Franklin knows I’ve been thinking about leaving him. Who wouldn’t figure that out? He’s been unemployed for three years. Three. And I’ve been cleaning other people’s houses since I got laid off from Beauty Supply, two years ago.
I think about leaving him while vacuuming, while scrubbing toilets, while dusting lampshades. I think about it on the bus going to my jobs and on the bus coming home. I especially think about it when I get up in the mornings and he stays asleep in the warm bed.
Then one night he doesn’t come home. I wake up at 7:00 a.m. and I’m alone in bed. Until now, no matter how late he’s caroused with friends, he’s always been here in the morning. I feel kicked in the stomach. A cold hard feeling. The end of something. I get up like a machine. Brush my hair, put on jeans and sneakers. I skip breakfast, something I never do, but I just can’t eat.
On the bus I take the three pictures of our baby Olga from my wallet. I rip them up and leave the confetti on the floor of the bus. It’s over. I do have my bottom line.
Luckily, I have my favorite clients today, the Tuckers. What’s better, they’re out of town. So first thing when I get to their house, I run a bubble bath. I deserve it. It’s one of the perks of my work. I soak for a while and then use Mrs. Tucker’s fancy lotion. I throw the soggy bath towel in with a load of wash. I set the dials to hot.
I more than pay back my clients for the liberties I take. I do extra touches. That’s why they love me. I change litter boxes, clean the insides of ovens, mow lawns, and reorganize linen closets. Once, when I was voluntarily cleaning out the Levines’ refrigerator, I used the odds and ends to make a hearty soup which I left in a Tupperware container on the top shelf. I wouldn’t go that far for just anyone. The Levines are very nice people. She didn’t blink when I asked for the raise a few months ago.
My strategy is to make myself indispensible. By now—and this did take a couple of years—I have more referrals than I need. I only have to work for people I like.
As I mop the Tuckers’ kitchen floor and bleach their sink, I plan on making a clean break with Franklin. He’ll have some airtight excuse. I know him. We’ve been together for 10 years, since we were 14. But I’m not falling for it.
Still, it won’t be easy. By the time I get to the hardwood floors, my determination is waning. The truth is, I love Franklin. Anyway, this is the first time ever he hasn’t come home. And we do have a good time together. We laugh a lot. We hang out on weekends. No one comes close to getting me like he does.
I turn on the Tuckers’ television to watch Dr. Phil and start dusting their living and dining rooms without even looking at the picture.
While I don’t appreciate supporting Franklin, it’s not like I mind my job. I always feel like I’m getting away with something. It’s easy work for good money. It makes me feel smart, too. Donna says I’m an entrepreneur. The economy tanked. I lost my job at Beauty Supply, where I was the last hired clerk. We needed money badly, right away, and someone had to do something. Franklin didn’t get off the couch. So, and some people might criticize me for this, but I call it being a smart businesswoman, I simply underbid all the other folks doing housecleaning. In other words, I worked for cheap.
You have to use your head. You can’t just sit around and expect things to come to you.
Even so, even with my smart tactics, getting my first clients wasn’t easy. Everyone else is having financial difficulties, too. People are cleaning their own houses. Besides, I didn’t have any references.
I got aggressive. You have to.
First, I milked my contacts. Beauty Supply is on Solano Avenue, which is a fancy street. The galleries and florists and clothing boutiques were laying off everyone they could, too. But that meant the owners were working longer hours. They needed help at home. And of course they knew my ex-boss, Donna, who is the first to tell anyone that it wasn’t my skills that got me laid off. I was on-time, friendly with the customers, and always looked good, which is a plus when you’re selling beauty products. Less important for cleaning houses. In fact, it’s a negative for the wives, if the husbands are ever around, which is why I wear my hair pulled back in a slick ponytail and no makeup to my jobs. No nonsense from me.
I contacted a few of those business owners and told them Franklin’s and my story—using just the right amount of pluck and pathos. You know how it goes. It’s really hard, but we’re bucking up.
