I sat on the second-hand desk, swinging my twenty-five-year-old Birkenstocked feet over the bare floorboards of my apartment. Then the phone rang.
“Is this PG&E?”
Her elderly voice sounded more curious than confused.
“No, I’m just a regular person. Were you trying to reach the gas company?”
“Yes, honey. Could you look up the number? I can’t quite read it.”
“Sure!” I leafed through the 1985 Oakland/Alameda phone book and read the number aloud.
“Oh – I can’t find a pen. Do you think you could call them for me?”
And so began my relationship with eighty-three-year-old Juanita. Within twenty minutes, she’d extracted from me both a promise to call PG&E, and a commitment to be her new housekeeper. I hadn’t even been looking for another job. Juanita was good.
On Tuesday morning, I wheeled up to Juanita’s house and locked my bike. When I knocked on her door, a torrent of barking was unleashed from inside. The door opened slowly, and as I peered into the dim cavern within, my nose was assaulted by a horrifying stench rolling through the metal security door.
“Juanita? Did you remember that I was coming?” I suddenly hoped she’d forgotten, so I could pedal away, gulping deep breaths of fresh air.
“Oh, yes! Come in! Henry will stop barking once you’re inside. Henry!” She scolded the dog somewhere behind her. I couldn’t see Henry through the metal mesh, but he sure sounded mad. I’d be mad, too, if I were trapped inside with that smell.
With the door closed behind me, I began to identify the components of the odor that now enveloped me. There was ancient cigarette smoke, which had permeated the upholstery and carpet. There was scorched food, and a musty staleness that hung heavy in the air, the smell of a house whose doors and windows were rarely opened. But the worst was the dog poop. It was airborne, not localized to a region or room, and it was shocking, pervasive, overwhelming. I began taking little puffs of breath through my mouth, trying not to think about what particles might be penetrating my lungs.
Henry’s rage now silenced, he emerged from the shadows with a valiant wag of his stubby tail. I felt sympathy for this poodle mix, even though he was the obvious producer of all the excrement. Poor little guy, it wasn’t his fault no one cleaned up his messes. Sensing in him an ally, I waggled my fingers instead of petting his dull beige curls. Touching him might attach the smell to me.
Then I took a look at my boss. Juanita was barely five feet tall, with unevenly-applied lipstick and a flattened helmet of hair, dyed reddish-brown. Over her stretchy polyester pants she wore a bulky floral sweater, surprising given the heat of the summer morning. Plastic-soled slippers were on her shuffling feet.
“You only need to vacuum, and clean the bathroom and kitchen,” she said, as I remained frozen on the living room carpet. The metal blinds were closed, and none of the lamps were on. The only relief from the dark hole of the living room was the brightness splashing in from the kitchen. Through the doorway, I spied windows. I followed the light.
But the kitchen sunshine merely illuminated what had remained hidden in the dark. Golden-brown disks from Henry were flattened into the grimy linoleum that, in its infancy, had likely been orange. Blackened pots lay on the stovetop, and half-eaten pieces of toast lay in the sink alongside piles of crusty dishes. Brushing my fingers against the refrigerator door, I felt ridges of dried sauce.
Suddenly there were keys jingling, and the front door creaked open.
“Juanita, I’ve got your groceries!”
The silhouette in the doorway called out to me. “I’m Olive! I live across the street.”
She entered the kitchen, pulling cans and boxes out of brown bags and stuffing them into cupboards. Olive was sixtyish and all roundness, with her hair-sprayed bouffant, the circular lenses of her glasses, and a fleshy build that poofed out at the waist. As Olive clapped cabinets shut and snapped paper bags into folded rectangles, I saw her beckon to me. I padded after her into the living room, cringing, now knowing what lay under my shoes.
“Did you know Juanita’s blind?” she whispered.
The thought had never occurred to me.
“Are you sure? When she called, she’d been looking up PG&E in the phone book.”
“Juanita can’t see a damned thing anymore. Look at this place!” My eyes took another lap around the living room, ending at Olive’s raised eyebrows. I nodded reluctant agreement.
“How long has it been like…this? Doesn’t she ever let the dog outside?”
Olive sighed. “There’s no reasoning with her. She won’t admit that she’s blind, and I pretend I don’t know. I’ve been hounding her to get someone to help. No way would I touch this place. Getting her groceries is all I can tolerate.”
