Dzigbordi parked her Toyota Corolla in the lot of the dreary, oatmeal-colored subdivision and looked around. A despotic green dumpster sat resolutely in the far corner of Liberty Hills Community for the Aged, looking as though it was ready to vomit its contents. It stared at her defiantly. She knew that when her job was done in the next two hours, she would be forced to confront the imposing refuse receptacle on a more intimate level, and prayed that it would show her some measure of mercy.
The entire subdivision oozed decay. Cracks in the asphalt beneath her feet were so wide that she wondered if an earthquake had devastated the area at some point in the recent past. Of course she knew this couldn’t be the case. There were no earthquakes in Macon, Georgia. In fact, nothing ever happened in Macon. She wondered how and why she had ever left her life in Accra to come to this… but there she was: a 32 year old woman with a mop and bucket in her hand, trying not to break an ankle in one of the fissures of this poorly painted parking lot, wondering if she should go inside.
Her co-cleaner made the decision for her, and rather bluntly.
“C’mon, African. We gotta go in,” said Trisha. She tied a blue headscarf over her bright blond weave and took a last sip of water as she spoke. “Ain’t no use standing here. Jus’ standing here lookin’ at it ain’t going to make it clean itself.”
Dzigbordi hated working with Trisha. Trisha was ten years her junior and had no respect for herself or anyone else. She was uneducated. She mispronounced simple words like “ask” and “strawberry” and “street”, saying “axe” and “skrawberry” and “skreet” instead. And she always left the most difficult work for Dzigbordi to do because she was so damned lazy! But of all her transgressions, the one that irked Dzigbordi the most was Trisha’s insistence on calling her “African”. The impudence! If this girl was in Ghana by now, SHE would be Dzigbordi’s house girl… And she certainly wouldn’t be working shoulder-to-shoulder with her, cleaning White people’s shit.
“Please collect the rest of the things from the car so we can finish and go,” Dzigbordi directed with as much politeness as she could muster.
She felt inherently superior to Trisha. She knew that she shouldn’t, but she did. The Bible did say that all people were equal before God… however she was confident that she was a little more equal in the eyes of the Lord than this yellow-skinned girl, with matching yellow hair, popping her yellow banana flavored chewing gum. She looked like an ashawo – a whore – and God did not like whores, or women who dressed as such.
Clad in khaki shorts and white t-shirts, the two pair stood at the door, knocked and waited for someone to answer. A shiny cockroach scurried along the foundation of the modest townhouse, most likely on its way to the cornucopian dumpster. Dzigbordi felt something bite her leg. She scratched at it with the toe of her shoe, refusing to look down. This was the part of her job she hated.
At least twice a month, Clean n’ Cruise offered the public half off their regular price to clean a house of any size as part of their marketing strategy. This meant that virtually ANYONE could afford to get their house cleaned; not just the owners of the mega-mansions that she imagined herself owning one day. Drug addicts, drunkards, college students – the very lowest and scummy bottom of genteel society in general came flocking to Clean n’ Cruise website looking for a deal on the first and fifteenth of the month.
In Ghana, people did not behave this way. Dzigbordi would never understand how Americans did not feel shame to have people see the nasty conditions that they kept their homes in. She had seen it all: used condoms strewn on the floor, empty liquor bottles scattered everywhere, excrement spattered and dried in and on toilet seats: None of that prepared her for what she was to face that day.
A pale woman with a hooked nose and watery green eyes opened the door and stepped aside to let them in. Her head was topped with a mop of thinning, oily red hair. The smell of rotten food and filth escaped from the doorway with such fervor, one might have thought the nauseous gases themselves were being held captive against their will, and with the opening of the door took the opportunity to seize their emancipation.
“My name is Mary,” the home owner said kindly. She extended her hand in greeting. Dzigbordi put down her mop to take it. Trisha began to chew her gum viciously, refusing to shake her hand. “Please do come in. Excuse the mess. I tried to tidy up a bit before you came in. But I guess that’s why you’re here.”
As she smiled a weak sort of smile, the cleaning women looked around the home and grimly nodded their heads. Dzigbordi turned her lips upward in a flaccid half bow, trying to mask her horror.
“I’m Dzigbordi and this is Trisha,” she said in introduction. “May we see your coupon for today’s cleaning?”
“Yes! Yes of course! Please come in. My computer is in the back.”
Trisha cursed as she tripped over a damp, slimy knotted rug in the center of the kitchen floor. The entrance to Mary’s home took the trio from a tiny kitchen to a dining room which led to a modest sitting room and finally to two bedrooms in the rear of the townhouse. Something was glowering with circular eyes that pierced through the dusky air, and in the near distance Dzigbordi could make out the silhouette of a cat. Agitated, it scratched itself around the neck and belly in vain.
Fleas. That’s what must have bitten her outside.
“Where would you like us to begin?” she asked politely.
“You have a lovely accent,” Mary complimented. “Where is it from?”
“She African,” Trisha replied sharply.
“Yes. I’m from Ghana… in West Africa.”
“I had a guest here once from West Africa,” Mary said softly. “That room to the right is my guest room that I rent out to people who are looking for cheap accommodations.”
