An old woman cleans my house. She sends the money she earns to her children and grandchildren – maybe her great-grandchildren too. They all live in a nice house in some evergreen part of Europe, by the banks of a river. On her days off, my old cleaning lady secretes herself in a windowless industrial building in Bnei Brak that used to house a factory making artificial sweeteners. She pays five hundred shekels in protection money to a fat Filipino who sits day and night by the abandoned building’s entrance, watching over the residents.
She gave me all that information the first time she came to me, no hesitation, as if she had memorized that broken bit of text. With crude gestures, she had outlined the contours of the fat Filipino, his slanted eyes and bloated body, finally adding that he charged her on the first of the month. “This way not problems,” she had said.
She’s been working for me for two years, doing her job quickly, thoroughly even. True, she doesn’t move the furniture – heavy or light – but she does clean all the corners, doesn’t flood anything with water, and she doesn’t lose things or break them. She doesn’t change the existing layout, makes the floor shine, and doesn’t chase away my two cats.
But that’s not a big deal with Prince, my velvet cat that trudges after me everywhere, always with measured steps. Not because of fear or hesitation, but out of a profound contempt for anyone who isn’t him. My old cleaning lady gets along with Putin too – a sour-faced, neurotic cat, deeply disturbed by his countless incarnations, including this current one. So much so that even a leaf falling soundlessly from a tree can make him jump up on the roof, let alone a stroking hand. She doesn’t suck up to him or shower him with love, but it’s enough for her to speak in her velvety voice, as he slips outside at the sight of the brimming water bucket, to draw him back inside. Unlike Prince, who reclines imperiously on the sofa all day long, Putin only dares lie on it when my old cleaning lady is in the house.
My cleaning lady charges 250 shekels for five hours, give or take. Last time she was here, I asked her to do something about my refrigerator. The shelves were an unpleasant greenish hue spotted with bits of parsley and sticky with honeyed fingerprints. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d cleaned it – or if, indeed, I had ever taken the time to clean it thoroughly.
She emptied it, removed the shelves and drawers, and began scrubbing. Prince slowly ate from his bowl, and Putin cowered in a corner of the sofa, giving her a piercing look.
I had suddenly given her a long look of my own, noticing with certainty that yes, she was old – really, really old. She was stocky and broad, but so tiny, dwarfish, her head coming up to my chest. Her skin was nearly transparent, three colors of spidery veins showed beneath it around her neck, which sagged as she leaned forward to remove the right-hand vegetable drawer.
A terrible sense of guilt had instantly filled me! I was employing an old woman, overripe with years, who slept in an abandoned building and paid half the salary she got from me to a fat Filipino, while the rest – 500 shekels – she saved. I wondered what she lived on, who else employed her, whether or not she had electricity and running water, where she washed her clothes, and what she ate.
“Now, have sandwich?” she suddenly asked.
I shuddered involuntarily. The refrigerator was so clean and spotless. The floor was filthy with leftovers, waiting for the old cleaning lady to clean it as only she knew how.
“Sure, sure!” I leapt up in search of a soft avocado. She had taken a liking to avocado sandwiches right from the start. When I neared Putin, he bolted, as if bitten by a snake, and escaped through the window. I waded in the soapy water that swamped the floor and prepared her usual avocado sandwich; adding a few drops of lemon, a pinch of salt and three tomato slices. Then I poured water into a tall glass for her.
She sat and ate her sandwich silently. Finally, she cleared the small plate and put it in the sink, but not the glass of water, and I knew she would drink more later.
I cringed. Perhaps this would be her only meal of the day. And then, suddenly, I realized the old cleaning lady was not as broad and stocky as I had thought – the oversized, coarse fabric clothes she wore were what gave her that solid look. But as I looked, her true image was revealed to me. She was a miniscule woman of about seventy, maybe more. Skeletally thin, transparent like a drop of dew, a stranger in her own country, starved, she had slaved for me for more than two years.
“That’s it, sweetie, me going,” she suddenly said.
I looked around in amazement. The floor had regained its reddish hue, and for a moment I thought I could see white swans drifting on it. Everything seemed brighter, newer – the furniture and the paintings.
I looked at the wall clock and my heart skipped a beat – cleaning the refrigerator had taken an extra forty-five minutes, and I only had two hundred and fifty shekels in my purse. I began to apologize, stammering excuses.
“Everything fine,” she said. She quickly took the bills and changed her rubber sandals for a pair of fake white Puma sneakers. “I always take two fifty,” she went on. “I love cleaning. If your house clean, my heart clean too, and everybody happy.”
Suddenly her eyes fixed on some small holiday gifts I had prepared for my accountant, my gardener and my beautician. They were little apples made of red plastic or silvery iron wire and were full of candies and chocolates.
“Beauties,” she said, a dreamy look on her face.
