So there I was, cleaning the floor of Mrs. Ray's basement with a sodden rag that smelled of ammonia. One wonders, when they reach my age, which of their choices led them to a certain position. Mine are clear, I suppose, if not pleasant. I didn’t go to college, and marriage never claimed me. Becoming a maid seemed the best option at the time.
I shifted, trying to soothe my lower back, and inspected a patch of dirt clinging to the tile.
As I dug the bristles of my sponge into the soil, my thoughts returned to last week’s announcement. Mrs. Ray had told me of her decision to enter a nursing home, and, consequently, she would "no longer be in need of my services".
I succeeded in removing the dirt, and indulged myself with a smile before remembering that I would soon be leaving, and the floors would then be under the care of someone else. Twenty-six years is a long time. It sounds strange, but I would miss Mrs. Ray and her floors. She seemed like a tough old bat, but I knew that was just a façade, tough love, if you will.
I struggled to stand, joints popping. It was time to move into the bathroom.
As I emptied the trashcan, my eyes fell on a newspaper. I fingered the back page, at last deciding to look through the advertisements for sentiment’s sake. After all, I had acquired my cleaning job for Mrs. Ray after reading a similar ad page.
I was about to throw the paper back when I saw it: The advertisement. Help wanted: One house-maid to assist elderly woman residing at 247 Plurbis Lane. Apply for position within the hours of eight A.M. and seven P.M., excepting Tuesdays.
A smile split my face. Mrs. Ray had no doubt saved the twenty-six year-old paper that had attracted my notice. She was really a sweet woman …Funny, though—the papering wasn’t worn or yellowed. Curious, I turned it over to check the date, and received a shock when I recognized it as yesterdays.
Mrs. Ray had placed an ad for a maid. Why? She was leaving for a nursing home the following Monday.
A horrible suspicion awoke in me. "Maybe she lied." Once said, it seemed to reverberate around the room. I quickly seized the paper and marched up the stairs as hastily as my arthritis would allow.
Mrs. Ray was in the dining room, doing crossword puzzles as she sipped hot chocolate. She was a small woman, with white hair and wrinkled skin. The hideous crocheted shawl she wore seemed to swallow her entirely. She looked so harmless I nearly backed away, and then she cackled as she circled a right answer, vulture-like. I regained my courage.
"Mrs. Ray, I saw an advertisement in this paper for--"
"Just a minute, Charlotte. I’m not done." Her brow furrowed as she struggled for another answer.
I waited patiently, if timidly. At last she set down her pencil. "Did you say something?"
"Yes, Mrs. Ray. I was reading this paper--"
She straightened. "And not cleaning? How shameful, Charlotte."
"I was cleaning, ma’am. I happened on the paper as I emptying the trash bins." A pause, then: "I found an ad requesting a maid…for this house."
I thought a saw a flash of alarm in Mrs. Ray’s eyes, but it was soon gone. "That must be the new owners preparing for their arrival."
Mrs. Ray was grasping for excuses. That much was plain. "It says to come here for interviews," I countered.
"Then it is a mistake. I’m sure the newspaper company makes them frequently--"
"It was very precise."
Mrs. Ray considered. "Fine, then." It came out curt and cold. "I did place an advertisement for a new maid."
"I lied, Charlotte. I have no intention of living at Gentle Hollow Retirement Facilities for the remainder of my days." She laughed. "I told you that to avoid a scene when I fired you."
I inhaled sharply. "Fired me?"
Mrs. Ray set the book down with a bang. "You’re getting old, Charlotte. You can barely get off the floor when you’ve finished mopping. Don’t you think I’ve noticed your wincing? Your moans? Good heavens, girl. If you collapse from a heart attack, what am I to do?" She hunched her thin frame and continued vehemently. "Did you think I’d keep you on out of sentimentality? If you cannot perform adequately at the tasks I give you, then you have no business in my home. It’s time you moved on, as I am."
I struggled to make sense of this. I was being…replaced…because I was too arthritic to clean the house I had loved for twenty-six years.
"Then," I whispered. "Do my feelings mean nothing to you? Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to go?"
Mrs. Ray looked up from her puzzles, her incredulity like a knife in my ribs. "You think I care for your feelings?" She laughed. "Charlotte--"
"My name is Cynthia," I said softly, voice cracking.
"Whatever. I thought you understood that our relationship was purely employer and employee." She sighed in an effort to seem vaguely remorseful. "You did fine work, but I’m rather looking forward to having a maid who can open pickle jars. I’ve been having cravings."
I backed away, fists clenched.
Mrs. Ray yawned. "While you’re in the kitchen cleaning out, fetch me some more hot chocolate."
I snatched the proffered cup with a muttered, "Yes, ma’am," and hurried into the kitchen before the first of the tears fell.
But the grief didn’t last. I was pouring more of the beverage when a new thought sidled into my brain.
I glanced from the cup to the door leading to the adjoining room, and back. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. Then I did something truly out of character: I laughed.
That Friday, I was scheduled to leave, to ‘move on.’ But, before I went, I thought it only fair to serve Mrs. Ray a nice meal. Twenty-six years . . . that deserves some kind of send-off.
I ushered her into the dining room, the picture of graceful service.
As I ladled the shrimp and sauce, she asked, rather sharply, "What’s the occasion?"
"Oh, I just thought you deserved a treat after putting up with me for so long," I said, positively beaming. Mrs. Ray nodded reluctantly. "Well, I did let several incidences slide. When you broke that vase, I only made you pay two weeks’ salary instead of the original three."
"Very generous of you, ma’am," I assured her.
She pursed her lips, fork suspended in midair. "You did pay for that vase?"
My blood boiled, but I quickly calmed myself. "Of course, ma’am. Don’t worry yourself. I’ve got something special for dessert."
Mrs. Ray’s beady eyes brightened. "Lemon meringue?"
"Not quite," I answered, disappearing behind the door. On the counter, there was a large container. FROM EUROPE, it read. I seized the tongs previously laid out, hastily depositing a steaming chunk of dry ice into the nearby cup. After a brief moment of deliberation, I thrust open the door and strode to Mrs. Ray.
"Hot chocolate, made from imported cacao bars," I announced.
Mrs. Ray eyed the contents greedily, then grasped the handle and gulped. "Why Charlotte, this is divine. Simple--"
The next few moments occurred rapidly, but, when I try to recall, I realize that the events are engraved in me as thoroughly as one can imagine.
She gagged, reaching for her throat. Veins bulged, her face turning the color of overripe plums. "Does it need more milk?" I asked.
Mrs. Ray gasped for air. She retched into her plate. I tilted my head and pouted. "Less sugar, perhaps?"
Mrs. Ray garbled something. She collapsed on her hands and knees, chair pushed over backwards. "Help… me …"
With horrible purpose and lack of hurriedness, I bent until we were eye-to-eye. My voice was a snarl. "All of those years, I believed that you cared for me. I blinded myself and pretended because it was easier. Then, you thought you could fire me." I bit my lip so hard it bled, but couldn’t restrain the scream. "DID YOU THINK I HAD NO FEELINGS?"
Mrs. Ray rasped something. I grabbed her shoulder and enjoyed the fear in her gaze. "DID YOU?"
She slumped to the floor, eyes closed. After a few minutes, I collected my coat and hat, and walked out. It was the only time I ever left without cleaning up.
I waited on a bench by the river for a while. It was chilly, but not overly so. I watched the geese at the shore until I heard the sirens, then I stood and let them come to me.