FEATURE- SHORT STORY- Just like family
Money buys secrets. Go down to the neighborhood where I grew up, where money's tight and everybody lives on top of everybody else– it's impossible to keep a secret. Somebody's always watching. Secrets are just another thing poor folks can't afford.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
This story took third-place in the 2009 short story contest. "A very funny story about an unlikely encounter between two strangers who share family secrets," said judge/mega-author John Grisham commented. Strick may be familiar to some readers as the top winner last year with another humorous/poignant tale called "Moving."
But rich folks, their closets are stuffed full of secrets. Cleaning houses, I see it all the time. Hiding girly magazines behind toilets, bottles of vodka in underwear drawers, cigarettes in laundry bins. Just last Tuesday, I found nudie pictures shoved up under the Harlows' mattress. Nudie pictures with Mrs. Harlow and another woman. Talk about secrets.
But it's not my business to get anybody busted. I just leave things where they are and keep on doing my job.
I like what I do. Always have. Cleaning's the first thing I've ever done that I felt like made a difference. I tried working behind a desk once, right after I got my divorce. Worked in a dentist's office checking people in, filing their insurance, making appointments. It only took me three months to figure out it wasn't my thing. Folks fussing about deductibles, the doctor getting behind, and me getting yelled at for it, and, Lord, all the paperwork. Made me crazy, all the trash coming in and going out of there.
It was just as well I figured out it wasn't right for me, since Dr. Deland figured it out about the same time. He was nice about it, though. Gave me my first cleaning job, since he said that's the one thing I did really well, kept everything neat. I still clean his office and his house, twenty five years later. Always remembers my birthday, and gives me a ham and a good bonus at Christmas. Treats me like part of the family. In exchange, I leave his smutty movies behind the TV where he hides them.
I get to know folks real well from cleaning their houses. Like the Fentons. I've been doing their house every Wednesday for five years, and there's no way you don't get close to a family after all that time. Until last Wednesday, I thought I had the Fentons all figured out. That's when I found out I don't know some folks as well as I thought I did.
It was my regular day, and like always, I used my key. But when I went to turn it, the door was already unlocked. Now Mrs. Fenton always locks her door. She's never there– says it makes her nervous with me cleaning around her, but I think she feels guilty watching me do something she has plenty of time to do herself– and the door's always locked.
I looked back over my shoulder and that's when I noticed a filthy black car sitting by the curb, a little ways down from the house. That definitely wasn't normal, since it's not the kind of neighborhood where people park their cars on the street. I told myself it was probably the neighbor's new cleaning lady, but since I couldn't shake my case of nerves, I slipped in real quiet and peeked around the corner. When I didn't see anybody, I set my bucket by the door and took out a bottle of spray bleach and held it in front of me. I closed the door and stood real still. At first I didn't hear anything but the hum of the air-conditioning.
Just when I figured there wasn't anything to worry about, that I'd been watching too many cop shows, I heard a noise upstairs.
I probably should have called the police right then, but I'm so used to taking care of things myself, it never occurred to me. I slipped off my sneakers at the bottom of the stairs and started up on tip-toe, still holding on to my bleach for dear life. When I got to the top of the steps, I stopped and listened, but I didn't hear anything, and I thought again maybe I'd imagined the whole thing.
So I headed into the master bedroom. It looked just like normal in there– bed unmade, clothes all over the floor, dirty glasses sitting around. It's amazing how some folks live. If my house looked that bad I'd have to clean it before my cleaning lady came in.
Then I saw the jewelry box on the dresser, sitting wide open. Now that was nothing new; Mrs. Fenton's always careless with her stuff. Doesn't think a thing of leaving her jewelry all over the place. It shows how much she trusts me, I guess, but it's annoying because I have to put it away just to be able to dust.
What was weird that day was that the jewelry box was empty. My insides got watery, I was so scared.
