My Other House is Cleaner

by Michael Schrimper

Mary held up a long, tattered blue nightgown for her mother-in-law, Louise, to see. "Trash, or Community Closet?"

Louise pressed the fingers of her right hand to her lips. "Ooh, I like that." Her blue eyes glittered. "Keep."

Mary sighed at the old woman, who was sitting in bed with her left arm in a sling. The woman had fallen last week, tripped over a stuffed animal—a little polar bear with a Coke bottle in its paws—and here she was, refusing to let anything leave her overcrowded, junk-filled house. Mary balled up the nightgown and threw it into the pile for Community Closet donations.

"Look at that fabric; I'll use it in a quilt," Louise said, pointing frantically at the discarded garment. Her finger jabbed the air. "Pick that back up. Don't get rid of it."

Mary held up a blue tin box that said CHECKERS in black scrawl down the side. "This?"

Louise reached for it with her free hand. "Let me see."

Mary shook her head and leaned down to drop the tin in the donation pile.

"I mean it," Louise said sharply. "Let me see that."

 "Keep isn't an option, Lou. This stuff has to go."

"Okay, all right," Louise said, rolling her eyes. "Just let me see the damn tin."

Mary handed it to Louise and the old woman gasped. "Oh…I played this in 1948 with my sister," she said. "When there was a polio quarantine.

"We were bored, so we laid a clothesline across the yard, you know, to show where our property ended and the neighbor boy's began. We thought it'd make it okay for us to play Checkers with him, with him on his side and we on ours. We put the picnic table right over the line."

Mary crossed her arms. She grunted softly.

"Oh, have a heart."

At this, Mary stepped away from the bed and spread her arms the width of the crowded room. "You can't hold onto all these things, Lou. It's not healthy." She pointed at Louise's arm in the sling. "Do you want that to happen again?"

"Oh, Christ, you'll hold my clumsiness against me?"

"You know what happened, Lou. You tripped and broke your shoulder, because your house is a mess."

"Not true. That is not true."

The old woman frowned and looked down at the tin in her hands. She turned it over and strained to pry it open. Mary watched. With a tinny belch, the tin exploded, and red and black plastic coins flew onto the quilt.

Mary left the room shaking her head, and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. She put a glass under the faucet and turned it on, filled up the glass and drank it all while standing there. Then she filled another one and looked out the window into the yard. There was a crystal ball on a rusty iron spoke stabbed into the grass, leaning at an extreme angle, as though it had been thrown lawn-dart-style into the ground. Nearby, on the other side of a spiky yucca plant, was a twelve-foot alligator made of logs that were nailed together and spray-painted green.

What would happen when Louise died, and she and Allen, her husband, inherited all this? Where would they put all of this junk? Where would it all go? 

She looked down and picked a black string off her gray T-shirt and dropped it into the sink. She was accustomed to leaving Louise's house speckled with dust or lint, the way a potter might leave his worksite splattered in clay. Today, her outfit for the ruining was the gray T-shirt, a pair of khaki pants, and brown suede hiking boots with orange laces. As usual, she'd put her brown hair back in a braid. It was long and held in place by a rectangular sterling silver clip.

A loud cough came from the bedroom and Mary turned and stepped away from the window. "You all right, Lou?" she called.

"Fine," the old woman said gravely, two rooms over.

Mary walked slowly back toward the bedroom and when she entered, she noticed the room smelled of dirty socks and Vaseline.

The old woman coughed again and the wicker headboard rattled behind her. She shakily pulled a pill from her pocket and slung it into her mouth. Mary saw this and held out her own glass of water, but Louise shook her head and used her paper cup of Diet Coke to wash it down.

"Which pill was that?" Mary asked when the woman had finished.

"Hmm?" Louise said. "What did you say?"

"Which pill did you just take?"

"My three o'clock."

"What is the doctor's name for it, Lou?"

"Hell if I know."

Mary looked at Louise scoldingly. "You have to start organizing your life," she said. "You have to. What if you were looking for your pills in an emergency and couldn't find them?"

"I know where everything is in this house. It might look messy to you, but I know where everything is."

"I don't know about that, Lou."

"I know where everything is," the old woman said again.

Mary sighed and knelt onto the blue carpet and began sorting through a Tupperware container filled with magnets.

Mary had never known anyone who required as many pills as Louise required, and the woman refused help with her medicine—"If this isn't my business, I don't know what is," she'd say—and it drove Mary insane. She'd once bought Louise one of those SMTWTFS plastic pill holders, and Louise had removed her pills from it and put buttons in it instead.

