Dirty Parts (Revised)

(image courtesy Laura Smith)

Her father doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.  He’s more of a perma-press kind of guy with plastic in his collar and a sharp crease down his leg.  The palms of his hands are soft and smooth as the leather-covered steering wheel in his Cadillac.  When he drives his clients around to look at property, he steers with his left wrist propped on the wheel, right bicep stretched along the back of the seat toward his passenger.  He’ll do what it takes to seal the deal; he keeps a box of condoms in his glove compartment.  

He works long hours and often doesn’t get home until very late so when Ronnie isn’t scheduled for a shift at the diner, it’s the least she can do to clean the bathrooms or throw a couple loads in the wash.  

His house is a four-bedroom ranch like the other houses in the neighborhood.  When she’s washing the dishes, Ronnie keeps an eye on the street lined with spindly trees where people walk their dogs on leashes and cars roll by at no more than 15 miles per hour.  It’s a nice neighborhood, safe and clean, and taking out the garbage is the least she can do.  

Ronnie dries the glasses with a dishtowel and watches her hands deftly arrange them in the cupboard.  Some people claim to have healing hands, but Ronnie is proud of her cleaning hands: strong, plump fingers with trimmed nails and dimpled knuckles; hers are capable hands, hands that don’t tremble or hesitate.  At work, she has never broken a single dish or cup.  Her boss said she was the most sensible waitress he’d ever hired, the only one who ever wiped the greasy fingerprints off the napkin holders and pried the wads of gum from under the tables.  He said the others were good for nothing because they spent idle moments with their elbows propped up on the counter, combing their fingers through their waxy hairstyles, fiddling with cell phones, or pouting at their reflections in the backs of spoons.  Not like Ronnie who does it all and doesn’t even need a thank-you.

But today is her day off.  She moves to the laundry room to empty the dryer and hugs the hot fabric to her face; the fuzz on her cheeks tingles with static. Even fresh from the dryer, she can smell his mildly soapy scent clinging to his clothing—or perhaps his smell is indistinguishable from laundry detergent.  It’s not a childhood smell; her parents never even lived together.  Ronnie was fifteen and had only met her father a handful of times when her mother finally succumbed to the cancer.  So it was very nice of him to let her, a virtual stranger, come to live with him, and when they celebrated her 18th birthday last month, he had even given her a little golden key on a chain as a symbolic gesture.  Ronnie inhales deeply this newly familiar scent as she folds.  

Last night at dinnertime, the diner was packed when the two real estate agents came in, the ones with fluffy hair and suits with skirts who work for her father.  They had both slept with him at least once, or at least that’s the impression they gave Ronnie with their sensibly tailored words punctuated with their eyebrows, but they seemed nice enough.  Not like Sheila at the bank.  Every time Ronnie went in to make a deposit, Sheila would whine about how he hadn’t returned any of her phone calls and ask Ronnie for advice.  “What’s his favorite perfume?”  Sheila would sigh as she slowly, slowly counted Ronnie’s tips. “Something musky or floral, do you think?”  Ronnie would answer as best she could but she never delivered those notes sealed in deposit envelopes that Sheila would press into her hand.  “If you have to read it first, I understand,” Sheila would whisper. “Just skip the dirty parts.”

The real estate agents squeezed in at the counter, ordered the breaded combo appetizer platter and white wine spritzers, and talked loud enough for Ronnie to hear. 

“I saw them at The Oak House the other day,” one said.  “They’re doing some deal together so I went over to their table to introduce myself, because you know, I’m always expanding my network.”

The other leaned forward.  “And?”

“Well, all I can say is he caught a big fish this time.”

“Or she caught him, I heard.” The other smirked.  “I heard he dangled his worm and pulled out a barracuda.  Isn’t she from the city?”

“Yep.  And a realtor herself, so she doesn’t need his help. She’s looking at commercial stuff and he’s showing her his nicest listings downtown.  You know that swanky space on Main Street next to the Starbucks?  

“Nice. So he’s in bed with the competition?”

“I think he forgot to study the floor plan this time.  There’s no back door on this model and now he’s stuck.”

“That’s a first.”

“If he doesn’t take this seriously, he’s going to lose his business and then we’ll all be working for her.”  They both glanced at Ronnie to make sure she’d heard and when they went, they left her a nice tip.  

Ronnie carries the stack of clothes to his room. He’s out for his morning jog but she knocks softly before she enters anyway and pauses to let her eyes adjust to the curtained darkness. His room is surprisingly untidy:  the bed unmade, desk loaded with listing stacks of papers, various pieces of clothing on the floor wherever they landed.  The air is thick and musty.  When he entertains a client, he never brings her home.  

