Friday, April 23, 2010

Cluck Old Hen

I added all the money my most generous customer gave me in the last year and divided that by the number of hours I worked to justify charging Doctor Leo 25 whopping dollars an hour.  It was good to have a place to publicly declare my intended fee (Thanks Blogspot) thereby making it awkward to back down from placing such a high value on my services.  Now that I have spent several hours in the house and dealt once again with this customer that I had dropped all those years ago, and now that I’m actually receiving more money for the work, I feel much better about setting such a high rate.
I still find Leo very disappointing as a customer, and the house is floating in dust like the magical blanket on the front lawn after a few hours of newly fallen snow.  There are; correction, were, cobwebs woven and long since abandoned under the seats of every dining room chair, and all the exposed wood around the oriental carpets was dotted with generations of dead bugs and their lifetime of dried up drips of body fluids.  This kind of stuff doesn’t happen over night, it takes a long time to accumulate.  Every time I start to feel angry or righteous about the level of funk to which the house has sunk, I think of how fortunate I am to have so much work and at such a rewarding rate of return.  Leo’s personality and Carolyn’s illness are however another intractably depressing story.  The Doctor is highly skilled at maneuvering conversations to suit his purposes and shows no motivation to allow real friendship to develop, or in the case of Carolyn and me, to resume where we left off.
Carolyn has faded markedly since I last saw her maybe 3 years ago.  Her memory is drastically curtailed and this impairment robs her and others of her once sharp personality.  Though Carolyn was always the most gracious woman I have ever known, there was a purposeful angularity to her that outlined her strong identity.  Now she is left with her generous grace, but little of the direction that once made her such an inspiring example for me as a younger woman.  It is still a pleasure to be around her, but the following day I find myself overcome by nebulous sadness, that settles in beside a really maddening irritation with her husband. 
The pattern was immediately reestablished as soon as Leo called the Carson’s to ask for my phone number; cluck about what the rooster said.  Anne was offended at the beginning of the call when he felt he had to remind her who he was.  “I know who you are, Leo.”   He really showed his lack of awareness though, when he asked if her mother was still alive; the Carsons, like his wife are in their eighties.  Anne gave him my new number and dismissed him summarily, which is the way he deals with me.
Carolyn is one of my inspirations, but Anne is my hero.  When I showed signs of waffling on the rate she said, “If he doesn’t like it you just walk away,” in a tone that left no room for negotiation.  You have to understand, I’ve been cleaning for the Carson’s for over 25 years, and Anne really is like a mother to me.  She is consistently generous with over the top praise and support for all of my endeavors, since I became a mother she constantly finds reasons to give me money, and she is impatiently dismissive of anyone who would diminish me; she is a 21st century Guadalupana telling younger women that not only are they appreciated but they better damn well appreciate themselves and not let some fool take advantage of them. 
“That MAN!”  It was the same day I had cleaned for the Mansoor’s. 
Dr. Mansoor wanted to change from Fridays because they are often out of town for long weekends and he didn’t want to miss a cleaning.  He wanted to know if Wednesday would be reasonable.  I suggested Monday.  OK, he would take Monday.  This exchange took place in the middle of the day’s work; I had come downstairs for a scrubbing pad and was passing the computer on the way to the kitchen.  After his new day was settled I retrieved the pad and hauled my butt upstairs to scrub the film off the chrome fixtures in the bathroom. 
In the early years of my career, I thought I had chosen housecleaning because it was a job that did not require me to direct my mind to achieve someone else’s objectives.  I was selling my time and labor and reserving my mind for myself.  After considering which task is best completed first, and how to disassemble and reassemble storm windows or appliances to get at the crumbs and scum, my mind can wander and I have the pleasure of working with the company of my unfettered thoughts. 
I am happily removing the film from the chrome, letting my thoughts wander.  Like my son who goes out on the street and brings home friends, they return with new ideas.  So, what if I did two houses on Wednesday, would that be logistically possible?  Possibilities are offering themselves for my consideration and I am turning them over in my mind as I spray Clorox on the tile wall to see if I can get some of the light mildew stains to fade.  They are not very dark, or noticeable, I’ll just spray a little and see what happens.  It’s always good to go for any improvement.  Sometimes it is best to just concentrate in one very limited area and see how much you can improve till it looks like there’s nothing more that you can reasonably do, then move on to a new area.
