Small Town

Page 2

Not for the first time, he contrasted Marilyn’s place with the last premises he’d tidied, the whorehouse on East Twenty-eighth Street. In all the months he’d been cleaning for them, they’d never once left a real mess. As a matter of fact, the parlor and the individual bedrooms were always surprisingly tidy. There might be some dirty dishes and glassware on the kitchen counter, waiting for him to load them into the dishwasher, and there were wastebaskets that had to be emptied of their unmentionable contents, trash to be bagged and taken downstairs. But the place was always sanitary and usually neat.

Well, wasn’t that the difference between your professionals and your amateurs?

He rolled his eyes, ashamed of himself. Marilyn was a sweetie, and where did he get off calling her a whore? Still, he could imagine her coming up with some version of the line on her own, a half-smile on her full mouth and an ironic edge to the bourbon-8

and-cigarette voice. Her self-deprecating sense of humor was one of the things he liked most about her, and—

Jesus, was she home?

Because her bedroom door was shut, and that was unusual.

That might explain the extent of the mess, too. Her apartment was usually messy, she wasn’t the sort to preclean out of concern for the good opinion of her cleaning person, but he’d never before found undergarments in the living room, and she’d have at least capped the bourbon bottle and put away the little mirror.

Sleeping late, wasn’t she? Well, she’d very likely been up late.

He’d let her sleep, hold off running the vacuum until he was done with everything else. If that woke her he could do the bedroom after she emerged from it; otherwise he’d skip it this week.

She didn’t have company, did she?

He decided that wasn’t too likely. The clothes in the living room were all hers, and the guy, whoever he might be, wouldn’t have kept all his clothes on while she took everything off. Somewhere along the way he’d returned from the bedroom, thoughtfully closing the door, and dressed and left the apartment, pulling the door shut. It hadn’t been double-locked when he arrived, he recalled, but that didn’t mean anything; Marilyn forgot to double-lock the door as often as not, whether she was at home or gone for the day.

He started to whistle—the same song, New York in June, he couldn’t get it out of his head—and went into the kitchen to get started.

H E ’ D M E T H E R A T an ACOA meeting, had heard her sharing wryly about her parents, and had assumed she was in show business. An actress, a nightclub chanteuse, at the very least a waitress who went to all the cattle calls, got roles in off-off-Broadway showcases, and had a card in the Screen Extras Guild. And maybe did voice-overs, because God knows she had the voice for it, pitched low, seasoned with booze and tobacco, coming across like honey-dipped sandpaper.

She looked the part. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. Her features were a little too strong for beauty, her facial planes too angular. It was more that she was totally Out There, her energy expanding to fill whatever room she was in. You noticed her, you paid attention to her. You couldn’t buy that, or learn it at Actors Studio. You had it or you didn’t, and she did.

“It’s all my Leo stuff,” she explained. “I got my sun and three or four planets in Leo, and maybe I should have been an actress, as much as I like being the center of attention, but I always had zero desire in that direction, and thank God, because what kind of a life is that?”

She’d been born in Brooklyn, grew up on Long Island, went to college in Pennsylvania, married young and divorced young, and had been living in the Village for a dozen years, first in a small studio in an ugly postwar white brick building on Greenwich Avenue, and, for the past seven years, in this brownstone floor-through on Charles Street.

“I had the usual array of jobs, and the only one I might have kept was assisting this photographer, a really sweet boy, but he got too sick to work. And then I took a class at the Learning Annex, if you can believe it, and it was like I found my purpose in life. No time at all I had my Realtor’s license and a job to go with it, and this place was maybe the fourth rental I ever showed. I showed no end of co-ops, and I handled subletting some of them, but as far as straight rentals, this was the fourth, and I took one look at it and saw it was rent-stabilized and what the price was, and no way was I gonna let it go to some fucking client. So of course my first job was convincing this darling young couple that it was all wrong for them, and once I got rid of them I put in an application and rented it myself. I got fired for that, it’s a major no-no, but who gave a shit? I had my dream apartment, and how long was it going to take me to get another job? Five minutes?”

They’d stopped at a Starbucks after the meeting, and otherwise he might never have gotten to know her, because she never went back to ACOA. It was too humorless for her, she told him, and he could understand that, but suspected she also wanted to keep her distance from any program that might make her face up to her own relationship with alcohol, which he had to figure was at least somewhat problematical. She reined it in when she was with him—people often did in the presence of sober alcoholics—but one time she’d been a toke over the line, as it were, and he got to see the change in her eyes and in the cast of her features.

Well, it was his job to clean her apartment, not to take her inventory. Someday he might see her at an AA meeting, and maybe she’d get sober and maybe she wouldn’t, but for now her life seemed to work okay, or at least she thought it did.

