Authors: Nita Prose
This morning, the first time I entered the Blacks’ penthouse, I cleaned it from top to bottom—minus the occupied bathroom because Giselle was in it. She did not seem herself at all. I noted upon my arrival that her eyes were red and puffy. Allergies? I wondered. Or could it be sadness? Giselle did not dally. Rather, soon upon my arrival, she ran off to the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind her.
I did not allow her behavior to interfere with the task at hand. On the contrary, I got to work immediately and cleaned the suite vigorously. When it was in perfect order, I stood outside the closed bathroom door with a box of tissues and called out to Giselle the way Mr. Snow had
taught me. “Your rooms have been restored to a state of perfection! I’ll return later to clean the bathroom!”
“Okay!” Giselle replied. “No need to yell! Jeez!” When she eventually emerged from the bathroom, I handed her a tissue in case she was indeed allergic or upset. I expected a bit of a conversation, because she is often quite talkative, but she quickly whisked herself away to the bedroom to get dressed.
I left the suite then and worked through the fourth floor, room after room. I fluffed pillows and polished gilt mirrors. I spritzed smudges and stains from wallpaper and walls. I bundled soiled sheets and moist towels. I disinfected porcelain toilets and sinks.
Halfway through my work on that floor, I took a brief respite to deliver my trolley to the basement, where I dropped off two large, heavy bags of sullied sheets and towels at the laundry. Despite the airlessness of the basement quarters, conditions aggravated by the bright fluorescent lights and very low ceilings, it was a relief to leave those bags behind. As I headed back to the corridors, I felt a great deal lighter, if a tad dewy.
I decided to pay a visit to Juan Manuel, a dishwasher in the kitchen. I zoomed through the labyrinthine halls, making the familiar turns—left, right, left, left, right—rather like a clever trained mouse in a maze. When I reached the wide kitchen doors and pushed through, Juan Manuel stopped everything and immediately got me a large drink of cold water with ice, which I appreciated greatly.
After a short and agreeable chat, I left him. I then replenished my clean towels and sheets in the housekeeping quarters. Next, up I went to the fresher air of the second floor to begin cleaning a new set of rooms, which suspiciously yielded only small change in tips, but more on that later.
By the time I checked my watch, it was around three o’clock. It was time to circle back to the fourth floor and clean Mr. and Mrs. Black’s bathroom. I paused outside their door to listen for evidence of occupancy. I knocked, as per protocol. “Housekeeping!” I said in a loud but
politely authoritative voice. No reply. I took my master keycard and buzzed into their suite, dragging my trolley behind me.
“Mr. and Mrs. Black? May I complete my sanitation visit? I would very much like to return your room to a state of perfection.”
Nothing. Clearly, or so I thought, husband and wife were out. All the better for me. I could do my work thoroughly and without disturbance. I let the heavy door close behind me. I surveyed their sitting room. It was not as I’d left it a few hours earlier, neat and clean. The curtains had been drawn against the impressive floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street below, and there were several small minibar bottles of scotch knocked over on the glass table, a tumbler beside it half-empty, an unsmoked cigar beside that, a crumpled napkin on the floor, and a divot on the divan where the drinker’s bottom had left its mark. Giselle’s yellow purse was no longer where I’d seen it in the morning, on the bureau by the entrance, which meant she was traversing the town.
A maid’s work is never done, I thought to myself as I pulled the pillow off the divan, plumped it, returned it to its spot, and smoothed any lingering divan imperfections. Before cleaning up the table, I decided to check the state of the other rooms. It was looking very much like I’d have to clean the entire suite from scratch.
I headed to the bedroom at the back of the suite. The door was open, and one of the hotel’s plush, white bathrobes was strewn on the floor just outside the threshold. From my vantage point, I could see the bedroom closet, with one door still open, exactly as I’d left it in the morning because the safe inside was also open and was preventing the closet door from closing properly. Some of the safe’s contents were still intact—I could see that much immediately—but the objects that had caused me some consternation in the morning were notably missing. In some ways, this was a relief. I turned my attention away from the closet, stepped carefully over the bathrobe on the floor, and entered the bedroom.
