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