Married to the Mop
The divorce was Lori’s idea and it was a bad one. It had taken her all summer to convince Chris that they should separate, but once she did, he moved fast; he bought a red Miata, moved to a penthouse in the city, and started dating an exquisite Chinese woman fifteen years his junior. This left Lori free to marry Stuart. But Stuart, who had begged her to marry him, now cooled. In an email, he told Lori she deserved a better man than he could ever be, and asked her not to call him any more. Lori found herself alone in the suburbs with two confused teenaged sons, a cancer riddled dog, a pregnant cat, the ten year old Suburu, a falling down house, and nothing in the bank. She had lost twenty pounds, looked worse than she ever had, was drinking too much, and cried audibly in public. Christmas was coming. She would have to get a job.
Lori had once worked at a riding stables out in the country, but at Chris’s urging she had quit after her second pregnancy, and she didn’t know anyone, any more, who still needed a blacksmith. She was too hostile to be a salesgirl, too undisciplined to be a personal trainer, too tearful to work in an office, and too scattered to serve drinks or wait on tables. She could scarcely remember to pick her own sons up from swim practice and one week, to her embarrassment, a neighbor had to bring her youngest boy home because she was sitting in the bathtub with a bottle of red wine weeping as she tried to figure out how she was going to cover the bad check she had just written to the veterinarian for the dog’s first chemo treatment.
It was while trying to scrub the circle of red Chianti off the white enamel rim of the tub that Lori got the idea: she could clean houses. She would not have to dress, no one would care about her swollen eyes and stringy hair, the physical exercise would be good for her, and she could arrange her hours so she would be home before the boys returned from school. The boys, of course, were not to know. No one was to know. After all, there was something shameful about cleaning other people’s houses.
She posted an ad and began work right away. Her first client was a silent woman in a muumuu who pointed out two of the biggest wall ovens Lori had ever seen, one set above the other, with a broiler beneath. All three were black caves hung with thick, stiff, greasy stalactites. Lori gamely donned her rubber gloves and reached for the oven spray she had brought with her but the woman raised a hand, touched her nose, and coughed, and Lori understood she was allergic and that this was to be a chemical-free zone. She would have to clean the ovens with nothing but hot water and a sponge. It took four hours, with the woman sitting beside her the whole time, reading a book by the Dalai Lama, and at the end, Lori was paid only half of what she had asked for.
The next client asked her to clean a children’s playroom. This was easy, work Lori was used to, and she felt almost cheerful as she picked up and sorted transformer parts, loose beads, crayons, hair ornaments, and Legos; she crawled under a bookcase to retrieve a diaper filled with feces, tottered on a chair to bat a deflated balloon down from the ceiling, carted out fossilized food finds, shook out shag rugs, hung up countless tutus and Spiderman costumes. She had the place immaculate by the time the children, home from an outing, poured into the room and she watched in amazement as in two seconds flat they demolished it. “Well this was a waste of time,” their mother observed, peeping in, and Lori again had to pocket less than she’d asked for. She saw another client that same afternoon, an old man who followed her around as she vacuumed his apartment, touching her hips with his light old hand. Her final client that week was a single woman her age, with a glassy condo overlooking the lake, a refrigerator full of champagne, steak, and chocolate, and two closets full of designer clothes – and that job of course, despite the easy work and full pay, was the hardest.
They were all hard. Not because of the work. Because of the people. Lori liked creating calm out of chaos but she was not used to being treated like a servant. Because of her dark hair and olive skin she was often assumed to be Hispanic. She was spoken to either in loud English or execrable Spanish, which, out of pride, she sometimes corrected under her breath. She had, after all, lived outside Madrid studying equine management for two years before her marriage; she had led horse tours through the Pyrenees. She was careful to keep her head down when she spoke and not spit in annoyance when she was asked to enter and leave through the back door, to park her car to one side, to take off her shoes, to wear a cap and apron, to use the guest latrine.