And only then did I see him. Mr. Black. He was wearing the same double-breasted suit he had on earlier when he bowled me over in the
hallway, only the paper in his breast pocket was gone. He was lying down, flat on his back on the bed. The bed was creased and disheveled, as though he’d tossed and turned a lot before settling on his back. His head was resting on one pillow, not two, and the other two pillows were askew beside him. I would have to locate the mandatory fourth pillow, which I most certainly put on the bed this morning when I made it, because the devil is, as they say, in the details.
Mr. Black’s shoes were off, on the other side of the room. I remember that distinctly because one shoe pointed south and the other east, and immediately I knew it was my professional duty to point both shoes in the same direction, and smooth out the nasty tangle of laces before I left the room.
Of course, my first thought upon beholding this scene was not that Mr. Black was dead. It was that he was napping soundly after having enjoyed more than one afternoon tipple in the sitting room. But upon further observation I noted some other oddities in the room. On the bedside table to the left of Mr. Black was an open bottle of medication, a bottle I recognized as Giselle’s. Various small blue pills had cascaded out of the bottle, some landing on the bedside table and others on the floor. A couple of pills had been trampled, reduced to a fine powder that was now ground into the carpet. This would require high vacuum suction, followed by a spot of carpet deodorizer to return the carpet pile to a state of perfection.
It isn’t often that I enter a suite to find a guest sound asleep in bed. If anything, much to my dismay, it’s more common that I stumble across guests in another state entirely—in flagrante, as they say in Latin. Most guests who decide to sleep or to engage in private activities are courteous enough to employ the “Do Not Disturb: Zzzing” door hanger I always leave on the front bureau for such eventualities. And most guests call out immediately if I inadvertently catch them at an inopportune moment. But not so with Mr. Black; he did not call out and order me to “bugger off,” which is how he would normally dismiss me if I arrived at the wrong time. Instead, he remained soundly asleep.
It was then that I realized I had not heard him breathe during the ten
seconds or more I’d been standing at his bedroom door. I do know something about sound sleepers, because my gran happened to be one, but no sleeper rests so deeply that he gives up breathing entirely.
I thought it prudent to check on Mr. Black and ensure that he was quite all right. This, too, is a maid’s professional duty. I took a small step forward to scrutinize his face. That’s when I noticed how gray he appeared, how puffy and how…distinctly unwell. I gingerly moved even closer, right to his bedside, where I loomed over him. His wrinkles were entrenched, his mouth drawn down in a scowl, though for Mr. Black that can hardly be considered unusual. There were strange little marks around his eyes, like red and purple pinpricks. Only then did my mind suddenly ring alarm bells. It was at that moment that I fully cued to the disturbing fact that there was more wrong with this situation than I’d realized at the outset.
I eased a hand forward and tapped Mr. Black’s shoulder. It felt rigid and cold, like a piece of furniture. I put my hand in front of his mouth in the desperate hope that I’d feel some breath come out of him, but to no avail.
“No, no, no,” I said as I put two fingers to his neck, checking for a pulse, which I did not find. I took him by the shoulders and shook. “Sir! Sir! Wake up!” It was a silly thing to do, now that I think about it, but at the time it still seemed largely impossible that Mr. Black could actually be dead.
When I let him go, he plunked down, his head banging ever so slightly against the headboard. I backed away from the bed then, my own arms rigid by my sides.
I shuffled to the other bedside table, where there was a phone, and I called down to the front desk.
“Regency Grand, Reception. How can I help you?”
“Good afternoon,” I said. “I’m not a guest. I don’t usually call for help. This is Molly, the maid. I’m in the penthouse suite, Suite 401, and I’m dealing with a rather unusual situation. An uncommon mess, of sorts.”
