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Cleaning Mr. Graber's House

March 9, 2013

This is my most-rejected short story. It has been rejected thirty-six times, which is a lot. It is a multiple of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 18 and 36. So I'm posting it here in the hope that you will read it and like it since it is a story I like a lot. Or maybe I've just got a soft spot for rejectees (I always picked out the mis-shapen pumpkins for Hallowe'en. Still do).

It also has some Arts and Crafts references, so I'll find some pretty Arts and Crafts illustrations with which to perk it up since it's not a reallyhappy story.

 

Cleaning Mr. Graber's House 

 

 

Lori-ann had been cleaning Mr. Graber’s house for two years when she first started to think about taking something from it.

She never would, of course. When you cleaned houses for people you had to remember they were allowing you an unedited and intimate glimpse into their lives.

            She told that to Mark one time. He just laughed at her.

            “Get off it! ‘Unedited?’ ‘Intimate?’” he said, making finger quotes, “You clean houses for snobs who pay you, that’s all.”

            “They’re not snobs. None of them are,” she said, angry at him the way she was all of the time now.

Tools of the Trade

            She couldn’t remember when he had started making fun of her. Really making fun of her, not just teasing. He never used to do that. Now he’d gotten just out-and-out mean. Anything was fair game for him: her weight, though she wasn’t fat, her job, her cooking. They developed a pattern. He’d make fun of her. She’d get hurt, then get angry. He’d tell her she was too sensitive. Next, they’d be fighting.

            In any case, he was wrong about her clients. She knew that the way Mark saw it, anybody who wasn’t just like him—anybody who didn’t rent an old camp, but actually owned a house on the lake—was a snob. But they weren’t.

            Some of them were nicer than others, of course.

            Mrs. Mitchem, the old lady, was a sweetheart. She was pretty much home-bound, so she was always there when Lori-ann cleaned her house.

She must have been lonely, living by herself, no longer able to drive. Yet she didn’t try to talk Lori-ann’s ear off. She’d make some polite chit-chat when Lori-ann arrived and then, when the cleaning was finished, she would give her a mug of coffee and a home-made cookie on a cloth napkin. They’d sit down and talk for fifteen minutes or so. Lori-ann knew that Mrs. Mitchem had a son out in Seattle who worked for Microsoft. He had two kids who were in their late teens. Her daughter lived nearby. She’d adopted two Chinese girls, Susie and Rose. She was a stay-at-home mom now, but before that had taught second grade.

            Mrs. Mitchem knew that Lori-ann lived with Mark in one of those converted camps out on the lake. She knew that Lori-ann liked spending time with her niece and nephew, that she was taking two classes at the community college. She knew Lori-ann wanted to become a nurse someday.

At the rate she was going she figured she’d be thirty before she finished. School cost money and took time.

            She also cleaned for the Robenses. She didn’t like the Robenses. The kids treated her as if she were invisible—which, for them, she supposed she was. They took for granted that their mother didn’t clean their house. That some girl named Lori-ann did it for her.

Mrs. Robens was all-business. She didn’t even pretend to be friendly. Lori-ann had never even seen Mr. Robens, just his underwear which she sometimes found under the bed. He was a large man, she’d determined, who cut little slits in the elastic waistbands of his boxers so they wouldn’t bind so much.

            She cleaned for the Massarellis and the Adamses and the Whitlocks and the Wongs. In each case, they were almost never home. Sometimes the McGees were--they both had home offices and two teen-agers, so you never really knew who you were going to run into there.

            Sherry Schwartz was always home because she had three pre-schoolers and was at her wit’s end most of the time. She loved Lori-ann. It was more or less mutual. Sherry just couldn’t keep on top of things—who could with three little kids?—and she was so grateful for Lori-ann’s help.

            “You’re like a big sister to me,” she told Lori-ann one time when she was in the midst making home-made Play-dough, “I mean, I know I’m older than you and all that. But I think you may be wiser.”

            Lori-ann thought that might be true—she never would have had three kids all under the age of five, for example—but she was flattered nonetheless.

            It took forever to clean Sherry’s house. She’d spend almost twice the time she did at any other comparably-sized house. But she never told Sherry that she was giving her what amounted to a 50% discount. That’s because it actually made her happy to see Sherry visibly calmer when everything was clean and back in order—even though she was sure it didn’t stay that way for long.

 

            Mr. Graber’s house wasn’t the biggest, but it was clear that he was the richest of her clients. Probably the one closest to being a snob, too. Except that he wasn’t one.

            He lived out on Innisfree Road, the direct opposite side of the lake from where she and Mark lived. It always made her laugh to think that both Mr. Graber and she had lake views—hers from the trashy side, his from the wealthy.

 

 

            There were old mansions all along Innisfree Road and Mr. Graber’s house had probably been a carriage house to one that was no longer standing. She thought so because it wasn’t all that much bigger than her and Mark’s camp. But for a carriage house, it was huge and lavish.

