Roz Giuditta




Even though Elaine always struggled to open the Willits’ back door, she did not mind the inconvenience.  It was just a matter of pushing her left shoulder against the door at the same time that she applied extra force to the key in the lock.  With that firm push, the old lock always yielded and slid reluctantly across the deadbolt. Once she stepped inside, she put down the red double-sided bucket that she brought to every job and picked up the mat that lay by the door.  She shook the mat out vigorously from the top step of the small porch and gently placed it on the porch floor. When she had finished cleaning the couple’s home, the last thing she would do was return the mat to the kitchen floor.


Back inside, Elaine locked the deadbolt on the inside of the door, as she did in every home she cleaned.  This, of course, was a good neighborhood; Elaine only cleaned homes in good neighborhoods, but you could never be too careful.  Compared to her own apartment above a pizza parlor, each of her customers’ homes was a dream. Well, not a dream really; some of them resembled nightmares before she scoured and scrubbed, but the Willits’ home was one that she always looked forward to.


With no pets and only two working adults in the turn-of-the-century apartment, she was able to clean rather easily, unencumbered by toys, sloppy children’s rooms and animal fur floating on surfaces and clinging to furniture.  Besides, this couple did not tend towards clutter, nor did they expect her to pick up soiled laundry and scrape crusty pots and pans before she could even begin her work. She could tell that they were nice people; the kind who wrapped up broken glass in newspapers before they put it in the trash so that she and the garbage collector wouldn’t cut their hands by accident.  When she emptied all of the pails into one large trash bag at the end of the day, she had heard more than once, even through the muffling of newspaper, the clink of broken glass.


On this particular Friday in February, she walked into the kitchen and carried out her usual routine.  Mrs. Willits, or Ms. Davis-Willits (she always had to correct herself when thinking about the wife), usually propped up a note for her against the coffee bean grinder with two new twenty-dollar bills underneath it.  Elaine would head straight for this corner of the kitchen counter, carefully place her keys next to the grinder, and read whatever special instructions were left for her. She never took the twenties, however, until she had finished scrubbing the blue and white ceramic tile floor and had given the mop a final twist in the sink. 


Then, after putting the mop out on the back porch to dry and bringing the floor mat back in, she would walk back to the counter and carefully fold the bills to fit into a gaily colored, leather change purse one of her customers had brought her from Mexico.  Somehow Elaine did not feel right about taking the money until the apartment, at last shining and smelling sweetly of lemon oil soaps, was completely clean.


Today, however, no neatly written list was propped up by the grinder.  Elaine knew that this meant she need only do the normal cleaning tasks and that Ms. Davis-Willits had no special requests of her.  Maybe it would be Elaine’s turn to leave a note such as, “We need more furniture polish, please.” True, she knew it wasn’t really “we” that needed the polish, but she enjoyed writing to the wife this way.  Somehow it made her feel a little bit a part of this couple, even though at 55, she practically could have been mother to either of them.


Despite her having a big important job in New York and calling herself “Ms. Davis-Willits,” the wife really was sweet.  One Christmas she left Elaine a pretty tin of cookies she had baked herself with a hundred-dollar bill tucked inside a Christmas card.  Surprisingly enough, the card depicted several puppies and kittens romping under a Christmas tree, with one of the puppy’s tails brushing a laughing child’s face.  Somehow Elaine had thought she was more the type to send one of those mystifying Christmas cards, which showed nothing more than a white winter’s scene with one small bird or deer.  Or perhaps she would have picked her to choose an artsy card, some famous old painting of the nativity, heavily edged in gold and velvet.


With no special request list awaiting her, Elaine went right into her usual cleaning routine.  No matter which job she was on, she always started in the same way: gather up every dustcloth, rag, and sponge and cleaning fluid that she would need, and store them in the red double-sided bucket, bottles on one side and rags in the other.  Then she would haul out the vacuum cleaner and a small broom and shovel (if the family owned a broom and shovel) and leave them somewhere, just about in the middle of the home. In the Willits’ case, that meant the living room.


From the living room, a small hall branched off and led to the bedroom.  Elaine loved the bedroom. No matter that she’d been to this first floor apartment many times before; each time she walked into the bedroom, she stopped to admire it again.  Its most wonderful feature was a real, old-fashioned fireplace that Elaine knew for positive worked perfectly. After all, she was the one who cleaned it out almost every time she came to the Willits’ home.  Instead of being bothered by the messy black soot on the hundred-year old rose tiles and broken down bits of firewood in the grate (well, she liked to think it was real wood, but she suspected it was some kind of chemical log), she felt happy and just a tiny bit envious.  The wife may have been a modern woman who called herself “Ms. Davis Hyphenated Willits,” but from all the little clues Elaine had noticed, she suspected that Ms. Davis-Willits acted like a real, old-fashioned romantic wife in that bedroom!


