From the essay, ‘Enquiring Minds’
Mrs. Clark and I always took lunch together. She set a place at the breakfast bar for me right alongside her place. Two paper towels spread to put our food on. I would pull my lunch out of my soft cooler. It was different things on different days. Sometimes an egg-salad sandwich, but usually a hodgepodge of leftovers. Mrs. Clark’s lunch was almost always leftovers, too. If it was summer, she ate a raw hot pepper from her garden. And if it was autumn, she set out a tub of refrigerator pickles and let me help myself. By the time lunch was being served, The Price Is Right was on TV and I’d reached the back of the house. If I had been in the house alone, I would have finished up the bathrooms before I sat down to eat. In the housecleaning trade, bathroom and kitchens and mopping are called wet-work and I preferred to have it all behind me before lunch. It was hard to face wet-work after eating. It was not so hard to face the last bit of dusting and vacuuming and replacing the rugs.
But I was never alone in Mrs. Clark’s house. She didn’t like for me to be there when she wasn’t. I had even been asked to rearrange my schedule to accommodate a doctor or a dentist appointment. She kept up a steady complaint about the price, too, telling me at every opportunity it was high enough that I should provide the garbage bags as well as the cleaners and vac bags. If I hadn’t liked her so much, I would have dropped her in a minute. But I did like her. She was old and old-fashioned and I liked the way she lived. At eighty-three, she still gardened and canned and pickled and put up produce in the freezer in the garage.
I liked her house too. Everything was neat and organized and the house itself was a marvel. It was built by her late husband, and in one place, the gold-toned knotty pine paneling opened to reveal a desk with cubbyholes and shelves above it. The last papers of the late Mr. Clark’s construction business were stuck to a nail hammered through a small board. It was as if they waited for him to return and get two-by-fours at the old price.
There was a picture of Mr. Clark in the living room, a black-and-white photograph of a handsome young man in a military uniform. From the same era was a picture of Mrs. Clark. She was drop-dead gorgeous, not in a glamorous, made-up kind of way but more in a healthy, capable kind of way. I bet she was a good girlfriend, and after the war, a good wife. She told me several times that when Clark (she always called him Clark) was deployed overseas, they worked out a code together. The first letter of every paragraph in his correspondence to her would spell out his location. That way she would always know where he was. “And I did,” she’d say. “The censors never caught it.”
I loved to hear Mrs. Clark tell stories. Sometimes she trailed me around and talked about Clark while I dusted the living room or cleaned the kitchen. I knew a lot about Clark. I knew that whenever someone dropped by to visit, he would say, “Come on in this house.” And I knew he always gave bags of apples and oranges for Christmas. And I knew he’d fallen off a roof once and was out of work for a month. Mrs. Clark could tell me which houses along her street her husband had built and who had built all the others.
He died at home, in the house that I cleaned. He was sick a long time and one day their daughter Patricia was in the bedroom with him and he passed away with Mrs. Clark just on the other side of the wall he’d built. Mrs. Clark told me about Patricia coming into the living room and saying, “He’s gone, Mama,” and Mrs. Clark saying, “And you didn’t come get me.” I could tell that it still upset her.
“He might not have been able to go with you in the room,” I told her. “I’m sure it was hard to leave you here.”
Mrs. Clark looked away. “Well, there won’t be another like him,” she said.
She had a guitar in her closet and one day I asked her about it. “Did Clark
“It’s mine,” she said.
She brought it out, slung the strap over her shoulder, tuned it, and picked a fast song. Then the guitar went back into the case and the case went back into the closet.
All the closets were lined with cedar and in the fall there would be box tops spread with newspaper and filled with green tomatoes picked just before first frost. I loved the seasons in Mrs. Clark’s house. They had as much to do with the garden as they did with holidays, but holidays were clearly important. There were pictures to prove it. Her family took pictures of everything. Besides fifty years worth of Christmas trees and Thanksgiving dinners, there were pictures of mundane things, like Patricia and the tenant from the garage apartment shoveling snow off the driveway, and even one of the big hole in the backyard, where the water department dug up an old gas tank.