Donna, who felt guilty laying me off, said of course she’d give me good references. Local businesses network. They trust each other. I tapped into that trust. It was a long shot, but it worked with the bank’s manager, who I admit liked to flirt with me, back when I worked across the street, and he convinced his wife to hire me. Of course I totally turned off that flirtation because it was the wife I had to impress, and I did, and soon her neighbor hired me, too. It was slow, but not that slow. I built my client list. I’m full-time now. And I started only two years ago.
The truth is, I kind of like cleaning people’s houses. I work alone, no boss breathing down my neck, most days anyway. I get to be around nice things in nice houses. I don’t work that hard. And I make people really, really happy.
The Tuckers will be back tomorrow. I take the kitchen shears out to their garden. I find two big clumps of deep red rhododendron blooms in the back of the bush, where no one can enjoy them anyway, and snip them off. I arrange these in a crystal vase and put them in the middle of the newly polished dining room table. I smile at the thought of Mrs. Tucker coming in the door, tired from her trip, and noticing the fresh flowers.
Then, seeing how late in the morning it’s already gotten, I return to my dusting. That’s when I finally notice the absence of sound coming from the television. I go over to turn it up, hoping Dr. Phil has interesting guests to keep me company, and stop short when I see the screen.
I’m not easy to shock. But what I see makes my stomach kind of roil, like I’ve eaten too many raw apples. It’s a DVD. Of Mrs. Tucker. Naked.
I look around frantically for the remote, so I can switch to TV, but once I have the stick in my hand, I have to take another look. Mr. Tucker comes into the picture. So like, either the camera is being operated by a third party, or they’d set it up on a tripod. Just then, Mr. Tucker’s face swings toward me and I flinch, like he’s seen me, and he grins. He walks back toward the camera, to adjust the angle or focus or something, and then joins his wife again.
I mean, they’re like 50 years old. I just can’t believe it. Then, all at once, my horror shifts to something like jealousy. The plain fact of this film—the hairy, sagging details I’ll spare you—is that they are having fun. Fifty years old and not all that attractive, and they are having the time of their lives. Laughing at first, making me think that maybe this is the first time they’ve done this, but then soon getting serious, moaning and eventually panting. My disgust returns and I lift the remote to shut them off.
But I can’t. Why do they have this beautiful house? How come they get to have a relationship that they apparently enjoy even at their ages? It doesn’t seem fair. I’m only 24. And my husband already doesn’t come home at night. Mrs. Tucker is old enough to be a grandmother, and her husband wants to watch them having sex on a DVD.
I sit on the couch and look at the entire recording, all the way through coitus. Sorry, but for people that age, I can’t think of the right word. Then I fast-reverse and start watching all over again.
This is a first for me. I’ve looked through photo albums, tried on jewelry, and checked my email on clients’ computers. One time I used Mrs. Washington’s vibrator. I washed it really well, before and after. But that’s the only other dirty thing I’ve ever done. And that felt a lot less dirty than this.
I hear footsteps in the hall. The roiling raw apple feeling shoots up my throat and I almost scream. I manage to suppress it. I’m good in emergencies. My mind crystallizes into clear pictures. Either someone has broken into the Tuckers’ house, like someone who’s scoped that they’re out of town, or the Tuckers have come home early. Either way, I’m fucked.
It’s gotta be the Tuckers. I click off the TV. I rise slowly from the couch and, because it’s clear by the sound of the approaching footsteps that I don’t have time to get across the room to either the duster or the vacuum cleaner, I get down on my hands and knees and reach my arm under the couch. Like I said, I can think quickly when I need to. I even start grunting and sweeping my arm, like I’m trying to retrieve some cat toy.
As the intruder steps into the living room, my airborne butt is the first thing he sees.
“Babe,” he says. “What the hell?”
All my crystalline speediness dissolves. The moment turns slow-motion. I look over my shoulder, and then sit up on my haunches.
It’s Franklin. He holds up two big white bags soaked through on the bottom with some kind of pink sauce. He says, “Brought us lunch.”
I glance at the TV to make sure the dirty pictures are gone. Then I glance back at Franklin, confused, but slowly realize he thinks bringing me lunch is going to make up for not coming home last night.