“Why are you calling Reception? Call Housekeeping.”
Housekeeping,” I said, my voice rising. “Please, if you could alert Mr. Snow that there’s a guest who is…permanently indisposed.”
This is why it’s always best to be direct and clear at all times, but in that moment, I can admit that I’d lost my head, temporarily.
“He is very dead,” I said. “
. Call Mr. Snow. And please dial emergency services. Immediately!”
I hung up after that. To be honest, what happened next all feels surreal and dreamlike. I recall my heart clanging in my chest, the room tilting like a Hitchcock film, my hands going clammy and the receiver almost slipping from my grasp as I put it back in its place.
It was then that I looked up. On the wall in front of me was a gilt-framed mirror, reflecting not only my terrified face back at me but everything I’d failed to notice before.
The vertigo got worse then, the floor tilting like a funhouse. I put a hand to my chest, a futile attempt to still my trembling heart.
It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible. That’s what I’ve learned from being a maid. You can be so important, so crucial to the fabric of things and yet be entirely overlooked. It’s a truth that applies to maids, and to others as well, so it seems. It’s a truth that cuts close to the bone.
I fainted not long after that. The room went dark and I simply crumpled, as I sometimes do when consciousness becomes overwhelming.
Now, as I sit here in Mr. Snow’s luxurious office, my hands are shaking. My nerves are frayed. What’s right is right. What’s done is done. But still, I tremble.
I employ Gran’s mental trick to steady myself. Whenever the tension got unbearable in a film, she’d grab the remote control and fast-forward. “There,” she’d say. “No point jangling our nerves when the ending’s inevitable. What will be will be.” That is true of the movies, but less true in real life. In real life, the actions you take can change the results, from sad to happy, from disappointing to satisfactory, from wrong to right.
Gran’s trick serves me well. I fast-forward and pick up my mental replay at just the right spot. My trembling immediately subsides. I was
still in the suite but not in the bedroom. I was by the front door. I rushed back into the bedroom, grabbed the phone receiver for the second time, and called down to Reception. This time, I demanded to speak with Mr. Snow. When I heard his voice on the line saying, “Hello? What is it?” I made sure to be very clear.
“This is Molly. Mr. Black is dead. I am
in his room
. Please call emergency services immediately.”
Approximately thirteen minutes later, Mr. Snow entered the room with a small army of medical personnel and police officers filing in behind him. He led me away, guiding me by the elbow like a small child.
And now, here I sit in his office just off the main lobby in a firm and squeaky maroon leather high-backed chair. Mr. Snow left some time ago—perhaps an hour, maybe more? He told me to stay put until he returned. I have a lovely cup of tea in one hand and a shortbread biscuit in the other. I can’t remember who brought them to me. I take the cup to my lips—it’s warm but not scalding, an ideal temperature. My hands are still trembling slightly. Who made me such a perfect cup of tea? Was it Mr. Snow? Or someone else in the kitchen? Perhaps Juan Manuel? Maybe it was Rodney at the bar, a lovely thought—Rodney brewing me a perfect cup of tea.
As I gaze down at the teacup—a proper porcelain one, decorated with pink roses and green thorns—I suddenly miss my gran. Terribly.
I put the shortbread biscuit to my lips. It crunches nicely between my teeth. The texture is crisp, the flavor delicate and buttery. Overall, it is a delightful biscuit. It tastes sweet, oh so very sweet.
I remain alone in Mr. Snow’s office. I must say, I am concerned to be running so behind on my room-cleaning quota, not to mention on my tip collection. Usually, by this time in my workday, I’d have cleaned at least a full floor of rooms, but not today. I worry what the other maids will think and if they’ll have to pick up the slack. So much time has passed, and Mr. Snow still hasn’t come to fetch me. I try to settle the fear that’s bubbling in my stomach.
