Clean Sweep by Joan Bauer
“Have you ever seen a dust mite?”
My mother always lowers her voice when she asks this; it adds to the emotional impact. Never in the five years since she had a cleaning business has anyone ever said they’ve seen one. That’s because the only people who have seen dust mites are scientists who put dust balls on slides and look at them under microscopes. Personally I have better things to do than look at miniscule animals who cause great torture among the allergic, but my mother had a photo of a dust mite blown up to ten gazillion times its size — she is holding it up now, as she always does in this part of her presentation — and the two women who sit on the floral couch before her gasp appropriately and shut their eyes, because dust mites, trust me, are butt ugly. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers meet the Hunchback of Notre Dame and you’re just beginning to enter into the vileness of this creature.
“They are everywhere,” Mom says to the women. “Under the bed, on the sheet, clinging to the blind; hiding, waiting. And at Clean Sweep,” she offers quietly, but dramatically, “we kill them for you. We hate them even more than you do. This is why we are in business.”
The two women looked at each other and say yes, they want a cleaning service to start immediately.
Mom tells them our price. One woman, as expected, says, “That sounds a little high.” People are so cheap. Everyone wants quality, no one wants to pay for it. Here’s the suburban dream — to hire great workers who are such meek morons that they don’t have the guts to ask for a living wage.
This is not my mother’s problem. She holds up a dust mite enlargement to make the point. “We cost more because we know where he and his army are hiding.”
She used to say “we know where he and his friends are hiding,” but “army” sounds more fierce, and when you are serious about eliminating dust, you’d better let everyone know it’s war.
“Well…,” the other woman says, unsure.
Mom presses in. “We suggest two cleanings per week for one month to achieve total elimination. Then weekly cleaning should do, unless you have special needs.”
Special needs in the cleaning world range from cleaning out attics to detoxification of teenage bedrooms. I am a specialist in cleaning rooms of kids who’ve just gone off to college. It takes nerves of steel. And I have them.
My brother Benjamin doesn’t. To begin with, he’s allergic to dust — bad news when the family business is dedicated to eliminating it. To end with, he’s a devoted underachiever, in stark contrast to myself. And Benjamin knows how to get out of work — he could give seminars on this. He gets the perfect look of abject pain over his face, says he’s not feeling too well, he’s sorry, he doesn’t want to be a burden. He talks about the pain moving across his back, down his leg, and into his ankle. Then he gets dizzy and has to sit down; lying down comes moments later after his face gets a little pale (I don’t know how he does this) and his hand touches his forehead which, I swear, has small drops of sweat on it. Then he’ll try to get up and help, but by this time, you feel like such as snake that a sick person is going to get sicker because of your insensitive demands that you say, no, you rest, I’ll do it.
This is what he’s done to me today, and I’m not in the mood for the game. He tells me, groaning, he’ll try to make it to Mrs. Leonardo’s today to help her pack up her attic, but he’s not sure he can even sit. He’s lying on the couch in misery saying if he can sit, he will try to stand, and if he attempts standing, he will attempt actual walking — Mrs. Leonardo’s house being four houses down the street. I throw my book bag at him. Suggest he crawl to Mrs. Leonardo’s house and he says, “Thanks, Katie. Just thanks.” To which I reply, “Look, Benny Boy, I’m getting sick of carrying your weight around here. If you think I’m going to do your job and mine until I die, think again.” Benjamin groans deep, turns off the light, closes his eyes and says his headache is cosmic and could I please go get him some Advil..
I don’t get the Advil. It’s a big bad world out there and he needs to find out now, at fourteen. This is what big sisters are for.
So I’m basically crabby and bitter all day; taking it out on random people. After school I have mounds of homework. You wonder what teachers are thinking — I have three hundred pages of reading in three textbooks plus a paper due on Friday. Have you ever noticed that it takes a textbook dozens of pages to say what normal people can cover fast?
What was the full impact of World War II?
Clear-cut teenage answer; We won.
So I’m close to dying young from excessive homework, and I have to help Mrs. Leonardo clean out her attic. She is paying big bucks for this, and, believe me, my family needs the money.