I shake my head, warming up for our showdown, thinking, right now. I can end this thing right now. But a thought stalls me.
“Wait. How’d you get in the house?” I know I locked the doors after me this morning. I always do.
“Backdoor wasn’t locked. I walked right in.”
Weird. That doesn’t sound like the Tuckers. But then home porn movies don’t sound like the Tuckers, either. I guess they’re a little—a lot—looser than I thought. That still doesn’t fully explain Franklin.
“But why didn’t you just knock? Or ring the bell? If Mrs. Tucker were here, I could be in deep shit, you just walking in.”
Franklin shrugs and lowers himself onto the couch, holding the greasy bags in his lap. “You told me they were out of town. I wanted to surprise you. Guess what.”
Here it comes. I keep my face blank. I don’t raise an eyebrow. Don’t purse my lips.
“Last night,” he begins and I wait. He grins. “Last night I got a job.” He jiggles the two white paper bags in his lap and says, “Reubens and chocolate cake from Otis’s.”
My topmost favorite. He’s really working it. The rich, smoky corned beef smell has made it to my nose. My stomach growls. Anyway, the Tuckers are out of the town. I nod toward the coffee table and Franklin quickly unpacks the sandwiches, laying them out on the bags.
I pick up a half and bite the salty corned beef, the buttery grilled bread, the tangy sauerkraut, the creamy melted cheese. Nothing better. Franklin waits until I’ve had a few good bites. Then he pulls the chocolate cake slices, each in their own cardboard boat, out of the bags, removes the plastic wrap, and puts them on display. Otis’s makes the best homemade dark chocolate cake, the icing earthy and almost black.
“Where and what?” I ask, knowing I’m losing the battle.
“Night janitor over at a school on San Pablo. Last night was my first shift.”
I consider this. Highly implausible. School districts have all kinds of hiring red tape. I decide to play along for a while, give him the benefit of doubt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just did.”
“I mean before. Before you started.”
“Okay, listen, babe. This is so cool. It’s one of those right place at the right time kind of things. Jack called me and told me to get my butt over there, like right then, right that moment. So I did. Talked to the guy in charge. The night janitor had walked out, like a couple of hours earlier. The guy didn’t want to hire me, you know, without checking my references and stuff. But there’d been a major food fight in the cafeteria that day. Walls plastered with mac and cheese. Floor covered with sticky soda and exploded burritos.”
I laugh. I can’t help it. Franklin and I used to be prime culprits in food fights at Williard Junior High. It’s practically how we fell in love. Donna would say it’s our karma, both of us now working jobs that clean up after other people. Me and Franklin have made our share of messes.
“So he handed me a mop and bucket and said, ‘Go at it.’”
Franklin pauses and I know he sees me trying to solve two or three different problems in his story. He jumps back in with, “So that was about 6:00. My shift ended at 2:00. Jack called and said to meet him at The Office, there on San Pablo, afterward, and him getting me the job and all, I couldn’t exactly say no. He was just coming out of the bar, since it was closing, so we went over to his place and had a couple of drinks and I crashed on his couch.”
He checks my expression and sees it’s not looking too resolved yet. So he grins some more and says, “Do I feel like shit today. But man, after such a long spell of unemployment, I needed that blowout. I feel like shit, but I feel good, too. Know what I mean?”
I nod slowly and let the story slide. The truth is, Franklin and I have always had really good luck. Implausible things do happen to us. It’s one of the things that keeps us together, how we just keep rising to the surface. I pick up the other half of my sandwich. We eat in silence then, both of us thinking.
“Franklin,” I say, pressing my fingertip against the last chocolate crumbs in the cardboard boat.
“Take more pictures of Olga.”
“People are going to wonder. She’s getting older, right? I should have updated pictures.”
“Do they even ask about her anymore?”
“Are you kidding? All the time. The women love asking about her. It’s weird that I only have the one-year-old shots.” I don’t bother telling him that I don’t even have those anymore.
“I’ll get them this weekend. We can both go.”
Then, all of a sudden, I feel insanely happy. We love Olga. She’s the light of our lives. Maybe I can use the new pictures to ask for raises. School clothes and doctor’s bills, whatever.
