Fiction: Cleaner Houses

Read More: A brief interview with Eric Rasmussen

 After Kara and her best friend Mariah finished cleaning all the various hair out of the downstairs bathroom in a duplex that smelled like burnt toast, Mariah pointed at the abandoned leather couch in the living room. “Sit down,” she said. “And close your eyes.”

They were both in the middle of a post-high school “gap year,” except without any travel, service, or self-discovery. Instead they opted for perpetual semi-drunkenness achieved by sipping liquor from soda bottles while they cleaned vacated student rental houses during the day, and parties as many nights as they could find them. Figuring out college and careers and what came next were on the following year’s to-do list. Or, maybe the year after that.

Kara sat and wiped her forehead with the stretch of bare skin between her sleeve and rubber glove. Her parents owned the cleaning company, which meant she actually had to work hard, scouring toxic ovens and steam cleaning fluorescent booze stains out of the carpets, because if she didn’t her dad was quick to threaten eviction from “the very generous living situation your mother and I provide for you at home.” Eye roll. The only thing Kara’s parents could hold over Mariah was a slightly-better-than-minimum hourly wage, but in a tough economy, that was enough.

“Hold out your hands,” said Mariah.

They played this game often. The rentals were full of empty bottles and glass pipes and dildos and the other detritus of college life that would be too embarrassing to take home for the summer. Kara took off her gloves and waited until Mariah placed the mystery item in her hand. It felt skinny, shiny, and plastic. “I have no idea. A pen?”

“Nope,” said Mariah.

Kara opened her eyes. A pregnancy test boasting a pair of parallel blue lines, which she dropped immediately. “Disgusting. Where’d you find it?”

“It’s mine.”

Right then was Kara’s best chance to finally grow up. Her oldest friend was facing a huge and real and serious consequence for their pleasure-obsessed lifestyle, and the mental leaps lined up right in front of her. What if that happened to me? What could I do to establish a more stable life? What sort of job do I actually want? What sort of school do I need to get such a job? These were not questions that usually troubled Kara, but that morning’s little guessing-game had primed her for a real, honest-to-goodness epiphany. All she needed to do was pause and the self-reflection would almost take care of itself.

“Holy shit.” Kara leaned back into the peeling cushion. “What are you going to do? Are you going to keep it?”

For a moment Mariah’s eyes widened and her lip quivered like they were freshmen again, back before they adopted the roles of charmingly aloof girls, beloved by their friends and teachers and worshipped by the boys. Then Mariah’s mouth opened, and Kara still didn’t realize it was a prank, so her friend offered a vicious laugh. “I’m kidding. I found it behind the toilet.”

So, never mind about all that growth and maturity stuff.

“That’s not funny at all,” said Kara.

“I can’t believe you thought I was serious.” Mariah giggled, then shot Kara an accusatory squint. “How irresponsible do you think I am?”

“One-hundred-and-fifty-percent irresponsible.”

“It’d be hilarious if one of us got pregnant. That kid would be so fucked.”

This was how Kara and Mariah proved to themselves how smart and in-control they were, all evidence to the contrary. Nothing was concerning or upsetting if they could make fun of it. “For sure,” said Kara. “We would name it something amazing. Like Vlad if it was a boy. Or Chauncy.”

“Melvin.”

“I love it.” Kara’s phone buzzed, so she leaned forward to retrieve it from her back pocket. It was her Dad. I need to see you tonight. We need to talk. DON’T LEAVE BEFORE WE TALK. Her stomach winced in panic, until she reminded herself that her father hadn’t heard their conversation, or found out what they had planned that evening (double “date” with a couple university hockey players), or smelled what filled their soda bottles for the day’s shift (Southern Comfort, this time around).

“Who’s that?” asked Mariah.

“No one,” Kara replied. “We better get back to work.” As she pulled her rubber gloves on, the vague sense of a missed opportunity passed through her. But she squelched the feeling the same way she did every time it arose, by reminding herself that she was young and had nothing but time. Plenty of time, more than enough time, gobs of time to ignore the impending adulthood that supposedly waited just out of sight over the horizon.

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Kara’s dad could never just ask, or connect, or discuss. He started every conversation like it was an argument that had already occurred, like he was delivering the final ultimatum, and if one time, one time he would actually talk to her like an adult instead of a sullen middle schooler maybe he would finally understand her and what she wanted and maybe she would do a better job giving him what he wanted in return. But they would never know, because her dad would never change. That’s the way he was. Asshole.

Kara drove too fast to her new job site downtown. No more cleaning college rentals for her. That’s what her dad needed to share with her the night before. She was being relocated to a new contract he had won that morning.

“What about Mariah?” Kara asked from the kitchen doorway.

