You did an admirable job trying to hide your surprise when you opened the door and saw me standing there; most people blinked and glared or smiled too widely, looking like they’d lost their minds and were thinking of all the ways they’d like to murder me. But despite your best efforts I saw the slight pucker in your lips, the attempt to keep the frown off your face. The question, like every other client I’d ever had, was writ large in your eyes: Why is this man standing here?
I know I’m unusual. Who heard of a man working for a housecleaning service? I haven’t done the research, but I must be rare, like a four-leaf-clover or a person who doesn’t find Chris Hemsworth attractive. It sometimes took a while for me to convince clients that I was who I said I was, despite the company car parked on the curb and the bucket of supplies dangling from my left hand and the embroidered polo shirt with my name tattooed on the left breast. To your credit, after washing the shock off your face you didn’t even question me, taking a step back and sweeping an arm in invitation for me to come inside.
You know all this now, but I relish the repetition, the remembrance. How holy those first moments seem, especially considering where we sit now. Everyone knows that we make judgments from the moment we step foot inside. We make wagers with ourselves about how nasty interiors will be based on your yard and siding and whether you keep potted plants on the front stoop. In your case: cut nice and short and even; recently power-washed; and, of course, no. I expected something in the middle, some mess and disarray but nothing amounting to horror. Nothing dead that should have been alive, nothing rotting, nothing evoking the smell of a garbage dump or an unmarked mass grave.
I was, of course, right. Your house was modest, all hardwood floors that were in need of a good scrub; I could see, thanks to the smooth, buttered sun coming through the picture windows, the constellation of greasy footmarks, dust bunnies plowing along the baseboards, crumbly bits of left-behind foodstuffs and lost hair. The kitchen was a bit tumble-down; you had not washed dishes in a while, and the laminate island was cluttered with empty cans of fizzy water and unopened mail. I liked that you were not the type who cleaned before the cleaner came, which really only added to shame rather than subtracted from it. When I assessed the situation in your bathroom, I was pleasantly surprised: the regular fuzz along the toilet bowl, some shed hairs in the grout at the base of the vanity, and the hardy glow of orange rings in the tub. Nothing memorable.
I swept and mopped first. You weren’t sure what to do with yourself, which isn’t unusual. You sat at your dining room table, swishing a cup of coffee back and forth like a hockey puck gliding along ice. When you asked if I’d like some music while I worked, I nodded, gave you an indeterminate smile, and shortly some soft jazz was billowing out from what would turn out to be your study, a carpeted room full of books and the smell of chewing tobacco, a scent I would never come to understand because you didn’t smoke or stuff your mouth with Copenhagen or Skoal. After a while you started asking me questions, and I answered them as I washed the dishes, leaving the toughest caked-on messes of eggs and solid ketchup for the dishwasher to handle.
“What about your mail?” I said.
You waved a hand at the stack of envelopes, floppy and dismissive. “All junk.”
“Straight in the trash,” you said, the bin for which was in your garage because your trash can was too tall to fit in any of the low cabinets and you didn’t want to buy a new one. “Who buys a new garbage can when they already have one?” you said.
I didn’t look at any of the envelopes closely, or I might have thought to ask if all of the mail was yours. At the time, I barely remembered your name, knew you were Mr. Hoffman, first name something with a C that sounded upper-class. I didn’t notice that much of what I dropped into the garbage was meant for a Bradley Deitz. You may wonder, now, how I didn’t put it together: the messiness of your house, especially the master bedroom, which exploded with ripe, dirty laundry and novels strewn about as though a cyclone had dumped them from a ravaged bookstore. Plus: the photos, or the lack thereof. I didn’t notice that first day how barren your walls were, all cream and white and staring with an unblinking energy. It wasn’t until you invited me back that I sensed their emptiness, a howling thing that I recognized in the dead, limp smiles that spread across your face when you were trying.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I should mention, remind you of, the offer you made that afternoon when I was finished, when the towels you’d left in your dryer had been fluffed and folded, the bookshelves in the office dusted, the vacant guest bedroom that had clearly not been used in months left with vacuum tracks along the shag. As I was about to leave you asked if I wanted a drink. A drink. Not something to drink. You didn’t say a thing about water or iced tea or an orange juice or soda. A drink. I saw the desperate want in your face. I recognized it from television and reading and listening to Joni Mitchell with my mother when I was a kid. So, as you know, I said yes.
You sprang to life, darting to the liquor bottles I’d lined up after wiping down their glass shelves. From a low cabinet you produced a shaker and a pair of mason jars. For the first time that day you hummed, even snapping the fingers of your free hand once you’d poured about half a dozen spirits together and were rattling them in the shaker. When you handed me a glass it smelled of peaches and gin, and when I drank the liquor slipped right into my veins. We sat across from one another at your dining room table, my bucket of antiseptics and bleaches on the floor like a loyal dog.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” I said.
“I won’t tell,” you said.
We clinked jars.
You were different, after that. When I rang the doorbell in jeans and a t-shirt instead of the chinos my boss insisted were proper attire for someone kneeling to whisk a duster around outlets and to reach up and polish fixtures, you were already smiling, no surprise or confusion on your face. When you later let me unbutton your shirt, you didn’t struggle to know where to stand. The next time you mixed what you called a Georgia gin, I drank the whole thing and didn’t say it was against the rules.
