A Short Story by A.K. Klemm
It truly was the best job in the world, he thought, watching the flames lick the shutters of the windows from the inside.
Typically, a man watching a house the size of an elaborate inner city train station burn would have been excited. At least, one would think a twenty thousand square foot house burning to the ground would draw some sort of anxious emotion from the one who lit the match. Instead, the entire occasion was rather dismal. Bland. Boring. Anti-climactic.
For three years Michael had been a professional house sitter. Most people looked at him and saw an entrepreneur, a self-made man. If were asked to spot him in a crowd, you’d be told to look for the fashionably not-so-handsome one, the guy who’s suit may not be worth a thousand bucks, but he managed to make it look like one worth twice that amount. You’d be told to keep an eye for ironically unkempt hair, the kind teen-aged boys spent hours in the mirror trying to mimic. If clients were to describe Michael to other clients, they would say, “He’s not that good looking, but I’m just drawn to him. I trust him with my house, my pets, well, my whole life when I’m away from home.” People would tell you that the sun rose and set to his reliability, his good character, and his quiet smile.
What people would never tell you, is the truth: Michael was homeless, and the only things he owned were kept in the one suitcase that stayed with him at all times.
It had all started with Sarah. He’d gone home with her after a firework display and she’d started kissing him lightly on the cheek. They were leaning against a gate to a large estate they were walking by. It wasn’t until Sarah leaned into his ear and said, “Hey, let’s go inside,” that he realized it was her house. They went through the gate and meandered along a garden path, someone had spent good money to get landscaping of this quality. It was quiet in the gardens aside from the trickling of water from a nearby, dimly lit fountain. Once they were inside the house, however, they’d found themselves in the midst of a full throttle 4th of July party.
“Who’s this?” a woman in high heels, a NuvoCig hanging out her mouth, and a glass of champagne dangling from her fingertips. So classy, he had thought, she couldn’t even smoke real cigarettes. Sarah looked briefly shell shocked, but quickly reasserted herself.
“This is Mr. – Orowitz. My father’s house sitter.”
Freshly waxed eyebrows arched.
“He’s the House Sitter Pro, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. It’s the latest thing to hire a professional.” Sarah gave Michael a stern look. He didn’t know her well, but he knew people. So he took his cue.
“That’s right. I’m Michael Orowitz.” He had no idea where Sarah had pulled that name out of her ass from, but he liked it. The name slid over him like a glove and immediately he felt like an entirely new person. “House Sitter Pro, Inc. I just graduated from Princeton with a degree in business. I’m hoping this little company of mine will entertain me through grad school and –“
Sarah cut him off, “We’re going to Paris tomorrow, as I’m sure Daddy told you,” she eyed the woman with meaning. Michael wondered if this woman was her father’s mistress. “We’d like to leave the house in the best of hands. Anybody who’s anybody has a proper house sitter these days.”
The woman was intrigued, and now of course, so was Michael.
The next day he’d found himself sitting in a ten million dollar home, watching day time television and eating sushi. Sarah’s parents had given him a pre-paid Visa “in case of emergencies” and a promise of $50/day upon their return. Sarah slipped him her credit card when they weren’t looking and told him to go buy new clothes, a suitcase, and hire a web designer.
Word spread like wild fire.
By the time they returned from their month long holiday in Paris, Michael Orowitz President and Owner of House Sitter Inc. and Princeton graduate was booked through December. He had a professional website, a proper email address, and a pre-paid phone. He had one designer suit he’d got off a clearance rack, and a Pratesi genuine leather suitcase. The sales clerk had also talked him into a nice watch.
Watch enough day time television, spend a few hours reading Martha Stewart Living, and hang out with professional maids, you start to learn a thing or two about ritzy households. After a few jobs, Michael knew how and when to make messes, how to clean up after himself so that his clients didn’t care, and how to properly snoop. He found panic rooms, secret closets, book shelves with hidden safes. He spent days rifling through the nitty gritty top secret belongings of the wealthy – the things of soap operas and spy films. A few dirty pictures here, a secret bank account there… When all was said and done, Michael was no longer concerned about the possibility of getting caught, of someone finding out he’d never stepped foot on Princeton soil much less graduated there. If they hinted at any suspicion they might have, he hinted at the love letters he’d found in Mrs. So-and-So’s secret shoe box. No one’s spouse’s needed to know about those, did they?
It was a cozy life. No bills. No worries. He drove a different car every other week, the best of the best too. Fast, beautiful cars, owned by the fast and the beautiful – driven by him. Over time, he’d collected quite an assortment of pre-paid credit cards and a few piles of cash hidden in the lining of his suitcase. He kept some clothing, but many times was able to wear that of whoever he was house sitting for, he was an average build, somewhat fit.
Sarah left town. She had an apartment somewhere on the other side of the country, some blither about trying to get away from Daddy’s money, even though her Daddy was paying for everything. He’d kept her credit card. With a wave of her hand she’d told him to keep it and then disappeared. He used it to buy her something nice, flowers, when he was called to pick her up at the airport the few times she had come to visit. He was a house sitter, but so often people trusted him so well, they used him for all sorts of errands they didn’t trust “the help” doing, like picking up dramatic daughters who refused limo services from the airport. After all, a father wouldn’t be caught dead picking his own child up from the airport… that was beneath him.
She seemed to forget she invented the whole thing altogether. Just kissed him on the cheek and said, “Hello darling, so good to see you,” once a year. Sometimes she’d ask him to take her to dinner, for the sole purpose of telling her father she wasn’t hungry when he offered to do the same. She’d fly through a weekend, holding his hand, taking him shopping, and then disappear into the night, leaving him to sit at whoever’s mansion he belonged to that evening – alone.
Then, one night it happened. “I have to go now, let’s go home, and I’ll just take a taxi. I don’t want you being my cheuffer all the time. It’s demeaning. It’s below you, darling, you’re better than that. You’re a house sitter, you’re a president.” She smiled at him as he drove to his client’s estate. It was the largest yet. When they pulled up to the house, she finally looked ahead of her, instead of at him, and her face fell.
After she left in a yellow cab, he tore the house apart, searching for the meaning of that ‘oh.’ And boy did he find it.
His client was a single man, about fifteen years older than Michael and Sarah. Like everyone else in this little private world Michael had found himself a part of, the client had money and lots of it. With no family, that money was mostly spent throwing parties and making female acquaintances.
Michael stared at the pictures for hours. Sarah and his client in passionate kisses, dodging into shady movie theatres in broad daylight, eating out at nondescript restaurants. The photos were in an envelope mailed via a private eye. They looked like images from a bad film.
Michael had taken advantage of this opportunity when it was thrown in his face. Who wouldn’t? At the time he’d been sharing an apartment with four other guys blocks away from a state school he rarely attended. His gpa had been so low most students weren’t aware those numbers existed, and he was steadily running out of the money needed to pay tuition and pitch in for groceries. His name wasn’t on the lease for the apartment and he slept on the couch anyway, so who would miss him? No one. It was genius, it was perfect. But mostly, he really liked that girl – the one at the fireworks display – the one who created this lie with such ease and finesse that he had fallen in love with her on the spot.
So for the first time in three years, Michael did something truly unreliable. What he did was irreversible. He would never be able to go back to this life again. But the decision came easy, like turning on a light switch in a dark room; the idea was not there and then it was.
Michael burned down his client’s house.