The Fentons have one of those his and hers bathrooms, and I walked in through her side. Holding the bleach out in front of me like the cops on Law and Order two-hand their guns, I edged my way into her closet. Nobody I could see, but with all those clothes there could've been an army hiding in there. I shook a row of dresses, and when nobody jumped from behind them, I headed out and past the Jacuzzi between the bathrooms. There, beside the tub, was a duffle bag with stuff shoved in: a fur coat, a camera, jewelry.
I was bent over looking into the bag when I heard a little grunt coming from behind the closed door of the Mr.'s toilet.
Don't get me wrong– I'm not the type to risk my life for stuff, especially somebody else's stuff. But the idea of a thief coming on my day and leaving me to take the blame ticked me off so bad I didn't even stop to think. I walked straight over to the door and quick-like, I yanked it open, holding my bleach in front of me with the other hand.
I yelled "Freeze!" Somebody hollered "Crap!" and I almost dropped my bottle.
A young guy, maybe twenty, scruffy-faced and greasy-haired, ratty jeans down around his ankles, sat on Mr. Fenton's toilet doing his business. He was holding a People Magazine, and when he realized his privates were showing, he dropped it down in front of himself.
He stared at me, and I said it louder. "Hands up."
Shrugging, he raised his hands and the magazine in the air, exposing himself again. "Look, let me get dressed and we can talk about this."
I was not about to fall for that. I figured there wasn't much he could do to me while he didn't have on britches, and there was nowhere to hide a weapon, so I was pretty safe.
"Take your pants off with one hand and toss them over."
"Are you kidding me?"
I held the bottle closer. "Just do it."
He snorted. "Or what? You're gonna spray me with your scrubbing bubbles?"
I held the bottle out so he could see the label. "See this? This is bleach, smart boy." Then I read the warning to him. "Causes substantial eye injury. Do not get in eyes, on skin, or on clothing."
I aimed the bottle straight at his face. Then I dropped it down and sprayed a good squirt at his feet.
He jerked his feet back. "Jeez, lady, are you nuts?"
"Just do like I tell you."
When he saw I wasn't kidding, he tossed me his jeans, and I grabbed them and threw them into the other room. "Now I'm gonna give you some privacy, but don't try anything. Yell when you're done."
I closed the door and leaned against the other side, breathing hard.
The toilet flushed. "Can I at least have something to cover up with?" I grabbed a towel off the rack, opened the door, and passed it in. Still aiming the bleach in front of me, I pulled the door wider and waved him out. He moved past me, then stopped. "Where?"
"There, in the tub."
"This is bullshit."
"Get in– now."
He looked so silly curled up in the tub, knees up to his chin, a towel over his lap, that I almost laughed. Then I remembered he could be a killer.
"Now, you got a reason I shouldn't call the cops?"
He decided to play stubborn, and crossed his bony arms over his chest.
"OK, then, suit yourself." I reached for the phone on the wall by the tub.
Before I got it off the hook, he said, "Wait." I leaned against the wall, giving him time to fill in the quiet.
"Look. This is my dad's house, okay? I'm Trey Fenton. William Fenton the third."
Now in all the time I'd been cleaning their house, I'd never run across any boy stuff. Tons of pictures of Shelby and Emma, from diapers all the way up to prom dresses, but no boys. "How come I've never heard of you before? I've been working here for five years. I'd know if they had a son."
"I'm from his first family, the one he ditched. I live with my mom in Philly. Check my wallet if you don't believe me. It's in my back pocket."
I reached into his jeans and pulled out a set of keys and a wallet. I stuck the keys in my pocket and opened the wallet. Inside, there was his driver's license, and sure enough he was telling the truth.
"So, Trey Fenton, I guess you're here for a visit and just thought you'd take the jewelry out to be cleaned." I kicked the open duffle near my feet, and an emerald bracelet sparkled in the light.
"What do you care? You're just the maid, right?"
My finger tightened on the bleach trigger. "I might be just the maid, but at least I'm not a thief."
"Yeah, whatever. I still don't get why you care. It's not your stuff."
"Because, this is my day. And your daddy trusts me to take care of this place when I'm here."
