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Friday, February 11, 2011

Care All Day

Care All Day
I woke up to the ringing of my alarm clock and the quiet breaths of Alexa. I looked at the time. 5:45. What the hell? The clock must have malfunctioned, no one in the house got up that early. Then I remembered yesterday, when I talked to Jacob about my next job.
"She wants us there at 7:00? I'm not doing it."
"The lady has a strict schedule. Bingo at eight or some crap like that. And yes, you are doing it," Jacob replied, giving me a dirty look.
"She sounds like she should be going to crazy house, not bingo. She does realize we're cleaning up the remains of her husband, not pruning her tulips or some shit," I countered.
“Yes, she knows. Just get in and get out. It's not our business to know if her brain is functioning or not."
And here I was, 5:45, off to the job. By the time I had pieced everything together, Alexa was awake. "You better get going if you're going to be there on time." She slurred, still half-asleep.
"Yeah, yeah." I answered, kissing her on the forehead. She smiled before rolling over. I got up and went to the bathroom to shower, shave, brush my teeth.

As I finished up, Alexa was in the kitchen, brewing coffee and putting dishes away, while trying to correct some of her student’s English papers..I grabbed my Wheaties and milk before sitting down at the counter. I opened my mouth to tell her to go back to sleep but she put a finger to her lips while whispering, "Don't wake up the kids." I nodded.
“What are the papers on?” I inquired.
“They just finished The Bell Jar. It’s a response to the themes.”
I had never read the book, but I nodded. I tried to be interested in her job for Alexa’s sake, but literature was beyond me.
When I was done, I grabbed the keys to our ancient Toyota Corolla, then came over and linked my arms around Alexa. "See you later. Tell Billy and Sarah I love them, and to have a good day at school." She nodded, and I kissed her goodbye. She grabbed my hand as I unwrapped myself from her.
“Hun, I have to go to work.” I said, joking as I tried to pull away. She didn’t look me in the eye, and I became suspicious.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
No answer, she just played with the fraying end of her sweater.
“Look, I know this sounds weird. But with your job, are you ever worried…worried that you won’t care if someone you knew died? Like…me?” She asked, still avoiding eye contact.
I chuckled. “Babe, I would be devastated if I lost you. Just because I clean up a random guy’s bodily fluids doesn’t mean I would be all right if I lost you.”
She forced a smile, but didn’t look convinced.
“Don’t worry.”
“All right, I won’t. I believe you,” she said, finally looking up. I saw a faint trace of sadness, but I could also see the trust she had in me.
"Just don’t turn into a grumpy old man.” She murmured.
"I’ll wait until it’s time to do that.” I answered and laughed. Then I squeezed her hand, and left.
By the time I arrived at the house of the woman, the cleaning van was already there. My partner, Dan, was sitting in the open trunk, amongst all the cleaning solutions and scrubs and anything else someone might find in a human clean up car. However, these things didn’t catch my eye. Instead my eyes were drawn straight to the two cups of iced coffee Dan was holding.
"You are my savior. Two creams, one sugar?" I asked as I took the coffee.
"You betcha." Dan replied with a grin. He was a bit of a cornball/grown-up nerd, but he
had been my partner for the past year. If putting up with him meant free iced coffee I would deal with with his cheesy conversation.
"Ready, buddy?" He continued, and I nodded. We both grabbed various supplies from the van before heading to the front door. Dan knocked, and while we waited to be let in, Dan briefed me on the job.
 “Old woman, Marjorie la Cleur. 78. Husband, George le Cleur. Was eighty when he decided to hurry up passing onto heaven. In the study, with a pistol." I knew Dan was trying to make a joke out of it for me, to make everything seem a little less real. But he was terrible at it, and his explanation just made him sound like an asshole. But as the door opened, I could see a tear in the corner of his eye. He'd been doing this for 11 years, and each story got a little bit into his heart.
A petite woman stood before us. I’m not very good with age, but the deep wrinkles made her face look like the dark side of the moon, and much older than seventy eight. "Ms. le Cleur?" Dan said gently.
She nodded.
"I'm Dan Smithers. This is my partner Cody Summers. May we come in?" He continued. She nodded again, and let us inside. She said nothing as we walked down a hallway to what I assumed to be the study.
There was an old mahogany desk and matching chair, three sets of  bookcases, countless papers, and an immense bloodstain covering the wall across from the sole window. I immediately thought to myself what a way to go. Staring outside at the world beyond your walls.
By the time I had absorbed all this, the woman had left. I gave a look to Dan and he nodded. He then also exited. In our duo, Dan was the better talker. He would console the client somehow, while I did the dirty stuff. It wasn't how all pairs worked, but it was how we utilized our strengths. I didn't want to see raw human reaction to death. Dan didn't want to see blood and guts. In my opinion, Dan made awkward situations even more uncomfortable. But to other people, he seemed to get rid of tension. Maybe it was his comedy; but either way I let him work his magic.
I started in on the wall. George had done the deed while standing up, so the job was relatively easy. No stained furniture, no suicide note. He had just wanted to be gone quietly, not leave any trouble behind. Perhaps he didn't understand a marriage consisted of pact between two people. I thought of my own wife. Did the couple know it would end this way? Of course not. No one could ever know.
I kicked myself out of this thought trail, as I became too close to connecting my own life with this death. But just at that moment, Dan came back into the room. "What happened?" I inquired.
"I don't know, pal. I can't get through to her. Maybe you should take a shot at it. It could be your breakthrough job." He replied. I was surprised. He must really be stumped with this one. He didn't sound corny enough for us to be comfortable. However, I hesitated to help him out. I was already too connected to this one.
"Maybe we should just both clean up. We'll be done faster, and she probably doesn't want any consoling." I said.
"C'mon, partner. Just give it a go." Dan pleaded and I relented. What was there to lose, really? And in the back of my mind Alexa whispered again. Don't lose your ability to grieve. Maybe this was a breakthrough. Maybe I was strong enough to connect but not bond. Hell, a step in the right direction at least.
"Okay. I'll give it five minutes. But if I feel uncomfortable I want to go back to scrubbing." I answered.

