Someone to Clean

Mason opened a can of food and had no idea what he was spooning from the bowl to his mouth, tasted nothing.  After darkness fell, he went out to the garden.  It was a beautiful night.  He stood in one place for a long time, looking up at the moon, breathing the scent of the lilac bush as he had done in that yard for so many years, when things were normal.  He wanted so much for things to be normal.

He had left on no lights in his house.  Its dark shape loomed against the horizon.  The windows of the other houses on the block were all bright.  He wondered what the people who lived in them thought when they saw the hearse, if the strangers who had never known Virginia shuddered at the death in their midst, if those who did, people she had waved to across the lawns, would feel relief that it was someone else.

Lila’s insistent ringing of the chimes awoke Mason in the morning.  He had finally fallen into a deep sleep and sat up bewildered, thrashing at the comforter.  His slippers weren’t at the edge of the bed.  He went down barefoot, wrapping a robe around his pajamas.  By then he understood who would be standing there when he opened the door.  He considered telling her to go home, come back another day, sometime after the funeral.  But she pushed inside and headed for the kitchen.

“I was sleeping,” he told her.

“You look terrible.”

He realized that his sinuses were burning, his throat filled with mucus that he tried to clear with a hacking sound, then ended up coughing.

“You want coffee?”

He nodded.  While he stood in the living room, Lila banged cabinets in the kitchen, drawers sliding back and forth, water running, silverware clattering.  Everything she did made noise.

The coffeemaker gurgled, the aroma reminding Mason how much he craved it.

“Come in here,” Lila said.  She had set two mugs on the kitchen table, folded napkins beside them.

As he sat, he remembered this had been Lila’s ritual with Virginia once a week when she arrived.  Coffee and conversation.  He wondered which of them had made it—employer or worker.

He sipped and looked out the window at the birds hovering around the empty feeder.  Filling it had been Virginia’s task, a hobby.  No one had done it for weeks

“Did you consider Virginia a friend?” he asked Lila, still facing toward the window.

“She liked to talk to me.”

Now he turned to see her face.  From Virginia’s reports, he assumed she had been the listener, sitting there as a favor to Lila, perhaps with a guilty relief that this woman’s life was so much worse than hers.  “About what?” he said.

“Her troubles.  What was bothering her.”

“What kinds of troubles?”

Lila rattled a spoon in her cup, tasted, and rattled again.  “If she didn’t tell you, I guess she didn’t want you to know.”

Nonsense, Mason wanted to say but instead asked, “About her illness?”

“She never said anything about that.”