Though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the state of her living room. Not this morning, anyway.

And that was where he came in, wasn’t it? He cleaned and straightened, washed glasses, emptied ashtrays, stuffed her dirty clothes in the bathroom hamper, put things where they belonged.

He couldn’t seem to find the turquoise rabbit—maybe she’d taken it to bed with her, though animals carved from stone weren’t really ideal for cuddling—but he put fresh cornmeal in the little saucer and positioned the bear and the bison on either side of it. He bagged the garbage, carried it downstairs and stowed it in one of the trash cans in the rear courtyard. He cleaned the bathroom, scouring the sink and toilet and clawfooted old tub, getting the curious satisfaction this chore always brought him. The first time he cleaned someone’s toilet he wanted to retch, but you got over that, and nowadays he felt this great sense of accomplishment.

Odd how it worked. Was it that way for everybody, or was it a gay thing?

When he’d finished in the living room and kitchen and bathroom, and the small second bedroom she used for an office, he got out the vacuum cleaner and hesitated. He went to the bedroom door, put an ear to it, then turned the knob and eased it open.

It was dark within, but enough light came through around the blackout shades for him to make out her form in the bed at the far end of the room. He said her name—“Marilyn?”—to get her attention if she was just lying there half-awake, but not loud enough to rouse her from a sound sleep. And she was evidently sleeping soundly, because she didn’t stir.

Should he vacuum? It was that or quit for the day, leaving her bedroom untouched and the whole apartment unvacuumed. The noise might wake her, but she’d probably want to be up by now anyway, might even have appointments scheduled. If she could leave her underwear in the living room and her Wild Turkey uncapped, wasting its fragrance on the desert air, she might well have neglected to set her clock. Even now some Wall Street hot-shot could be cooling his heels in a lobby somewhere, waiting for Marilyn to show him the condo of his dreams.

He plugged in the old Hoover and had at it. If she slept through it, fine, it proved she really needed the sleep. If she woke up, even better.

He remembered how delighted she’d been to learn what he did for a living. “It’s a get-well job,” he’d explained. “Although it could be a career, if I want. All I have to do is let it grow itself into an agency, a cleaning service. But that’s too complicated for now. I like to keep it real simple. I make okay money and my rent’s low and I get paid in cash and I’m done for the day in plenty of time to make an afternoon meeting.”

“But a whorehouse,” she said. “How did that happen?”

“The way it always does. You clean for one person and he recommends you to somebody else.”

“So one of the bar owners was a customer at the whorehouse—”

“Actually, I think it was the other way around.”

“What are they like? The girls?”

“I think it’s more PC to call them women. No, seriously, I never see anybody. I did go up there one time to pick up the key and arrange everything, and I caught glimpses of one or two women, and they just looked like, I don’t know, like women.”

“What were they wearing?”

“Oh, please. I didn’t notice. The woman I spoke to, and I gather she was the manager—”

“The madam.”

“I suppose. She was forty or forty-five, and if I’d met her on the street I’d have guessed she was a beautician.”


“Or possibly, you know, an executive secretary, or maybe a showroom manager. Not exactly brassy, but that kind of self-assurance.”

She’d had more questions, and at the end she asked if he cleaned for any ordinary people. “Like me,” she said.

He said, “Ordinary?” and raised an eyebrow. And went on to say that he did indeed have a couple of private clients, no more than one a day, whose apartments he cleaned once a week. By the time they left the coffee shop they’d arranged that she would be one of them.

Most of the time she was out when he cleaned, but not always, and sometimes she’d be at her desk, working, and they’d chat between phone calls. A couple of times they ran into each other on the street. She talked wryly about her love life, asked his advice about her hair (a rich auburn, shoulder-length when he’d met her, short and pixyish as of two months ago), and generally used him as her Gay Male Confidante, a sort of girlfriend with a Y chromo-some, or perhaps a younger brother but without all that family baggage.

“I wonder,” she’d said. “Do you think I could ever take a turn at your whorehouse?”

“You mean like Belle du Jour?”

“Sort of, except I have a hunch it works better if you look like Catherine Deneuve. Anyway, I’m probably too old.”

“You’re what, thirty-eight?”

“‘You’re only thirty-eight, and could pass for twenty-nine’ is what you meant to say, isn’t it?”

“Word for word. Thirty-eight’s not old.”

“How old are the girls in your whorehouse?”

“It’s not my whorehouse, and I don’t have any idea how old they are. There’s nobody home when I do my thing.”

“Men want young girls, don’t they? In a place like that?”

“I have no idea what men want,” he said, archly. “In a place like that or anywhere else. What’s this all about? You wouldn’t really want to do it, would you?”