Mrs. Clark kept the pictures arranged in albums. They marched in neat chronological parade along one of the built-in shelves in the living room.
At Christmas she got cards from everyone who had ever rented the apartment above the garage or the attic bedrooms that were now closed off. She taped the cards to the doorframe between the kitchen and the living room. This was when Mrs. Clark was most likely to take her picture albums out and point to a card and then the picture of the person who had sent the card.
That she had pictures from every tenant they’d ever had amazed me. It amazed me even more that Mrs. Clark knew their names, and still got cards from them. Sometimes she pointed to photos of the kids, or the couple she and Clark went out with every Friday night. Once she pointed to a picture of their maid, a smiling black woman named Real.
I asked Mrs. Clark about it several times when she first showed me Real’s picture. “Real? Her name was Real?”
“That’s a great name,” I said, cataloging it in my mind for a future character.
“She was a great woman,” Mrs. Clark said. “She was with us seventeen years. Came in every day. Got sick and had to quit and we miss her.”
I tried to imagine Real. She probably dusted many of the same things I was dusting and she probably got along with the Clark family pretty well. They were a happy bunch. They weren’t mean and they worked hard and they didn’t expect miracles and there were certainly worse white people to work for. But I bet it was hard on her too. Real must have had her own children to tend to. I’m sure there were meals to fix at home, floors that needed sweeping and mopping, dishes that needed washing, and sheets that needed changing. I could sympathize with Real regarding that, because for me this has always been one of the toughest things about working as a housecleaner. I scrubbed and dusted and mopped all day long and then came home to a dirty house. I imagine the irony was not lost on Real.
But Real wasn’t the only maid in Mrs. Clark’s scrapbook. I’d landed there too. There was a photo of me standing in the kitchen, the taped Christmas cards behind me. I have managed a smile, even though I hate having my picture taken and I especially hate it during a day of housecleaning. The trade shows on me.
It shows in my frumpy, long-sleeved T-shirt and in the fabric of my jeans puddling toward my sneakers and in the yellow rubber gloves I clutch in one hand. I look fat and old and worn out. Just thinking about this picture makes my lower back ache.
But in Mrs. Clark’s scrapbook I am redeemed, for lack of a better word. The next page holds a newspaper article about me and there’s the picture my ex-boyfriend took. In it my hair is long and dark and I look pretty. You wouldn’t even know it was the same person. The article reviews my second novel and quotes me in places, but there is no mention of housecleaning. Maybe this is good. Maybe this is bad. All I know is that it wasn’t exactly a secret but it wasn’t exactly well-received either.
Sometimes I felt that people who interviewed me or met me on book tour were embarrassed when they found out I cleaned houses for a living. I’m sure that many of these people had women coming into their own homes and cleaning for them, so I don’t know if they were embarrassed for me or for themselves. I do know that their embarrassment leaked over to me and became my embarrassment too.
One man at a literary cocktail party burst out laughing when I told him, after being asked what my day job was, that I cleaned houses for a living. He thought I was deadpanning, and damned good at it too. “I’m not kidding,” I said. “I clean houses for a living.” I could see him pulling himself in, filtering this information through everything he thought he knew about published novelists. His was the most overt reaction I’d ever experienced.
Mostly I just saw a brief change in people’s eyes. It didn’t take loads of intuition to know what was going on behind the irises. Like maids everywhere, like Real, there were things I just knew. It always made me want to skulk away and plump the pillows on the couch, straighten the pictures on the walls, help the help pour the wine and offer the shrimp and stuffed mushrooms. But then I’ve always been uncomfortable with the nebulous task of mingling. I am a lot more comfortable taking care of a task that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, like cleaning a house or writing fiction.
Finally one article in a national newspaper did mention my work as a housecleaner, and I never would have known about it if not for Mrs. Clark. The article came out on a Tuesday, the very day that her house was on my schedule. I would be there by ten a.m. but Mrs. Clark couldn’t wait that long. I was eating breakfast when she called.