It occurs to me that a good way to sort myself is to track back through my day, recollecting to the best of my ability everything that occurred up to the moment I found Mr. Black dead in his bed in Suite 401.
Today started out as an ordinary day. I came through the stately revolving doors of the hotel. Technically, employees are supposed to use the service door at the back, but few employees do. This is a rule I enjoy breaking.
I love the cold feeling of the polished brass banisters leading up the scarlet steps of the hotel’s main entrance. I love the squish of the plush carpet under my shoes. And I love greeting Mr. Preston, the Regency Grand’s doorman. Portly, dressed in a cap and a long trench coat
adorned with gold hotel crests, Mr. Preston has worked at the hotel for over two decades.
“Good morning, Mr. Preston.”
“Oh, Molly. Happy Monday to you, my dear girl.” He tips his hat.
“Have you seen your daughter recently?”
“Why, yes. We had dinner on Sunday. She’s arguing a case in court tomorrow. I still can’t believe it. My little girl, standing up there in front of a judge. If only Mary could see her now.”
“You must be proud of her.”
“That I am.”
Mr. Preston was widowed more than a decade ago, but he never remarried. When people ask why not, his answer is always the same: “My heart belongs to Mary.”
He’s an honorable man, a good man. Not a cheater. Have I mentioned how much I detest cheaters? Cheaters deserve to be thrown in quicksand and to suffocate in filth. Mr. Preston is not that kind of man. He’s the kind you’d want as a father, though I’m hardly an expert on that subject, given that I’ve never had a father in my life. Mine disappeared at the same time my mother did, when I was “just a wee biscuit” as my gran used to say, which I have come to understand as sometime between the age of six months to a year, at which point Gran took over my care and we became a unit, Gran and me, me and Gran. Until death did us part.
Mr. Preston reminds me of Gran. He knew her too. It’s never been clear to me how they met, but Gran was friendly with him and quite close with his wife, Mary, may-she-rest-in-peace.
I like Mr. Preston because he inspires people to behave properly. If you’re the doorman at a fine, upstanding hotel, you see a lot of things. Like businessmen bringing in sultry young playthings when their middle-aged wives are a thousand miles away. Like rock stars so drunk they mistake the doorman’s podium for a urinal. Like the young and beautiful Mrs. Black—the second Mrs. Black—exiting the hotel in a rush, mascara running down her tear-stained cheeks.
Mr. Preston applies his personal code of conduct to lay down the law. I once heard a rumor that he got so mad at that same rock star that he tipped off the paparazzi, who swarmed the star so much he never stayed at the Regency Grand again.
“Mr. Preston, is it true?” I once asked. “Were you the one who called the paparazzi that time?”
“Never ask what a gentleman did or didn’t do. If he’s a true gentleman, he did it with good cause. And if he’s a true gentleman, he’ll never tell.”
That’s Mr. Preston.
After passing him this morning, I swung through the massive front lobby and dashed down the stairs into the maze of hallways leading to the kitchen, the laundry rooms, and, my favorite rooms of all, the housekeeping quarters. They may not be grand—no brass, no marble, no velvet—but the housekeeping rooms are where I belong.
Like I always do, I put on my fresh maid uniform and collected my housekeeping trolley, making sure it was replenished and ready for my rounds. It was not replenished, which is no surprise, since my supervisor, Cheryl Green, was the one on shift last night. Chernobyl is what most employees at the Regency Grand call her behind her back. To be clear, she’s not from Chernobyl. In fact, she’s not from Ukraine at all. She’s lived her entire life in this city, as have I. Let it be known that while I do not think highly of Cheryl, I refuse to call her—or anyone—names.
Treat others as you wish to be treated,
Gran used to say, and that’s a tenet I live by. I’ve been called many a thing in my quarter century, and what I’ve learned is that the common expression about sticks and stones is backward: sticks and stones often hurt far less than words.
