A Variation In Temperature
Across the dry wooden porch quick footsteps clattered, and John Morris rehearsed the woman's name—Marie—and the greeting he'd prepared. Hello, I'm John.
The bell rang and he headed for the mudroom, running a hand through his sparse hair. But instead of seeing a face through the latticework of the mudroom door, he saw a back, a woman’s back with a drape of dry hair hanging tense over narrow shoulders. If she'd heard his steps advancing across the floor tiles, she gave no sign and only pivoted around when he opened the door. Bluish-gray smoke eddied around her head, and she threw something into the bushes at the side of the house.
“It was out—the cigarette,” she said, making her red-rimmed eyes wide. “I'm Marie.” She shrugged, as if to say—I'm the only Marie you're goanna get. “I'll look around, tell you what I think,” she continued, brushing past him, leaving his hand outstretched and empty.
At that moment, John's dog Molly, roused from her slumber, sped down the stairs, her unclipped nails scrambling and scratching against the wood—a sound like longed-for rain. She barreled into the mudroom, and John shoved her back with his knee.
“Does it bite?” Marie asked.
“She,” John said. “She's very friendly.” He offered Molly his hand, but the dog nosed him away and whined, impatient to sniff the stranger. “She'll sense if you like her.”
“Maybe you can keep it chained up.”
“No,” he said, his voice cracking higher with the beginning of irritation. “No.” He cleared his throat and smiled. “So, it's nice to finally meet. I feel as if I already know you from our phone tag.”
It seemed a reasonable thing to say, he'd said it to others and received a grin for his trouble. But Marie snapped her head up several degrees and glared at him as if he'd blurted out a reference to some greater intimacy they'd shared, one she wished to forget. To date, they’d only communicated in recorded statements, filled with unanswered questions and gaps. He'd felt absurd leaving the second message: Hello, anyone there? It's Mr. Morris—John—please call me John. I hadn't heard back, I thought I'd call again, I guess you're not there. Well. Please call me.
In her response, a different kind of silence had hung between downward inflections: Marie—Duffy, yeah, I can be there Tuesday. Bye.
“What I mean is—the phone messages—we've never actually spoken before,” he said. “Phone tag, it's just an expression.”
She looked away, still frowning, but he had the impression she was very aware of him, more aware than the average person would be. She must be struggling to place him, to render him sensible. “You're John Morris,” she said. Maybe she wasn't used to friendliness.
“I am. And you're Marie Duffy.”
“Who's been doing your cleaning? This floor's filthy.”
“Well, the dog,” he said, spreading his hands apart. “And—”
“The dog,” she said. She clucked her tongue and squinted at him through a fringe of hair that had fallen across her face. “You live alone—you said that on your message. Men don't know how to clean.”
Was that true? It did seem that women had a confidence about housecleaning, an élan that many men lacked. Women had access to a particular knowledge base as well, drawing on it to, say, know that soda would lift a stain, or that vinegar could be used to clean mirrors—these were not things men of his generation had learned. His daughter's house was immaculate—had she at one time received special instruction from his wife? In the past few months, he'd tried to figure things out but had finally admitted failure. At least he'd done something about it. Three days before, as he'd turned from paying for the newspaper at the General Store, a flier on the bulletin board had caught his eye, and he’d paused, suspended between intention and curiosity. HouseCleaning-ReasonableRates, the sign had said. The letters were run together, all at the same slant, as if the writer had labored to place them between lines carefully drawn with a child's plastic ruler. Along the bottom edge, a fringe of torn strips had a phone number written across them, like streamers at a used car lot. Looking up, he saw a number of other advertisements for housecleaning, machine-printed on pastel paper with images of mops and brushes and suds. They boasted of references, experience. Their strips were in demand; their bottom edges made gap-toothed grins. He'd torn off one of the handwritten ones and put it in his pocket.
“Mind if I smoke?” Marie asked, squinting even harder. “No, you do—it's okay,” she said, unwrapping a stick of gum and jamming it in her mouth before he could respond. “Come on, show me the house.” She pushed Molly away with her knee and headed for the kitchen, speaking in a nasal monotone. “Will you be here when I clean? Because I don't like to do houses if men are around.” The gum smacked. “I guess you’re okay, though. You don't mind cleanser smell, do you? It's pretty hard to clean without it. And I don't do windows, were you going to ask me?”
She led him through the first floor, the hard twang of her voice easing as she began to speak in the kind of tone people use to think out loud. This room, twenty minutes—he heard her say. Molly trotted along at her heel, and John followed them both, already feeling in the way. Her hands were thrust in the pockets of her denim jacket, making her shoulders hunch, and fold of baggy, faded jeans hid whatever motion her hips made. How old was she? John wondered. Older than his daughter, who was thirty-one. In the living room, Marie stopped before the fireplace to gaze at the regal portrait of his wife he'd had done on their thirtieth anniversary. “Who's this?”
