Lost in Big Houses

Archive Fiction Original Lit

The old guy wobbled around to the door. I knew he was there because the light darkened against the soap splattered glass above my head. You get really sensitive when you’re down on your knees. You get sensitive of sounds and moments, because each moment ticks away as time you won’t get back. You keep saying that in your head…temporary…temporary…temporary. My once polished sense of self-consciousness was replaced with an obsession about the position of my ass. When you’re on your hands and knees, it’s all about your ass.

He asked me if I was down on my luck and I sunk into my chest. I couldn’t help think, even in that low-tide moment of my life, that this wouldn’t have fazed me twenty years ago. I knew something had changed. I had crossed an emotional line and I was in deep. This wasn’t temporary. This was where I was and there weren’t little lights twinkling up in space…little hopeful prayers wrapped in glimmering hopeful stars. There were just dull floors in dull bathrooms for old rich people who asked dumb questions. A mental line had been crossed and I was becoming self-conscious about my own desperation. I didn’t have this going in, but after six months it all settles in like dirt.

When he left, the door click-thumped shut behind him and I remember feeling like I had just been locked into a kitchen freezer. There’s a certain click-suck sound to some doors. I’ve found this in apartment complexes…the run-down, cheaper ones where you hear people on the steps in the hall. I’ve heard it on the outside doors of retirement homes. It’s the sound of finality; of being really in some place alone…really, really alone. I hear the sound when I go into the walk-in of a liquor store at the end of my day. I never close the door behind me, even when I know it won’t lock. Sometimes a buzzer stays on and I get embarrassed. Paranoid bastard—the counter guys must think. But the concept of being trapped scares me. And I was in a different kind of trapped, one where you can’t see yourself where you are and you can’t see yourself anywhere else, then you’re really trapped. And I was really trapped.

In my shoulder bag were some peanuts and an apple, along with a container of yogurt that I rarely got time to eat. I sometimes had to chuckle about the brown leather shoulder bag that once held important papers. The papers were always jammed in half sideways as I rushed down airport ramps or up elevators to a next meeting. It had become a sack to hold a few spare rags, some extra deodorant and a bagged lunch that I could only eat in the hallway between the bathroom and the kitchen sink.

How do things happen to us in life? Or more importantly, and this is something I desperately need to understand; how do we let things happen to us? When we’re younger, every serious turn in life seems to have an apparent reason. We get mad and leave a job. We take a chance and try something new, something that will launch us to a better place. My wife and I used to joke about the rocket ride. Every time I had some crazy idea I’d tell her to get ready, we’re going on a rocket ride. We’d just laugh and pour another glass of wine. How she put up with me so long I’ll never know, though lately I’ve been hinting at getting an answer. I test her…maybe a slight joke about my day, just to see if she still sees the absurdity of what I had ended up doing. But of course she doesn’t laugh anymore like she used to, because it’s really not that absurd at all—and not that funny.

Really, I could blame a whole lot of events for why I was where I was. But that gets back to my point, when we’re younger, decisions and predicaments make more sense. When we get older, circumstances involve a long litany of tiny, dumbass ideas and decisions that if not clearly focused, spin off course and then in wide circles— so wide we don’t even know we’re going down until we’re down too deep to see the top. Even in our forties we’re young enough to take a dare, but it ends up like when we’re kids and someone bets us we can touch the bottom at the nine-foot end of the pool. The lesson of that bet, for any ten-year old, is learning just how real your decision was when you’re just six inches from the top. In later life we make decisions that get us in too deep as well, and there isn’t anything beyond that glimmer of water up top but death.

I leaned up from the bathroom floor, thankful my knees didn’t hurt too much. Screwed up knees would have seriously dampened my survival probabilities. I got my bucket and looked down the hall towards the dining room where Tina was finishing a quick dust. Tina was a child of twenty four and already with three kids and a deadbeat husband. She was just one of a million stories I found myself subjected to in my new life. In corporate life the stories were limited, either boring as hell or secretly scandalous, not much in between. I go back to a long ago Monday morning where a pudgy, middle-aged guy droned on for twenty minutes about a golf game. But when the editorial assistant with the straight brown hair fumbled by with her bags and sunglasses in the hallway, straight back from some weekend ocean trip, we followed her round ass down the hall in full blown hopes that reincarnation truly exists.

