Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Smoking Closet

Since I have written about my E (Leatrice, who watched over me as a child), the memory was raised about the cleaning women that worked for us when I was a child.   We had cleaning women because the house on South Woodland was large, and because it was a sign that we had "made it".

The first one was a wonderful woman named Rosalie. She was my father’s favorite and she worked for us when we lived on Sherrington, and then for a brief period while we lived on South Woodland. Rosalie was very kind to all of us. But the thing that sticks in my mind is that Rosalie wore bedroom slippers all the time.   When my father would see her arrive, or would see her when he got home, he would sing out "Rose-A-Lee!"  I think that Rosalie may have worked for my father before my parents were married when he lived in Mayfield Heights.

There was Phoebe, a returning contestant, who came when I was in second and third grade. I liked Phoebe a great deal. But she had no time for children and talked in the third person. “Sweetie, I can’t talk with you, Phoebe has to vacuum” and “Child, you need to go up stairs and watch TV or go outside and play because Phoebe has to clean downstairs and she can’t it with just messing it right back up.”  After the Matty affair, Phoebe came back for a while, but left again when my parents seperated.

But the one forever burned in my mind was a woman named Matty that worked for us. Matty came on a high recommendation from one of my father’s “friends" and that was like getting unsolcited advice on how to stop drinking from a drunk laying in the gutter.  A recommendation from one his friends was a real crap shoot.  I think, I was in first or second grade when Matty came into our life, so I would have been 7 and 8 years old, but you don’t forget your first fright. And she was it. She was dark skinned – almost blue in her complexion, Matty was a walking bag of bones with crooked yellow tar stained teeth and glasses.   Whenever I hear Whoopi Goldberg do her Jamacian routine - and the charecter talks about a person who looked like an old raisin, I think of Matty.

She could have been the nicest person in the whole world – and evidently she was adored by the child in another house she worked at, so I was told by my father. But I was totally freaked out by her for the exact same reason my mother avoided her: Matty was filthy, and I don’t mean foul mouthed, but her uniforms were filthy.

"When I saw that her slip wasn't clean," my mother said, "I knew she wasn't clean." 

But the cleaning women were my father’s hires. My mother had E working for us. So as not to rock the boat, she avoided Matty at every cost. If Matty was cleaning upstairs, my mother was downstairs. And if Matty was down stairs, my mother went out shopping.  "Why should I be a prisoner of my bedroom when I can be at Bonwit Teller?"

My issues with Matty were further compounded when I decided that Matty had the worst disease possible: cooties. Now when I was a little kid, a cootie was a game where you built a bug. First person to build the “Cootie” won. But when I got to kindergarten, that’s where I discovered from the other boys that girls had cooties, and I discovered from the girls that I had cooties because all boys have cooties in first grade.  Since I had made up my mind that Matty had cooties, I asked if she knew what a cootie was to see if anyone else had ever raised the topic with her.

“Cooties?" she laughed, exposing her yellow teeth.  "Only dirty bums got the cooties,” she told me while she snuffed out a Winston into her chicken noodle soup bowl.  "How do you know this?" I asked.  "Well everone knows that bums got cooties.  You got to burn their clothes because if you put on their pants then you got the cooties too!"  Evidently Matty had been finding bums in the street, taking their pants and wearing them, and burning them I reasoned.  This hobby, along with the Matty's cooties, the sight of her snuffing her cigarette ashes in chicken soup, and the smell of the Winston made me queasy. God save us all!

But let’s set the cooties aside for a moment, and let’s discuss Matty’s smoking.

Now my mother smoked, so it wasn’t like the smoking was a big deal in our house, but Matty’s smoking was prolific.  She had her Winston's and the world was her ash tray.  My mother had to have conversations with her about it. E even got involved.

“Sister,” I remember E telling her, “I am not telling how to do your job, but you cannot clean this whole house with one hand, and stink it up again with what you got burning in the other.” If the constant smoking was an issue, what she smoked was an ever bigger one: Winston’s. Their smell was pungent, sweet and stomach turning.

Once I saw Matty smoking and her ash fell in the carpet. She saw me looking at what happened, took her foot and ground the ash deep in the carpet and said “It kills the moth larva,” before vacuuming it back up. By this point I was convinced that Matty was not a human, but an honest to God cootie herself. I started getting a nervous condition where I needed my own can of Windex and a roll of paper towels, and would start spraying everything within sight the minute Matty left the house for the Rapid (Shaker’s version of a streetcar) home. If she had touched it was polluted with an imagined film all things Matty. I sprayed Windex on anything, and I sprayed on everything that you aren’t supposed to use it on. I was obsessed with eradicating anything germ she left on whatever she touched.

Matty left our employment shortly after another confrontation about her incessant smoking problem. This time it was E who saw smoke rolling out of a coat closet by our back door one day. Just then my father walked in the back door.

“Jesus Key-riced! Do you smell something burning?” he asked.

“I think you need to check that closet.” She said as she put her coat and scarf on. “It could hold the answer to a lot funny things going on around here.”

“There could be a fire in there!” he stated. But everyone’s inaction was pretty evident. If there was a raging inferno in that closet, it would surprise just about everyone concerned. And raging infernos don’t puff their smoke, either.

“The only fire in that closet is coming from a Winston. I told her once already she isn’t a hog and all that smoking she’s doing isn’t going to cure what ails her, or preserve her.” She gave me a hug, gave my father a look that said “you killed it, you clean it,” and out the door E went, not wanting to be around for what was coming next.

Dad opened the closet, and there was Matty, in a cloud of fumes, puffing away.

“What the….”

“Oh Mr. K, I needed a smoke and I didn’t want to get the house dirty so I just thought I could step in here and light up for a …” My father shut the door. After a minute's worth of silence that felt like an hour, he walked to the garage and got the Cadillac started.

That night he took Matty to the Rapid, paid her for the day and her severance and then came back home. The next morning he loaded the trunk of the Cadillac with every coat in that closet and left for the dry cleaners, intent on removing Matty’s “cooties” and their scent from our home forever.

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