She puts his clean things into the drawers and picks the clothes off the floor.  When she first moved in, he would still bring his empty glass to the sink and wipe his soles on the mat when it was raining, but she was used to keeping house and tending her dying mother and was eager to make herself useful.  Although he never asked her to make a fuss, he didn’t tell her not to, either.  From his pants she extracts his wallet, keys, phone, and change and places them in the tray on top of the bureau.  She knows he always has a condom in the breast pocket of his suit. She knows he has too many credit cards and he keeps his porn under the bed.  She unfolds the receipts from his pocket and puts them in the top drawer of his desk.  

Her mom was only 18 when she was fooling around with Ronnie’s dad in their senior year of high school, 19 when Ronnie was born, 33 when they took her uterus and dead at 34. The last months were the worst, when she’d lie on the sofa in their tiny apartment with her head turned to the wall, getting thinner and grayer until she looked like an old sheet.  For days, the only thing that touched her lips was a cigarette and she’d let the ash fall where it would.  When Ronnie came home from school, her mother wouldn’t move. “You’re not going to be a dirty girl like me, are you, Veronica?” She’d ask the wall. “You’re not going to let any dirt get up inside you. You’re not going to bury yourself from the inside out like me, are you?”  

“No,” Ronnie would tell her. “No, mama.”

In the end, her father did what he could. He lives in a real house.  Usually when she hears him come in, Ronnie retreats to her room to give him plenty of space but this time, she meets him in the hall. His shirt has a perfect v neck of sweat.  When he’s wearing shorts and a t shirt it’s easy to see the cute boy he used to be, the one now disguised in the graying temples and heavier muscles of a handsome man. 

He’s startled to find Ronnie in the foyer. She says, “Just wanted to say hi and tell you I brought home some sandwiches from the diner. They’re in the fridge.”

“Oh—hey, thanks.”  She is halfway to her room when he adds, “Uh, would you like to join me for lunch?  I can tell you about the birds and the bees.”   This is his favorite joke:  “Ron,” he says, “let me tell you about the birds and the bees.” He puts a stern look on his face and takes a deep breath. “They make nests and honey!”  When he introduces her to people, he always says, “This is Veronica, who’s young enough to be my daughter,” and every time he opens the refrigerator, he picks up the salad dressing and says, in a high voice, “Close the door, I’m dressing!”  It cracks him up, every time.  

She puts the sandwiches on plates, pours two glasses of milk, and they sit down at the kitchen table. They rarely eat together and Ronnie can’t relax, hopping up for paper towels, fetching salt and pepper, filling the silence with chatter.  Finally she settles down and asks, “So, what’s new?  I haven’t seen you in awhile.”

“Oh, business is fine, fine.”  He smiles his reflexive smile.  “Couldn’t be better.  If I was any better, you’d have to call me a gangster.”

Ronnie takes a gulp of milk.  “I hear you have a big new client from the city.”

“Yep. Camilla Clark.”  He scowls.  “Why, who’s been talking?”

“Some of your agents were in last night.”

“Good to know how much they care.”  He sounds sarcastic but looks relieved.  

“Is that why you’ve been so busy? Is she hard to…” Ronnie takes a bite and chews. “Is she a picky client?  You don’t have to say, I know it’s none of my business.”

“She’s something else, that’s for sure.” He pushes his unfinished plate away.  “She is serious business.  In fact, she’s coming over here tonight to look around.”

“She’s coming here?  How come?”

He doesn’t look up from the table when he says, “She said she wants to see what I’ve done with the place.”  Ronnie turns to look at the room behind her, the faded linoleum, the dark, bulky cabinets. Fluorescent light from the bulb overhead pulls shadows around her father’s eyes and suddenly he looks old and tired. He tells the table, “For the first time in my life, I wish I didn’t have what it takes. I mean, to seal the deal, you know?  What a mess. No matter what, I’m screwed. 

“Oh, well,” he sighs, “she’ll be here at 7:00,” and goes to take a shower. 

After she’s trimmed the shrubs, weeded the bed of marigolds, hosed the cobwebs off the eaves, wiped down the baseboards and light switches and the shelves inside the refrigerator, Ronnie takes a quick shower and searches for just the right thing to wear, finally settles on the fanciest things she owns, the black blazer and skirt she wore to the funeral.  She applies mascara, blow-dries her hair, and puts on her only piece of real jewelry, the chain with the little golden key.  

When the high heels ring on the bricks outside, Ronnie is there to open the door. Camilla Clark pauses on the threshold with a stiff smile.

“Welcome,” Ronnie chirps in her best hostess voice.  “Please come in.  Can I get you something to drink? Milk? Orange juice? Water?”

“No, thank you.”  She extends one sparkling hand towards Ronnie. “I’m Camilla Clark, of Camilla Clark Realty.”  

“Of course. Hello. We’ve been expecting you.”