Tina had a way of swirling her twenty pound Kenmore Hempa-filter vacuum like a Marine hauling a flamethrower. Good house cleaners have an intensity, mainly because they’re working shit out in their heads. There wasn’t a person on that crew who wasn’t working something out. Sometimes the more screwed up a person was, the harder they beat on that bucket— pumped and pounded on their waxy rag like a prize fighter. Tina had that kind of energy and I liked her for it. She gave me hope. This wasn’t just about having a job in hard times; it was about being in a fight. Every time Tina pulled the neck of that vacuum she was wringing her husband’s runaway neck.

I also liked the way Tina wore her clothes; her torn Billabong t-shirt and gray sweats fought her on every inch of pale white flesh—pulling away and running for the hills. She was short, blonde and compact, arm-strong and beautiful in the eyes—beautiful because she knew who she was and was not far from knowing most people on a single glance. When she cleaned a floor, her shirt fell to a space below her small pointy breasts, near to the rim of her nipples until I had to look away. And when she walked, her pants dashed south and up her back side, off to the side and down she fought, pulling and pushing with one arm dusting and the other finding something lost and exposed. She made me smile just to watch.

Let me say outright that cleaning is a tough job, much tougher than my old desk job. The average time for cleaning a house is four hours for three floors, two on top, one and a half in the center with kitchen and then one half hour in the basement, depending on size. But this wasn’t a normal size. We were back and off the grid, back into genteel horse country north of Baltimore. It was here that I sensed the true depth of my descent into the American archipelago of underpaid labor. In the city, the space between classes is like a reach through effortless air, if you stretched just long enough you could slowly drift your imaginary fingers down the cheek of a rich person’s face. The eye exchanges are devoid of insinuation—the handshakes as plain as those at an Amway meeting.

But up in the valley, the distance is not only wide, it’s cultural—maybe even part of the DNA. Words are spoken like they’re scripted, level with the activity of business. In some ways, I liked this state of being better than the small houses. In the big houses, you’re a cog in a great wheel of contractors. It’s a tiered and entirely subjective hierarchy of skill…a figurative Animal Farm of related worth to the head farmer. But here there’s a rhythm and a placement and above all…purpose. To clean the house of a twenty-nine-year-old pharmaceutical rep is about as dry an experience as eating over-cooked chicken, but an estate puts you back in the circle of events. And as any person on the bottom would say, there’s hope in connection. And any hope is good hope.

The entrance to the estate I drove into on these cold mornings was gated but always open. The tall, black iron bars, pulled far back to the sides, were half meshed into the bulky line of forsythia and Juniper trees hovering like unruly teenagers over the faded brick walls. There was a two-story gate house to the right of the entrance that intrigued me. I couldn’t stop looking at it each time I drove up there. The building hadn’t been used in decades and the windows reflected an empty blackness through a grey, cobwebbed haze of glass. To think there was a time when someone’s whole life was devoted to one damn gate—a keeper of horses; a watcher of events in time. He, the gatekeeper—at the very edges of this privileged societal galaxy—was the face of tested expectation to generations. He’d have been a glorified gardener to the face of the world, but the secret keeper of dreams to those whose misplaced ideas were pushed away behind the misty pillars hovering ahead. You can enter the narrow gate of the rich but when you leave you won’t want to look back…it’ll depress you too much.

The old house has a small pillared overhang and a large set of marble steps that lead to a wrap-around southern-style porch. Everything beyond the house is set for the enjoyment of the one percent, including a garden path leading to an overlook where one could take in all of Hunt Valley on a good day. Tennis courts and a pool aligned the path to the right. The pool was built straight into the rocks that edge off to the less sloping side of the back yard. Straight back from the house are rolling courses of perfectly managed grass leading to a pavilion overlooking fenced pasture. In the center stands the big house—square and staunch as a cigar smoking fat man in a white tuxedo.