“My wife,” he said quietly, hoping the woman wouldn't say anything jarring or hurtful. “Ann was her name,” he said in a firmer voice. “She passed away five months ago.” He held his breath—some things could be abided, some not.
Marie studied the picture with a serious expression. “Beautiful face,” she said. Her own face softened, making John aware of how hard it had been up to that moment, pinched shut and pale bone. “What's upstairs?” she said, still gazing at Ann.
“Two bedrooms, a bath, my office. Do you want to see?”
“I don't need to, no,” she said. “I can start right away—tomorrow, if you want.”
“How much would you—”
She began to walk out of the room. “Seventy-five, once a week. The first time a hundred. Because I'll have to do extra.”
Nine was the agreed on time of arrival. He set the alarm for seven-thirty—even though it made him feel silly—and woke up an hour earlier in anticipation. By eight-thirty, he’d showered, eaten breakfast, even taken Molly for a short walk. Since Ann's death, he'd gotten into the habit of sleeping later, till nine or ten. The last few months, caring for her, he'd slept very little, although he never begrudged it. As his time with her drew to a close, he didn't want to spend it asleep. These days, he stayed up late working and reading, often considering how he'd shifted his whole life a few hours later—offset it, as if death's hand had blotted out a few hours he wouldn't ever recover. Time was precious, and by nine-twenty, he'd become impatient.
With a cup of coffee from the fresh pot he'd made, he contemplated the house. In the sunlight, dust shone on the tile floor, the counter, the stack of junk mail not yet gone through. In an area of floor he never disturbed, Molly had left paw prints preserved in dried mud. Cobwebs hung in a corner of the dining room, and dark and persistent stains marked the sink. Filthy was not a word he would have used; somehow he felt as if the disarray was all he had left of his life with her—Ann, the normal effluvia of lives spent together graying and settling. In a type of mortuary cleansing, it was about to be scrubbed away, the signs of their time run down the drain along with soap bubbles and tepid water. Was it too late to cancel?
The phone startled him. There was a lot of static on the line, but it was Marie; she'd had car problems. Could she come tomorrow?
“I've waited this long, I can wait one more day,” he said. “All right, yes—nine-thirty.”
The next day, he was determined not to waste so much time in preparation. After all, he told himself, it wasn't like some sort of date. He showered and shaved and tried to look around the bathroom with an impersonal eye, as he imagined she would. The seams between the tiles had many gaps and needed scrubbing. In the kitchen, he put all the dishes away and made a fresh pot of coffee, remembering at the last minute he had no cream in the house.
“No, it makes me too jittery,” she said, her gaze going from the coffee pot toward him, stopping just short. She waggled a large, green plastic bottle. “I'm fine with this. See? I bet you drink strong coffee.”
It pleased him, her saying that, as if she were praising his own strength. “I've always enjoyed strong, black coffee,” he said. “I grind the beans myself and—”
“Yup,” she said. “I guessed you would. Where's your vacuum?” He showed her; she seemed displeased; it needed a new bag. Did he have one, she asked. No. Next time, she would bring her own vacuum. She removed the denim jacket and peered at him through narrowed eyes, searching for, he supposed, signs of masculine interest in her t-shirt covered form. But he found her masculine, sere and dry. Within five minutes, she was washing the kitchen cabinets, and he retreated to his office to work.
He was in the midst of writing a piece on the history of sugaring—the production of maple syrup. As background to the history itself, he wanted to explain a bit about the chemistry of the sap and what made it run. He'd downloaded several articles about hydraulics and how the trees sensed temperature. Actually, it wasn't so much that they sensed anything; they had no animal consciousness. It had to do with the sap freezing during the night and melting during the day, and the variation in temperature producing a flow.
A hole, or tap—no more than 5/16” in diameter to minimize damage—is bored shallowly into the mature tree. Each year, a new tap must be bored as the natural healing process of the tree closes the one from the previous year. This process is called “walling off.”
Again, he found himself thinking of the trees as more animate than they actually were, feeling concern over their injuries and that a year was a long time to heal. Of course, they couldn't will this healing process anymore than they could sense whether it was cold or warm. In fact, “they” didn't exist; there were no tree brains that directed action, no tree souls.
“Are you going to be in here much longer?”
He’d almost forgotten about her—had she finished the downstairs already?
“I can do the other rooms first if you want.”
“I'm working. Will you just dust around me?”