Stucco on the outside, inside it was all Arts & Crafts style. She never would have known that except that Mr. Graber had books and books about Arts & Crafts and Gustav Stickley and the Greene brothers. Over time she came to realize that Mr. Graber’s chairs and sofa weren’t cheap knock-offs, but actually Stickley-crafted. The living room rug was a traditional Donegal design with water lilies patterned across it.

            The pottery and metal ware he had were by McCoy and Rookwood and Roycroft. The tiles over his countertops in the kitchen were plain white except for a border of heavily-glazed and richly-textured ones in vivid colors. From what she’d read about in his books, she figured they were Mercer Moravian, from a tile factory in Pennsylvania that Henry Mercer, a man richer than God, had started in the early 20th-century. The factory still made tiles for people who hadbeaucoups bucks, as Mark would say.

Mostly Mr. Graber wasn’t home when Lori-ann cleaned. That was how she’d come to start reading his books in the first place. Usually, after she’d finished cleaning, she’d get a glass of water, one of his books and go sit out on the porch. A rolling hill led down to the lake and she liked to see it from this elevated angle—her and Mark’s camp was right at water level. It was strange to look across the lake and know that she lived there, but that it was a whole world away.

Eventually she would stop reading whatever book she’d chosen. Then she’d put it back in its place, pack up her stuff and leave.

            But one time when Mr. Graber was home while she cleaned, she asked him about the Arts & Crafts movement. He spent a long time talking to her about it—its history, its rationale, its style.

After that, if he was home, they always talked. Always about house design or current events or movies. Never anything personal.

            Naturally, Lori-ann took more care cleaning Mr. Graber’s house than anybody else’s. Apart from the fact that everything in it seemed expensive and rare, she liked his house best. The way the light reflected off the woodwork. The way the ceiling beams always looked different, depending on the time of day and season, depending on whether it was sunny or overcast.

            Sometimes she thought about what it must have been like to live here. Mr. Graber’s wife had died four years ago. That was why he had started needing a housecleaner. She had this fantasy about breaking up with Mark--which one or the other of them would eventually do, she was certain--and coming to live with Mr. Graber as his care-taker. She figured he was too old to want sex—well into his sixties, she was sure. He didn’t have any family that she knew of. And she had a nurse’s heart, even if she didn’t have a nursing degree yet.

            In her fantasy she’d live here with Mr. Graber until he died. And maybe he’d even leave her the house in his will.

                                    ***                              ***                             ***

            It was when Mark lost his job that she started thinking about taking something from Mr. Graber’s house. Not money, even though she knew he kept cash in a wooden box on his dresser.

No, she just wanted a thing.Something of his, of Mr. Graber’s. She would keep it someplace where she could see it—a gem in the rough of  her and Mark’s camp--as a reminder of a different kind of life. A life she would probably never have the chance to live. So one week she thought about taking the tooled copper Roycroft box to use in the bathroom for holding her hair clips and her tweezers. But it would  rust, or whatever copper did, in the bathroom. Another week she had picked up the green Grueby bowl and imagined it on the book case by the window. It would get broken, of course.

            There was a moss-green and cream-colored wool rug that she loved. It was smallish—three-by-five—but Mr. Graber would notice if it went missing. He’d notice if anything went missing. And he would know who had taken it.

                        ***                              ***                              ***

            She hadn’t really considered it cheating, but apparently Mark did. And in a way that made breaking up easier. They hadn’t been getting along. They didn’t have sex ever and they fought all the time. But both were too chicken-shit to leave. Mark, especially, since even in his new job he didn’t make as much money as Lori-ann did cleaning houses.

            So when Mark found out about Mr. Graber, he was out the door—out of her life—like a shot. The idea that she’d cheat on him with an old geezer was just too much to take.

Lori-ann, herself, couldn’t believe she was sleeping with an old—older—man. For one thing, she honestly thought that, past a certain age--say, sixty--men just couldn’t get it up anymore. Even in the Viagra commercials the guys looked youngish, relatively speaking. So the first time Mr. Graber kissed her she was dumbstruck. She already knew that he liked her. But she had no idea he liked her that way. Or even couldlike her that way.

            It happened one time when he came home and saw her sitting out on the back porch with her glass of water. She was embarrassed—she’d finished cleaning an hour ago. But he didn’t seem to mind that she was, essentially, loitering. Stay for dinner if you want, he said. And he meant it. Then she wondered if, since she cleaned his house, he also expected her to make dinner.

            But he made dinner. He had some steaks in the freezer, which he defrosted and pan-grilled. He took out a plastic box of baby spinach and put that in a salad bowl along with cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and crumbled blue cheese. He tossed these with the home-made vinaigrette he always kept in a jar on his countertop. Then he heated up some bread in the oven and opened up a bottle of red wine.