Yesu! You mean an African stayed in this house? How possible? And how did an obroni woman come to be this way? Eh? So an obroni can keep such a house? How possible!
Dzigbordi’s mind was buzzing with confusion. Without another word, she made for the first bathroom on the left of the narrow hallway. Trisha didn’t like to clean bathrooms, but Dzigbordi didn’t mind. She had swept gutters and weeded fields in secondary school. Wiping a mirror or two with the protection of plastic gloves hardly compared in difficulty.
At least that’s what she thought, until she pushed her way into Mary’s bathroom.
Stacks of soggy newspaper and empty Febreeze bottles sat between the toilet and sink. A rose-colored litter box had spilled its contents all over the once white-tiled floor. Grey mold sprouted on the knobs of the sink and shower head, and a quick glance to the right reveled fifteen or more nearly empty shampoo bottles sitting forlornly on a wooden shelf, covered in dust and sticky goo. She flushed the toilet before she dared to glance inside and poured a cupful of bleach without looking. What was that in the bathtub? A can of Raid? Were there actually cockroaches living in the shower? The carcass of the dreaded species of the pest confirmed the worst.
God. These are the days she wished she could summon a spirit to do this work for her. Ah!
Soon, sweat was pouring down her brown face, mingling with bleach and scouring powder. Mary stood in the background, admiring the transformation while giving firm instructions.
“Don’t throw this out. That’s still useful. I need these to store things in…”
Trisha rolled her eyes and put a rotting ice-cream carton and a mountain of ancient copies of Good Housekeeping magazine back on a rickety side table that groaned under the weight of so much debris.
“Do you recycle? We can take these bottles and cans out for you,” Dzigbordi said defiantly. So much of this stuff had to go!
“I do… unofficially,” Mary muttered. “You can just put the bottles in this plastic bag and set them outside the door. I’ll make sure they get recycled.
Dzigbordi nodded and set the swollen bag by the back door while Trisha hastily vacuumed. The overfed grey and black cat was going ballistic, scratching itself and mewing mournfully, clearly distressed by the foreign sound of the mechanical cleaner. She cut her eyes at the sickly creature, daring it to attack her so she could put it out of her misery with a quick stab. Trisha gave Dzigbordi a side glance. She had had enough. It was time to go.
“I think that’s going to complete it for today, Ms. Mary,” she said as began to pack up cleaning supplies. “Would you walk through and see if it’s to your satisfaction?”
“What about the kitchen?”
“We cain’t do the kitchen with no dishes in the sink,” Trisha snapped. “It’s in the terms you agreed to.”
Mary brightened up with a sudden thought.
“Give me a minute! I’ll take care of that right away!”
The two cleaning women groaned inwardly and rolled their eyes while Mary painstakingly put away her crust covered dishes. Dzigbordi wiped up around her, eager to make as much progress as possible. Trisha had abandoned all hope, choosing to wait in the car. She knew the African would understand. She was used to stuff like this – ‘cause she was African – but Trisha was American. She couldn’t be expected to deal with this kind of crap.
Dzigbordi paused in the middle of spraying and wiping and looked at the refrigerator door. There were two boys smiling back at her with wide, toothy grins.
“Are these your grandkids?” she asked Mary kindly.
“No, actually this one is my son, and the other is my grandson,” Mary explained. “Don’t they look just alike?”
“Yes they do. And very handsome, too.”
“Do you have kids?”
“Yes,” Dzigbordi replied. “A daughter. She’s ten. Trying to adjust to life in America.”
Mary patted Dzigbordi’s hand. She resisted the urge to flinch.
“She’s going to be fine. Somehow, kids always make their way. They figure out the best thing to do.”
Dzigbordi nodded and asked the elderly woman if she’d be needing anything else before she left.
“No, no! You’ve been so kind,” she whispered. “Please take this for yourself and your friend. You were wonderful.”
Dzigbordi looked down at the two orange prescription bottles that Mary had placed in her hand. They were filled with quarters.
“I didn’t have time to go out and get cash. I hope this is okay…”
“It’s all money, Ms. Mary. Thank you for thinking of us. It’s certainly one tip I will never forget!”
Mary smiled and waved goodbye as they drove away. When she was certain that the cleaning women were far out of sight and would not return, she drug her beloved plastic bottles back into the house and set them in the living room. Then she glanced over her shoulder as she made her way to the dumpster. Waste! What waste! She mumbled secret incantations about saving the earth as she returned new and old treasure back to her home. The phone was ringing. She scampered towards it and answered with trembling hands.
“Eric? Honey? Hi! Yes… yes honey. The cleaning women just left. I am trying, Eric. I really am. I just wanted to keep a few things is all… Please bring Jason over. I haven’t seen him in so long. I know, honey, I know. Eric, don’t talk to me like that! I’m still your mother! Sweetie, I’m sorry… Hello? Hello?!? Eric… Eric!!!”
Mary sighed, put the phone back in its cradle and gazed at the darkling house filled with things. Things that never judged her; and more importantly, things that never, ever left.