Ronnie tries to match Camilla’s grip, which is firm and succinct. “I didn’t realize he’d have one of his agents here tonight.”

“Oh, no, I live here.”  Ronnie laughs.“This house isn’t for sale.  I thought that might be what you came for.”

Just then, her father emerges from his room. “Here you are!  I didn’t hear you come in.”  He kisses the cheek she offers him.  “So you’ve already met Veronica.  As you can see, she’s old enough to be my daughter.”  That’s when he turns around notices what Ronnie is wearing.  “Wow. You look great, kiddo.”  He turns back to Camilla.  “Can I get you a drink? A screwdriver, maybe?”

Camilla stands with her head cocked to one side, working her tongue into her cheek.  “You know, I’ve just realized that I have an important phone call to make. I think it’s going to take awhile.”  She looks simultaneously annoyed and amused, like a woman who has just found a bit of confetti in her mouth.  “Perhaps we should reschedule?”

“I’ll call you tomorrow. First thing.”  He closes the door softly behind her and collapses against the frame.  “What just happened?”

Ronnie whispers, “Did I do something wrong?” 

“I don’t know.”  He has his head in his hands.  “But what can you do now?”

Fear washes over her and pools at her feet like a stain on the carpet.  She pushes him aside, flings the door open, sprints across the grass, and manages to grab the car door handle before Camilla’s car pulls away.  

The window rolls down.  “What do you want?”

“I don’t want to mess everything up,” Ronnie gasps.  “What can I do to fix this?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, honey.”  But something on Ronnie’s face makes her add, “Look, I don’t really want to know what’s happening here, but you can have him all to yourself.”  

“Oh.” Ronnie’s face burns with shame. “Oh, no. It’s not what you think.” Suddenly Ronnie understands how she must look.  If anyone were to peek out of their window now, how professional she must look standing there in her smart black suit.  When Camilla smirks and waves a hand to dismiss the whole scene, moving her foot toward the gas pedal, Ronnie’s hands do what they do best; she sticks her strong, capable palm through the window, grabs Camilla’s and says, “It has been a real pleasure. We want you to know how grateful we are for all your hard work!”

And when those tail lights disappear around the corner, she turns to look at the sparkling house all lit up against the night.  It definitely has curb appeal, she thinks and she strolls, low heels giving her hips a little swing, along her neat brick walk lined with marigolds and through her front door.  She throws the door open and tells him that, thanks to her, everything is going to be okay.

*

This is a revised version of a story I shared here several months ago.  Thanks to people who helped me see what the hell I was doing wrong and offered gentle, incisive suggestions (both blogging readers and my new writing group), I think this version comes off a bit better.  

What should I do with it now?  

A. Edit some more, the child is still not quite right in the head. (If A, then how?!)

B. Submit the fucker, it’s good to go.  (If B, then where?)  

or  C.  Wad it up and feed it to the crows.  

All feedback greedily gulped;  I will gladly pay you Tuesday.  

As a musical accompaniment, try Dépêche Mode: never let me down. Click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snILjFUkk_A

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

23 comments

  1. i figured out what’s bothering me, you have to go on. so then what ?

  2. oh oh I’ve read it three times and I still don’t get it :(
    maybe I should go back and read the original one – trouble is I’m spending much too much time on this computer figuring out how to blog, answer people look at interesting stuff on other websites…… but I’m still here

  3. Okay, a couple of things. I think you need to give the father a name and orient us from the beginning. I didn’t realize who he was, he was just ‘he’, and I thought at first that Ronnie was his wife or girlfriend. Then I thought the ‘he’ was her boss, because he’s the first man you mention. Also, I’d love to hear more about Ronnie’s take on the situation; she seems a bit passive to me.

    I think I understand what you’re trying to do here. You want to blur the lines about what her role is with her father, what they are to each other. But that’s tricky (and hell, I should know because I’m knee-deep in a novel with the same problem and it’s a fucking nightmare) because you risk losing the reader before you’ve set your hook. I think you need to open it up, give the story more time to develop. There are quite a few characters in a small space, so to me it feels a bit crowded. Letting the story unfold more generously would help.

    I really, REALLY love the idea. All his womanizing, his daughter is one of the women in a way, the little wife/daughter/housekeeper. Your language is beautiful (as always). Don’t give up on it, there’s something good here that only needs a bit more digging to uncover.

  4. I definitely agree with Averil about your use of language (that always draws me into your work.)

    One specific thing is bothering me though. I don’t have enough clues as to what’s going on emotionally with Ronnie. I don’t mind working for it, but I feel like I am, and I still don’t get what Ronnie could be thinking at the end, unless she’s “not quite right in the head.” If she is, I need another clue.

    I also can’t follow the conversation about Camilla the two women in the restaurant are having. It sounds like they’re saying Camilla and her father are sleeping together, then it sounds like business, and I’m so confused. Wouldn’t they be making it simpler if they wanted a young girl to understand and have a reaction?

