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"Housekeeping" by Kathy O´Fallon
It was a talent I’d resisted, yet unwittingly perfected, until finally, like a twelve-step confessor, I surrendered to my powerlessness and accepted the truth: “Hello, my name is Margaret. I am a voyeur.”
Perhaps some of you can relate to the circumstances which precipitated my disease. With four children in tow and a disappearing husband, the courts became my enabler. Though the judge was initially inclined to rule alimony appropriate for a housewife otherwise unskilled, my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s seasonal employment swayed him in a direction I hope they will both one day have serious cause to regret. A television sports announcer during the baseball season, my husband surely made more money than the judge, but as our settlement conference took place during the off-season, he could technically, though not ethically, state his non-working status with a straight face. What about the long distance telephone company commercial my kids told me he just shot with his girlfriend, I wanted to scream. I looked to my attorney with the eyes of a desperate woman, his a familiar blank stare, and I knew I was doomed.
This brings me to how I got here: my lack of wage-earning capacity. As I became pregnant the month of college graduation, marriage and motherhood had presented the most agreeable career option. A sociology major wouldn’t have earned me much more than flight attendant wings anyway, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought to put away the dreams of one day inspiring college women to surpass their mothers, to resist the demands of men and make some of their own.
I didn’t mind the role of housewife and mother. In fact, it fulfilled some primitive need inside me to take care of the young and the weak. Of course I’d forgotten to include myself in that list. But in the real world it didn’t get me very far. Divorced and no longer in my prime (an understatement if you put your glasses on), the best paying lateral position available (no pun intended) wouldn’t have landed me many customers. Besides, I hear it’s illegal. And though I might have procured a job as a waitress, the hours were hard on motherhood, so by process of elimination I relied on what was left of domestic duties, and became someone else’s maid.
I discovered it was one thing to clean up after yourself and family, where, let’s face it, nothing is sacred, but to be privy to the life of a stranger who can afford to hire you to scuttle about invisibly in a home not unlike the one you last co-owned is quite another story. At first I literally squeezed my eyes shut as I emptied wastebaskets into trashcans, closed my nose to spoiled refrigerator food, and my ears to the scoldings of one child or another. I wanted to know nothing of lives I could not influence, that neither money nor silence could change, but try as I might my senses refused to shut down, and I became the unwilling biographer of my employers.
Seized with a strange power, I discovered that I possessed the means of knowing more about them than they knew about each other. And with that authority I became obsessed. Like a ravenous orphan, I scraped the bottoms of every receptacle that justified cleaning, in search of clues I could consume. Once unleashed, I became a voracious voyeur, waiting behind closed doors ostensibly to pick up after, in truth holding my breath while I eavesdropped. I searched under couch cushions and behind headboards--any place that might turn up scraps of secrets. Maybe I didn’t break the law, but I broke one of my own cardinal rules for my children: mind your own business.
Like a cocaine addiction that works wonders before the fall, my house cleaning skills exceeded the average. Soon I amassed a waiting list the envy of the town’s servitors--that is, a town an hour’s bus ride away, because no one, I realized early in my occupation, would hire me who knew me. They must have sensed the automatic invasion of their privacy, and I applauded their precognition. I suffered enough handling of the “dirty laundry” of people who meant nothing to me. But my victims, as I came to call them, while of no interest to me personally, soon presented a challenge that Agatha Christie could not have resisted. I had to see who they were. I had to understand their motives for keeping and discarding, for holding on and letting go.
I hit bottom a year to the month after I embarked on my crusade, as I’d begun to think of it. The Milligans had hired me green, having called my advertisement from a bulletin board outside the fancy market of what the residents nicknamed their “village.”
They seemed the least likely family to catalyze my crash. Mrs. Milligan served on the school board, and her grammar school-age son and daughter actually seemed to like each other. As with most families, I rarely saw the head of the household. What I gleaned of him came from tossed correspondence, scratch pads, and liquor bottles. Semen also leaves its trail, and their sex life hadn’t gone neglected as far as I could tell. Mrs. M trusted me. She left the kids home while I cleaned and she ran errands, and I served them snacks as I would have my own.