            They ate in the kitchen—there wasn’t a dining room—setting their plates on the gleaming wooden table she had polished earlier. Afterwards they went out to the porch, bringing their wine glasses and the wine bottle with them. Mr. Graber smoked a cigarette. He asked her if she smoked.

            No, she said, she’d quit. She didn’t mention that she had never smoked in the first place, other than marijuana. Somehow it seemed more sophisticated to say she used to smoke, then quit.

 

But then, somehow, after Mr. Graber had made a toast to the rising moon, he leaned over and kissed her.

            Astonished, she kissed him right back almost without realizing she was doing it.

            After that she stayed for dinner each week when she’d finished cleaning. And then one week she was lying with him in bed, stunned and satisfied. This, too, became a pattern.

            He was a good lover and Lori-ann very much looked forward to getting the cleaning over and done with so she could have sex with Mr. Graber. And yet, it was also very strange—the sex. She almost felt as if it were a part of the cleaning, something else that she was now there to do.

            She continued to feel like that, even after Mark moved out and she started coming over to Mr. Graber’s a few nights each week. It was pleasurable to be with him. It was a pleasurable job.

            But Mr. Graber—she actually called him by his first name, ‘Richard,’ but in her mind he remained Mr. Graber—seemed to want more. He wanted to go out to dinner, to go to movies, to have her spend the night. Each time she said no. She would have died a thousand deaths before telling him it horrified her to imagine bringing him to family picnics or introducing him to her friends. That wasn’t part of her job.

            Finally he must have realized that he was too old for her, that she didn’t want to be seen dating an old man. And he told her that she was using him. He didn’t say it in an angry way or even as if his pride was wounded all that much.

            No more than you’re using me, she responded. And he nodded his head.

            With that they established a line neither was supposed to cross.

            And even though that’s what she wanted—a line not to be crossed—some part of her felt hurt that he didn’t pursue more aggressively. That he didn’t badger her for more attention. Her hurt feelings made no sense, she knew. He had said he wanted a relationship with her and she had turned him down.

But sometimes, when she sat astride him, or knelt on the bed to have him enter her from behind or knelt on the floor to take him into her mouth, she did feel used. This was irrational, she thought. She was as enthusiastic about the sex as he was. And he never made her do anything she wasn’t already more than willing to do.

            Yet so often, as she lay in the dark, spent from coming, pleasurably sore, she felt more than anything else like Mr. Graber’s housecleaner.

                                     ***                             ***                             ***

            Lori-ann was on her own back porch sitting in a nylon-webbed lawn chair. The late-summer, early-evening sun was warm, but fading.

            As she had done so many times before from Mr. Graber’s porch, she peered out across the lake to the opposite side, the wealthy side. Behind the screen of trees were the mansions. And Mr. Graber’s house, his small, stucco sanctuary, was among them.

            She had the key. She could go there. He wouldn’t mind it if she got in her car, drove over, crawled into his bed and spent the night there. At least, she didn’t think he would mind.

Mr. Graber wasn’t home. He wasn’t home because he was in the hospital. So there was nothing to stop her from staying in his house while he was away.

It was nothing serious, he’d told her. A hernia. Painful, but not serious. He’d be released in a few days. She told him she’d visit him, but she hadn’t yet.

But in the meantime she could go over there. She could pour a glass of wine and settle into a hot bath in his clean, deep tub. She could go into the bedroom and sleep naked between his sheets. She could wake to sunlight pouring into his bedroom. She could put fresh berries—he always had fresh berries—into one of his thick, pottery bowls, drench them in cream and eat them on the porch, listening to the birds, looking at the lake.

She didn’t have to go to Mr. Graber’s house only to clean it or have sex with him. She could go there tonight, for no reason at all other than wanting to.

Dusk was giving way to night now. The lake glistened with light from the rising moon. The bats were out. Lori-ann hated bats.

She folded up her lawn chair and slipped back inside, careful to open the door only the slightest bit.

She went to the kitchen, took out a Lean Cuisine and stuck it in the microwave. There were cans of Mark’s beer in the refrigerator that had been there for months. She didn’t really like beer, but she got out a can anyway and popped the tab. It smelled like Mark.

Cazenovia Lake

            When the Lean Cuisine was done she salted and peppered it, then brought it, along with a square of paper toweling and her beer, into the living room.

            She stretched out on the sofa, covering herself up with the granny square afghan her mother had made. She hunted among the sofa cushions to find the remote.

To save a little money she had given up cable when Mark moved out. But she could still get a few channels, as long as she wasn’t picky about what she saw. Right now she found a re-run of a “Friends” episode she hadn’t seen and watched that while eating her dinner.

            She wasn’t going to go over to Mr. Graber’s house. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. It was that she didn’t want to be where all the things she loved belonged to him and not a single one of them to her. It was better to stay right here at the camp, where all the tired things around her were her own. 

            Tomorrow, for sure, she would visit Mr. Graber in the hospital.                 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.