After a couple minutes of quiet, he shifted around and said, "Now that you know I'm not going to hurt you, can I get out of this tub?"
"How do I know you're not gonna hurt me? Just because you're some rich man's kid? Nope, you need to stay where you are for now."
"For what? You gonna keep me here until my step mom gets home? Because if that's the plan, go on and call the cops. I'd rather be arrested than listen to her freak out on me."
I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to call the police– I just wanted to get the place cleaned and get out.
I slid down the wall. "So, you came all the way from Philadelphia to rob your daddy?"
He shrugged. "What do you care?"
I shrugged back. "Just wondering."
"Well, yeah, maybe. Or maybe I came down to talk to him, to try and figure out why he's such an SOB, but changed my mind. I guess you never wanted to stick it to your parents."
"Never knew my daddy. And no, I never wanted to stick it to my mama. She raised me by herself, and did a darned good job of it, too."
"OK, whatever. Now we've had our little Oprah moment, can I get out of here?"
No wonder Mr. Fenton didn't show this kid off. "You know, you being here is causing me a problem. If your stepmom gets here and I haven't finished cleaning..."
"Yeah, well, like you said, that's your problem."
"Don't interrupt me. Like I was saying, if she gets mad and fires me because I didn't do my job, it looks bad. Then I can't use her for a reference."
"You take this cleaning stuff pretty serious, huh?"
"Of course I do. It's my job. Trouble is, I've got to figure out what to do with you before I can even get started."
I thought a minute, then said, "Listen, if this place doesn't get cleaned, it's your fault. So, here's the deal. I can either call the cops and sit here with you until they come, or you can help me clean."
"Oh, hell no, that's definitely not going to happen. So just go ahead and have them lock me up."
I reached out for the phone. "My cousin did eighteen months for breaking and entering. Had to pick up trash off the highway every day. That sound better to you?"
"Whatever." But he didn't sound so tough anymore, and my hand had barely lifted the receiver when he said, "Okay. You win. Give me my pants, and I'll do it."
He reached for his jeans, and, after checking the pockets again for weapons, I held them out to him. "Now don't get any ideas. I've still got your car keys."
"What's going to keep me from just taking them from you?"
"Nothing, I reckon, but you'll have to fight me for them, and I don't go down easy."
"I'm sure you don't."
We started with the upstairs bathrooms. At first, Trey acted like a spoiled brat and sat on the edge of the tub, pouting. But once he figured out I wasn't giving in, he got up and asked what he was supposed to do. I knew if the house was gonna get done right, I'd have to hop in and get to it, but I wasn't about to let him off the hook. So leading him to his dad's toilet, I squirted cleaner around the bowl and showed him how to scrub under the rim. It wasn't gonna be the quickest or easiest way to get a house cleaned, but the boy needed a lesson.
After the toilets, I set him to work on the tub while I started on the shower. We worked in quiet for a while when something occurred to me.
"How'd you get in anyway?"
"Lock picking tools I got online."
"You know, I've always wondered why they don't have an alarm. With all this stuff you'd think they'd at least have better locks."
"Don't guess they need an alarm, with the Wonder Maid and Security Team they've got."
"Very funny." I turned my head so he wouldn't see me smile.
The boy didn't know how to make a bed to save his life, and I pretty much had to do them all myself.
"Don't you make your bed at home?"
"Why? It just gets messed up again." He stood and watched while I made hospital corners at the foot of the king-sized mattress.
"Your mama doesn't make you?"
"Mom's pretty busy with my little sister. She doesn't come in my room much."
"How old's your sister?"
"Six. My mom remarried. And nobody notices much what I do as long as I get Princess Carter to ballet lessons on time."
I'm not sure what's worse– a mama who's always in your business or one that doesn't care what you do and don't do. But I know I miss my mama every day, and have since she passed on two years ago. Sometimes it makes me sad nobody will miss me like that.
"So why don't you like your stepmother?"
"I don't like either of them really. After they got married it's like I never happened. You said it yourself– you didn't even know about me."
