Phillis doesn't have to rummage in a cold shed off her grandmomma's
breakfast room for a noisy tin bucket entangled among scraggly mops,
chewed-down straw brooms, dustpans with mismatched kitschy domestic
patterns and piles of sour cleaning rags. She doesn't even think,
"Those days are gone," as was her habit the longer she lived on Mt.
Pleasant Avenue. Today she can't be distracted, she has to focus.
She lifts a feather-weight blue plastic pail from a white imitation
china hook in the spiffy white Mylar and pine plywood utility closet,
which stands like a discount butler at the apex of her pie-wedge laundry.
The bucket doesn't clang on the faux terra cotta floor and that is
why Phillis remembers this is the Age of Plastic, not to be confused
with the Pleistocene. For a mere minute her mind overturns like the
trunk she got for college, out spills the heavy metal of her past
zippers, paper clips, lipstick tubes, bobby pins, thermoses,
waste paper baskets, jar tops and handles on everything. They clatter
like coal down a chute. Phillis thanks God she isn't plagued with
a coal furnace in a chilly, musty unfinished cellar like her grandmomma;
then she thrusts a new synthetic sponge mop into the empty pail and
stretches her tennis-taut right arm to the highest shelf to choose
a bottle of liquid cleanser.
Phillis stores nothing in cabinets under sinks but the heavy and the
dull. Over-the-counter aspirin, antihistamines, and antioxidants are
locked in the stationery store-bought family safe along with sundry
pieces of paper: birth and marriage, deed and will, insurance and
stock certificates. Barely finished with the honeymoon, Phillis cooed
that it was never too early to practice child safety, and Raymond
winked, confident they'd have a little ray of sunshine by next year.
She remembered how momma and daddy had gone topsy-turvy when her brother
started to toddle. Always getting into stuff. Oh, the hot dogs! When
her momma bought fresh loose ones from the kosher butcher up the block,
she had to hide them in the fridge instantly; otherwise, the baby
would eat the tips off every last one. Never a whole hot dog, just
the tips until his mouth was stuffed like a chipmunk. It's still a
wonder he never choked.
Phillis almost fondles the two plastic bottles of liquid cleanser
one rosy petal pink, one minty emerald green - from the utility
closet shelf. Years ago her momma had used something green - what
was it? Oh - an air freshener! Very aggressive. In a short squarish
dark green bottle that stood on the bathroom windowsill. Its pine-saturated
tongue stuck out from its upturned mouth. I am the god of disinfection,
it intoned. But her momma's cleanser came in a metal can; on the label
a fierce cleaning woman in a large white hat like a Sister of Charity
raised her stick. She had no face. Inside were dry, gritty white powders
that made Phillis cough and - A-a-a-chooo! The very thought!
Phillis chooses the pink liquid cleanser and pours it into the feather-weight
blue plastic pail. Then she puts on her sunshine yellow rubber gloves
which remind her of the bright raincoats of the lady traffic guards
outside each of the three parochial schools she had attended. And
the yellow school bus for the blind kids. And the daisies and marigolds
she painted in high school, but she was never really good at controlling
the water on the brush, and the teacher, a thin ethereal nun, always
picked up her painting, studied it, then put it down without a peep.
Was it O. K.? Was she?
In the middle of the humid bathroom Phillis doesn't hear the front
door buzzer until the second time it crackles. She freezes, mop in
hand, a pail full of pretty suds at her feet. The buzzer zaps a third
time. Phillis slowly comes out of her fog. It's the new cleaning lady!
Her first cleaning lady! Is she too early? Phillis checks her watch.
On the dot! And the bathroom's a mess! Oh, what'll she think of me?
What'll she think?