It was not as hard as he'd imagined letting go of the house's familiar disarray; he was pleased at how surfaces developed a smoother texture, counters and shelves became slick and shining. The cleanser smell was fresh. As if some alchemy had been performed, the stains in the sink disappeared. He wanted to ask her how she'd done it, but, of course, if he had, she'd have only said it was a secret.
His intention was not to enjoy her too much. Once the house was back up to a satisfactory standard of cleanliness, he thought he might request she come every other week. He would find things to do when she was around, after all, there was always something. It was Molly who seemed most anxious about Marie. When she was in the house, the dog sighed and got up to leave the room for minutes at a time, checking and re-checking on her whereabouts. It was the same way she'd behaved just after Ann had died, except this time it was a presence Molly had to adapt to, not an absence.
In his mind, Tuesdays became “Marie-days.” Even though she always came late, he'd get up early and shower and shave. Leaving the door unlocked, he'd arrange himself at the kitchen counter with the newspaper. Once she arrived, she'd spend several moments taking her coat off and putting on sneakers. It always seemed to take a long time, and he wondered—did she also glance at herself in the mirror, tuck away a stray wisp of hair? “Hi,” she'd say, walking into the kitchen. And he'd say, “Hello, how are you, Marie.” “OK,” she'd respond. “But it's still early.” He'd smile. “Where do you want me to start today?” she'd ask. He'd respond, “Wherever's good”—and she'd head upstairs and work her way down.
The third time she came, John decided it wasn't necessary to greet her; he would take Molly for a walk and leave the door unlocked. When he returned, her battered car was in the driveway, and upstairs there was the whine of an unfamiliar vacuum. He noted a faint smell of cigarettes in the mudroom, just a hint of that intoxicating harshness which to him had always evoked music and sex. The vacuum continued, and he took hold of the sleeve of her jacket and brought it to his nose.
All his coats smelled like Molly, and the first thing he was aware of was the absence of dog. Tobacco was there, but also something more—a pinch of mildew, a slight chemical residue of laundry soap. Closer to the shoulder, where her hair must rest, there was a flash of scent; hard to imagine her wearing perfume, she maintained such a fierce unattractiveness. The house had become silent again, and a small fear that she would surprise him and see what he was doing, made him let go of the sleeve. It drooped against the wall, a wall that had once held many coats, coats for all seasons, but was now otherwise empty.
When she did come downstairs, she came up to him. “I found this,” she said, holding up a flash drive. “Is it important or something?”
“Where,” he said with growing excitement, “did you find that?” It had been missing since the time of Ann's death and contained almost all of his work from the year before. After hours spent on his hands and knees searching under his desk and behind the file cabinets, he'd finally accepted its loss, as if the entire last year had had to be given up too.
“It was under the dog's bed—it probably took it.”
The drive was encased in a cocoon of Molly's hair. When he brushed it off, he saw the plastic case had small indentations of teeth. Molly hadn't done anything like that since she was a puppy. He shook his head.
“Well, see,” Marie said. “I guess you do need me.”
That night, he had a dream. He slept lightly and the dream melded with the sounds of the forest outside his open window, the hooting of owls, the crash and rustle of branches thick in the wind. He ran along a forest path with no pain in his knees; he was younger, and his hair was long and thick. It was dark, and lights were set back in the trees so that he couldn't see what they illuminated. Suddenly, a large creature leapt across the trail in front of him, and he stumbled, falling heavily onto his palms across leaves slick with snails. He looked around in astonishment, more light shone ahead, and he parted a curtain of foliage to see a woman wearing a white dress, a gown really, all frills and flounces and a jeweled comb sweeping her hair back. Within the dream, he was aware of how odd it was—that she was dressed in such a manner. She was scrubbing at something on the ground and held a cigarette between her lips.
He called, softly, not wanting to startle her. But she didn't look up, and he realized some quality of the wet leaves and the sound of the wind had muffled his voice. He kept watching, trying to determine what she was working on with such concentration.
Finally, he saw that what he’d thought was a gown was actually a nurse's uniform and instead of scrubbing, the woman was staunching blood that flowed from someone lying on the ground. Right away, he knew it was a mortal wound and tried to get closer to see who it was. That was when he woke up.
On Election Day—a Tuesday—a deadline loomed, and he didn't want to leave to vote mid-day and break up his work time. So he went early, leaving Marie a note to start upstairs. When he got home, her car was in the driveway, but the house was silent. From the mudroom, he called hello and wondered where Molly was. That dog was getting too old.
