Cleaning Up

By Amy L. Bethke

I cleaned houses that year, trying to decide if I was going to nursing school. Trying to decide if I was depressed, if I should leave Mick or if our problems were really just my problems. My friend Bonnie said leave him. She said he’s not going to change, he’s not going to start talking and holding hands. She said I deserved better.

Every Tuesday at eleven, I cleaned for Yvette and Ollie, dusting around them while they sat in their chairs in the front room with the television blaring. Yvette yelled over the volume to Ollie, as if he was in another house across the street and not five feet from her in his orange velvet chair.

“You don’t want to watch this,” she’d scream over the sound of The Price is Right contestants hollering and clapping. “But it’s a good program!”

I scrubbed their tub and mopped the worn, yellow linoleum in the kitchen, trying to see a happy future with Mick and me together. No matter how many times Bonnie said I should leave, I kept convincing myself to stay, coming up with reasons it might work. If I could just get him to talk more, if we spent more time together. Less booze, more money. We were young.

“That’s way too much!” Yvette screamed. “Five dollars for a can of soup? Does she ever shop for groceries?” Ollie stayed silent.

It was Mick’s apartment we lived in, and he had the car. I knew these weren’t reasons to stay. The sex was good, but we drank too much, woke often with headaches. He worked, but never had money. I craved something unnamable.

“Okay if I vacuum in here?” I asked over the television. “I’ll be fast.”

Yvette uncrossed her legs and swept her arm out toward the room as if it was for sale.  “Yes, honey.  You go ahead and vacuum.”

IMG_0220Ollie looked at the television. He was handsome, despite the crazy wisps of white hair on his head and the knobby nose. I wanted to hear his voice, had not heard him speak in all the months I’d been coming here. I looked at him, caught his eye. He looked embarrassed.

“How are you today?” I asked in an offhand way, not looking directly at him, keeping busy with the vacuum cord, as if he were an animal I was trying not to frighten.

He looked at me again with his watery eyes and nodded. “Doing just fine,” he said.

His voice was lumpy and wet, a collection of rocks spinning in a puddle. I felt I’d opened a drawer full of private things. I turned on their ancient vacuum cleaner and drew crumbs and loose threads and dust into the canister, thinking of Mick while I worked, thinking that Bonnie was probably right.

Amy L. Bethke’s writing has appeared in Literary Mama, MnLIT, Murphy Square, 100 Word Story and Anti-Heroin Chic. She lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota with her husband, children and a crazy dog named Cooper.

Art by Lesley C. Weston (Alcohol Ink)

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