"Of course, buddy. Go get her!" Dan looked relieved, and his cheesiness returned. I left him to the cleaning and made my way down the hall. I found the woman sitting in a chair in the living room, looking out a window.
I remained silent for a while. Then, without thinking, I said, "Ever think about what he thought was so terrible out there?" I motioned at the window. She looked shocked for a moment, then grief returned to her features.
"All the time." She whispered.
Silence descended again. But to my surprise, she continued the conversation.
"He was such a quiet man. I always thought he opened up to me. Now I suppose one could argue otherwise." She continued.
"Ma'am, I don’t know anything about your life or your relationship with your husband. But sometimes life can appear to be one unnecessary burden after another." It was an attempt to justify him, but she saw right through it.
"Son, you're right. You don't know anything about us. My husband, may he rest in peace, was a brave man. A god fearing man. He fought in the war and went to church every Sunday. Now can you tell me why a man like that would be so cowardly as to commit such an unpardonable sin." She asked accusingly.
"Maybe he thought, because of the combination of his bravery and fear, that God would understand."
That's when she broke down. I was trapped. I had never seen an old woman cry, not even when my own grandmother had lost my grandfather. I searched for words of consolation, but she beat me to it.
"Understand what? That a perfectly amiable life was still too hard. And if he got to understand, and God got to understand, what about me? There is nothing to understand."
"I don't mean to question your knowledge of your husband. But life is full of mysteries. I hope you wouldn't give up faith just because of this." I didn't know where this was coming from. I had never spoken so eloquently in my life.
"It's hard not to." She replied.
"Well, ma'am, it's hard not to when one has my job."
This stopped her tears. "I can't imagine." She said.
"I just tell myself death is a natural process."
She began to weep again. "Sometimes it isn't. And the worst part is... he didn't even leave a note. Didn't even say goodbye. I'll never forgive him for that."
Just then Dan came into the room. "All set partner. Have a good day, miss." He said, tipping an imaginary hat. I cringed at his lack of timing. She just nodded.
Dan left quickly, but I hesitated. "Just try to forgive him." I finally said. I left before she could say anything else.
The sunshine felt uncomfortable on my skin after being in the musty house. "See you tomorrow, partner?" Dan said, but his voice was distorted to me.
"Yep." Was all I answered with. He paused, but then got into the van while I got into my car. Without thinking I took my phone out and dialed a number.
"Hello?" A voice answered.
"Hey, Jacob." I replied.
"Hey, Cody. Is something wrong?"
"No. I was just calling to let you know today is my last day. Thanks for the opportunity." I hung up before he could convince me otherwise. I ignored his following incoming call.
I drove home in a trance. As soon as I came into the house, Alexa spotted something was wrong.
"What happened?" She inquired.
"I quit."
"What?" She exclaimed.
"You're right. I can't lose my ability to grieve. I may need it when I'm 78 years old."
"I won't ask." She said, but I could see her suppressing a smile.
Later that night, as we were getting undressed for bed, Alexa touched my arm gently. I looked at her, and for a moment was absorbed in the fine contours of her face; so opposite from the old woman from earlier.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart:  I am, I am, I am,” Alexa said, still staring into my face. “It’s a quote from the The Bell Jar. The one my kids read. It’s about suicide.”
            I nodded, still not understanding the significance. She just smiled and crawled into bed. Then in the silence I heard her whisper again, “You are, you are, you are.”
And I was.