Someone to Clean

The phone rang many times, and he wondered if he should leave a message on an answering machine. How would he word it? Would it be better to wait until he could speak to her in person? But someone finally picked up the phone, slowly and clumsily. A voice said, “Huh,” as if shaken from a deep sleep, though it was still early evening.

“Is this Lila?”  he asked.

The woman yawned before she answered.  He imagined her mouth wide open, a pink palate. “Yeah.  Sure.  It’s me.”  She had an accent he couldn’t place, harsh, gravelly, something he had never noticed the few times he met her, unexpectedly home from the office.

“This is Mason,” he said.  “Virginia’s husband.”

“If she wants me to come tomorrow.  I can be there.”

“It’s not that.  There’s something you should know.  Virginia died today.”

He expected murmurs of sympathy, a sad acknowledgment of the expected.  Instead Lila wailed, a cry as if he had wounded her.  She wouldn’t stop wailing.  He held the phone away from his ear and wanted her to stop.  Then she intoned “Oh, my God” again and again.

When she did stop, only a heavy gasping at her end, he had the sensation that he should be the one comforting her.  “There was no hope.  She was suffering so much.”

Lila started again.  “Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.”

A tapping at the door relieved him.  “It’s the people from the funeral home.  I have to go now.”  Ready to hang up, he said, “Can you come here tomorrow?  I need your help.”   He pictured the mess in the guest room, plastic bags, bandage wrappings, wadded tissues, twisted sheets.  He wasn’t sure she heard him, was even listening.

But she said, “I’ll be there,” voice firm, definite, and she named a time as if she were the one with the right to decide.

The two men from the funeral home, probably a father and son, solemn, in dark suits, shook his hand and said words with practiced concern.  He pointed up the stairway to the guest room.  “It’s on the left.”  And he realized he didn’t want to go with them.  He stayed rooted at the bottom of the steps and turned away when they came down with Virginia’s body, the face covered with a sheet.

“I didn’t want to see her like that,” he said, as if he owed the undertakers an explanation.  They nodded, and the older one left a business card on the coffee table.

Alone in the master bedroom, as he had been for months, Mason lay awake and wondered if asking Lila to clean had been a mistake.  He might be very busy.  The next day, it turned out that he wasn’t.  His office didn’t expect him.  They knew about the situation.  After speaking with his children about their travel plans and the funeral home about arrangements already made in advance, he had nothing to do.  So he sat on the sofa alone in the silence, no sounds of dying from upstairs, no footsteps of the nurse.  He looked at his watch and awaited Lila.

When Mason heard her shoes on the porch, he had a sudden fear that she would begin wailing again, a terrible noise he couldn’t cope with.  But she just stared at him when he opened the door, without a greeting or a word of sympathy.  Her mouth was fixed, and she didn’t move to step inside.

“Was this a mistake?”  He asked her.  “Too soon.”

The shake of her head was like a spasm. She pushed past him and went directly into the kitchen, rummaging under the sink for sponges and cleansers, her hands in yellow rubber gloves. He hadn’t seen her put them on and wondered if she had arrived that way.