One time the owner of the house, probably the son of the old man who stared at me in the bathroom, came out on the upper part of the marble steps with his personal assistant attached to his left shoulder. He was around my age, well-dressed but casual. I expected him to look good since I had many times put his forty-plus pair of shoes together in long rows along his closet floor. They were divided by purpose, color, and quality and the instructions were explicit. I was learning the secret intuitive messages of butlers handed down since the dawn of the aristocracy—the master’s shoes defined the day and I would have to act accordingly.

I reached out my hand and he turned his full chest towards me. I could tell he was surprised that I didn’t just stand there like a squire uncertain about the complexities of the next joust. He took my hand with an eye-to-eye assurance that told me he understood me to be the guy in charge—a fumbling keeper of rags—yes—but still the commander on the field. Though from where he saw me, I’m sure my words seemed little more than a well-practiced soliloquy to an empty room, or a mimed play set to preserve the dying vestiges of my male ego. Still, I took a sense of worth where I could get it. It’s the American way to rise up, but it’s a hard road on deciding exactly where and when to do so.

There were times in my middle-aged downfall where I felt frustrated and trapped, and other times when I felt like a wild teenager. There’s a romantic freedom that comes with being on the fringes. I can’t deny that this feeling of undaunted giddiness hit me at certain points, and if it wasn’t for the violent emotional hammer of pending mortgage payments and an unsettled wife, I could probably have dissolved quite nicely into the fringes. I would simply have ridden a wave of artful eccentricity straight to societal oblivion. But fantasy flares up and dissipates quickly when we’re pushing fifty. The subtle laughter of a short, cute, twenty-four year old like Tina can spark memories that crash smack, head-on into my middle-aged reality, and I’m okay with that, because knowing that the tide is going out and not fighting it will determine when and how I’ll eventually jump overboard.

After the old man left, I just sat there in the bathroom staring down the hall to the grand entrance and the column of stairs that circled up to the second floor. The entire room was lit in natural light pouring from windows that wrapped in all four directions high up above. From the front entrance hallway, yellow and red stained-glass pushed dancing rays out against the crystal vases on the dark dresser at the bottom of the stairs. Maybe these were those hopeful prayers wrapped in shimmering stars?

With a deep breath I picked my sponge back up and forced my eyes from that widening universe of chandeliers, disappearing into the dusty streaks of light and a thousand disconnected thoughts. There’s a certain hesitation to starting work when one has drifted off, especially when it’s late in the day. It’s not far from the feeling I get when I wake up on a Monday. Since the day I lost my job, almost two years ago, I still wake up on Monday thinking I had some bizarre dream, just before a load of sand starts pouring and pounding against my chest.

I started off again in the corner, scrubbing the tile under the sink. Cradled in this chromed, cobwebbed underworld curled to the shoulder against the tile baseboard below the sink, I faded like a ghost into the inner workings of the big house. I heard the echoes and footsteps. Some mumbling voices, maybe some faraway laughter from the kitchen. I paused when I saw a strand of Victorian wallpaper still peaking behind the plaster against the tile below my knee. My mind followed the pedals of each faded flower and I was gone again in my head.

Suddenly I had the sense that this house would pull me in, somehow wrap its linen draped arms around me and never let me go. The sun streams in the hallway grew long against the floor and I could hear the kitchen servers and bartenders setting for dinner in the Florida Room. Tina’s voice echoed down the hall and was soon drowned out by her vacuum. She was apologizing for being too slow, for getting in the way.  Her words brought a tear to my eye. This is what my life had become. I had become a ghost. I could hear, but I wasn’t to be seen. I could feel, but I wasn’t to have an opinion. My words, if I were to speak at all, were to be crafted and to the point. For eight hours a day I was no longer me, I was the old guy of a crew of housekeepers. I saw life painted on a canvas before my eyes, as I just stood there naked and without a brush. Twinkling stars, I thought. I had become just one of a million twinkling stars. A pent-up ball of fire…too far away to reach.


Emerson John Probst is a freelance writer and former publishing executive in Baltimore, Maryland.  He  writes about the challenges facing older creatives and those seeking to redefine themselves in today’s economy.  When Emerson isn’t writing he enjoys cheap wine and stone masonry—often at the same time.

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