Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday 3/16/12 (but it feels like Saturday....)

Jan, working

The house is an old Victorian painted in three shades of brown. It's a gingerbread house straight out of Grimm's. It belongs in the Alps. Or maybe it doesn't. Jan is not familiar with Alpine architecture, but this is a little game she likes to play, placing houses elsewhere. The Alps is a compliment. She likes this house.

She flips through the keys in her big ring. The key for this house is blue, though it really should be brown. She already had a brown one when she picked up this house. For the most part the keys correlate in some way to the houses. The key ring was built up so gradually over the past couple of years that she knows each key. A few of her clients never lock their doors. These are typically the messiest houses. This one today is kept pretty well.

Jan actually prefers messy houses. These are her people, the ones who really need her. She feels a certain fondness for the little hand streaks on the refrigerators, the toys all over the bedroom floors, the books and papers cluttering every surface. Her theory is that people who are truly engaged in their lives, the people who spend most of their time focused on the important stuff, rarely clean.

Jan pushes into today's house with her bucket and mop. She’s hit by the smell of cumin, maybe curry. They must have cooked Indian last night. They are, in fact, Indian, so it stands to reason. She goes back to the car to get the other bucket and vacuum cleaner. She prefers using her own stuff. It's impossibly warm today, maybe low 60s, which is rare this early in April. She’ll open the windows while she’s here. Air the place out.

Jan’s grateful for these empty houses with all their signs of life. In theory, she likes most people, though she enjoys their absence more than their presence in most cases. Small doses. She creates characters as she moves through the empty houses, little stories for the messes. It’s funny how she doesn’t get tired of this job. It feeds her imagination. She never expected that.

As with all the houses she cleans, Jan starts in the kitchen. This one’s old with vintage appliances, mostly because it has been a rented for so many years. The rental market in this town is huge, driven by the comings and goings of the university people. Jan had considered getting her real estate license, but now she’s glad she didn’t. All of that human interaction, the make-up, the uncertainty. That would have been too much for her. She doesn’t sell things well. Obviously. The cleaning turned out to be just as lucrative anyway. Who would have thought?

She doesn’t do this for the money. They don’t really need tons of extra money. It’s more for the idea of earning money. All those years at home with little kids, earning nothing, that didn’t sit well with her. Always vaguely arty, she never really caught on to a career. Nothing opened up before her. Nothing was obvious. She lacked mentors, truth be told. She sees that now. She must not let that happen to her own kids. She’s working hard to get them to understand the importance of asking for help. People are generally happy to help. That became clear too late for Jan. She missed the boat.

She moves through the kitchen putting things in piles so she can wipe down the countertop and the table. She whisks all the crumbs onto the floor, quicker to get later with the vacuum.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday, 3/15/12

Lucy with Jan’s kids

Lucy has Jan’s kids for the afternoon. She babysits most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Jan’s late days. Jan pays her well, but honestly at this point Luce would do it for free.

It’s one of those early Spring charmers. It has been two weeks since time sprang forward and most people (not Jan, of course) are still reveling in the extra light. Lucy gets the kids off the schoolbus and gives them a quick snack, Luna bars, strawberries, toast. The kids pull on shorts, a novelty for April, and everyone wants to go to the lake.

They walk. The lake is surrounded by woods and hills. You can’t see the whole thing from the beach.

“This is where I met your mom, you know,” Jan says dropping towels and a bag of extra clothes (Taylor’s idea) on the sand, “running these trails.”

Taylor, the 9-year-old, chews her lip and says, “Tell me the truth. Does mom run here to get away from us?”

The 5- and 7-year olds, Henry and Oslo, are already knee deep in water, well on their way to their first change of clothes.

“Guys, it’s not really warm enough for swimming!” Lucy calls down to the boys. She is ignored.

“Forget it,” says Taylor. “Those boys don’t feel cold. You know how Henry hasn’t worn a jacket all winter.”

Lucy sits in the sand and looks at Taylor. “I think Jan runs here mostly because she thinks it makes her a better parent. When you get a little older you’ll probably understand this. I’m just starting to understand it myself. She needs a little alone time. That's all. She runs to collect her head.”

“I know what you’re saying,” says Taylor. “I get that, actually.”

And then Taylor is down, knee deep in the water, just as wet as her brothers, yelling and laughing herself breathless. Lucy wonders if she was that together at 9, if she could straddle both worlds, adult and little kid, with the same grace that Taylor manages. She doubts it.

Lucy is not a big fan of kids, but in the past few months she has grown to love these three. They’re different, she suspects. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe all kids are impossible and delightful all at the same time. You just have to get to know them.

Come to think of it, Lucy only sees real life kids in their worst places: restaurants, the Laundromat and the Food Coop. Food and laundry are firmly in the adult world. Kids cannot possibly understand the bone jarring necessity of food and laundry. Lucy hasn’t been long in that reality herself. No wonder the kids she sees are always so cranky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday 3/13/2012

Lucy meets Jan

The trail around the lake is 8 miles, and Lucy's on her third loop. She's been running behind the same woman for about 45 minutes. She can't pass her without looking like an asshole, because she knows she can't sustain a faster pace. They're going the same speed. She doesn't want to turn this run into a pissing contest, too much work for the third lap. So she keeps her distance and zones out to this woman's pace.

