My housekeeper terrifies me.
It wasn’t like this with Josefina. Between her broken English and my pathetic Spanglish, we managed. When she moved back to El Salvador, guilt over my hiring practices made me inquire about my sister’s guy, James. “He’s kind of a neat freak,” she warned. Well, I thought, a little O.C.D. is probably a good thing in a housekeeper. At least he’s legal.
Tuesday rolls around and so does James. He pedals up on his turquoise cruiser, a slight man in his early forties, wearing a tight Gap tee shirt, baggy shorts, and a pink cashmere sweater. The windy bike ride and an overabundance of product have sculpted his hair into an oddly unnatural shape.
“Hi,” I say, thrusting my hand forward. “I’m Kat. You must be James.” He glances down at my palm and recoils. “Germs,” he sniffs and swoops past me into the house.
He scans the living room like a surveyor. “You don’t have dogs, do you? I don’t do dogs.”
My sister warned me about this. James grumbled about her two hairy labs, but made an exception because my mother had grandfathered her into his cleaning clan.
“I have a cat.”
He considers this as if it were a Zen koan, and replies, “Okay, but only because your mom is such a doll. Where’s the TV?”
On cleaning day, James makes straight for the Panasonic and cranks it up loud. With one eye on “The View”, and the other on his vacuum, he flies through the house on a rampage of domesticity.
James has a special relationship with my Hoover. He chirps to her. It’s like inter-species communication. My floors have never been cleaner.
James does windows and he does ceilings. Yes, ceilings. He scuttles up my stepladder with the grace of a gazelle. “Used to be on the gymnastics team,” he puffs. “This close to the Olympics.”
Spiders horrify him. More than once, I’ve responded to a hideous shriek from the other end of the house. I’ll find him pale and panicky before an unsuspecting daddy long legs. It’s my job to either deport the filthy beast or slay it.
James is quirky, but he does have a few habits that really unnerve me. As soon as he arrives, he dumps Comet into the toilets and lets them soak until just before he leaves. If I need to use the bathroom, I either have to go outside, or drive down to the Shell station, or risk his wrath by sneaking in a flush, quickly covering with a fresh shake of cleanser, and praying he doesn’t notice. The TV usually hides the sound of the flush, but I have been caught “green-handed” and reprimanded with an extreme eye roll.
If James has emptied the trashcans, I’m not allowed to throw anything away until he’s gone. One fateful Tuesday I make the mistake of tossing a used Kleenex into a pristine wastebasket.
“Goddammit,” I hear over Whoopi.
I come running in to find James dramatically hurling the offending tissue into his cleaning bag with the admonition, “Don’t ever do this. This belongs in the Master Trash Bag.”
One morning, unable to locate this holy of holies, I resort to stashing my empty yogurt cup in the pocket of my sweatshirt.
James dispenses unsolicited medical advice. I hear him clucking and fussing in the bedroom. He’s examining my mattress pad; my husband’s side spattered with ancient bleach-resistant stains. He huffs, “Your husband really should see a urologist about this problem.”
This brings me to The Gossip According to James. Not only does he know everything about Kim, Gwyneth, and Brad, but he can recite huge passages from dozens of classic movies. Unfortunately, he also shares quotes and stories about his other clients. I now possess way too much information about Mrs. Gelman’s boyfriend, Mr. Gelman’s boyfriend, the bathroom misadventures of old lady Jackson, and what the Carter twins are shoving up their noses these days. God forbid my husband’s dribbling problem should become public record.
In dread of triggering James’ dark side, I tiptoe around the house like a little mute, grinning idiotically, and assuming a weird subservient persona. Friends know not to call me on Tuesdays. Often, I escape to Starbucks.
I think James prefers it that way. He’s a closet sweet freak. I’ve returned home after a long day of exile to find nary a sugar product in any drawer, cabinet, or secret hiding place.
One Easter, he blazed through half a box of Sees, a bowl of jellybellies, and a jumbo bag of Butter Toffee Peanuts. Chocolate chip cookies? They’re his Kryptonite. Even petrified marshmallows circa the Paleozoic don’t slow him down. I now hide anything with glucose in the trunk of my car before he arrives.
So, does clean justify the means? Oh, probably. James leaves the house immaculate. He’s entertaining and efficient and rather dear in an interesting way.
Still, on a rainy Tuesday, as I’ve just quaffed my third vanilla soy latte, I sometimes gaze past the cash register and wistfully wonder, “Josefina, Josefina,