I grab the remote and click on the TV.
“Look,” I say. “This is the Tuckers.”
We both watch the DVD all the way through. The whole time Franklin is saying, “No way. No way. I’m not seeing this.” We die laughing, roll onto the floor holding our stomachs, and then start kissing. It feels a little like how it used to feel kissing in the coat closet at Williard Junior High, years ago. The risk is nice. We end up having hotter sex than we have had in forever. Right there on the Tucker’s living room floor.
Afterwards, I make him leave quickly. Then, to make up for so many trespasses, I do a whole lot of extra work. I sweep their entire patio. Scour all the silver rings on the stovetop. I finish all the laundry and fold it, too. I even iron the shirts. I won’t get home until late. Franklin will have already left for his new job. But it’s worth it. Our luck has turned.
The following week, Mrs. Tucker is there when I arrive. She doesn’t smile at me, which is unusual, but she is a serious woman, so I let it pass. She’s high up in some insurance company. Very stressful work. Her bad humor isn’t about me. In fact, I think maybe I can improve her mood.
I settle my purse on the spot by the door where I always leave it, and then, pretending I’d just thought of it, say, “I have a couple new pictures of Olga.”
“Oh,” she says. Even now her smile is weak and forced.
The new pictures of Olga have cheered me up so much, I feel sure they’ll make her happy, too. Franklin and I took a bunch over the weekend. I pull out the thick packet and hold them out. I see my mistake right away. Of course Mrs. Tucker isn’t that interested. I grab them back, so awkwardly some flutter to the floor. I rifle through the ones in my hands and pick out the two cutest. In one, Olga is reaching toward the camera, her head of curls lit by sunlight, her eyes all sparkly. In the other, she’s riding a tricycle, her chubby legs obviously pedaling hard.
“Adorable,” Mrs. Tucker says and hands them back quickly. Something is wrong. Could she tell I watched the DVD? She hasn’t said thank you for the rhododendrons or ironing. I shove the pictures back in my purse and get to work. I decide to not ask for a raise today. Timing is everything.
Anyway, life is good. Franklin is a new man. He loves working. It boosts his self-esteem. We have more money. He buys a 1995 Camaro convertible. This last part pisses me off a little bit. I mean, yeah, it’s April. It’s warm this week. But the Bay Area isn’t exactly convertible country. That’s Franklin. Donna says he’s in the moment and I should celebrate that. So I do. What the hell. The car is fun. Me and Franklin put our worries aside and enjoy ourselves for a few weeks. True, I never get to see him at night anymore, but I hardly ever did anyway. Besides, he makes up for it by bringing me lunch now and then, which is more than he used to do when he was carousing rather than working at night.
Usually my clients aren’t home when he comes, but one time Mrs. Levine is, and she just thinks it’s marvelous that my husband has brought me lunch. It goes right along with the stories I’ve told her about him, how he’s a stay-at-home dad and all. We eat the sandwiches outside, although Mrs. Levine tries to insist that we sit at the kitchen table, and he leaves after 15 minutes. That’s when I show her the new pictures of Olga.
Then, out of the blue, the following week, the Washingtons let me go. She doesn’t say why. But her face is cold and stern. She looks furious. I worry that she’s somehow found out about Olga.
Franklin and I made our daughter up. You have to do shit like that. It’s worked really well, too. The women love when I tell them that my husband stays home with her, is willing to do that, is that kind of man. They practically swoon. To back up our story, Franklin bought a disposable camera and snapped a few shots of a friend’s baby, because what mother doesn’t carry pictures of her baby to work? The girl’s name is Cassandra, not Olga, but renaming her was my brilliant idea. I chose the ugly name on purpose. I knew a girl at Beauty Supply who had an Olga. I saw how it worked. It broke people’s hearts.
The thing is, my own Olga has started to break my heart, too. I meant it when I said she’s the light of our lives. She’s like a drawing that keeps getting more and more fleshed out.
Like when Franklin says, “Hey, babe. Guess what?”
He waits for my, “What?”
