Streams of Conscience

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?