Cheryl may be my boss, but she’s definitely not my superior. There is a difference, you know. You can’t judge a person by the job they do or by their station in life; you must judge a person by their actions. Cheryl is slovenly and lazy. She cheats and cuts corners. She drags her feet when she walks. I’ve actually seen her clean a guest’s sink with the same cloth she used to clean their toilet. Can you believe such a thing?
“What are you doing?” I asked the day I caught her in flagrante. “That’s not sanitary.”
Shoulder shrug. “These guests barely tip. This’ll teach them.”
Which is illogical. How are guests to know that the head maid just spread microscopic fecal matter around their sink? And how are they to know this means they need to tip better?
“As low to the ground as a squirrel’s behind,” is what Gran said when I told her about Cheryl and the toilet cloth.
This morning, upon my arrival, my trolley was still full of damp, soiled towels and used soaps from the day before. If I were the boss of things, let me tell you this: I would relish the chance to restock the trolleys.
It took me some time to replenish my wares, and by the time I was finished, Cheryl was finally arriving for her shift, late as usual, dragging her floppy feet behind her. I wondered if she’d rush to the top floor today as she usually did “to do her first rounds,” meaning to sneak to the penthouse suites that are mine to clean and steal my biggest tips off the pillows, leaving only the loose change behind for me. I know she does this, though I can’t prove it. That’s just the kind of person she is—a cheater—and not the Robin Hood kind. The Robin Hood kind takes for the greater good, restoring justice to those who’ve been wronged. This kind of theft is justified, whereas other kinds are not. But make no mistake: Cheryl is no Robin Hood. She steals from others for one reason only—to better herself at the expense of others. And that makes her a parasite, not a hero.
I said my halfhearted hello to Cheryl, and then greeted Sunshine and Sunitha, the two other maids on shift with me. Sunshine is from the Philippines.
“Why are you named Sunshine?” I asked her when we first met.
“For my bright smile,” she said as she put a hand on one hip and made a flourish with her feather duster.
I could see it then, the similarity—how the sun and Sunshine were similar. Sunshine is bright and shiny. She talks a lot, and guests love her. Sunitha is from Sri Lanka, and unlike Sunshine, she barely says a word.
“Good morning,” I’ll say to her when she’s on shift with me. “Are you well?”
She’ll nod once and say a word or two and little else, which suits me just fine. She’s agreeable to work with and she does not slack or dillydally. I take no exception to other maids, provided they do their jobs well. One thing I will say: both Sunitha and Sunshine know how to make up a room spotlessly, which, maid to maid, I respect.
Once my trolley was set, I rolled down the hall to the kitchen to visit Juan Manuel. He is a fine colleague, always quite pleasant and collegial. I left my trolley outside the kitchen doors, then I peeked through the glass. There he was, at the giant dishwasher, pushing racks of dishes through its maw. Other kitchen workers milled about, carrying food trays with silver covers, fresh triple-layer cakes, or other decadent delights. Juan Manuel’s supervisor was nowhere to be seen, so now was a good time to enter. I crept along the perimeter until I reached Juan Manuel’s workstation.
“Hello!” I said, probably too loudly, but I wanted to be heard above the whirring machine.
Juan Manuel jumped and turned. “
you scared me.”
“Is now a good time?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, wiping his hands on his apron. He ran over to the large metal sink, grabbed a clean glass, and filled it with ice-cold water, which he handed to me.
“Oh, thank you,” I said. If the basement was warm, the kitchen was an inferno. I don’t know how Juan Manuel does his job, standing for hours in the unbearable heat and humidity, scraping half-eaten food from plates. All that waste, all those germs. I visit him every day, and every day I try not to think about it.
“I’ve got your keycard. Room 308, early checkout today. I will clean the room now so it’s ready for you whenever you want it. Okay?” I’d been slipping Juan Manuel keycards for at least a year, ever since Rodney explained Juan Manuel’s unfortunate situation.
, thank you so much,” Juan Manuel said.