It took three weeks before you mentioned Bradley. We were lazing on your living room sofa, where I had so long ago run a vacuum extension to slurp up the crumbs that had pocketed themselves in the corners. Your head was resting on my left thigh, and I could feel the bones of your jaw move as you spoke, like fingers drumming against my leg. You’d lost him six months ago, you said. The word lost plunked like a stone falling into water. You said it over and over, in different words and tones, as if trying it on for yourself for the first time. You didn’t say how, but I understood that it was not a break-up. I did not ask for details. When I set my hand on your shoulder, we both knew you’d said as much as you needed to say.
One day, you appeared with a photo album. How you’d hidden it in your bedroom I will never know, as I’d spent that first day scouring every surface, folding laundry and restocking your bureau, organizing your closet. I’d felt almost like a thief, an invader, a homicide detective executing a warrant, but you had given me carte-blanche freedom to wander and roust as I saw fit. Sometimes I wonder if you’d wanted me to find it, to pull it into my lap and sit on the end of the bed, have you catch me looking through pictures of you and a handsome British-looking boy, fair-haired and wide-lipped, his body stocky and muscled—a rower, you would tell me; you met when you went abroad the summer after you finished your Master’s degree—all so that you could break open the dam and sob over him.
When you showed me the photographs, you didn’t cry. You turned the pages at your own pace, sometimes too fast, others too slow. Bradley’s hair was long and curled, yours buzzed as short as it is now. You had—have—the stronger jaw, the square bone that reminds me of a stirrup. The one I know well, how much power and force it gives your lips. In those photos, you age ten years, and I would love to slash through them like a flipbook, watch the maturity settle behind your eyes, see the lengthening of your nose, the fill of your cheeks. Your neck thickens, not with fat and age but experience and knowing.
The book does not tell the story of what happened to Bradley.
Sometimes I find him, in unexpected places. A book you let me borrow, and his name, zipped onto a random page in a little marginal note written to you that I wonder if you ever saw. Buried in your freezer, in plum popsicles desiccated by ice and time, a dessert I know you would never eat. In the top drawer of the nightstand in the guest bedroom, via a Polaroid, hued with the orange and purple of the late 80s, him as a child. I know this from the faded ink on the back, an unfamiliar hand telling me this is Bradley, aged 4, cusp of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Sorrow is harsh and hard, a little stone that sloughs in the belly, an inoperable uncooperative appendix. But it doesn’t burst, I know. It seethes, waiting for nothing in particular. I never assumed you and I would last, and the fact that we have makes something in my feet glow when I think on it. Even when your house became our house and transformed in slow increments, your things and mine braiding together like colors bleeding through fabric, I disbelieved. Where grief rotted you, uncertainty stained me. Even after you proposed, a heavy onyx ring weighing down my finger, I wasn’t sure. You saw my fear and tried to cool it with the weight of your arm over my shoulder, your breath on my throat. I smiled and nodded and meant it.
And here we are, now, you lying amongst a tangle of wires and tubes that beep and drip and drone, the television in the corner of the room muted because you like to see the action but can’t stand the voices. You, inventing plots and dialogue and using your scratched, destroyed voice in stretchy ways like an impressionist.
I still clean houses, and I tell you about the terrible things I find. The smells of feet and rotten cheese. The infestations of bugs, the horrors of toilet tanks and clogged drains. You laugh, hacking that leads to a low moan you can’t prevent. When I reach out for you your hand curls around mine, soft and curved like a roly-poly. Your grip has gone weak, but I keep your fingernails clipped and buffed. The nurse, when she catches me with an emery board in hand, offers a sorrowed smile as she notes your vital signs. She sneaks you an extra pudding cup and doesn’t say anything when I smuggle in thermoses full of Georgia gin; she knows I drink most of them but every now and then pour the juice in your plastic cup down the sink to make room.
It is hard, the hospital smell. It reminds me of the cleaner I used in your guest bathroom, sprinkly white powder that always made my nose itch and my eyes run wet. I scrubbed the bowl quick, ran the pronged brush in the tub and watched the loose, black grime swirl down the drain.
“Never again,” you said that day. You were standing in the door, watching me.
“You shouldn’t use that stuff again.”
“Oh. If you say so.”
You said, “You shouldn’t be made to cry.”
And now that smell does nothing but. You didn’t know this, but I have to stand outside your room for five minutes before I can come in so I don’t look like I’ve been punched in the face, my lips and eyes welted with tears. Other visitors look at me with pity, and I wish for the old looks of confused clients to replace them every time.
Someday soon, you’ll be gone. I’ve accepted this, known it was coming. There was no real hope, no dastardly, unattainable future borne out of the flimsy foundation of speculation. Now it is simply a question of time. Of how long and when. We’ll be there tomorrow, next week, in a month. If I knew the day, here’s what I would do: I’d put on my uniform—I’ve cycled through many in the years since that first day, some larger and some smaller, because that is how bodies are—and arm myself with a bucket, filled not with sponges and mop heads but with your favorite snack cakes and chicken sandwiches. We would stuff ourselves, leave a mess for someone else to deal with. We would laugh while you choked down your half-chewed bites, not worrying about your cough or the wilt of your lungs and the grape-clusters that have ravaged your body. We wouldn’t concern ourselves when your eyes drooped and your hands relaxed their grip. I wouldn’t reach down for the bunched-up sandwich wrap that would fall to the floor. I wouldn’t scream out for help, because there would be nothing to be helped.
But all of that would come after the moment I would knock on your door and you would, as always, say, “Come in.” You would look at me and get the joke immediately, and your face would shift from familiarity to confusion, to surprise, to that little jolt of want I saw on that first day, the one that made me sit down with you at all and drink that Georgia gin, and you would beckon me to come inside, where, for just a minute, it would feel like we were getting ready to clean up all over again.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawaii’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016 and was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.