The old woman was diabetic, had been all her life, and recently her doctor had put her on medication for hypertension. The target organs were her heart and kidney. Mary had tried to get Louise out walking with her once or twice a week, aware that exercise would only help, but then Louise had broken her shoulder. Mary wondered what the cost of Louise's stubbornness would be. Maybe they'd have to put her in a nursing home before too long. Maybe, she thought with sudden vertigo, all this junk would be her and Allen's responsibility in just a short while.

The magnets were cold and rubbery in her hands, and she exhaled a long breath and took a moment to look at them. One magnet was round, shaped like a red and white target. It read, "I miss my ex-husband. But my aim is improving."

She looked up at the old woman, who was now sitting against the headboard with her eyes closed. Her thin, liver-spotted hands were folded in her lap. Mary read another magnet. It was a glittery pink cupcake, and it said: "'Desserts' is 'stressed' spelled backwards." Mary felt a smile play across her lips.

She picked up a floppy brown magnet shaped like a log cabin with a porch. It said, in cursive black letters on top of the cabin: "My other house is cleaner."


One hour later, at four o' clock, Louise officially laid down for her nap. Mary verified that the old woman had her Diet Coke and pills on her bedside table. Then she went out front the door, crossed the yard and sat in her Subaru in the driveway.

She'd been doing this for one week now, coming to Louise's house in the afternoon to remove things from it. And each and every day, she'd left empty-handed. The woman refused to part with her belongings. Mary didn't understand it. Louise even kept the paper cups she'd get from her favorite lunch place, the Pine Bog Diner, whenever she asked for her Diet Coke "to go", which was every time. She then stacked the new cup on top of old cups, and would carry around a drink with five empty paper cups stacked under it.

Louise's compulsion had gone relatively unnoticed—or, at least, unworried about—for the better part of thirty years, up until she'd fallen. Then Mary had stepped in. She knew that Allen, Louise's son, yielded too easily to his mother and wouldn't force her to do something she didn't want to do. So Mary, a registered nurse and former river guide, had impartially recognized the hazard and was acting to dismantle it.

She looked out the window at the low, dark brown house fringed with black mulch flowerbeds. Maybe she could go inside when Louise wasn't home, and take things out. But Louise was basically bedridden now that her shoulder was broken. Maybe when Louise was asleep, Mary thought.

She was asleep now, wasn't she?

Mary pulled a big cardboard box from the backseat of the Subaru and carried it around the back of the house. Stealing from her mother-in-law, she thought. She shook her head. She was doing it for the woman's own good. It was like when a patient protested the needle that carried their vaccination. Of course they didn't want it to poke into their skin; but how else would they be protected?

She entered through the back door and left the box beside the door. Then she moved into the house, stepping swiftly and stealthily from room to room, grabbing things and carrying them back to the box. A brass kaleidoscope; a Raggedy Ann doll; a mobile with the birds of southern Indiana dangling from its twisted strings. A red basket; a bundle of wheat tied together with suede string; a stack of old National Geographics. All of it went inside the box.

She kept her selections scattered and random, thinking that if she nicked too many things from one room or of one type, Louise would notice they were missing.

In The Oriental Room, which was Louise's name for the guest bedroom, Mary nabbed three Chinese fans and a Great Wall-themed wall calendar that was ten years out-of-date; and in The Strawberry Bathroom, which was Louise's name for the guest bath, she collected a set of red towels from under the sink and a tiny wooden strawberry that reminded her of those egg-shaped Russian dolls that stacked inside each other. It rattled when she shook it.

The junk this woman had! Mary couldn't believe it.

When the box was full, she carried it out the back door and quickly crossed the yard to her car, nearly tripping on the log alligator as she went. "Jesus," she said, catching herself. She stood upright and looked around at the neighbors' houses, and saw that all was quiet. Their doors were shut and their grassy yards were empty.

With fresh resolve, she reached down and grabbed a plaster goose by the neck and carried it with her.

Driving away, she looked back at Louise's, knowing the woman would soon wake and watch the six o' clock evening news in bed. She moved her eyes back to the road and turned on the radio, the shadows of trees rolling across the windshield, a grim expression planted on her face.


"Her things just…depress me," Mary said to Allen that night in bed. Her arms were folded across her chest as she lay supine. "That whole house depresses me."

"The Museum of the Empty Life," Allen murmured, his face buried in the pillow. "Open year-round."

They were in bed early; had each laid down an hour before with no intention of getting under the covers. But here they were.

Allen lifted his head. "We—you—are allowed to make jokes at her expense. You're saving her life."

Mary laughed. "I wouldn't go that far."

He rolled away, onto his side. "Well. You're helping her."

Mary nodded. She stared at the ceiling. 

"Thank you for that," he said.