Mrs. Leonardo wants people there on time and working like ants. Ants carry their weight on their backs and are thrilled as anything to be abused. But that is the insect world; I am not one of them. I am not in the mood to sit with her in her dingy attic and lug tons of garbage down the stairs and listened to her stories of how her family deserted her. I know that sounds mean, but Mrs. Leonardo is a mean person. It’s easy to see why she’s alone. The big joke is that when her husband died, he had a big smile on his face in the casket that he never had in real life. The funeral director said they tried to wipe that grin off his face, but they couldn’t do it.
So I’m on my knees in the dust, putting things in bags, while Mrs. Leonardo tells me about her selfish brother Horace who deserted her, her uncaring, money-grubbing Cynthia who backed out of the driveway eight years ago and never came back. She tells me how she helped them and loaned them money which they never paid back. She’s going on and on about how the world is a dark, dark place. I clear my throat: “Boy, Mrs. Leonardo, you’ve got a lot of stuff up here. Are you sure you want to keep it all?”
This is the wrong thing to say. Mrs. Leonardo’s gray eyes get spitting mad and she says, well, she’s seventy-six years old and had a very interesting life and she doesn’t want to throw out anything of value. I look in a box with IRS tax forms dating back to 1955.
“Mrs. Leonardo, the IRS says you only need to keep tax records from the last three years. We could dump this whole box…” My mother told me this.
You should she lunges as much as a seventy-six-year-old person can and says she isn’t giving her tax records to anyone so they can steal her secrets. Like tons of thieves are out there ready to pounce on this.
But at twenty-five dollars per hour, you learn to be patient. “Think of the money,” my mother always says, “and the graciousness will come.” So I’m taping a box and writing IMPORTANT PAPERS 1955 — 1963. Maybe she could turn this attic into a museum and people could walk through and learn all the things you should never hold on to.
Benjamin would have cracked under this pressure. Mrs. Leonardo is kneeling by a huge trunk, saying how the younger generation (mine) doesn’t understand about manners, proprietary, or simple human decency. Her grandniece, Veronica, walks around half naked with her belly button showing. She pulls old clothes out of the trunk and yanks this old lace tablecloth out and just looks at. Finally, she says she got it when she was married and she’s only used it once. She waited for a special occasion and only one came — her twentieth anniversary. No other occasion was special enough, and then her husband died right before her twenty-fifth anniversary and the tablecloth has been in this trunk ever since — only used once, she keeps saying — beautiful Egyptian linen. She looks kind of sad, though stiff. I say, “You could start using it now, Mrs. Leonardo,” which is the wrong thing to say. She shuts that trunk and asks me just who do I think she’s going to invite to dinner since everyone she’s ever done anything for has either deserted her or died.
I don’t know how to answer a question like this. My mother didn’t cover it during Clean Sweep boot camp training where I learned how to scour a bathtub that a toddler spilled ink in, how to clean pet pee from any carpet known to man, how to wash windows and not leave streaks, how to open a refrigerator with-year-old meat and not gag in front of the client. I pledged that the customer was always right and I, a lowly dust eliminator, was always, always wrong.
But I’m not sure what to do. If I agree with her, I’m not helping, and if I listen, I won’t get the job done. The truth is, I don’t like Mrs. Leonardo — so there is a big part of me that doesn’t care — even though I know this is probably inhumane because she’s a sad person, really. Kneeling there in the dust, surrounded by the boxes of her so-called interesting life, going on and on about people who are gone. I’m thinking about the next stage of the job — the actual cleaning of the attic which is going to take two people, and I know Benjamin will be hurling into monumental physical aberrations up here.
I’m tired, too, and my paper is late on King Lear who, in my opinion, thought too much and couldn’t deliver. I’m thinking about my personal life — yes, dust eliminators have them. We have feelings; we have needs, dreams. I’m feeling that I work too much and I wish my mom had another business because what I do all day at school is exhausting enough without having to do heavy lifting after school and on the weekends. I think about when my dad died four years ago, and because of disorganization — that is, getting behind on paying his life insurance premiums — his insurance policy was canceled and we got no insurance money when he died. He never meant to hurt us, but it was so scary not knowing if we could keep the house mixed with all the pain of losing him. We never got a regular time of mourning because we were fighting to stay afloat. Mom was trying to sort through Dad’s huge piles of papers. We loved him so much, but he could never get rid of what Mom called his “clutter demons.”