Her dad barely looked up from the onions he was chopping. “She can join one of the other cleaning teams. As long as she performs, she can keep her job.”

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

“Think about it for a minute. Think hard.” He chopped fast, like he was in some goddamned cooking show. Thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk. “If you want to work for the family business, you need to take a more serious role.”

“It feels like I’m being punished.”

He stopped, knife raised. “Why? Did you do anything wrong?”

He must have known something. He found a soda bottle they left at a duplex, or he saw them leave work early. Or he hacked into her phone or something. She wouldn’t put it past him.

“This is a big contract,” he said. “I hope you take advantage of this opportunity.”

The next morning Kara pulled into the small lot across the street from her new task, the Grilley House and Museum. The brochure her Dad handed her lay on the passenger seat. “A penultimate example of his prairie style, the Grilley House represents Frank Lloyd Wright’s mastery of the form shortly before he moved from houses to larger civic projects.” What the fuck ever. The house itself was enormous, with brick and dark wood, a huge roof with a gentle slope, windows offset in the corners, and mature oak trees dotting the lawn. It looked like a castle, but also like a cozy little cottage, and kind of like a little man wearing a big hat. It was weird. Where some people experienced awe at the artistry, Kara just gagged at the amount of work it must require.

The cleaning supplies in her bucket rattled as she huffed across the street and pushed through the heavy front door, where she found a skinny guy sitting behind a small desk in the foyer. He probably wasn’t thirty, but he was close, and his hair was long enough that, if he kept it that way on purpose, it was pretty cool, and if not, he was kind of a grease ball.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m here from the cleaning company.”

“You’re early.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, yeah.” The guy checked his watch, then stood up. “We’ve got a tour in a half hour. You can’t start until we’re done.”

“Great.”

He pointed at the various bottles that crowded her blue pail. “That’s not what you plan on using, is it?”

“It’s all organic.”

“This house is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Those are way too harsh.” He checked his watch again. “We’ve got some stuff you can use. I’ll show you. But not until after the tour.”

“Fine.” Kara crossed the foyer into the dining room, with its tremendous dining table, dark wood columns and a fireplace. She pulled out one of the chairs and sat.

The guy followed her. “I’m sorry, but you really shouldn’t be sitting there.”

“Why?”

“Those are handmade chairs, designed by Mr. Wright himself.” He grabbed the back of the one next to where Kara sat and made a microscopic adjustment to its position. “Would you get up please?”

For a second Kara considered slamming the chair into the table after she stood, leaving her own mark on one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Instead she copied his process of placing the chair with sarcastic precision, but he didn’t appear to notice.

“I’m Todd.” He held his hand out straight, which Kara stared at for a few seconds before offering him a limp shake. “While you wait, you should take the tour. It’s pretty interesting.” He shrugged. “Parts of it are interesting.”

This guy was weird. He was a nerd, for sure. But he also had an easy charisma. Kara had no interest in his tour, but if she couldn’t sit anywhere, she had nothing better to do. “What the hell,” she said.

Over the next half hour more people gathered than Kara would have guessed. A pair of old women arrived early and perused the small gift shop. A family of four came in next. The trip was clearly mom’s idea, because she took pictures and pointed out trim and doorway features while dad and two middle-school daughters did their best to appear interested. A pair of college students told Todd that they were interior design majors doing research for a project. Finally, an old man with sunken cheeks and a big nose shuffled through the door in a full suit and a fedora.

After a few minutes Todd stood and cleared his throat. “We’ll get going, if you’re ready.” Since everyone else had a partner, Kara walked alongside the old guy, and they started in the living room past the office/gift shop. “Before I share anything else, you have to understand something—most people build houses to fit in with the neighbors. Kit homes from Sears, McMansions, there’s a reason why any neighborhood you visit looks the same from street to street. But today you’re going to see something truly unique. No other house like this exists anywhere.” In tour guide mode, Todd became almost appealing: animated, passionate. Cool. Being an expert in anything is desirable, even if it’s something dumb like early 20th century American residential architecture.

In each room he reminded the group not to touch anything before he launched into an explanation of the notable details of Mr. Wright’s life. Despite the warnings, the old man in the hat ran his hands along everything, the bookshelves and chairs and dressers. His face remained blank until he came across anything worn or broken. A dent where a door had been opened too forcefully caused his brow to clench, and a sconce in the servants’ wing that had separated from the wall made him bury his head in his hands. Before long Kara ignored Todd and focused on the old man, who acted out his reaction to every ding and scratch like he was starring in a silent movie.

After visits to the bedrooms, playrooms, library, and backyard, and a painfully long question-and-answer session in the dining room, the tour ended. The mom gave in to her family’s desperate pleas to leave, and the elderly women followed them out. The design students peppered Todd with even more questions at his desk, and the old man stayed in the dining room, standing in front of the broad window, staring at the street.