She's seen her around town, this runner in front of her, mostly in the coffee shop and the public library. She's older than Lucy, much older, but she's sharp in a specific, sporty kind of way. Her hair is long and going grey and she wears running clothes everywhere. But she layers them or something, Jan can't quite put her finger on the look. It's like she just stepped out of a Title 9 catalogue. Comfortable, but well put together.

It was dark when Lucy started this run. She loves to watch the sun come up over the lake. She has spent most of the run working out a 5-page paper for her Existentialism seminar. It's not due for another week, but she likes to stay ahead of the game. She also has a biology lab to write up and two tests this week. She's ready for the tests, and the lab just needs to be typed up. So the paper is the only thing hanging over her head at the moment.

This is how she talks to the other students at school. It's all in terms of what's done and what needs to be done. Her conversations don't go much deeper than that. They don't have to. She wonders what people find to talk about in the real world these days.

Lucy didn't start college straight out of high school. She had straight A's and got into lots of good colleges, but she suspected, perhaps rightly, that she wasn't ready. By the time she started her freshman year, two years later, she had missed the boat socially. These people do not interest her. She knows she's too efficient for a college student. She's missing out on fraternity parties and pulling all-nighters. She is not making friends for life the way you're supposed to in college. She's biding her time, alone in the crowd.

This gives a certain emotional wallpaper to her existentialism seminar. She jives perfectly with the professor, a kindly older man who loves her work. It's rare in Lucy's experience to strike such a perfect chord with a teacher, especially with her personality, her inwardness. This is the only class she speaks up in. She actually asks and answers questions. She practically tiptoes to the man's office hours, as if seeking holy wisdom.

Why existential philosophy? Why now? Why did this have to turn out to be her "thing?" And so late in the game. She graduates in a year. Is it just the teacher? Existential philosophy, Jesus. There are no jobs in that field. She's doomed.

Lucy looks up just in time to see the woman in front of her go down. She hits something with her foot, a rock or a root, almost catches herself, then falls. It looks like her knee hit first.

"Oh, my god," says Lucy, pulling up to the woman heaped on the trail, "are you okay?"

The woman rolls and sits up. Her knee is bleeding and she's covered in pine needles and trail dust. "I'm okay."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday 3/10/12

Night Run

It's two hours past closing and he's still here. It's like this every night. They break down the bar, hose the mats, do the register, count tips, then sit like idiots drinking beer until the sun comes up. Free beer is the one and only perk to this job. That and the girls. But the girls are too young now. It's so easy to be a hero in a college town. He graduated six years ago, and he's still here bartending in the place he used to bus tables when he was in school. Back then the bartenders seemed so cool, above the fray. That wore off a couple of years ago. Now he's just stuck.

The one girl in town he likes thinks he's pathetic. She runs with her dog and studies hard. He sees her from his canoe circling the lake with the dog. She's not long for this town.

He is pathetic. He sleeps all day, fishes, then comes into work at 9. By then the place is starting to fill up, and by 11 it's packed. Every single night. Life in a college town. It's hard to resist that role: the kind and sexy purveyor of alcohol. "Whaddya need tonight?" Little smile. That's all it takes. These kids love him, these future bankers of America, future bankers' wives. They're all assholes.

Tonight he's had enough. It's time for something different. It's four a.m. and he's had several semi-clean water glasses full of Guiness. He's going for a run. He stashed his stuff in the staff bathroom when he got to work last Tuesday, but this is the night he's really going out. He pushes himself up from the four-top at the back of the bar and sluffs back to change.

"Night, Marty. Night, Kate," he says to the other bartenders who sit with their feet up flipping through the channels on the sports TV.

Marty looks up, takes in the running shoes and shorts. "Where you going?"

"I'm going for a run, dickwad. Obviously."

"Jesus Christ. It's the middle of the fucking night."

"Yeah. I'm awake. No traffic."

"Have fun, Danny," Kate says, stumping out a cigarette. "I think it's great." Kate's about 40, a living breathing example of everything Dan is starting to fear. She's like a mother to these kids. A mother who mixes killer drinks.

He steps down to the sidewalk. The moon is falling behind the football stadium and the dorm across the street is dark. He has the night to himself.

Friday, March 9, 2012

(I wrote this during the kids' swim practice. I'm trying to develop Jan a bit.....)

This coffee shop is their place, Jan's and her mother Penny's. They have been meeting here on Wednsdays ever since it opened three years ago, just after Timmy started first grade. Penny has no late classes on Wednesdays and it's Jan's day off. This is a college town coffee shop. Barristas, liberal arts majors clearly, covered in tattoos. Jan loves it. It's the kind of college experience she always wished she'd had.

Jan studied biology with the vague idea of medical school. She never went to coffee shops, barely left the lab, just long enough to get herself knocked up the fall of sophomore year. She had the baby over the summer and was back in school by fall, a mother at 20. Jan and Penny have been through a lot.

