Our friends were away on vacation, and Lydia was in charge of the cat and fish. She promised to daily feed and water the cat and clean its litter and occasionally to drop a few beads of food into the fish bowl.
One night I helped, and on another night — the last night of cat duty, in fact — I handled it myself. I followed Lydia’s instructions: pat and scratch Storm; refill dry food dish and replace water; scrape 1/3 can of wet food into wet food dish; play with Storm for a few minutes (mouse on string); sift solid masses out of litter cave and discard; wash hands. Easily done. (Interestingly, the cat seemed both to want and not want my company. Is that typical of cats?) Feed fish and otherwise ignore. Also easily done.
I tried once again to play with Storm, by dangling a strip of fabric near his nose. He walked away.
As I sat on the ottoman, not unhappily rejected, I noticed the dried kibble on the floor around the cat dish. I saw an electric carpet sweeper. I thought, “Who would want to come home to a messy cat?” With the sweeper I sucked up the scattered bits. Then I remembered the litter cave in the other room.
In the other room, I turned on the sweeper again and ran it over the floor and edge of the nearby rug. Satisfyingly, the grit whirred into the plastic, tick tick ticking like sand against a window pane. Bent over like that, vacuuming, suddenly time collapsed 30 years, and I was bent over, vacuuming like that, in a neighbor’s house I then cleaned weekly, for money. I experienced again the pleasure of being in someone else’s house when they’re not home, of leaning into the rhythm of a task, of restoring order, of hearing grit fly into plastic. Of the electric hum, and air.
This is still me, I thought. The vacuumer, the order-restorer, not in a hurry and at peace in someone else’s empty home.