There was something compelling about him, but Kara couldn’t figure out what. The way he examined everything, even the way he moved through the rooms, he looked like he owned the place. After a few minutes he sighed, crossed his arms, and left the dining area. From her spot by the fireplace Kara heard the front door open and close.

“What did you think of the tour?” Todd appeared in doorway behind her. “Did you learn anything?”

“A little.” Kara occupied the old man’s spot in front of the window and tried looking where he had. There wasn’t anything special about the view. Just a street and some trees. “But did you see that old guy I was with? He didn’t listen at all. He touched everything.”

“Yeah. That’s an odd situation. He takes the tour every time it’s offered. He’s given us so much money by now that I don’t know how to tell him to stop.”

“Who is he?”

“No idea. He won’t talk, either.” Todd rubbed his hands together. “So. You ready to learn how to clean museum-quality furniture?”

“Oh my god,” said Kara. “I can’t wait.”

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After the most insanely boring five hours of Kara’s life, she returned to her car to find Mariah leaning on the hood, smoking a cigarette.

“What the fuck?” said Mariah.

“I have no idea. My Dad found something. He must have.”

“I have to work with these two fat women who talk about their worthless diet plans all day.”

Kara pointed at the Grilley House. “I have to clean this fucking thing all by myself. And the manager is this creepy dweeb who keeps coming on to me.”

“Gross.” Mariah flicked the butt towards the house. “What should we do now?”

“No idea.”

They ended up sharing a bag of mushrooms, then mini-golfing, then crashing at some guy’s house, a friend of Mariah’s cousin or something like that. It was a pretty good time, for a Wednesday.

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Over the next few weeks, a whole bunch of weird things happened.

First, Kara discovered that cleaning the Grilley House wasn’t actually that bad. It was definitely better than picking dried condoms off the walls and battling terrifying fridge molds at the rental houses. Her new job was a ton of work, for sure, but parts of it were beautiful: the stained glass, the little inlays of wood scattered throughout the house, the way the light came in through the windows and acted like another layer of decoration. She found herself imaging what it would be like to live there. Having servants would be amazing, of course, but she pictured other aspects too, like where her family would gather in the evenings, where they would eat breakfast, where she would sit and read. “Family,” “breakfast,” and “reading” were things Kara had spent zero time caring about before.

And she kept showing up early to take Todd’s tour. Frank Lloyd Wright was actually a really interesting guy. His mother decided he was going to be an architect before he was even born, and it worked; he turned into one of the most famous designers ever. He had an ego the size of the house, and he was a huge dick to his first wife. He never worried about money or bad reviews, and he was broke most of the time. His mistress and her guests were murdered by a fired chef, who chopped everyone up with an axe and set Frank’s house on fire. And it turned out lots and lots of regular people knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was. Kara even found herself reading about him on Wikipedia and taking virtual tours of his other constructions. It was like school, except this time around she kind of liked it.

The weirdest part of the job by far, though, was the old guy who kept showing up to take the tour. He didn’t wear the same clothes, but he always wore the same type of clothes, a suit and hat, sometimes a scarf if it was chilly. It didn’t look like he ever paid attention to the tour. Instead he focused on tiny details of the house, always narrowing in on the worn and damaged parts. One day he concentrated on the furniture, the next time the fixtures and light switches, the time after that, the ceilings. He studied every part with more care than anyone except the house’s owner or creator could possibly muster. Every tour ended in the dining room with Todd answering questions while the old man parked himself in front of the window, and after the fifth or sixth time, Kara decided to figure out what the hell the old guy’s deal was.

She stepped up next to him, close enough that she could smell the mothball and cedar odor of his clothes. “What did you think of the tour today?”

He looked her up and down, then once again gazed ahead.

“Why do you like this house so much?”

No response.

“You know, it’s kind of rude to not reply when someone’s talking to you.”

This time the old man held eye contact with Kara for a few moments, and a chill shiver raced through her. She recognized him. At first she couldn’t figure out from where. She didn’t know that many elderly people, and certainly didn’t hang out anywhere she might encounter some. Maybe he was a former teacher of hers? Or some distant relative? But then it hit her. She had seen him in photographs. Old photographs. Old photographs hanging in that very room.

It took a second for Kara to form the words, because suddenly her mouth was so dry. “Do you know that you look exactly like Frank Lloyd Wright?” […]


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Eric Rasmussen has placed short fiction in Fugue, Gulf Stream, Pithead Chapel, and South Carolina Review, among others. He serves as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand. He earned his MFA at Augsburg University in Minneapolis and currently resides in Eau Claire, WI. Find him online at theotherericrasmussen.com.

Read More: A brief interview with Eric Rasmussen