As a new wave of the nauseating stench reached me, I realized I was forgetting to mouth-breathe.
Olive called into the kitchen. “Juanita, I’m taking off! Be nice to her!”
The door closed, leaving me in pungent darkness. I returned to the kitchen, my shoes sticking to the linoleum. As I pulled open the cupboard under the sink, I swiveled my body sideways in case a rat inside was ready to launch. Then I grabbed a dingy rag, squirted out some dish soap, and got to work.
Cleaning houses had been my job all through college. I liked it because it was mindless, but mostly because it was satisfying. A home would be in dusty disarray when I entered, and, four hours later, all would be organized, fragrant, and sparkling. The fruits of my labor were met with delight, and I never had to witness the cleanliness turning back into chaos. Like Superman, all I did was work my magic and disappear.
But being Juanita’s bi-weekly house-cleaner had none of the satisfaction I enjoyed, because the place was still disgusting when I was done. I’d wipe rags over end tables, but they never gleamed like they did in the Pledge furniture-polish commercials. Even after dusting, wood surfaces still felt like sandpaper, the wood and the dust particles having been permanently cemented together by decades of cigarette smoke. Mirrors, picture frames, windows, and walls – everything was coated with a nicotine film of yellow-brown.
The floor was the worst. On the kitchen and bathroom linoleum, my tennis shoes sounded as if they had packing tape on the bottoms. No matter how clean the steaming-hot bucket of water was when I started mopping, it was a scummy brown when I was done. And then there was the carpet. Normally, a vacuum cleaner on a low-pile rug yields a pleasing back-and-forth pattern in its wake. But Henry’s business had been trod upon by blind Juanita for too long; those stiff brown fibers had no spring left in them. It was gross to run a vacuum over encrusted carpeting, but it seemed less awful than not vacuuming. So I’d save that task for last, and would throw the bag away on my way out. The first thing I’d do after getting home was to scrub my shoes.
Every other week, I returned to Juanita’s to scour, wipe, and mop. And I followed Olive’s lead in the gentle charade, never acknowledging Juanita’s blindness aloud. But as I vacuumed and tidied, I argued with her in my head, criticizing Juanita’s stubborn refusal to come clean about her blindness.
Why won’t she just admit the truth? I wondered. This place is horrible! She wouldn’t live like this if she was up front about being blind. She’d have help.
Usually, Juanita would sit on a dining room chair in the doorway between the dark living room and the bright kitchen, chatting with me as I mopped the floor and washed the dishes. With Henry on her lap and her arthritic fingers ruffling his tired curls, she told me stories of her late husband, her childhood, and her years working as a secretary. I learned that her parents had come from Puerto Rico, and that her outspokenness had alienated some neighbors. Juanita was talkative, funny, spirited, and tough, and I really liked her. But as my fondness for her grew, the reality of how she lived bothered me more and more. She should have someone in here every day! Why does she deny what’s so obvious? It’s crazy! But it wasn’t my place to tell her how to live. I just kept breathing through my mouth, and keeping my judgments to myself.
Being in her home made me think about my own grandmother, who was the same age as Juanita and lived nearby. I had dinner with Grandma once a week. My grandmother had the same patterned carpet, hers a wavy aqua-blue. It usually had vacuum tracks on it, and when I visited, I sat on its cushiony softness, stroking Grandma’s arm when she sat next to me in her recliner. Juanita had never had children. I wondered: if she had, would she still be living alone in the dark, treading on dog shit, with that smell swirling around her, the film of cigarette smoke on everything she touched?
One Tuesday, I began in the kitchen, where brightness gave the illusion of hope. As I filled the plastic bucket with hot water, Juanita piped up from her chair in the doorway.
“Could you mop under the refrigerator today? I haven’t done that in a while.”
I doubted that it had been touched in twenty years, but all I said was, “Sure.” Setting down the bucket, I leaned against the fridge and gave a mighty shove. Henry trotted over and began sniffing a dark object that now lay exposed.
“Stop it, Henry!” I nudged him with my shoe, and bent to inspect the blob.
Then I screamed.
“What’s the matter?” Juanita gasped.
“It’s a dead mouse!” My stomach lurched, and my shoulders hunched up around my ears.
“Is that all?” Juanita laughed. “Just sweep it up!”
My hands trembled as they edged the broom closer to the critter frozen in death. Henry threw his front paws down flat, thrusting his bottom skyward in play. I scraped a few bristles against my target, and screamed again.