Physical existence is limited.  Our minds can conceive of physical objects way beyond the reach of our fingers to touch, or our bodies to bump into.  The fingers can only do so much, we depend on them to communicate the vast reaches of the mind, but they themselves are trapped on our hands, attached to beastly bodies.  The fingers speak a primitive but sophisticated language, integrating touch and sound, sight and ideas.  The fingers enable touch to be informing, and, with a minimum of physical force, extremely provocative.  The fingers are magic.  Only people that have done any amount of cleaning know it is a task which requires capable hands and fingers.  Of course the body must be able to make its way with limber movements about the house, but the fingers must put all things back in order. 
There are some people in the world who never clean; have never gotten on their hands and knees to wipe a floor.  They just wear shoes or accept that the soles of their feet will get black and sticky when they walk barefoot.  Or they are distracted when someone else removes the detritus of life with wet rag and rinse water and assume this return to the original, unsoiled state happens by magic. House cleaners are not distracted from dirt, they are drawn to it with rag in hand and bucket of water.  They don’t put the rest of the world right; they just take care of what’s in their corner.  They are preparing an area where inhabitants can relax and rest and be with themselves in pleasant peace.  The fingers make real the imaginings of the mind.  “This soap dish would be a pleasure to use if it didn’t have all this old soap caked up on it.  Let’s get rid of that.”  What the fingers take so much time to do appears to the uninitiated like mundane slight of hand.   
As the trumpet shines and tosses bright notes into the air we admire the work of its maker and the one whose trained fingers make captivating music with it.  The musician’s breath and tongue are working together with the whole being to delight us with an ephemeral moment.  We applaud to show our appreciation for their dedication.  Housecleaners receive the same admiration from the people they clean for.  “Oh, I can see the front walkway.  What a difference!”   Housecleaners are loved by their customers.  It is the real reason we do it. 
 Apparently The Doctor is so inured to the dust around him, or so consumed by his own intellectual endeavors, that he cannot see it filtering the light coming through the lamp shade, or collecting under a book on the night table.  He has been paying someone to clean and so the house must be clean.  I venture this is not the mentality he brings to music.  When I point out tasks that remain to be done, he waves the remarks aside like flies at a picnic, apparently unaware that smeared windows distort the moving image of the magnolia tree’s branches waving in the breeze. 
My day of work at his house is ending; I am putting chemicals, brushes and the bucket away, making ready to go to the Carson’s.  These days I don’t often have two customers in one day, so I’m kind of high on the recovery, the ability to work happily for 8 hours.  Dr. Mansoor wants to write me a check, he imagines I could use some money, and I am cool with receiving money since there is always something to be paid for.  As he hands me the check he says, “let’s say you gradually work us to Wednesday.”  It was a statement.
The thing on my mind for weeks has been, why do I find him so irritating?  As I repeated the exchange standing over the kitchen sink at the Carson’s, Anne tossed off, “I give it 6 weeks.”  I think this will be much longer than 6 weeks, for many reasons.  I can make money at any house and certainly get more involvement from another customer.  I can’t, however, imagine a more organized or fascinating household.   Leo and Carolyn are both interesting individuals.  Their home is better than a museum; Leo has the book his great grandfather took medical notes in.  It might be older than that; I think it is written on vellum.  They have a lot of stuff from his country of youth.  I cannot resist people with roots in different cultures; I cannot decline the privilege of being in their house. 
As much as I love the house and all the stuff, I don’t like the way the piles of books have multiplied; they are under side tables and stacked beside couches.  They need to be culled and it is hard to imagine that happening.  Carolyn, though she seems to have forgotten how clean she once kept closets and baseboards, does notice the improvement in the windows and asks for tasks that she notices.  I have hope that as she sees furniture moved and the bugs exposed underneath, she will start getting her old ideas.  She has asked me to do certain windows and wondered if I will get to the upstairs bedrooms and bath.  So that gives me a reason to show her the dirt in the shadows.  I called her from the kitchen a couple of weeks ago and showed her all the bugs and their solid waste, under the cushions of the sofa and on the floor behind it.  “This is why it’s taking me so long to do things.  I don’t want you to think I’m being slack.  Once I get everything right I can move faster.”
“I didn’t notice.  I wouldn’t have thought to look under those cushions,” she said in a tone of vaguely curious surprise.  I’m counting on that remnant of curiosity, a thin thread to the Carolyn who could remember.
The most difficult moments are when she doesn’t even seem to remember who she is or the things she has done.  It really becomes complete amnesia and I don’t know how she does it, but she remains as trusting as Job. Once in a while she thrills me with a mildly cross word, her mind flashing out seeking answers or striking at the husband when he irritates her.  Mostly, right now, I just want to get the house clean.  It is hard to think about anything else.  It is not until the next day that I begin to think of how much I miss her and wish she did not require so much time in the bed.     

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