What she saw this particular Friday was absolutely no exception.  Once again, the grate held blackened bits that broke and dirtied her hands as she picked them up, and the cold floor of the fireplace was awash in wispy gray ash.  After carefully piling the bits in her shovel, she swept the flyaway ash in as well. Elaine knew that the vacuum cleaner would gobble up the bits of ash far more easily than the slow sweep of broom and shovel, but sometimes she liked to pretend that she was living in a time that was as old as the chimney, and vacuum cleaners hadn’t been invented.  Sometimes she also liked to imagine what it must have been like then, being a simple country girl in service to an aristocratic London family. She knew from the romances she read that those girls rose every day in cold darkness to light their master’s fireplaces and often had to fight off the master’s sons, but still Elaine enjoyed daydreaming about their lives.


When she had finished sweeping out the fireplace and had dumped the remains into the large, black plastic garbage bag that she would carry from room to room, Elaine walked over to the unmade bed.  Lying on the deep plush ivory carpet was a long, thin-strapped negligee, a pool of peach silkiness. Elaine smiled, picked it up, and laid it delicately over her shoulder instead of over her rubber-gloved forearm.  Knowing from long experience where to look next, she knelt on the carpet, and stuck her long thin arm under the dust ruffle, disarrayed at the bottom of the bed. After reaching about, she triumphantly pulled out two peach silk mules with ostrich feathers and smiled as she reunited them in her left hand.  Elaine had almost bought a pair just like these herself once at a garage sale, until she remembered that her back never would have tolerated such frivolously high heels, nor would have Joe appreciated them. He’d once told her that even high heels didn’t improve her legs. So, at $2 they were still too much. Yet in the interest of love, Elaine mused, Ms. Davis-Willits wore these lovely slippers every week.  Smiling to herself, she hung the negligee on its lace-padded hanger in the closet and lined up the mules next to another more practical looking pair of slippers in the closet.


She returned to the bed and beside it, the white wicker teacart that held potent reminders of the evenings before.  Half burned candles of every type crowded its surface: thick vanilla pillars in hurricane lantern holders, slender tapers smelling of freesia in a silver candelabrum, and tiny scented votives, deep in amethyst and amber glass.  This week there was even one of those new candle gardens, which was a dreamy arrangement of smooth Japanese stones and scroll candles in a little pool of water. Elaine could easily imagine a scrap of full moon reflected in that water.


With one of her dampened rags, Elaine delicately wiped around the inside of the glass candle holders to remove the sooty shadow that blushed there the longer the candle burned.  She could just imagine how Ms. Davis-Willits would look in so much candlelight, and how she would smell of one of the many costly perfumes on her mirrored dressing table. Elaine wasn’t sure, but she thought that some of them would probably make your skin feel warm.  On impulse, she picked up a cut-glass crystal bottle with a fan shaped stopper and delicately brought it near her face. Even with the stopper closed, the emanating scent was dizzying. Choosing the best of her dampened cloths, Elaine folded it into a point and carefully cleaned the etched cuts in the glass.  She repeated the ritual with the other bottles and placed each one aside on the nightstand as she finished them. This way, she could easily Windex the mirrored surface of the dressing room table.


As Elaine leaned over the mirror, she carefully avoided looking at her own reflection.  She knew that from this awkward angle, she would see what Joe had once again pointed out this morning: that the skin on her neck was starting to resemble crepe paper, and a deep horizontal line was beginning to crease her throat.  Elaine regretted now that she had not read the article she’d once seen on the cover of a woman’s magazine in the supermarket checkout line: “What To Do When Your Neck Starts to Age.” But she suspected there was little she could do about it anyway, and Joe shouldn’t have pointed it out to her.  She couldn’t imagine that Mr. Willits would ever say such a thing to Ms. Davis-Willits, even after they had spent 20 years together. He was the one who bought all those perfumes, Elaine was sure, unlike Joe, who on their last anniversary, had gaily presented her with a toaster oven. It’s true, he had once bought her some “shower splash,” but that happened only because Elaine herself had folded a small ad for it into a neat square and tucked it into his bowling jacket pocket. 

After cleaning the dressing table surface and carefully placing all the bottles exactly where they had been, Elaine dusted the surfaces of the white furniture and lovingly polished the brass headboard of the bed.  Even though Ms. Davis-Willits had said she need not polish it every week, Elaine enjoyed running her hands and polishing rag over its dull antique patina. Other customers of hers owned headboards like this one, but she could tell by their too-bright gold finish that they were just metallic reproductions.  This was the real thing.