They order at the counter, black coffee for Penny, decaf chai latte for Jan, and take a seat by the window. The place is all old brick, wood and glass. It used to be a textile factory; now it sells coffee. With the sound of the espresso maker backlit by chatter and the drone of traffic you can almost imagine treadling of the looms, the women in shirtwaist dresses, the thump of sewing machines.

"I picked up a new house," Jan says. She loves to impose her chosen profession on her mother. Force her to face it head on.

"Jesus Christ," says Penny. "Have you been drawing?"

"It's an old colonial out past the Admissions Building. It's gorgeous. Four bedrooms. There's just a middle-aged couple living there, two dogs, no kids."

"Are you trying to kill me?"

Jan's housecleaning is the most lucrative job she's ever had by far. She cannot believe how much money she makes cleaning other people's houses, all under the table. She's not deliberately avoiding the taxman. She simply has no idea where to begin, which forms to procure and fill out. There's so much of the adult world she doesn't understand and chooses to ignore. Somehow she gets away with it.

"Mom, I'm cleaning an essentially clean house once a week. 150 bucks a shot."

"These are strange times. Are you drawing?"

"Yes, actually, since you ask. I'm working on a new series based on rooms in people's houses."

"You're drawing the rooms you clean?"

"More or less. I add stuff, take stuff out. It's all very whimsical. It's fun. I'm kind of excited about it."

"Good. I can't wait to see them."

"Not yet. I'll show then to you in a couple of months. I'm not ready for you yet.

They walk in together and order at the counter

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday 3/2/12

Jim can't seem to settle on a project. Two weeks into summer and already he's started six or seven things: mending the deck, collecting beer bottles to brew, scavenging pipe for an outdoor shower, stuff like that. He waits all year for these precious 10 weeks of summer. His wife, Cherrie, doesn't like to travel, so they make a vacation of being together at home. It is enough.

This afternoon Jim's in the garden. The peas have come and gone, the tomatoes are in flower. Green beans and broccoli are ready to be picked and there are enough cukes to start a batch of pickles. Jim just scratches his head.

It has been a difficult year. His dad died in April. He almost made it to spring. Spring in northern New Hampshire doesn't really start until May. Maybe early June. His dad lived for his garden. He helped Jim put this one in when they bought this place twenty years ago. He'd love the look of this broccoli. He'd know what to do with all the beans.

Jim's kids run wild. He and Cherrie are comfortable in chaos. One comes out onto the porch, dreadlocks half way down his back, tattoos up and down his arms. Jim remembers this boy at three, naked with a toolbelt slung low on his hips. He spent a whole summer like that. Helping. Jim loves his kids.

Two of his teenage daughters sit at the kitchen table. He can see their heads bent toward each other, maybe playing cards, maybe talking. He wonders what they're saying. There's four teenagers in the house, though technically Crater's 21. The kid with the dreads. The "creative" one. He wonders if they'll all stay friends when they're grown and gone. Not far off now. Homeschooled through high school, he suspects they're closer than many siblings. But that's all Cherrie's doing. He's there to gather the pieces every evening. To laugh and shake his head.

Jim's dad so enjoyed these grandkids of his. His mom never met them. "Let 'em be kids," his dad always said. Jim and Cherrie have definitely done that.

The kids all spoke at their granddad's memorial. Jim was glad about that. His dad's friends were mostly dead, so it was a small group. Lively, but small. They scattered the old man in the duckpond out behind his place in New Hampshire. His dad would have loved that night. They all sat around a big fire and told stories.

Jim's grateful for his kids. They're his friends now. His only friends really. The most interesting people he knows.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thursday, 3/1/12

Her own house is a mess, always has been. When her mother found out she was cleaning houses, she literally could not stop laughing. Jan couldn't tell if it was nervous laughter or insane. Who cares. When she told her mother how much money she made in a week, that stopped her cold.

"Really? That's serious money."

Jan is in high demand, so she can charge a bundle. And she does. She's a highly educated white woman, drives a 3-year-old Subaru, cannot abide being late. She would not dream of not showing up. Even she is surprised that she likes it.

Of course she's not a house cleaner. Not really. Her Facebook page says "freelance writer," but that dried up a while ago. She goes back and forth on adding "cleaner." It could add some blue collar cache, but is that what she wants? She does have two totally unrelated master's degrees.

It's so satisfying walking into a mess and leaving it all clean. And then there's the money. Why must it all come back to money? With the kids in school she thought she'd use the extra time to finally write a novel, but instead of writing she found herself organizing the basement, cleaning closets. The kitchen floor never looked so good. Might as well make a few bucks with this newfound obsession. Let her own house rot, it always had before. Hire someone else to clean it. Another good laugh for her mother.

Cleaning other people's messes is a whole different story. She isn't there to get indignant as her hard work goes all to hell.

It's shockingly good material. She only cleans for people she doesn't know, and only if they're out of the house. She doesn't trust herself to clean friends' houses. Besides potentially fucking up the relationship (class struggle and all of that), she'd get too much dirt. She doesn't trust herself not to spread it all around. Best not to know, because she dearly loves to tell a good story.