Her father doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. He’s a perma-press kind of guy with plastic in his collar and a sharp crease down each leg. The palms of his hands are as soft as the leather-covered steering wheel in his Cadillac and when he drives his clients around to look at property, he steers with his left wrist propped on the wheel and his right bicep stretched along the back of the seat toward his passenger. He’ll do whatever it takes to seal the deal. He keeps a pen in his breast pocket and box of condoms in his glove compartment.
He 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, throw a couple loads in the wash, and water the plants.
His house is a four-bedroom ranch like all the other houses in the neighborhood. In front, two rectangles of grass are bisected by a walkway dotted with evergreen shrubs. 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 best 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 long 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 since her parents never even lived together, but it’s comforting just the same. Ronnie had only met her father a handful of times when her mother disappeared three years ago, so it was very nice of him to let her, a virtual stranger, come live with him. When they celebrated her 18th birthday last month he’d given her a little golden key on a chain. Ronnie inhales deeply as she folds his pants just how he likes them, along the crease, and hangs them on a hangar.
Last night at dinnertime the diner was packed when two real estate agents came in, the older ones with fluffy hair and suits with skirts who work for her father. They seemed nice enough. Not like Sheila at the bank. Every time Ronnie went in to make a deposit, Sheila would grab her hand and whine about how he hadn’t returned any of her phone calls.
“What’s his favorite perfume?” Sheila wanted to know as she licked her finger and slowly, slowly counted Ronnie’s tips. “Something musky or floral, do you think?” Ronnie answered as best she could but she never delivered those notes sealed in deposit envelopes Sheila pressed 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 their usual breaded combo appetizer platters 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 he dangled his worm and pulled out a barracuda. Isn’t she from the city?”
“Yep. And a realtor herself, so she doesn’t really need him at all. She’s looking at commercial stuff and he’s showing her the 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, 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 folded clothing to his room. He’s out for his morning jog but she knocks softly before she enters and pauses to let her eyes adjust to the curtained darkness. His room is untidy: the bed unmade, desk loaded with listing stacks of papers, various pieces of clothing crumpled on the floor. The air is thick and close. 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’d been 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 keeps 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 in her senior year of high school when she slept with Ronnie’s father, who was only a freshman. Her mother always said it had been a mistake because she thought he was much older. At 19 when Ronnie was born, her mother was working sixty hours a week as a housecleaner. In middle school, her mother began working odd hours sleeping all day and sometimes Ronnie would come home to find her mother lying on the sofa with her face turned to the wall. “You’re not going to make a mess of things like I did, are you?” She’d ask the wall.“You’ll find an older man, one who’ll take care of you. You’re not going to get yourself dirty like me, are you?”
“No,” Ronnie would tell her. “No, mama.”
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 t shirt has a perfect v neck of sweat. It’s easy to see the boy he used to be, the boy now sporting the gray temples and heavier muscles of a handsome man.
When he finds Ronnie in the foyer he jumps a little, surprised to find someone there. “Just wanted to say hi and tell you I brought home some sandwiches from the diner. They’re in the fridge,” she says.
“Oh—hey, thanks.” He smiles with all his teeth. She’s halfway to her room when he adds, “Hey, would you like to join me for lunch? I’ll tell you about the birds and the bees.”
This is his favorite joke: “Ron,” he says to her, “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!” This never fails to crack him up. 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 exclaims, in falsetto, “Close the door, I’m dressing!” It cracks him up, every time.
In the kitchen she puts the sandwiches on plates, pours two glasses of milk, and they sit down at the kitchen table. Ronnie hops up for paper towels and fetches salt and pepper, filling the room with chatter while he chews. Finally she settles down and asks, “So, what’s new? I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“Oh, business is fine, fine.” He smiles reflexively. “Couldn’t be better. If I was doing any better, you’d have to call me sir.”
Ronnie laughs and 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 the 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 plate away. “She is serious business. In fact, she’s coming over here tonight to look around.”
“She’s coming here? How come?”
“She wants to see what I’ve done with the place.” Ronnie turns to look at the room behind them, the faded linoleum, the dark, bulky cabinets. His eyes retreat from the Fluorescent bulb overhead, pulling shadows with them. He tells his plate, “She’ll be here at 7:00. Maybe you could leave us alone to talk business for an hour or two?”
Roni nods her head.
“Hey, thanks! That was an excellent sandwich! Thanks a million!” And he rushes off to take a shower.
After she’s trimmed the shrubs out front, hosed the cobwebs off the eaves, fluffed up the sofa pillows and turned on every light in the house, Ronnie takes a quick shower and searches for just the right thing to wear, finally settles on the nicest things she owns, the navy blazer and skirt she bought for job interviews. She applies mascara, blow-dries her hair, and puts on her only piece of jewelry, the chain with the little golden key.
At 7:00 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 offer 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 quite forceful. “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, you know. Oh, no, we have no plans to move. We’re happy here.”
Just then her father emerges from his room at the end of the hall. “There you are! I didn’t hear you come in.” He’s wearing a the slacks she just washed and a crisp polo shirt. He brushes past Roni, smelling heavily of cologne, to kiss the cheek Camilla offers him. “So you’ve already met Veronica. As you can see, she’s old enough to be my daughter.”
That’s when he 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 one hand on her hip and her head cocked to the side. “You know, I just realized that I have an important 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 calls after her and then closes the door and collapses against the frame. He cradles his head in both hands. “What just happened?”
Ronnie whispers, “Did I do something wrong?”
“I don’t know. What did you do?”
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 anything up,” Ronnie gasps. “What can I do to fix this?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 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. Won’t you please come in? I was just leaving, anyway.” When Camilla waves a hand to dismiss the whole scene, moving her foot toward the gas pedal, Ronnie sticks her strong, capable palm through the window, grabs Camilla’s and says, “Well let me tell you it has been a real pleasure working with you, a real pleasure.”
And when those tail lights disappear around the corner, she turns to look at the house all lit up against the night. It definitely has curb appeal, she thinks and she strolls along her neat brick walkway, low heels giving her hips a little swing, and through her front door.
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