Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest

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There had been ten or twelve or fifteen or twenty-three college students who’d worked there over the years. Marie vacuumed the room, pushing hard until you could see the brush patterns in the carpet. “You’re alive,” Marie said to Evie’s photo. But the needles were starting to reappear. But “with the next paycheck” was like saying “Dear Big Bang.” Her lower back hurt because of all the times she had carried the vacuum and heavy bags of clean and dirty towels, and had thrown garbage and recycling and compost into the dumpsters in the alley behind the motel. Rummaged through the clean towels and sheets to find the newest and cleanest. Almost all the garbage was in the wastebaskets. But the bathroom door was shut, so there could be somebody in there. He’d claimed to be a millionaire, but it turned out he’d had only enough money to pay for Olga’s visa and her plane tickets. Arthritis. “I could call you right now,” Marie said to the photo. She missed Evie, who had quit one day and said she was moving to Arizona. Everything is temporary, Marie thought. She believed in her job. Then she dusted, sprayed, and cleaned all the wooden furniture. How does a friend, maybe your best friend, leave you like that? A new watch, perhaps, now that she didn’t have to worry about ruining it with soap or water or cleaning fluids. A while back, she’d convinced the motel’s owner, Naseem, to put the beds on wooden platforms. She knocked again. The new owner kept Marie on as a maid. I thought Amir only wanted to be American. She rarely saw a needle after crack and crystal meth became more popular and cheaper than any other drug. “Feces” and “urine” were medical terms. Share Tweet Buy a cartoon “This is unexpected,” Naseem said. The towels had been washed, yes, but they were so old and threadbare that they’d forgotten how to be towels. No guests had ever complained about the dirty windows, because this was the kind of motel where the curtains were rarely opened. First, she picked up the dirty towels and shoved them into the laundry bag hanging from her cart. They sneaked into Room 179, the only one whose door was not visible from the main office, and therefore the room that was rented out the least, and they kissed for a few heated minutes. The youngest kid, a toddler in a polo shirt, had taken off his pants and underwear—had gone full Porky Pig—then squatted and pushed out a public feces on the sidewalk in front of the soda machine. She was Catholic and didn’t believe in abortion. The toilet was flushed. She’d once used that phrase when she’d been talking to Father James about her job, and he’d said that the phrase accurately described humans as well. Over the decades, Marie had worked with two or three hundred women. At first, it caused her great and constant pain. He was Pakistani, and knew how to fix any machine. That was good, because a mother and father with four kids had checked out of Room 144. But she shrugged it off and congratulated her old friend. Her skin itched and burned. She never saw Karen again, but she’d bumped into Christine—home for Christmas with her parents—in the local mall one day, and they’d had a long visit over coffee. So she knew there was nobody in the room. Old Onions. But Marie never told any of this to her husband, even though she’d promised Father James that she would admit to her betrayal. Marie thought about distance and time. 2 was undocumented and quit after she heard rumors about an immigration sweep of local businesses. But a dim star is more visible than a dark star. One of the crazier maids had robbed Naseem at gunpoint. As she stood in the doorway of Room 213, Marie laughed at the memory. In the beginning, there was Marie, Agnes, Rosa, and the other Rosa. Not that time. And she was never again unfaithful. They met like that for six consecutive days. At the free clinic, she learned that “back spasms” was the fancy way to say “torn muscles.” Once or twice a year since then, she’d torn her back again. She hadn’t sinned, not really, because she hadn’t wanted to do anything with that penis except laugh at its absurdity. In particular, she hated the smell of old cooked onions. Like scarecrows after a brush fire. And her car stolen once. It looked like a skateboard with two wheels missing.” “Oh, Evie,” Marie had said. Evie had been a maid for years before she got promoted. She remembered reading once that Cleopatra had lived closer in time to the building of the first Pizza Hut than to the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Larger than standard. Many of them never bothered to return their maid uniforms or pick up their last paychecks. Marie was fascinated by the thick black hair on the back of Amir’s hands and fingers. Then her prayer received a response: negative is sometimes a good thing. But she’d wanted Father James to absolve her if she needed absolving. He lasted for six years, then called one morning and quit without warning. She failed. “I don’t know,” Marie had said. There would be visual evidence. So Marie performed her Act of Contrition. On the chair.” He did as he was told. Eventually, her silent guilt became flesh and blood and transformed into a new organ inside her body. Those towels had dementia. A few years earlier, in Room 122, a naked guest had walked out of the bathroom as she was making the bed. And then, after Naseem had sold the motel and also moved back to Pakistan, her pain became vestigial. Then she got into her car. She belonged. And she’d never stood so naked and exposed