Word got around about her excellent work and her clientele grew. Soon she had one or two jobs every day. Her hands were ruined, but she had never been vain about her hands, and she was able to pay for the vet and to buy her sons the racing bikes they wanted for Christmas. She even made a friend, a carefree young Guatemalan gardener named Ephraim, who worked some of the same houses she did, and who made her laugh as she joined him for lunch in the front seat of his truck, though they were both careful not to laugh when the owners approached to knock on the glass and ask them to get back to work.
It was Ephraim who gave her the idea. He wasn’t stealing, exactly, he explained, just taking a plant here, a sapling there, a few cuttings, some extra tools, a bag of grass seed that would not be missed. He was planning, he told her, to go into business with his brothers soon; they were going to open their own nursery. He never, he told her, wide-eyed, lying, took from the clients he liked. Only from those he did not like.
Lori didn’t like any of her clients, but still, like Ephraim, she knew to start small. She took little things: a single jigsaw piece from a puzzle. An earring found on the floor. Once she pocketed a novel she’d always wanted to read, dropped a pretty tea towel into her purse. When the old man who tried to touch her when she vacuumed reached for her hip she calmly pivoted, held out her hand and demanded one hundred dollars, which he promptly paid that week and every week thereafter. She began to feel more at home in the homes she felt least welcome in. She helped herself to food she found in the refrigerators, ate it bouncing gently on king-size beds while watching television, pirated medicine cabinets, dabbed expensive perfumes behind her ears, opened drawers, entered closets, tried on dresses, shoes, furs, wigs. She loosened light bulbs, reset alarm clocks, dismantled remote controls, reprogrammed computers, poured antacid pills into antidepressant vials, rinsed toothbrushes out in the toilet. She was going a little crazy, she knew, but at least she had gained some weight, was drinking less, sleeping better, and no longer wept in the bathtub.
She might have continued like this indefinitely but one morning her ad was answered by Stuart – the same Stuart who had begged her to leave Chris and marry him. Stuart wanted someone to prep his house while he and his young bride-to-be were out tasting wedding cakes. His fiancée had not yet seen his house, he wrote, and he wanted everything to look perfect.
Perfect? Lori wrote back. I can do perfect. She drove up to his house on the appointed day, found the key where he’d left it under the mat, and got to work. It only took a few hours to exchange his Viagra for some powerful emetics, replace the photos on his mantel with ones of naked men, make up his bed with rubber sheets, tuck a dead crab firmly and irretrievably into his heating vent, place pretty vases of poison oak on the night stands, break the zippers on all his suit pants, tap into a child porn site on his computer, place a butchered pig’s head on his coffee table, release a hive of bees into his kitchen, and hang a pair of sheer thong panties on his exercise bike. As a final touch, she folded the toilet paper into an origami heart before she left.
Of course, Stuart would know who had done it (they were, after all, her panties), and as Lori sat with the five new kittens on her lap and the dog at her feet the next morning, she realized that she was going to have to find another line of work. As if to agree, the dog started to whimper, reminding her of his appointment at the animal hospital that day. The hospital waiting room was, as always, a mess, and Lori automatically began to tidy it as she waited, arranging the magazines, wiping fingerprints off the glass aquarium, straightening the heart worm and tick posters on the walls, going out to her car to get some of her equipment and sweeping and mopping up the loose tufts of animal hair. A distraught Yorkie owner came in with an anorexic yapper that Lori coaxed into eating a biscuit, a teenager came in with a ferret which escaped, and a retiree came in with a tabby cat, which chased the ferret, both of which Lori deftly caught and calmed. When Dr. Ramirez returned to tell her the chemo had been successful and her damn dog would live a little longer, he looked around with approval. “I need an assistant,” he said. “Interested?” He held out his hand. It had been so long since anyone had held out a hand in simple democratic friendship that at first Lori didn’t know what to do with it. And if Dr. Ramirez noticed anything in her palm when she finally roused herself to shake back he was too polite to mention it and anyway the next day at work Lori dropped the tiny ceramic castle back into the aquarium, holding her breath as it wobbled, then settled upright on the clean bright sand.