It took several months, but he got his papers sorted. We learned firsthand how you get organized, clean up, and obliterate dust. We became total aces at it; learned how widespread the problem truly is. We knew then we needed to share what we’d learned with others who are suffering, and felt that twenty—five dollars an hour was reasonable.
I’m not sure if Mrs. Leonardo once someone to help or someone to complain to. Between you and me, I feel that listening to complaining and busting dust should earn thirty-five dollars per hour. But, I’m remembering being in our attic after my dad died; trying to go through his things. He had a trunk that his grandfather had given him — inside were all his photos and papers from school. I remember reading some of his essays from high school and just crying. I couldn’t throw those out. Mom said going through all that was therapeutic for me because it was like being with him, kind of. He was forty-one years old when he died. Had a heart attack at work and was dead by the time the ambulance came.
Just thinking about the day makes me shaky. Over the years I’ve dissected every last thing I remember about that last morning I saw him. I should have made him breakfast — I knew how much he liked it when I did. I should have hugged him when he went out the door, but I was on the phone with Roger Rugsby who was my biology partner who needed me to go over my lab notes or he would fail. I missed the bus and Dad missed his train and he took me to school. I was late, so I hurled myself out of the car and he said, “Go get’em, kiddo.” That’s the last thing he ever said to me. But I did better than Benjamin who overslept and didn’t even see Dad that morning.
Mrs. Leonardo leans over a trunk like the one my father had. I want to say something encouraging to her, like, “Gee, Mrs. Leonardo, I know how hard it must be going through all these memories,” or, “I hope sorting through all this is helping you the way it helped me.” Memories are the only things we have left sometimes. You can hold a photo of a person you love who’s gone, but it isn’t alive. Memories — the best ones — are filled with sights, smells, love, and happiness. I try to hold some of those in my heart for my Dad each day.
She goes through the trunk, stony-faced. I can’t tell what she’s found, can’t tell if she’s going to torch the content or hold them to her heart. I lug a big bag over and throw old newspapers inside. Mrs. Leonardo stops going through the trunk. She’s holding something in her hand, not moving. I look at her stiff face and for a moment in the weird light of the attic, she looks like she’s going to cry. But that’s impossible. Then I hear a sniff and she says softly, “My mother read this book to my sister and me every night before bed.”
I look at the book — a well-worn brown leather cover. Doesn’t look like much.
“I thought she had it,” Mrs. Leonardo says sadly.
“Who had it?”
“My sister, Helen. I thought she had the book. She always wanted it.”
In these situations it’s best to say, “Oh.”
I thought… I thought I’d sent it to her after Mother died.” She looked down.
I say, it’s hard to remember what you’ve done after some one important died.”
“But she’d asked me for it. It was the one thing she’d wanted.”
“I haven’t talked to her since Mother died. I thought she…”
I’m not sure how to ask this. Is Helen’s still alive?
I dance around it. “What do you think you should do with the book, Mrs. Leonardo?” She doesn’t answer.
I try again. “Why did Helen want it so bad?”
She hands me the book. “She said these stories were her best memories of childhood.” I look through it. “The Naughty Frog,” “The Little Lost Tulip,” “Spanky, the Black Sheep.” It’s amazing what we put up with as children. But then I remembered my favorite bedtime story — “Rupert, the Church Mouse” — about this little mouse who lives in a church and polishes all the stained glass windows every night before he goes to sleep so the light can come forth every morning.
“I know she lives in Vermont,” Mrs. Leonardo offers. “I heard from my cousin a while ago…” Her voice trails off.
“I think you should call her, Mrs. Leonardo.”
She shakes her old head. No — She couldn’t possibly.
“I think you should call her and tell her you’ve got the book.”
She glares at me. “I believe we’re done for today.” She grabs the book from my hands, puts it in the trunk.
“Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean…”
She heads down the attic stairs.
I tell Benjamin that I don’t want to hear about his problems, that his back looks strong to me, shooting pain in his leg will go away eventually, and his headache is just a reflection of his deep, inner turmoil. I say this as we’re walking to Mrs. Leonardo’s house.