“Olga said papa today.” For a flashing second, I believe him. I think it really happened. I feel that fullness in my throat.
Or he’ll go, “I took Olga to the zoo today. She went nuts over the gorilla.”
And I’ll see it. Her halo of blond curls, the smile of delight when the gorilla pounds the glass.
But there is no little girl and no super-supportive husband. It isn’t that big of a lie because I do want a baby. It’s not my fault that this stinking economy makes having children impossible. Donna might say it isn’t a lie so much as putting my intentionality out there.
But Donna would also think making up Olga is going a little too far, especially since I used her contacts to get my jobs. All it would take is for one of my clients to mention the baby girl to Donna and my cover is blown.
That weekend, when I tell Franklin about the Washingtons firing me, he says, “You work too hard anyway. One less job is fine. I’m working now, right?”
“It’s not like I can’t get another client to take Mondays.”
“Okay, yeah. When you feel like it.”
Franklin’s generosity is soothing. But I still feel uneasy. The thing about lies is that they create a kind of spreading, moldy tension. I need Franklin on my side. I’ve always needed him on my side. But his involvement in the baby girl lie chains me to him in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable.
Then Mrs. Tucker lets me go, too. I need to know why. So I ask her.
She shakes her head, nervous. She says something like, “I don’t know what to say.”
“My cleaning has been shoddy?”
Then she spits it out. “Some things have gone missing. From the Washingtons, too. Valuable things.”
Gone missing. It takes a long, long time for the message to travel from those words in my ears to my brain. Slowly, slowly, I get it. She’s accusing me of stealing. It’s like fireworks go off in my head. There’s a look of horror on Mrs. Tucker’s face when she sees the one on mine. She’s gotta know, just by my expression, how wrong she is. I actually burst into tears. “I – have – cleaned – your shit! I – have – done – millions – of – extras – for – you! I – don’t – even – charge – you – for – extra – time – when – I – stay – late! And – you – ”
I can’t even finish. I feel a kind of rage I’ve never felt before. Yes, I lied about a nonexistent little girl. I’ve snooped when they trusted me to not snoop. But I’ve cleaned their houses thoroughly. More than thoroughly, I’ve done hours of bonus work.
I grab my purse and slam out the door. That night, while Franklin is at work, I drink wine and wait for the phone to ring. I am sure she will call and apologize. It’s a preposterous accusation. And to claim that the Washingtons, too, think I stole from them! The phone doesn’t ring, though. It gets to be eight o’clock, ten o’clock, and midnight.
She doesn’t call the next day, either.
Isn’t that just like rich people. They lose their shit and can’t admit it.
Also, they stick together. So I’m not at all surprised when Mrs. Levine is cold to me that week. But I’m still furious.
Then, when Jackie Carmichael lets me go, too, I catch on. Oddly, the truth doesn’t make me so much angry as it makes me clear-headed. I guess the adrenaline kicks me right over the top of the anger. I have to act. And quickly.
What I do is quit the rest of my jobs. I don’t call anyone, I just don’t show up. They have my cell, but no address. I get the cell number changed.
When Franklin gets in on Saturday morning, I tell him I’ve planned a nice day for us. He looks a little confused, says, “Babe, I just got home from work. I need to chill a bit.”
“That’s what we’re going to do. Chill. Come on.”
I insist on driving. He considers this as he fastens down the Camaro’s top. It looks like rain and he uses the weather to suggest again that we stay home. But when I get in the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition, he reluctantly gets in, too. I stop at the liquor store and buy us a six-pack. Then I drive down to the marina. The gray sky is spitting. A wind chops up the bay. I park in front of the jagged rocks and we watch the water splash against them, the gulls taking flight with each surge and landing as the water calms. I don’t have a plan, so I take my time, thinking. Franklin pops open a beer.
If he gets caught, and I know, then I’m an accomplice. So a direct confrontation is out. Franklin getting locked up would free me, in a way. So that’s an option. But I can’t look at his face and still want that. A lot of money would free me, too, but I’m less comfortable with the bribery alternative. I like the Tuckers and Levines and Washingtons. They treated me well. They don’t deserve this.
