the customary fold of bills, but on top of it waited a little crystal vial of perfume. She smiled broadly, fingering it, feeling a rush of warmth spread through her body.
Mrs. Peffing answered the door when Elsa rang the bell at 2:45.
“Elsa!” she exclaimed throwing both hands into the air, “I forgot you were coming. It’s just as well, come in.”
Elsa followed her inside and into the kitchen, cheered by the aroma of citron candles and sunflowers and vinyl.
“Please sit down and help yourself to a piece of lemon cake. Baked it this morning. I know how you like cake, though you’d never know it by looking at you, you skinny thing! I’m running late for a dentist appointment. Would you let Henry in when he comes? He lost his key again.” She shook her head of shiny brass curls, “I don’t know what he’ll do when he goes away to college year after next.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Elsa told her, admiring Mrs. Peffing's creamy skin and thick arms as she set out the cake and knife, a plate and a fork. “And I can let him in today.”
“Wonderful, thank you so much!” Mrs. Peffing’s apple shaped cheeks shone rosily as she smiled.
“Just let me go and cut you a check before I leave. I’ll be right back.” She said and hurried out of the kitchen.
Elsa’s hand was on the knife slicing the cake when Henry popped in a moment later.
“Hello Miss Daning.” He greeted her. She clapped a hand to her heart.
“Oh, Henry! You startled me. I didn’t hear you come in the front door.”
“I’m sorry.” he said coming closer to her with his sunny smile, “Are you alright?”
His hair was brassy like his mother’s, his jaw square, his teeth straight and white. In his yellow and blue sweater he looked like a young Apollo, the lean muscular chest and arms evident under his school colors.
“I’m fine,” she assured him.
“Is my mother home?” he asked her.
“She’s just on her way out, she has a dentist appointment.” Else explained putting the slice of cake onto the plate and pushing it towards him.
“I know she does.” He grinned breaking a piece of cake off with his fingers, “I’m the one who had her appointment moved to today instead of Friday.”
“What? Why?” Elsa inquired.
“So that I would be here alone with you.” Henry answered pushing the plate with the slice of cake back to her. His brown eyes bore into her. She fumbled with the fork and managed to knock it from the table.
“Why would you…would you want that?” she stammered.
Henry moved quickly, kneeling beside her chair to retrieve the fork before she could. With one hand he set it on the table while with the other he stroked her calf and turned his eyes back on her.
“Don’t you think you should look for a nice girl your age?” she asked him striving to maintain an icy demeanor.
“Oh, I’m not looking for a girl. And I was kinda hoping you aren’t too nice.”
Elsa’s jaw dropped slightly but she found that she could think of nothing to say to the young man who’s hand was traveling from the back of her knee to her thigh under her dress.
“Here it is.” Mrs. Peffing said from the hall just before entering the kitchen. Henry slipped swiftly under the table where he was concealed by the long linen cloth. Mrs. Peffing handed the check to Elsa.
“Did I hear Henry come in?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.” Elsa answered. Henry’s cheek pressed warmly against her inner thigh under the table and his hands caressed her calves. She picked up the fork and smiled.
“I worry about him sometimes.” Mrs. Peffing said, “He spends more time at the drug store after school lately, socializing, which I think is healthy, but I hope he doesn’t loose track of his studies. We have such high hopes for him.”
He now had her gripped by the thighs with both hands and his face was well nuzzled between her legs so that she could feel the heat of his breath through her panties.
“Well, I don’t know him well, but he seems like a nice boy.” Elsa said and he pressed his nose and then his mouth against the thin undergarment.
“Thank you.” Mrs. Peffing smiled. “Try the cake before I go.” She gestured to plate sitting before her house keeper.
Elsa sunk the fork into the moist slice of cake and brought it to her mouth while Henry chewed the panties with his perfect white teeth and his mother looked eagerly on.
“What do you think?”
“Delicious.” Elsa answered breathlessly.
Mrs. Peffing clapped her hands together.
“That’s what I thought too!” she exclaimed, “Now I really have to run. Oh, Elsa, before I forget, we’ll be out of town next week. Could you come again this Friday before we go? ”
“Of course.” Elsa told her, feeling Henry’s tongue dart daringly beyond panties.
“Excellent! See you Friday.” Mrs. Peffing said and hurried out of the kitchen. Elsa waited, straining to hear the front door close before she moaned.
They lay on their backs in Mr. And Mrs. Peffing’s bed afterwards sharing one of the three marijuana cigarettes that Roy had given her and eating the chocolate left by Mr.Gardner.
“What made you so bold?” Elsa asked after they had passed an eternity in restful silence.
“I don’t know.” Henry said as if he too was full of wonder. “I mean, you want to know something? I never did it before. I told guys I did, and they pretended to believe me just like I pretended to believe them, but I never have. Until now.” He rolled onto his side and gazed at her. “You’re just… your just so very beautiful.”
“I wish I wasn’t.” she sighed, “I get into more trouble…” she passed the joint to him and the quiet settled over them again. Sunlight slipped in through a crack in the curtains and the muted tinkling of wind chimes reached their ears from beyond the pain of glass.
“What kind of cigarette is this?” Henry asked her. He laughed his easy happy young laugh.
“It’s marijuana.” She told him with another sigh.
“Really? Well I never tried that before either.” Again he laughed.
Again the silence and the shadow of a tree branch dancing over the sunlight that peeked in past the curtain. He passed the joint back to her, “Miss Daning, I think I love you.”
She turned her head so that they were face to face.
“I doubt that Henry. You don’t really know me, but you should call me Elsa now.”
“Elsa. I think I do love you. And I know all that I need to know. How could I not love you? Now that I’ve really seen you. I used to watch you dusting and pushing the Hoover, and think ,‘man she’s something!’. But that wasn’t like this. I never saw you like this before today.”
She smiled and he kissed her softly, with renewed fire.
A fresh vase of red roses expelling their perfume into the atmosphere of polished wood and coffee, cologne and cigar smoke. That same familiar smell. Hot house flowers for those who have something to loose. A card under the pillow reading, 7:00pm, beside it a lavender blossom stolen by Mr. Gardner’s plump fingers from some hedge. A check signed by Mr. Gardner handed over by Mrs. Gardner while in the living room white gloved friends waited to commence with a game of bridge.
“Miss Daning, I regret to inform you that I will no longer require your services. On account of the short notice I asked my husband to write you a check for two additional weeks of pay. I’m sure you will find it generous of us. Good bye.”
Nothing further was said by either woman. No questions asked no explanations given.
On the way from the front door to the street Else asked herself again and again,
‘Does she know? Does she know? Or was it something else? Forgetting to dust the mantle?”
Walking to the bus stop, the smell of fresh cut grass. She passed a hedge of lavender. Could it have been from this bush that Mr. Gardner selected a bloom? And from that house over there, yesterday’s daisy? Would there still be 7:00pm at the Palace tonight, 1:00pm tomorrow, 3:00pm or 5:00pm the next day?
“Does she know? Does she know? Or was it something else?”