“I think my whole left side is going not him,” he whispers pitifully as we walk up her steps.
“Deal with it.”
Mrs. Leonardo is waiting for us. We’re late. I don’t mention that having to drag a hypochondriac four doors down the street takes time. Great food smells swirl from her kitchen.
Mrs. Leonardo looks Benjamin up and down, not impressed. “You’ve not been here before,” she says. Benjamin half smiles and rubs his tennis elbow, which makes me nuts because he doesn’t play tennis.
I introduce them. Tell her Benjamin is here to help with dust elimination and heavy lifting, at which point Benjamin leans painfully against the wall and closes his eyes.
“He’s a very dedicated worker once he gets started, Mrs. Leonardo.”
I jam my elbow into his side.
Okay, so we’re cleaning this cavernous attic like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve got all the trunks and boxes wiped down and pushed to the far side. We’re running the turbo-charged Clean Sweep Frankenstein portable vacuum that is so powerful it can suck up pets and small children if they get too close. Benjamin is wearing a dust mask over his nose and mouth — he wrote The Terminator over it. This boy is appropriately miserable, pulling down spiders’ web, sucking up dust mites. I can almost hear their little screams of terror. Almost, but not quite. My mother claims she can hear dust mites shrieking for mercy and uses this in her presentation if she thinks potential clients can handle it.
“Get the lace tablecloth from the trunk!” Mrs. Leonardo shouts from downstairs.
What’s she want with that?
“And we will talk, too,” she hollers impatiently.
I don’t mention that we’ve shoved everything in the corner like she said to, that I’ll have to move it all to get to the trunk, and, by the way, I’m going as fast as I can. I get the book and the lace tablecloth that’s been folded in very old plastic. I look at the book — reddish brown leather — Aunt Goody’s Goodnight Stories, it’s called. Benjamin comes over looking like some kind of cosmic alien with his mask, takes the book, starts laughing.
“The Naughty Little Frog,” he says reading. “Once upon a time there was a naughty little frog named Edmund. Edmund was so naughty that he never, ever cleaned his lily pad. It got so dirty that his mother had to make him stay on that lily pad several times each day to –“
“You’re going to have to wait for the end.” I yanked the book from his hands and head down the creaky attic stairs with the tablecloth. Mrs. Leonardo is in the kitchen wearing a frilly apron, stirring a pot of something that smells beyond great.
She turns to look at me, puts her wooden spoon down.
“Help me put it on the table,” she orders.
I’m smiling a little now because I know the tablecloth’s history. I’m wondering who’s coming to dinner.
“Looks like you’re having a party,” I offer as we get the tablecloth squared perfectly on the table.
Mrs. Leonardo says nothing, sets the table for two with what looks like the good silverware, the good napkins. Then she puts the storybook in front of one of the place setting.
“My sister, you see…” she pauses emotionally.”Well, she’s… coming to dinner.”
“You mean the one you haven’t seen for a long time?”
“I only have one sister.”
I’m just grinning now and I tell her I hope they have the best dinner in the world.
“Well, I do too.” She looks nervously out the window and says whatever work we haven’t finished can be done tomorrow. “You were right about… calling her, Katie.”
I smile brightly, wondering if she’s going to offer me some of her great-smelling food to show her gratitude. She doesn’t. I head up the attic stairs and drag Benjamin to safety. He’s sneezing like he’s going to die. I take off his Terminator dust mask and lean him against a wall. Half of me wants to give Mrs. Leonardo a little hug of encouragement, but the other half warns, Don’t touch clients because they can turn on you.
“Whatever you’re cooking, Mrs. Leonardo, it sure smells good,” I shout. “Your sister’s going to love it.” I’m not sure she hears all of that. Benjamin is into his fifth sneezing attack.
She nods from the kitchen; I push Benjamin out on the street.
“I could have died up there,” he shouts, blowing his nose.
“But you didn’t.”
And I remember the book my dad would read to us when we were little about the baby animals and their parents and how each mother and father kissed their babies goodnight. That book was chewed to death, ripped, stained, and missing the last two pages, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
We walked back home almost silently, except for Benjamin’s sniffs, sneezes, and groans. People just don’t understand what important things can be hiding in the dust.
Mom says that all the time in her presentation.