Watching her movements, Mason realized he didn’t remember her clearly, really hadn’t looked at her in Virginia’s room just days ago. The Lila he expected was smaller and thinner. Here she dominated the kitchen with her bulk, not fat, just thick in the legs and in the middle, her head large under a knot of dark hair, her tawny face attractive, or would have been on a different woman, someone who didn’t set it in what seemed defiance.
Then he recalled all that Virginia had been telling him at dinner for years after Lila’s weekly visits, her litany of miseries—the cars that broke down, pipes that leaked, appliances that caught on fire, the deepening debt, a man who beat her and then broke down in tears, a son in a juvenile home for some crime Lila wouldn’t reveal. Most of the time, he hadn’t been paying attention, staring down at his plate while Virginia went on and on, asking himself what a woman like that was doing in their lives.
Once he said to Virginia, “Do you want to replace her? Get someone else?”
Virginia was shocked. “Oh no! She needs me, the work. And I need her. She cleans so well.”
Lila came out of the kitchen and moved toward the stairway, arms laden with a broom, a mop, and two buckets.
“Do you want help?” Mason asked her.
“I’ve been doing this for years. I never need help.”
She climbed one step at a time, her back and her rear broad in faded denim, the ends of her pants legs flapping frayed over thick black work shoes. Her footsteps in the hallway were heavy. Then she dropped everything she had been carrying, a clamor that made him start. Her cleaning continued the noise—splashing, wood banging into wood, a roaring vacuum that she must have retrieved from an upstairs closet.
Mason wondered if she were destroying things, taking revenge for years of having to clean up after people who had so much more, a woman who wore stylish dresses and had easy work in the shop of a close friend. But that woman, for all her comforts, lay in a mortuary, and Lila had survived to repair the mess of her dying.
He sat on the edge of the sofa, hands folded in his lap, and tried to imagine what she was doing. There hadn’t been blood, not that he knew of, but toward the end Virginia had thrown up frequently; he could hear her retching. He didn’t smell anything, but perhaps there had been splatters. I should be doing this, he thought, yet he didn’t move.
When the noises stopped and Lila came back down, she carried a bulging black trash bag and an armful of balled sheets that she took to the laundry room. Mason could hear the rush of water and then the churning. From the doorway to the kitchen, he could see the sweat glistening on Lila’s face, the stains on her shirt across her chest, under her arms.
“I’m sorry you had to do so much,” he told her.
“It’s what happens when people die. And I’m not done.”
“Will you have to come back?”
“Tomorrow. I can’t stay here any more now.”
Mason remembered the plan. “My children will be here tomorrow.”
“I won’t bother your children.” She shut the door with a slam.