“This is Mrs. Clark. Congratulations. You’re in the National Enquirer.
My mind stumbled around like a drunk on acid. Had she said the National
“The National Enquirer?” I asked.
“Yep. About half a page.”
“I thought the National Enquirer was a tabloid.”
“It is,” Mrs. Clark said. “Just as trashy as trash can be. I don’t care for it myself but Patricia takes it. I’ll show it to you when you get here. Congratulations,” she said again. And she meant it. There was not a hint of sarcasm or judgment in Mrs. Clark’s voice.
My literary career hadn’t exactly been going swimmingly, at least not according to me. When Life Without Water, my first book, was published, I thought I’d be quitting housecleaning, and when my second book, Home Across the Road, was published I thought surely that would do it. But instead I seemed to be locked into the trade more and more with every book I wrote. The problem was that I couldn’t write fast enough. I couldn’t follow one successful book with another in the amount of time it takes to be forgotten. Writing this way would have been like having sex with one man after another. I would have hated it. But I wasn’t exactly loving housecleaning either.
When I got to Mrs. Clark’s, she already had the scissors out. The National Enquirer was sitting on the breakfast bar where we would be having our lunch and watching The Price Is Right in a few hours. Princess Di was on the cover. Mrs. Clark opened the newspaper and pointed to the article. I leaned in close, looking for the byline before I looked for anything else. I wanted to know who had done this to me. I immediately recognized the name. I’d given him a phone interview a few months earlier. He’d told me he was writing the piece for a national women’s magazine.
During the interview it came out that while writing my first book, I’d supported myself as a housecleaner. “What about your second book?” he asked. “What did you do then?”
“I had an advance,” I said, “and I took a year off. But the money ran out. I did a few odd jobs and then started cleaning houses again. I’m still doing it.”
I could feel the air on the other end of the line change.
“You still clean houses? You mean now?”
“I mean today. I’ll be cleaning a house in just a few hours. I’ve already got my lunch packed.”
I could hear him scribbling this down. He asked a few more questions and concluded the interview. The article should come out in a few months. August or September. He’d send me a tear sheet. Could he send a photographer over?
The photographer arrived a few weeks later. He set up light in the little one-room cabin I shared with my husband and snapped pictures of me sitting at my old desk, pretending to write on my old Macintosh. He posed me outside too, sitting in the hammock, holding a copy of my second novel. These pictures were now in the National Enquirer.
The headline read “Here’s One for the Books,” and the subtitle read “Cleaning Lady Is an Acclaimed Author.” The gist of it was that I worked as a “housemaid” and had two critically acclaimed novels and, according to the article, they loved me in New York. My husband Ben’s name was given as Dan. And I was quoted as having said, “I’m just a regular gal who loves to write.”
Now, I know I didn’t say this. In my entire life I have never called myself either regular or a gal. But I guess it sounded housecleanerish, like something a common charwoman with two critically acclaimed novels just might say.
Before I’d even reached the dining room, Mrs. Clark had clipped the article and added it to her scrapbook. And as I cleaned the rest of the house, I tried to imagine what had derailed the article from the national women’s magazine and instead placed it in the Enquirer. The only scenario that I could come up with was that the women’s magazine had rejected the piece after they found out I was a housecleaner. And to save a little on his investment of time, the writer had pitched it and sold it to the tabloid.
It took me a little while to adjust to being in the Enquirer. To my knowledge, no one was aware of it but Mrs. Clark and her daughter, my husband, “Dan,” and me. But it was hard knowledge for me to carry. In line at the grocery store, I started at the cover on the newsstand, at Princess Di’s picture. I’d always flipped through the tabloids before but now I didn’t.
Finally, a few days before it went off the stand, I bought a copy and read it through. I instantly felt better. I wasn’t keeping such bad company after all. My teenage heartthrob Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees was mentioned, and a few pages before the “Here’s One for the Books” piece there was an article about a man who’d chopped his girlfriend’s head off and boiled it to make soup for the homeless.
“Don’t get any ideas,” I told “Dan.”