“Oh, God! It’s stuck!”
Juanita’s laugh rang out at this, the most excitement we’d had in our months together.
I squared my shoulders, held my breath, and gave a full-on poke at the shriveled corpse. Even in death, it held its ground.
“I can’t do it, Juanita! It’s too much!” My voice was now a wail as I shuddered in horror. “I can’t do mice!”
Juanita pushed herself up from the padded chair, and shuffled over towards me, arms outstretched.
“Okay. Give me the broom.” Her arms waved in front of her. I pressed the broomstick into her open hands, and she shoved the bristles against the linoleum. Henry panted excitedly at her feet, wagging his stumpy tail.
She jabbed the broom down repeatedly, as if plunging a toilet.
“No, move to the right! A few more inches! Ew!”
Chin set, Juanita swiped at the floor in broad sweeping motions, now a swordsman locked in duel.
“You hit it! Do that again!”
She pushed and swept, pushed and swept, and finally dislodged the persistent creature.
“Ew! It’s loose now, but I don’t want to sweep it up! Let me get the dustpan.”
I scurried to the counter and back.
“Okay, push it gently so it doesn’t touch me, and I’ll try to scoop it.”
“Where is it now?” Juanita, still wielding her broom, had her eyes aimed at the ceiling.
“A little to the left. Go slow – don’t smack it!” Cringing, I made little whimpering noises.
“Am I getting it?”
Together with Henry, the two of us huddled over the crustified mouse, its paws forever curled in mid-sprint, frozen, like a miniature victim of Pompeii. Juanita eased it onto the dustpan. With my hand extended far in front of me, I crept to the garbage bag. As the rodent dropped in with a tiny thunk, I felt my toes clenching.
“Oh, my God! We did it!” I heaved a shuddering sigh.
Juanita laughed again, and I steered her back toward her chair, neither of us acknowledging that her cover had been blown. But she was as happy and animated as I’d ever seen her.
I mopped the floor, scrubbed the bathroom, and vacuumed the filthy rug. Then I ran a rag over frames of pictures that Juanita could no longer see, and I left.
All those years ago, I admired Juanita’s feisty spirit, but it drove me crazy that she pretended she could see. There was something wrong with her, I felt, something that could never be wrong with me. I wouldn’t hide from indisputable truth, from the natural effects of aging. I’d never live how she lived, I told myself.
And then thirty years passed.
The first time I saw a wrinkle on my face, that crease that runs diagonally from my lower lip to my chin, it was such a distinct line that I thought I must have accidentally marked myself with a Sharpie. When I realized what the line was, I couldn’t turn away from the mirror. I stared, both fascinated and horrified. That person was me, but also someone foreign to me. Over the last couple of years, more lines and wobbles have appeared, and other failures that I don’t want to admit even to myself.
And I remember Juanita.
Then I remember my parents in their eighties, and how I started to notice dried-up spills in their bathroom sink, and stained towels that needed to be tossed. I remember my confusion at seeing piles of mail scattered across their kitchen table, despite the many filing trays I bought them from Office Depot. Mom had always kept a tidy house, and Dad used to rip the mail open before he even made it inside from the mailbox.
And I remember Juanita.
Now I realize that Juanita probably never crossed a line and made a decision to hide from the truth. It would have happened bit by bit. Just as my drooping skin has sketched lines on my face, maybe the scaffolding of her life slowly weakened and collapsed, until finally she couldn’t recognize herself, a woman who’d gone from being a full-time secretary to being blind, living in filth, sweeping up rigor mortis mice that she couldn’t see.
Sometimes I touch two fingers to my cheek, pressing and pulling the skin upward. Like magic, that line on my chin disappears and I see my younger self in the mirror, the person I recognize, the person I still want to be. When I release that pinch of skin, I watch it loosen and drop. Then when it gets too uncomfortable to look, I turn away.
And sometimes I breathe an apology to Juanita.
Sue Granzella fell in love with writing at age six, but until a few years ago, she wrote only fiery union emails and speeches to her school board. She started taking writing classes after meeting an artist in Massachusetts who inspired her to give in to her passion.Sue teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning work appears in Citron Review, Hippocampus, Write Place at the Write Time, Lowestoft Chronicle, Prick of the Spindle, and Rusty Nail, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of 8- and 9-year-olds.