    Although Ronnie’s mother has to have done her daughter emotional harm with her weird directive and the coldness of her depression, and her dad doesn’t have the first clue how to be one, I only see Ronnie’s response as trying too hard to please instead of finding a life for herself. The thing that suggests to me that something is very wrong with her is her inability to say the words, “He’s my father.” I need to understand why she would run out to the car “to make it better” and not say those words when faced with the reason Camilla left. As a fucked up people-pleaser myself (for some of the same sorts of reasons as Ronnie) that’s the first thing I would have said, even if I did want my father all to myself. And what could she mean by, “This house isn’t for sale. I thought that might be what you came for” or, “Thank you for all your hard work!” after everything she’s heard about this woman?

    She does think of it as her house at the end instead of his house as she did at the beginning, but how did that comfort come so quickly? And what’s her father doing as she’s running out to Camilla’s car?

    I need to know more about Ronnie’s inner life. Since the answers don’t seem to me like they’re clearly in her actions, I think hearing how she emotionally negotiates her way through her days would help me out. I’d love to hear this story told specifically from her point of view, in her voice. I care because her actions interest me. If they’re about conscious sabotage, I don’t think it hurts the story to let us know in some way, whether it’s from her own voice or not.

    Despite how this may have sounded, I really do like this story. I find myself wanting to reach into it and tell this girl how lucky she is to have such a hard working spirit and that she should use it for herself and run.

    • Thank you, dear Re, for all of this. As usual, you made me see it all differently. Some stories flow like water from a fountain and some feel more like stomach flu. This one is the latter, so I greatly appreciate your lovely bedside manner. ;)

      • I’m not sure what you changed or added (or if it’s just me) but I didn’t get the same feeling at the end of the story this time. Now I see her as having collectively taken what information she has about the situation with Camille and her father’s business, mixed it with what she sees as her father’s weaknesses, and decided for herself what it is he needs. Now it feels to me like she thinks she knows what’s best for him in this situation and that’s what she did. And she’s proud of it.

        Somehow now I see him as openly weaker with Ronnie as if he’s giving over some control in this to her, as he has with the household duties and the way he lets her take care of him and the house. Bookended with her relationship with her mother and all that hustle she has in her work life, I see an even richer picture now. Not all tied up in a bow or anything, but it’s still with me and has me thinking. I like that. Yay you! (Unless it’s just me and I was being thick
        before. Please don’t hesitate to kick me if that’s so.)

  5. I see what the other commenters are saying, Anna, but, you know better than I do, that the few stories of yours I’ve ever read are not exactly “tied up with a bow.” Your characters are richly drawn, but enigmatic, and that’s fine with me. It was obvious to me, I guess, that the only guy in the story is Ronny’s father, though of course less obvious how much she wants him to be to her. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving us guessing as to what the terms of the (failed?) (on hold?) deal with the powerful lady realtor are. If I were to bet, I’d say that he needed an influx of cash and connections, which she could provide, and she needed an influx of love, which he could provide, and the 2 realtors were going to combine businesses, and combine spit, but then he didn’t have enough sense to mention the existence of his daughter, so the lady thought he had some young tramp girlfriend, or the lady knew about the daughter but immediately sensed that the daughter was off somehow. I believe it’s a finished product, in the style of a story with an enigmatic ending, and doesn’t really need anything. I read a lot of stories in anthologies which have as much mystery at the end as they do at the beginning, so I’d say let that part of it be.

    Ummm, I like when women swear, but I hope whatever is pissing you off has a good resolution.

    • Thank you for noticing and appreciating my enigmatic tendencies, Kevin. To be fair, each of the previous comments here has inspired me to change the story a bit, so perhaps you’re reading the most recent edit. There is a fine line between enigmatic and laziness (and enigma and nonsense) and I’m trying to stand right on the edge. Gratitude to all who bear with me!!! (As soon as I finally finish this fucker, I’ll try clean up my mouth, but until then, I can’t mutherfucking help it! *ahem*)

  6. First, LOVED the line about confetti. So delightful and true.

    I see that the initial paragraphs provide the apologia, the hook. It’s here where there should be some tightening up, some editing. Maybe drop a phrase or two, ‘made for flipping papers’ for instance. Possibly drop the second paragraph. It will bring more focus on the truly lovely descriptions the reader will then discover with more ease.

  7. Todd

    I like the way you write Anna.

    these especially:
    sensibly tailored words punctuated with their eyebrows
    bury yourself from the inside out
    simultaneously annoyed and amused, like a woman who has just found a bit of confetti in her mouth

  8. These are my favorite kind of stories. Where the words are vivid enough to describe what the protagonist is sensing and feeling.
    Awesome awesome awesome.

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