"But he paid child support, didn't he?" When Mama died, Mr. Fenton gave me two weeks off with pay and sent me the biggest basket of flowers you ever saw. I couldn't imagine he wouldn't take care of his own son.
"Yeah, big deal. It's pretty easy to buy your way out of being a dad." Not something I would know, since my dad had up and disappeared and never paid a penny to my mama.
Trey turned on the television in the bedroom, and I went over and slapped it off.
"What's your problem? Don't all maids watch soaps or game shows or something?"
"All maids aren't the same. I don't watch TV. I'm being paid to work, so I work."
Once we got downstairs, I set him on the guest bath. You could tell he didn't want to do another toilet, but he did get it done quicker than the others. He was learning, whether he wanted to or not. The kitchen took a lot more work, and he started getting testy about it, especially the mopping. But he didn't seem to mind the dusting so much, which was a good thing, because the Fentons have a lot to dust.
He was working on the blinds and I was doing the lampshades when he asked, "So, do you have a husband?"
"Nope. Used to, but not for a long time."
"Nobody stays married, do they?" He sounded so old and so young at the same time.
"Some do, I guess."
"Why didn't you?"
I kept dusting, keeping my face hidden. "I caught him messing around with my best friend."
"Whoa. That sucks. At least my dad did it with somebody my mom didn't know."
Yeah, but at least your mom had you, I almost said, but then kept it to myself. No need to give away all my secrets just because he was willing to share his.
We were quiet until he got to the bottom of the last set of blinds and dropped the dust broom.
"Doesn't it ever piss you off, all these people peeing all over their toilets and expecting you to clean up behind them?"
"Of course not. It's my job. Besides, cleaning houses is about a lot more than wiping up toilets."
"Well, I figure I make a difference in people's lives. I mean, life is just plain better when everything's where it should be and things are clean." When he gave me a ‘yeah, right' look, I added, "Besides, I kind of end up feeling like family when I've been with somebody for a while. I get to know them real well cleaning up after them."
"Family? Not sure that's such a bonus in this house. And you know my dad so well you didn't even know he had another kid."
He had a point there.
By the time we pulled out the vacuum, Trey was getting into cleaning, dancing and clowning around. I sat back and watched, realizing how much fun I'd had working with him, even if he was a smart mouth kid.
When the vacuum was put away, I tossed him his keys. "Don't you come back and try this again. If you do, I'll go straight to the cops and tell them to pull your sorry butt in."
"Got it. No robbing Dad," he answered.
I held out half the wad of twenties the Fentons had left.
"Here, you earned this."
"Na, forget it. It's yours. I've got enough to make it home."
"So you're going home? No more robbing houses?"
"Guess I'm not much of a thief."
"Guess not. Now that you know how to make a bed, why don't you try helping your mama out some?"
"Now that I'm an expert, maybe I'll come back down here and work with you."
"Funny. Get out of here before your stepmom shows up and we're both in trouble."
On his way out the door, he tossed me a salute and said, "Later." I watched his car roll away from the curb and tear off down the road before I turned my back.
Once Trey was gone, I did one more walk around to make sure everything looked perfect, then headed back to the front door. Right as I was reaching for my bucket the door busted open, and Mrs. Fenton came in, shopping bags strung along both arms like clothes on a line. She kicked her shoes off and bee-lined towards the stairs.
On her way past me she said, "Callie. I thought you'd be gone by now."
"Yes ma'am. Just leaving."
She was already walking away from me when I said, "Oh, Mrs. Fenton?" I was only gonna tell her that she was running low on laundry detergent. But when she turned, she looked down her nose at me in such a snotty way, eyebrows raised, fat frown on her face, that something else hopped out of my mouth instead.
"Starting next week I'm doubling my rates. You and Mr. Fenton need to let me know by the end of the week if you still want my services." And I turned up my own nose and walked out the door into a beautiful bright day.
If money buys secrets, then the cost of secrets had just gone up for some folks.