On this particular day, when the telephone rang, I let the answering machine pick it up as usual while I listened for potential material. A woman’s voice echoed from the speaker. The knife in my hand stopped short of the spread of peanut butter in its tracks. I never expected to hit pay dirt.
“Hi, Mrs. Milligan. Your husband just left my apartment. I think maybe it’s time we meet. I’ll be at The Breakwater tonight at 5, sitting by the window in the corner.” The voice clicked off.
I looked up from the bread to the children’s eyes, but theirs were fixed on Nickelodeon. Who was this voice, playing the femme fatale out of some cheap romance novel? Was it some kind of joke?
But suddenly the enormity of the truth confronted me, as if I were responsible for its message. I screwed the lid back onto the jar of peanut butter. This couldn’t be happening. I rewound the answering message and listened again, careful to ensure that the children were distracted. The voice sounded sincere, anxious.
What could I do? I couldn’t stand by and watch another family destroyed. I’d suffered my own powerlessness once and paid the price. This time I could not let the information I had go to waste, let innocent children fall victim to the helplessness of their youth for the foolishness of their father.
Should I erase the message? Should I check caller ID and phone her back? What would I say? Memories of my ex-husband’s infidelities fueled my rage. This man would not get away with it. I would expose him, force him to rethink the lies he lived, and do my best to save this family.
I served the sandwiches and milk to the comatose TV-watchers, two more addicts in the making, then grabbed the list of emergency numbers off the refrigerator and located Mr. Milligan’s private line.
Mumbling something to the kids about doing some more dusting, I headed to the den, closing the door quietly behind me.
I took a deep breath and punched the numbers, a plan barely formulated in my head.
“Yes, Margaret, what is it? Are the kids all right?”
“It’s not about the kids, sir.” Where had I learned to talk like a servant?
“Then what? My wife?” He sounded busy, not worried.
His curtness fueled my anger. “Actually, yes, I have some information I think you may want that’s vital to your family’s welfare.” Now I’m beginning to sound like Angela Lansbury’s character. “A certain someone called here this afternoon and said she intended to introduce herself to your wife at 5:00 at The Breakwater tonight. I thought you’d like to know.”
There was silence on the other end.
“Yes, Margaret. I understand. Thank you for your concern. I’ll take care of this. You needn’t worry about a thing.”
As he was assuring me it was for her own good that Mrs. M remain ignorant of our conversation, I heard the front door open.
“Your discretion will not go unappreciated.”
The force of the bribe stunned me. Numb, I said good-by as the sound of the extension picked up. Oh, good Lord, the message. I hadn’t erased the message. I threw down the phone and raced towards the kitchen, but behind the swinging door the sound of the muffled recording played. The message ended, and then—no sound at all. I grabbed my stomach, as if we’d both been punched.
The truth soured my mouth. Had she done what I had done, submerged herself in her children’s lives to avoid looking at her own? I’d buried my head in ironing and dishwashing, unwilling until now to look up. That she could have been unsuspecting suddenly enraged me. The blood spilled from her broken heart, this, the perfect housekeeper, could not clean up. It was one mess too many.
I gathered my belongings from the hall tree, laid the house key on the table, and opened the door without a sound. I walked out, forcing one foot in front of the other, reached into my pockets, and emptied them of scraps of paper—of other peoples’ lives that didn’t belong to me, until the trail behind me reached too far to witness its beginning. I may have escaped someone else’s ruin, but I knew that all roads lead to home.
“Hello, my name is Margaret. I am a recovering voyeur.”
Kathy O’Fallon’s award-winning poetry and fiction have appeared in over two dozen national and regional literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. She has three poetry collections. A clinical psychologist practicing in Fallbrook and Redlands, California, the oldest of eight, mother of two, and grandmother of three, O’Fallon doesn’t lack for material.