She pulled up the lace edged sheets and straightened out the covers, which had been severely pulled to the right, Mr. Willits’ side of the bed.  Elaine knew that Mr. Willits slept on the right, for she had on more than one occasion pulled out some black silk boxers bunched up at the foot of the bed. How long it had been since Joe’s sturdy white shorts had been freely kicked to the bottom of their own bed she hated to think.

A pure white quilt went over the covers, and Elaine completed the ensemble by carefully placing six silken pillows at the head of the bed.  Some of the pillows were round, and some of the pillows were square, and all were trimmed with tassels and braid. Sometimes, Elaine thought to herself, she almost felt like she should genuflect like an altar boy when she finished making that bed!  Instead, she admired the room one final time and briskly began vacuuming. When she had finished running the vacuum cleaner in straight strokes up and down the carpet, she picked up her red bucket and black garbage bag and went into the bathroom.

The bathroom truly showed how aged was the house that the Willits lived in. 

 As much as Elaine loved the couple’s apartment, she had to admit that cleaning this bathroom took up more time than even she liked.  She couldn’t completely wedge the vacuum cleaner attachment under the claw-footed bathtub, so she had to get down on her hands and knees with the little broom to chase the dust curls collecting there on the warped linoleum.  And no amount of scrubbing could ever really clean the inside of the tub, for the porcelain finish had long ago worn away. The pedestal sink was charming to look at, but the base was an extra part that you had to clean, separate from the sink.  Besides, the smallness of the sink’s surfaces allowed no place for cleansers and sponges to rest.

Sighing, Elaine picked up the bathroom pail and dumped its contents into her garbage bag.  As the tissues and cotton balls cascaded forward, she noticed a card amongst the litter. It was almost completely torn in half.  In most homes, Elaine wouldn’t have given this a second thought; people were so helter-skelter after all, but here at the Willits’, a card in the bathroom trash seemed so out of place.  With them, discarded mail went directly into the office pail, food wrappers showed up no place but the kitchen trash, and newspapers were tied and stowed neatly in the utility closet. 

Yet the card was there, and it was beautiful at that.  The paper was heavy, but the outside of the card was delicately cut out, like heart-shaped lace.  Elaine knew that this technique was called “laser cutting” for she’d often admired these cards in the store and yearned to receive one.  She learned long ago, however, that Joe did not believe in spending money on such fanciness. I married you, didn’t I? he’d say. I don’t need a card to tell you how I feel.  The trouble was, he never did tell her.

They’d stayed together long after that first pregnancy, which had brought them together.  Back then, you did the right thing, and the boy always married the girl. But Elaine had miscarried, and no other child was ever born.  That was intentional; over time she had learned that some men were not meant to be husbands or fathers. But she also believed that once you made your bed, you had to lie in it. 

“To My Darling on Valentine’s Day,” she read aloud.  She wanted to open the card, but finding such a beautiful thing almost destroyed and in the bathroom trash besides vaguely disturbed her.  She didn’t want to know which one of the Willits had bought the card and which one of them had ripped it apart. So she dropped it into the trash bag, and then she picked up a can of cleanser and doused the sink with it.  The scratch of the scouring powder on the inside of the sink seemed raspier than usual.

The card continued to lie at the bottom of the trash bag, a broken-winged, white dove. She longed to forget it, but its image seeped unbidden and repeatedly into her thoughts.  Why, she wondered, would either one of them throw the card out? In the past she’d seen birthday and anniversary cards sitting on the fireplace mantelpiece for a month at least, and she knew from her own experience that Ms. Davis-Willits saved them in a rose velvet box with a rose velvet bow.  Elaine was touched that Ms. Davis-Willits, who could sometimes be so brisk, not at all sentimental, had trusted her enough to show her the box. 

Elaine clearly remembered the day, not long after she had become the Willits’ cleaning lady.  Ms. Davis-Willits, who was working at home that holiday week, greeted Elaine with a cup of coffee when she walked in the back door.  Surprised at both her presence and her generosity, Elaine spilled coffee in a long loop on the floor as she tried to remove her coat and boots at the same time.  Ms. Davis-Willits laughed, told her not to worry, and sprang to sponge up the mess herself. Elaine was touched by this role reversal, for she knew other customers would have left the spill for her. 

As they chatted about the snow and the cold, Ms. Davis-Willits asked Elaine to take down the Christmas tree.  Together they would wrap it in a sheet and drag it outside. When Elaine admired the keepsake box, which was neatly stacked along with the other presents on a chair, Ms. Davis-Willits brought it over to her.  “It’s a gift from my mother,” she said laughingly. “It’s a keepsake box for new brides. I’m going to store all my cards and love letters in here.” The young wife had not said it, but Elaine knew then and there that she herself would be in charge of the box: putting away the cards, dusting the top, and trusted enough to keep from snooping through its entire contents.

Suddenly Elaine remembered something. 