She lay there in silence, her eyes not leaving the drywall ceiling, and, after a minute, she noticed the tension in her body, as though she were having a revelation. She took a deep breath and let her shoulders ease onto the pillow. Allen wasn't aware of what she'd done today, and she had no intention of telling him. No, she would keep her surreptitious errand to herself. Silently she wondered if she'd have to do it again the next day. She sighed and looked over at Allen. He was breathing deeply and slowly, asleep at his usual inconceivable pace. She closed her eyes and then, after a minute, reached for Allen and pulled herself against him.

As she fell asleep, the magnets floated through her mind, all their sayings crisscrossing one another. "I like to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." "I like my men like I like my chocolate: dark and rich." The slogans took on dry, mocking voices. Then, emerging above the others, she could hear her own voice, much raspier and older, speaking to her from the future. It wheezed. "My other house is cleaner."

The phone was like a brick through the window. Then it rang again. With a groan, she woke and reached for the receiver in the dark. "Hello?" she said, her voice hoarse, as if it had become the one in the dream.

"What have you done with my fans?"

Mary sat up in the bed. She rubbed her eyes. "Louise?"

"Mary, what have you done with my fans?"

Just then Allen stirred and rolled toward her. "Who is it?" he grumbled.

Mary patted his arm and climbed out of bed with the cordless receiver between her ear and shoulder. She exited the room and closed the door behind her.

"Hel-lo?" Louise hollered on the line.

"Hi, hi," Mary said. "I'm here."


"I donated them to Community Closet, Lou."

"You gave them away?"

 Mary cleared her throat. "I did. You don't need them, Lou."

"You're stealing my things? You're stealing from me? What kind of nurse do you think you are?"

Mary padded down the dim hallway, away from the bedroom door. "I'm not stealing from you. You have to understand, Lou. If you can't help yourself; I'm going to step up and do it for you."

"Oh, for the love of God."

Mary could hear Louise's ragged breath on the line, could hear what sounded like cabinets opening and closing.

"What are you looking for, Lou?" Mary asked.

Louise grumbled. There were more slamming noises.


"I can't find my damn nine o' clocks."

"Your pills, Lou?"

"You probably gave them away," Louise said sharply.

"Where are you looking?" Mary stopped and leaned against the wall at the end of the hallway. "Calm down. They're there somewhere, Lou."

"No…" Louise sounded far away, as if she'd put the phone on the floor. "No they…they aren't here." She picked up the phone again. Her voice was loud. "Goddammit, Mary, did you throw out my pills?"

"Of course I didn't."

"You did. They're not here where I left them. They're not here."

 "Take a deep breath, Lou. Do you want me to come help you find your pills?"

"No. No. I know you threw them out." Then the old woman said, "And my towels…"

Mary cringed. "I'll come over there, Lou. If need be, we can call your doctor and get you some more pills."

The old woman muttered imprecations.

"I'm hanging up now, Lou. I'll be over there in a few minutes."


Back in the bedroom, she hung up the phone furtively. She was pulling on her khakis in the dark when Allen rolled over to face her. "What's going on?"

"It's…your mother," she said, putting her waterproof Timex on her wrist. "She can't find her pills."

Allen sat up in the bed. "What? Should I go with you?"

"No. There's no need."

"What time is it? I'll go…"

"No; it's fine. I've got it. It's ten-thirty," she said, fixing the sheets on her side of the bed.

Allen eased back down. "I thought it was the middle of the night."

She walked around to the bottom of the bed. "I'm going," she said, squeezing his foot through the blanket. "I'll be back in half an hour."


She knocked on Louise's door and noticed how cold it was outside. She wasn't normally out at this time. She peered across the dark yard and could hear the dirty, maraca-like sound of cicadas and the susurrating splats of a lawn sprinkler. "Lou," she said loudly, pushing the doorbell with her finger. She heard it chime somewhere in the house. She pushed it again.

She raised her hand to the heavy brass knocker when the glass panels on either side of the door filled with light. She righted herself as Louise opened the door.

The old woman was silhouetted against the foyer light.

"What in the hell is wrong with you?"

"Hi, Louise," Mary said gently.

The woman only stared at her, and after a minute Mary said, "Are you all right?"

"No; I most certainly am not."

"Did you find your pills?"

Louise just shook her head.

Mary crossed her arms and, after a moment, looked down at her feet. She had never noticed the welcome mat before, this one that was now under her shoes. She ever-so-slightly adjusted her feet so she could read it. "The witch is in." She smiled into one cheek.

She lifted her head and saw Louise standing there rigidly. She said, "I'm—"

But Louise held up her hand.

Then, slowly, the old woman stepped aside and gestured into the foyer. "Just go find those goddamn pills," she said. 

Mary nodded and stepped inside.

BIO: Michael Schrimper is a graduate of Indiana University's undergraduate Creative Writing program. His stories have appeared in The Crimson Umbrella Review, Bellow, The Zodiac Review, and Bartleby Snopes.