I know what Franklin would say: they have more than their share. It’s just a different kind of justice, babe. Donna would back away from me slowly, hands up, and talk about bad karma.
“The thing is,” Franklin says now. “I’ve started to believe in Olga. I’ve started to want Olga.”
When I look at him, I see our 10 years. Riding bikes all over town when we were 14. Our social teamwork when we were in high school, the rock of our couplehood, the way our friends depended on our steady humor and confidence. Our first apartment. Our string of jobs. The death of our dreams. Already. Franklin looks haggard, exhausted, like he’s been up all night.
And the thing is, I know he hasn’t been up all night. There is no night job. But there is a night something. Which makes me briefly consider revenge. But even that feeling doesn’t last more than a moment. That’s how flat I feel. I can’t even stoke my anger.
“Me having a steady job now,” he says, opening another beer, “and you being off work, it’s the time to start our family, don’t you think?”
He looks desperate as he drinks. Franklin is lost. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Even with the girlfriend on the side, it’s the saddest thing, because I know why he has her. The years of unemployment, the slurping sound of his dreams being flushed, the impossibility of the road ahead. He doesn’t want me gone.
“How much money have you made at your new job?” I ask. “So far.”
He grins, as if my question is a toehold. He leans forward, digs his wallet out of his back pocket, pulls out cash. He has many hundreds.
“That all?” I hold out my hand.
Thinking I only want to count it, he puts the entire wad in my palm. I stuff the money in my purse and start the car engine. Now he looks frightened, like he knows I know.
“There’s a lot more,” he says. “I’ve opened an account.” He pauses and rubs his hands on the tops of his thighs. “For Olga.”
I nod and back the car out of the parking space. I drive him to our apartment and pull up at the curb. I ask him to get out.
“Where’re you going?” he asks.
“I gotta run some errands.”
“Give me the cash back.”
“I gotta get some stuff for the baby,” I say and smile to calm him.
Franklin looks relieved. But only for a second. Then his mouth opens. His eyes squint. I can see the wheels in his brain turning. He wants to say, What baby? Of course he can’t say that. He gets out of the car and bends to wave at me through the window. I wave back.
Then I pull away from the curb and drive to the first gas station. I fill the tank. As I head for the freeway, I fiddle with the radio, look for the best station. But every song hurts. My throat aches from holding back the sobs. At an interstate rest stop, I lay all the pictures of Olga out on the passenger seat. I have the crazy idea that I could have swung by Franklin’s friend’s apartment and kidnapped her. This makes me laugh, but right away the laughing turns into crying. So I put my pedal to the floor and speed north again.
I’m across the Oregon border by suppertime, but I keep going, not stopping until I get to Portland. I pull into a Best Western on the outskirts, check in, and find a bar. I’m not much of a drinker, but I like to talk.
A woman, about 300 pounds with hennaed hair, is drinking Diet Coke by herself at the bar. I order one and take a stool. Her name is Debbie. We commiserate about how hard it is to make a living. She used to be in the Army, but got kicked out when she gained too much weight. I tell her stories about cleaning other people’s houses and she has a good laugh. We get all hepped up on Diet Coke.
Eventually, Ethan, a geeky guy in rectangular, wire-framed glasses, takes a seat at the bar, too. He says that cleaning other people’s shit is degrading. Debbie quickly agrees. I ask her why she didn’t just tell me that right away. She shrugs, says it’s really none of her business. Ethan says everything in a bar is everyone else’s business.
The three of us get totally blunt then and tell our life stories. I don’t tell them about Franklin’s thefts, but I do tell them about his fictitious job. I also tell them the full truth about Olga. Ethan is drinking whiskey and he starts to get sloppy. Debbie has been quiet ever since she told about her husband leaving. She moves her glass around in wet circles on the bar top. I get up without even saying goodbye. As I walk out the bar door and into the evening, a bit of rain misting my face, I get this strange feeling. It’s a cross between excitement and gloom. It’s the tension between truth and story. I realize that my story is changing. Tonight. Right now. As I walk through this cold wet air.