in front of any man, let alone one who was still fully dressed. She added the words “missing” and “obituary” and “death” and found nothing. Marie suspected that one maid, an Italian woman who had to be taught how to use a vacuum, was in the federal witness-protection program. Then she said it louder: “Housekeeping.” There was no response, so she pass-keyed the door, pushed it open, and took a step back. A small gratuity. And she’d never owned a good pair of work shoes. “I’m so sorry,” Amir said, and backed toward the door. He was sitting on their couch watching the midday news. That’s good science, she thought. The sweep didn’t happen. “Housekeeping,” Marie said again. She’d always promised herself that she would buy a better pair of shoes with the next paycheck. Nobody was squeezed into the doorless closet. And she was white and plain. “Please,” she said. Then Marie stepped out of the room and locked the door behind her. Blushing, she’d told the front-desk clerk, Evie, what had happened. But she’d missed only a few days of work because of her bad back. And him. And the recurring rashes caused by the soaps and disinfectants and window cleaners. She was pardoned and thus learned the amount of love required to pardon others. Getting obese overnight, she thought. There was no echo. “And now he wants to live inside his spirit.” “Amir and I committed adultery,” Marie said. At least a dozen women, Muslims, had worn head scarves while they worked. Then there was Evie, who worked hard, was Marie’s friend for many years, and vanished over the horizon. “She’s my soul mate,” Christine said. There were women who never stopped talking about their aches and pains. The guest was gone. She’d sent a postcard from Reno that said, “Halfway there!” But there’d been no word from her since. “Housekeeping,” she said. It’s why she rarely ate at restaurants. Six hundred dollars. “My son’s mother, she is a white American like you. She went on dozens of diets. Marie had attended both of their graduation ceremonies. And your husband.” Amir was a kind man, so he remained kind even as he was being rejected. But most of them just didn’t care about being responsible. It was expensive, she knew, but it would save time and money for Naseem because the maids wouldn’t have to vacuum under the beds. She worked at a retirement home in Flagstaff. He sang loudly and cleaned the rooms more slowly than any maid ever. On TV, the cops acted the same way when they opened strange doors. Seven people had died at the motel. “You only have to clean one room,” the new owner said. Of every religion. It helped to think that she was helping other people. She could not hold her coffee cup or toothbrush. But he probably didn’t. The illusion of clean. “Housekeeping,” Marie said for the fourth time. More than anything, Marie hated to clean up food. On her last day of work, at age sixty-three, Marie was given a peculiar honor. That’s why she had never worked at a restaurant. There were illegal and legal immigrants, though Marie didn’t care about their status. Her hands hurt. She cleaned the windows. Then she typed in Evie’s name and “housekeeper” and “Arizona.” And there she was, smiling in an employee photo. There’d been five animal sacrifices in the motel over the years. Later, when she’d finally confessed to Father James, he’d surmised that Amir had undertaken a religious journey. And it would save the maids from the inevitable horrors they found beneath those beds. ♦ But after fifteen years her pain had become as present but unnoticeable as her kidneys and her liver. Then Marie had her day off. But no matter—she still draped the towels with an eye-pleasing symmetry. And she’d never trusted anybody who claimed to be certain about God. But she had never congratulated herself on being her better self for all those years. There were women who cried often but would never explain their tears. She’d slowly gained weight, three or four pounds a year. And God created everything, including science. She felt sorry for those addicts—for any addicts. A mostly eaten hamburger and fries. In her Bible-study group, she’d referred to Satan as Old Onions so much that some of her fellow-parishioners had started doing the same. It had been quite a few years, but Evie still looked exactly like Evie. After she was done with the bathroom, she quickly dusted the small chest of drawers, TV, two nightstands, two lamps, and chairs and table, plus the chandelier hanging over the table. She got pregnant. You cannot be confident and faithful at the same time, she thought. That’s the great American magic trick. Not much, until you add it all up one morning and discover that you’re a two-hundred-pound woman. She knew she’d only cleaned the surface of things, but the soap’s strong minty smell would make it seem as if she’d cleaned more thoroughly. Four from heart attacks, two from overdoses, and one when a woman drunkenly fell over the second-floor railing and landed head first on somebody else’s minivan. They couldn’t afford to pay rent and take care of a baby, so they moved to Oregon to live with his parents. She scrubbed the toilet, sink, and shower with bleach. You could shoot up meth, but it seemed that most people snorted it. Marie feared that some of those women might have been disappeared by the men in their lives. Nobody in the unmade bed. The owner gave Marie her last paycheck in cash. It started on the fourth try. Nobody sat in the little wooden chairs at the wooden table. It was too cheap and old and battered to sparkle. He was caught after thirty years of killing poor women and led police to undiscovered bodies so they wouldn’t lethally inject him. She typed in Evie’s full name and “Reno, Nevada” and found nothing. They ended up looking like starving ravens. CreditPhotograph by Carlos Javier Ortiz for The New Yorker

