I am the Woman Who Cleans the Apartment of Mister Desmond Pathropallai

by Kari Strutt

...And my employer is a twisted bastard, for sure. He must know I don't bother to bring my cleaning tools anymore. I leave the vacuum in the trunk, next to bucket of organic cleansers and white cotton cloths he insisted on when I was hired. I come in empty handed, but I get to work right away. Sometimes the job is difficult.

I've never seen him, even in a photograph. He doesn't have pictures. No keepsakes. No drawings by a child's undisciplined hand, no birthday cards, no invitations, nothing stuck to his fridge door with a seashell magnet. No magazines or mail...no dust. Just furniture, small appliances, liquid hand soap and white towels— the objects you find in a show-home. Nothing else.

His art is reproduction, unusual ones mind you, no Monet, Manet, Matisse. He favors more difficult moderns...Karel Apel, Egon Schiele, Jan Arp. He has no easy chairs, only difficult ones, all rigid lines or audacious curves. Nothing comfortable. Nothing the color of chocolate.

When I open his door I hope to catch a whiff, some smell that signals he recently ate here, or showered, made love...took a shit. There is a bowl of lemons and limes on the kitchen counter. Always five lemons. Always five limes. The crisp hint of citrus hangs over it. That is the only smell.

I want to throw open his cabinets, to count his cups, or ply through his underwear drawer, to expose his Levitra, or perhaps a chrome vibrator that resembles a sculpture by Miro. By contract, I am not allowed to open any door, no matter how small.

Instead I play his twisted game. I search for the one dirty thing.

Two weeks ago it was a soiled tampon, tucked under the blue-red chair that looks vaguely like a womb. Sometimes I ease into that chair, rest for a moment, but I always put on my hairnet first and use a lint brush when I go. I do not want to leave any trace of myself for him.

Last week he left his small mess in the bookshelf that has no books, only a hand carved wooden sign that says, "Why do you want to read others' books when there is the book of yourself?" Behind that sign he hid a handful of dead wasps. I brushed them, with the heel of my my hand, into the brown paper bag from my lunch. Even dead, wasps carry disease.

My sister asks me why I keep going. I tell her it is because, if I find the needle in his twisted haystack, he sends me a cheque for five times my normal rate. Even if I don't, which happened only once, he pays standard. Either way the cheque arrives, always written in his clear hand, circular 'a's and 'o's, vertical consonants. Always he signs in long hand, black ink, Mister Desmond Pathropallai.

I tell my sister I go back for the easy money, but really I want to know how he found me. I want to know if I hate him.

BIO: Kari Strutt's short fiction has appeared in Event, FREEFALL, Grain, Prairie Fire, and Room. In addition, an excerpt from her novel in progress appears in Freshwater Pearls, and a creative non-fiction piece is included the anthology Embedded on the Home Front. "As Regards the Ashes of Peter" will appear later this year in Prism International (51.4).