That keepsake velvet box had not been in the bedroom where it usually was.  How could she have missed it, always sitting so proudly atop the white wicker blanket chest?  Elaine dropped her sponge into the sink and walked into the bedroom. The top of the chest was smooth, white and empty.  Puzzled, she checked the shelves and floor of the tidy closet, but from four long years of so carefully tending the Willits’ home, she knew that nothing had been jostled to make room for the box.

Elaine continued to feel out-of-sorts as she cleaned the office that the Willits shared.  The box wasn’t there either. Had she really imagined that she would find it in the office, stuffed with bills instead of cards?  That would have been a little better than gone missing completely. But the Willits were far better organized and far more together than another of her families who used to do things like store bills in a large, gold foil chocolate box.  She clearly remembered the time that she had accidentally knocked such a box off a tottering tower of newspapers and magazines on their kitchen table. Instead of little chocolates flying everywhere, a river of unopened bills spilled across the floor.  Elaine heard several years later that the couple had split up, and she wasn’t at all surprised. 

Elaine did not know why, but as she progressed from the office to the living room, she felt more and more tired.  Somehow it seemed that something other than the weight of the vacuum cleaner was dragging her down. Like a little child tugging relentlessly at her sleeve, thoughts about the card and the keepsake box would not let go of her.  And something else refused to vacate her mind, try as she might to push it aside.

Several months ago, a framed photo of Mr. and Mrs. Willis in a tropical island paradise developed a crack in the glass.  Brushing it aside as a mishap, (after all, people do tend to drop things), Elaine continued to polish its sterling silver frame once a month, along with the rest of Ms. Davis-Willits’ sterling silver treasures.  She had even left Ms. Davis-Willits a note, offering to take the frame to a nearby hardware store to have the glass replaced. The following week, Elaine received a reply hastily written on her own note, “That won’t be necessary.”  At the time, Elaine thought the tone seemed a little brusque, but immediately she rationalized it to herself. “For heavens sake, what did you expect, a novel? She does have to catch the 6:55 am train.”

She thought no more about the photo until she realized, just now, that it had disappeared from the living room entirely.  Perhaps Ms. Davis-Willits had taken it to have the glass replaced herself—but that was ages ago. It would be so unlike her to leave it there indefinitely, away from its post in the living room.  Its absence didn’t actually mean anything, did it? 

This disappearance worried Elaine, for she had always assumed that the Willits would be lifelong customers of hers.  In fact, she looked forward to the day when they would buy their first home, probably a center hall colonial, or a Victorian that needed some work, and she would follow them there.  Of course, a house would mean more cleaning for her, but in time, she was sure there would be some recognition of her devotion to the care of their home.

She’d even fantasized that one day, the young couple would ask her to be godmother to their second or third child.  She could just hear them telling the slightly miffed relatives who’d been passed over for the honor, “Oh, but Elaine’s been with us since the beginning, and we trust her implicitly.”  And then, when people asked her that harmless, but upsetting question, “Do you have any children?” she could easily say, “Well, I do have a godchild I’m just crazy about.”  Once she’d confided this dream to Joe, but he’d scoffed at the idea, “They’re customers, not family,” and she’d never mentioned it to him again. 

This painful memory jogged another image in Elaine’s mind.  It was just a fleeting scrap, a brief moment of seeing without really thinking as she went about her cleaning tasks.  Once, in the office with the rest of the neatly stacked mail, hadn’t she seen some envelopes with the return address “Northwestern Reproductive Clinic”?  She thought it was just junk mail, they were so young—they couldn’t be having difficulty—she’d always assumed—. But they had to stay together; anyone could see what a wonderful life they lived; surely they wouldn’t be so foolish as to let this destroy them.  Didn’t they know that their lives would always be better intertwined than apart? Despite all that had happened, she and Joe had stayed together, hadn’t they?

One  more hour of work, and Elaine had completed vacuuming, dusting and polishing the living room and hallway.  Unusually weary, she bumped the bucket into the kitchen, always her last stop, and wiped down the counters and cabinets.  She scrutinized the ceramic tile floor. Perhaps just this once she could skip moving the kitchen chairs and table into the hallway and just mop around them instead. Or, maybe if she spot-cleaned only the obvious stains, she could forget about doing the kitchen floor entirely.  

After all, she thought wearily as she tucked the two twenty-dollar bills by the coffee bean grinder into her Mexican change purse, Ms. Davis-Willits would never know the difference, anyway.



Roz Giuditta lives in Scotch Plains, NJ. She has been published in Tiferet and Exit 13 magazines. Both sets of grandparents hailed from Avellino near Naples and settled in Westfield and Garwood, NJ. Although she was raised in Westfield with few Americans of Italian descent, her parents imbued her with a strong sense of family, the importance of good food, pride in her heritage and quality in all endeavors.