Audio: Sherman Alexie reads. Sometimes, when she prayed, she said “Dear Big Bang,” and she was half certain that God enjoyed the inside joke. Two weeks’ worth of money. The used wet towels were piled in the shower instead of tossed onto the floor. Then she sprayed minty soap into the sink and the shower, did a quick wipe with her hand towel, and ran hot water to wash the soap down the drain. The rooms were too small for echoes. Marie wiped down the walls. “You’ve got the Devil in you.” “That I do,” Evie had agreed. But she has always been good to me. Some lasted a few months, and then quit the job and school at the same time, and walked away into sad lives. She got fired for stealing from the guests. One day, she’d twisted her back so severely that she’d collapsed in pain on the sidewalk. She saw it whenever she reached for her wallet or her keys. Rosa No. And then she picked a few wildflowers from a sidewalk crack, placed them in a plastic cup half filled with water, and set that on the bathroom windowsill. I am very sad that he left.” Marie worried that Naseem knew she’d been having sex with his son. “I am sorry I kissed you. But she had not been clear about her reason for saying no, and he had misinterpreted her denial. We divorced after Amir was born. Or in the general vicinity of the toilet. “But it’s not like working in a coal mine.” “Maybe it is,” he’d said. Even a few Mexican girls, including other maids. After so many years, Marie didn’t even mind cleaning up people’s feces and urine. One day, as they ate lunch together in the supply room, she impulsively reached out with both of her hands and softly stroked the hair on his. But she needed her job. Marie’s knees and ankles hurt because she had so often squatted and kneeled to clean the floors. She was a motel maid, but it helped to think like a doctor or a nurse. She sprayed the toilet bowl, flushed, and repeated the process. And then she’d laughed and laughed, because he had the biggest penis she had ever seen. She’d submerge her hands in hot water and flex and flex and flex until her fingers worked properly again. One of the maids was a man. Then she quickly took off all her clothes. The sink had been wiped down. Some mornings, she woke with hands so stiff that she could not make fists. She’d spend one day in bed, recovering, and then she’d force herself back to cleaning, because she’d read that an injured back heals best during activity. There was nobody in the living area. She’d had sex with three men in her life, but never in a bright room in the middle of the day. “I’ll pay you full shift for cleaning one room,” the owner said. But she had to take a job, any job, to help with expenses. In the employee bathroom, she changed out of her maid uniform and put on her favorite purple blouse and bluejeans. None that were obvious, anyway. Because she wanted to use that last bit of money to buy herself a retirement gift. The extra weight didn’t help her back. “Take off your clothes and sit on the towel. She polished the wood. “Can I be forgiven?” “Yes,” Father James said. 1 married her high-school sweetheart and moved away; Rosa No. Then she wiped tears from her eyes, closed the browser window containing Evie’s photo, and turned to greet the new guests who’d walked into the motel office. Christine had married a man, divorced him, and then married a woman named Ariel. She had never been that bold. Then she and her husband watched the weather report together. Why? He was a clean one. And then there was Evie, the most beloved, who had transubstantiated into a postcard from Reno. She’d liked half of them, had hated at least fifty of them, and had truly loved maybe a dozen. “Only if you’re getting one for yourself,” he said. But Marie was ten years older than Amir. The next day, she went to the free clinic and got tested for H.I.V. Every refugee is a precious child, she thought. Of every color. Hector. Marie had been slapped, punched, kicked, and bitten by former maids. The used condoms stopped bothering Marie after a while. That took a long time, because the windows had rarely been cleaned. For days, Marie prayed. A one-dollar bill, folded into an origami crane, had been left on top of the TV. Then there was Olga, who’d come from Russia to marry an American. But saying “chandelier” was almost like saying “feces” and “urine.” Then she dragged in the vacuum and quickly ran it over the carpet. She didn’t look any bigger than most of the women and men she saw every day. Marie believed that her own sins were exactly the same as everybody else’s sins. Nobody was allowed to be fully certain about God. She draped clean towels over the thin metal rod. Most of them lasted only a few weeks. Over the years, thirty or forty women had quit without saying a word. But the guest had left takeout food in a Styrofoam container on the wooden table. They’d both yelped in surprise. Or smoked it. Some of those women were as nocturnal and untrustworthy as rats. A corner room. He sat and she straddled him. There was a black woman and a white woman, their names lost to time, who started on the same day and both quit immediately after walking into a room and finding a dead bull snake sliced into thick pieces and arranged in weird patterns on the carpet. You didn’t enter the room until you had a clear idea of what was waiting for you. One of God’s other names is Big Bang. “That is my gift