Why hadn’t I thought of her?
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” she said and shut the door as she left, taking the trash bag with her.
That night, I could find no rest. Why hadn’t I thought of the old cleaning lady? How could an elderly lady be so transparent to me, invisible? What did this say about me? About our society? What did this say about God?
Towards dawn, I determined in my heart to do it – to leave the confines of my familiar self. To become a human being.
I called her first thing in the morning.
She wheezed and panted on the other end of the line.
“Where do you live?” I spat out as soon as she answered.
“Why sweetheart want to know?” she asked sharply.
“I want to bring you a holiday gift,” I cheerfully announced.
“HaKishon 300,” she finally said somewhat hesitantly.
I went out onto Bialik Street in Ramat Gan and picked up presents for the old cleaning lady: a glass jar stuffed with quality chocolates, much better than those inside the fake plastic apples; a set of small kitchen towels, their edges embroidered with rose patterns; a bouquet of sunflowers; a classic vase; a women’s care package; three bundles of socks, and two decorative pillows bearing the words ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’.
I climbed into the car with the shopping bags and allowed the GPS to take me to the house the old cleaning lady lived in. On the way, I drove past garages and car lots brimming with vehicles and vehicle parts. Finally, I pulled up outside a huge industrial building.
I got out of the car and looked up at the sky – a giant chimney was emitting sweetish gray smoke.
An obese man, ruddy and bald and slant-eyed, sat in the entrance to the building.
“Who you look for?” he hissed.
It suddenly occurred to me that I never remembered the cleaner’s name. All I could recall was that her name rhymed with ‘Sri Lanka’, but with another letter instead of the ‘k’. And even that wasn’t her real name.
“An old woman, a cleaning lady,” I answered feebly.
“Straight, straight and right,” he muttered.
I walked down a dark corridor lined with filthy plaster. An emergency light flickered in the distance. A drop of water splashed on my head from somewhere above. To my right was a rickety wooden door with a plastic handle. I knocked three times.
The old cleaning lady opened the door, surprise evident on her face.
“Happy Rosh Hashanah!” I cried cheerfully and handed her the bags.
She looked behind me suspiciously, glancing left and right, and then finally let me inside.
The room was miserable, illuminated only by a cheap, economy bulb without a lampshade, but the room was neat and tidy. It held a bed, a closet, a microwave, a small refrigerator and a washing machine. On one wall a door stood ajar, exposing a toilet and a tiny shower stall.
I was shocked. “It’s so nice here!” I forced myself to say. “Really lovely!”
I spread the presents on the bed and praised the softness of the towels and the quality of the chocolate.
“Thank you, sweetie! Thank you!” she said and squeezed me in a hug. Her nose pressed against my bellybutton, filling the indent as if it had always been its missing piece. As she crushed herself against me, I felt the sharpness of her bones and the coldness of her skin. Her faded blue eyes were moist and transparent.
I realized it was time to leave and took a single step back to reach the door. “Wait,” I said suddenly. “How about a few selfies?”
I took pictures of both of us standing next to the microwave, by the refrigerator, and beside the washing machine.
As I did a U-turn to head back to Tel Aviv, I saw her marching furiously, almost running in her white Puma sneakers. Her face looked ghastly, her eyes were partly closed, her mouth clenched into a thin line. She looked older and skinnier than ever; her sinewy hands furrowed with wrinkles, adorned with bruising and the blemishes of old age, her thinning hair shriveled under the touch of the setting sun. When the lights changed, I shook myself to get rid of the vision, thinking it was merely a delusion. I shrugged off a feeling of anxiety – it was probably another old woman who just happened to also wear white sneakers.
She called ten minutes later. I didn’t recognize her voice at first. It was feeble and crushed. The old cleaning lady was weeping. “Why you need to do this?” Her voice was softly accusing and I realized it had been her I had seen running for her life.
“Do what? Srilanpa? What has happened?” I could hear my voice rising as I spoke.
“I know you go to policia,” she sobbed. “This why you took photo. Why you do that?”
“What policia?” I shouted. “I only wanted to make you happy!”
“Why?” It was her turn to shout. “What was presents for?”
“For… for cleaning the refrigerator yesterday… and for working for me for so long,” I stammered. Suddenly it did sound rather odd.
“So what?” she cried in a broken voice. “I work for so long every time and no presents. Every time! Now suddenly expensive presents and photos! For policia! Curse you! I spit on you!” She spat loudly and hung up.
Heavyhearted and with my head bent low I arrived home. The day had already gone, the house was filled with shadows. As usual, Prince was crouched on the sofa. Putin, though, came to me for the first time in his life. He rubbed against my foot. I put a cold hand down to stroke his gray head, but before I could feel his fur between my fingers, he lunged for the window. He jumped through it and disappeared. He was never seen in my house again. Neither was the old cleaning lady.