He stood at the upstairs landing and heard the vacuum go on and off. Then there was the sound of Marie's voice, softly speaking in a singsong tone, as if she were explaining something to a child. Curious, he drew himself up the stairs, holding his breath, stepping over the places that creaked.
Molly was visible through the open bedroom doorway, lying on the floor wagging her tail. He could hear Marie moving around in the room beyond, her voice plainer but still full of light song. So, I'll never do that again, Molly, he heard her say. “Right Molly? Right, from here on, I'm going to be good.”
It was funny what people said to dogs. Private things that wouldn't make sense to others, always out of context. So, Marie had learned that language too. Like him, she'd figured out how to be alone and not alone. He carefully went back down the stairs and turned on the radio to announce his return.
A half hour later, he was looking at the mail and was surprised when Marie came out of the downstairs bathroom. She usually moved at a fast pace, but that day, even more so; she seemed to glide on wheels right up next to him, close enough so that he took an involuntary step backwards. She was several inches shorter than he was, he'd never noticed before.
“I have to leave early today, doctor's appointment,” she said. “I've been waiting so long for it I didn't want to re-schedule.”
“Of course—I hope it's nothing serious.” He wondered whether he should pay her the full amount, or if there was an implication she'd make up the lost time next week.
“Back pain, sometimes I can barely get out of bed. I was in a car accident last year. Went to the chiropractor, but it's not helping.”
He examined her face, looking for signs of pain. But the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth seemed about to disappear; the tiny veins in the whites of her eyes had shrunken to traces. Something had changed. Her hair, which always looked tired, was full and shining. “You look different,” he said. “Nice, you look nice.” He winced, certain he had confirmed her conviction that he was just a horrible old lecher. He wished he could take it back.
“Thanks,” she said, waggling her fingers at him. “Bye.”
An hour later he'd realized she'd been wearing make-up. On her lips and around her eyes—a woman's eyes, sensuous, aware of his gaze. Pupils big enough to fall inside of.
“Mr. Morris, Mr. John Morris?”
“Yes, that's right, who's this?”
A police officer—a detective. “Sir, do you know someone name Marie Duffy?”
Although the voice on the phone was very polite, John felt rushed and anxious, as if he'd been pulled over for speeding. He had to stop and think. “Yes, she's been cleaning for me—my house—just a few weeks,” he said. “A month or two. What's this about?”
A criminal investigation. “Do you have any prescription medication in your home, sir? Painkillers, Oxycontin, anything like that?”
Most of the medical equipment had been removed right after Ann died, the hospital bed taken away, IV tubing discarded. In fact, the removal had happened too quickly, he'd wanted to slow the process down, wanted to hang on to everything a day or two longer, to forestall the break. “No,” he said into the phone and then remembered a barely used prescription for Tylenol with codeine that he hadn't bothered to throw away, and some muscle relaxers from a time when he'd strained his back moving furniture. “I suppose I might,” he said. “I'd have to check to make sure. My wife—”
“I'd check with her, sir. Let me know if there's anything missing. I'll give you my extension.”
“OK, I'm sorry, what was your name again? Yes, go ahead. But is she—Marie Duffy—in much trouble?”
He checked the pill bottles, but couldn't really be sure how many capsules they'd held before she came. The police officer had said she was in a lot of trouble, but was not yet in jail. It occurred to John that the detective hadn't said how he got his name. Marie must have given it—go ahead, he imagined her saying, call him. He'll tell you I didn't do anything wrong. He wanted to talk to her, to find out what she'd done, if she needed his help. Should he expect her next Tuesday? Or maybe he’d never see her again. He could leave a phone message. The dial tone sounded hollow, as if a great wind were blowing among long drooping wires hung high above some lonely place. It went on and on, and he hung up. If she'd asked for the pills he would have given them to her—that's what he wanted to say.
That night he couldn't sleep. Molly was so quiet that he woke her to make sure she was still alive. He stroked her head and began to speak but fell silent. At that late hour, all the things he might have said to a dog were forgotten, and besides, she was half-deaf. He dressed and sat in the dark, listening to the trees and the owls.
An accident, he remembered, Marie had said she'd been in an accident, that was why she was taking painkillers. It wasn't because she was some sort of criminal. Of course stealing was wrong, but she had to get by, drugs were expensive. She was someone in pain.
Why did he care? It was foolish; he was a foolish old man but he wasn't besotted with her, that wasn't it. More than anything else, he and Marie had been like trees, two living beings, but not capable of thought and action. They'd each occupied their own little square foot of the available space and reached out for the sun and rain but not for each other. Only sometimes, she'd touched him with her branches. The contact had surprised him, frightened him a bit, but he'd shifted around and tried to make room.
An earlier version of this story was published in TQR stories, 2009.