to you.” So she took her time. When she returned to work, she learned that Amir had suddenly travelled back to Pakistan to live with his father’s parents. But she shook her head. That was a learned self-defense behavior. She listened for the sound of the shower or the toilet or the sink. Below Evie’s photo was an e-mail address and a phone number. She got needle-stuck once when she was pulling off a pillowcase. “I meant I don’t want to mess up the bed.” So she grabbed a towel from the bathroom and put it on a wooden chair. She’d married him anyway, because she believed that American lies were a little better than Russian lies. One of the saddest maids had been assaulted and strangled by a serial killer. Carpal-tunnel syndrome. Marie was somewhat uncomfortable with Christine’s new lesbian life. But two girls, Karen and Christine, kept working while they earned their bachelor’s degrees—Karen in 1991 and Christine in 2000—and then moved on to better jobs in better cities. Her purse had been stolen three times. Her feet hurt because she stood for most of the day. It took her only fifteen minutes to clean that room. No response. Marie’s fear of used hypodermics had lessened over the years. She hated Old Onions. And accidentally started fires in small motel rooms. So she picked up the Styrofoam container, held her breath against the smell of the onions, and tossed it into the garbage bag hanging off the side of her cart, then sprayed disinfectant into the bag to kill some of the odor. But at least he called. “Father James,” Marie had once confessed, “God is mysterious, sure, but sometimes I feel like people are even more mysterious.” During her second year at the motel, Marie had fallen in love with the owner’s son, Amir, who was only twenty. Like the babies born when starved ravens conceived with burned scarecrows. She knew she’d have to tell her priest, Father James, about that moment. Because she needed that sense of completion. She tried wearing gloves at work, but that only made her rashes migrate from her hands to her wrists, forearms, and elbows. “I think he was living completely inside his body,” Father James said. October was on the way. Dear Big Bang, she’d thought more than once, if I am going to Hell, then I hope Hell doesn’t smell like old onions. Marie kept that postcard in her purse. It would be warm during the day and cold at night. It would be obvious to the next guest that the carpet had been thoroughly vacuumed. And, finally, after three hours of cleaning, she stood on a wooden chair and scrubbed a small stain off the ceiling. On a Tuesday morning, she knocked on the door of Room 213. So Marie was deathly afraid of what that family might have done in the privacy of their room. She believed that she didn’t deserve her own grace. She didn’t have to scrub at any stains because of the departed guest’s good manners. Twenty dollars more a night. One slow day, as she filled in for the new owner at the front desk, Marie used the motel computer to search for Evie. Or on the toilet. At least the people were being safe during their motel sex. I am sorry if I have offended you. Or sometimes not even in the bathroom at all. That makes perfect sense, Marie thought. She grabbed two Budweisers from the fridge. She had discovered that it was vital to say “feces” and “urine” instead of using cruder terms for the messes that people left in the toilet. “How big was it?” Evie had asked. “It’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” she said. She nearly forgave herself and hoped that Amir had completely forgiven himself. That chandelier was only a paper-covered light bulb hanging on an electrical cord. With Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare and good luck, Marie and her husband would survive. And that thin metal rod had been pulled out of the wall so often by clumsy guests that it barely supported the weight of the towels. There were maids of every race. “Do you want a beer?” she asked her husband. Agnes was a drunk. “But I want the last full shift,” she said. He tried to push her onto the bed. She went to prison for four years. She drove home to her husband. After all, Amir was a very handsome man who’d always dated young and pretty brown women—Pakistanis, and also Muslims from other countries, and Asian and African women, too. Then she kissed her husband on the cheek and waited for the rest of her life to happen. With two big windows instead of one. She couldn’t stop laughing as she fled the room and hurried to the main office. There were drug addicts and alcoholics and women who dowsed their cleaning rags with disinfectant and huffed those poisonous and intoxicating fumes into their lungs. She received penance. She’d even heard Father James say it once or twice. Marie still thought of him as the new owner eleven years after Naseem had sold the motel. A table full of greasy dishes and half-empty water glasses and coffee cups made her nauseated. The guest had been there for a few nights and was supposed to check out by eleven. There were no human or animal body fluids splashed on the floors, walls, or ceiling. He’d retired from his job at the hardware store a few months earlier. She was relieved. That was O.K. But she was more flexibly Catholic than strictly Catholic, so she did believe in birth control—pills, devices, procedures. Check your corners, the TV cops always said to one another. “About fifteen years ago,” Evie had said, “I walked in on a guy with a huge one. And then she cleaned the room. “It’s hard work,” she’d said to Father James. She dreaded the marathon of cleaning that likely awaited her.