“You’ll be safe until nine tomorrow morning, when Cheryl arrives. She’s not supposed to clean that floor at all—but with her, you just never know.”
It was then that I noticed the angry marks on his wrist, round and red.
“What are those?” I asked. “Did you burn yourself?”
“Oh! Yes. I burned myself. On the washer. Yes.”
“That sounds like a safety infraction,” I said. “Mr. Snow is very serious about safety. You should tell him and he’ll have the machine looked at.”
“No, no,” Juan Manuel replied. “It was my mistake. I put my arm where it shouldn’t go.”
“Well,” I said. “Do be careful.”
“I will,” he answered.
He did not make eye contact with me during this part of the conversation, which was most unlike him. I concluded he was embarrassed by his mishap, so I changed the subject.
“Have you heard from your family lately?” I asked.
“My mother sent me this yesterday.” He pulled a phone from his apron pocket and called up a photo. His family lives in northern Mexico. His father died over two years ago, which left the family short of income. Juan Manuel sends money home to compensate. He has four sisters, two brothers, six aunts, seven uncles, and one nephew. He’s the oldest of his siblings, about my age. The photo showed the entire family seated around a plastic table, all of them smiling for the camera. His mother stood at the head of the table proudly holding a platter of barbecued meat.
“This is why I’m here, in this kitchen, in this country. So my family can eat meat on Sundays. If my mother met you, Molly, she’d like you right away. My mother and me? We are alike. We know good people when we see them.” He pointed to his mother’s face in the photo. “Look! She never stops smiling, no matter what. Oh, Molly.”
Tears came to his eyes then. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want
to look at any more pictures of his family. Every time I did, I felt an odd sensation in the pit of my stomach, the same feeling I got when I once accidentally knocked a guest’s earring into the black hole of a drain.
“I must be off,” I said. “Twenty-one rooms to clean today.”
“Okay, okay. It makes me happy when you visit. See you soon, Miss Molly.”
I rushed out of the kitchen to the quiet, bright hallway and the perfect order of my trolley. Instantly, I felt much better.
It was time to go to the Social, the restaurant bar and grill inside the hotel, where Rodney would be starting his shift. Rodney Stiles, head bartender. Rodney, with his thick, wavy hair, his white dress shirt with the top buttons tastefully undone, revealing just a little of his perfectly smooth chest—well, almost perfectly smooth, minus one small round scar on his sternum. Anyhow, the point is, he isn’t hairy. How any woman could like a hairy man is beyond me. Not that I’m prejudiced. I’m just saying that if a man I fancied was hairy, I’d get the wax out, and I’d rip the strips off him until he was clean and bare.
I have not yet had the opportunity to do this in real life. I’ve had only one boyfriend, Wilbur. And while he didn’t have chest hair, he turned out to be a heartbreaker. And a liar and a cheat. So perhaps chest hair isn’t the worst thing in the world.
I breathe deeply to cleanse my mind of Wilbur. I’m blessed with this ability—to clean my mind as I would a room. I picture offensive people or recall uncomfortable moments, and I wipe them away. Gone. Erased, just like that. My mind is returned to a state of perfection.
But as I sit here, in Mr. Snow’s office, waiting for him to return, I’m having trouble keeping my mind clean. It returns to thoughts of Mr. Black. To the feeling of his lifeless skin on my fingers. And so on.
I take a sip of my tea, which is now cold. I will focus once more on the morning, on remembering every detail…. Where was I?
Ah, yes. Juan Manuel. After I left him, I headed to the elevator with my trolley, taking it up to the lobby. The doors opened and Mr. and Mrs.
Chen were standing there. The Chens are regular guests, just like the Blacks, though the Chens are from Taiwan. Mr. Chen sells textiles, so I’m told. Mrs. Chen always travels with him. That day, she was wearing a wine-colored dress with a lovely black fringe. The Chens are always flawlessly polite, a characteristic I find exceptional.