The Cleaning Woman Cometh by Burt Baum

Sunday, November 25, 2012
Burt Baum's browbeaten character suspects the cleaning woman is not doing her job properly, but his wife Josephine likes things just the way they are

Just as she has on every Tuesday for the past seven years, my wife, Josephine, delivers the edict. "You'd better clean up your mess - Esmeralda is coming tomorrow." Esmeralda is our goddess of cleanliness and as two of her many supplicants it behooves us, or so Josephine keeps telling me, to make sure that our shrine is suitable for her visitation.

"I just don't get it," I say. "Why do we have to clean up for the cleaning woman? Isn't that what we're paying her for?"

"No, you don't get it no matter how many times I tell you," Josephine says to me in the same tone she uses on her third grade students. "If you straighten up your papers and things, it makes it easier for Esmeralda to do the serious cleaning. Do you want her to spend all her time going through your stuff? And God forbid if she throws anything out. Remember how you went nuclear when she tossed that Sports Illustrated with all those naked women?"

"It wasn't Sports Illustrated. It was Fortune and it had an important article about one of our stocks," I say, but I know she doesn't believe me.

The real reason we clean up for Esmeralda is that she works not only for us but for many of Josephine's friends, and most of all, she talks. The last thing Josephine wants is a reputation as a poor housekeeper - no matter that this is the twenty-first century. Esmeralda naturally is a great source for gossip - which couples are fighting, who is playing around - all that good stuff. In fact, I'm convinced that Esmeralda is so valuable that even if she didn't lift a finger Josephine would still have her here every week. I don't tell any of this to Josephine, however. Some things in a marriage are best left unsaid.

So we spend Tuesday evening cleaning. I put away all my things in the room we use for an office and wipe the desk top so that it's as clear and shiny as my head. I check out our son Alec's room. For a fifteen year old, it is in superb shape. Josephine's threats and intimidation over the years have paid off. Of course Alec has also developed the trick of dumping his mess in a big cabinet that is off limits to the world. At this point no one, including Esmeralda, dares to open it. When we all finish our chores, I look around at the gleaming house and realize that there's nothing for Esmeralda to do. Josephine gets another A+ for housewomanship.

The next evening, I come home from work, and the first thing I do is go to the refrigerator to grab a Heineken when I notice something strange. I put a six pack in on Tuesday evening and there are only four bottles now. I have my suspicions about what happened to the other two.

Soon we sit down to dinner. Josephine is beaming like a light house. She's always that way after Esmeralda leaves. I think it's because she feels renewed by everything being so clean. Sex certainly doesn't have the same effect on her. I like seeing her happy and on Wednesday evening she makes the best meal of the week. That's the only benefit I get from Esmeralda's efforts.

For dessert, we have my favorite - brownies with pistachio ice cream. I don't want to spoil the mood so I wait until we've finished before bringing up the mystery of the missing brew. Alec vacuums up his dessert and leaves, ostensibly to do his homework. I begin nonchalantly.

"You start drinking beer?" I ask Josephine.

She looks at me as if I had just accused her of sleeping with the Pope. "No, I don't need any hair on my chest," she snaps.

"Well, I noticed that today someone helped themselves to my Heineken, and there's one logical suspect."

"What are you talking about?"

"You say that Esmeralda works so hard. Well I think she spends a lot of time sitting in front of the TV, watching the soaps and knocking back a few brews."

Josephine is very quiet, but I know her brain is in overdrive. I have challenged her with something quite unexpected. This doesn't happen too often.

"You're mistaken," she blurts out finally. "Maybe Alec took them or you drank them yourself and forgot about it."

"I don't think so. Alec is too young - besides I gave him a taste about six months ago and he spit it out - and I certainly didn't touch them. But there's an easy way to find out what's happening. Next Tuesday evening we can put another six pack in the fridge. We won't tell anyone. On Wednesday evening, after Esmeralda leaves, we can count the bottles."

Josephine is quiet again, but I sense that ideas are flashing through her mind at the speed of light.

"And what happens if some bottles are missing?"

"Then I think we confront Esmeralda and if she can't explain, she has to go."

Josephine gets up and puts her face right in front of mine. She is no longer beaming - she's on fire.

"Let her drink the damn beer. All I know is that when she leaves, the place is sparkling and I don't care if she has a fairy godmother who does it. I need her."

"I'm not sure that she does that great a job of cleaning. I find dust in the corners and spots that she has missed; but what I'm really annoyed about is her messing with my beer. Do we really need her that bad?"

"And if we let her go, who'll do the cleaning?"

"Why if you straighten up the same way you do for Esmeralda, I can do it standing on my head."

"OK... OK... OK!" Josephine exclaims and rockets out of the kitchen.

I start to have second thoughts immediately. What did I, in a lamebrain moment, commit myself to? I feel my body grow wet and cold all at once. My only hope is that no one touches the Heineken next Wednesday.

The following week the house is as quiet as a cat wearing tennis shoes. Josephine says nothing and Alec spends the time, when he's not eating, holed up in his room. I realize that I should have talked to Josephine about Esmeralda in a more tactful manner - much like the U.S. in its discussions with North Korea on nuclear disarmament. But it's too late and the thought of my having to clean the house every week has my insides doing the Mexican hat dance.

Tuesday night arrives. Dinner consists of left-overs from the last three days. I'm waiting for Wednesday so I can have a decent meal. Alec inhales his food and rushes to his room to clean it. I finish my orange Jell-O and go into the garage to fetch the six bottles of beer for the great experiment. When I return, Josephine hands me three sheets of paper containing a single-spaced list of chores.

"I just thought it might help you to see what Esmeralda does every Wednesday."

I glance at the list and notice that it contains such tasks as "clean garage" and "wash windows" that I don't recall Esmeralda ever doing. No human could do all the chores on the list in one day. I feel like a man shot out of a cannon about to crash to earth without a net, but I smile. "Fine," I say.

Josephine watches as I put the Heineken into the refrigerator. I push the bottles to the back of the bottom shelf, so someone would have to search to find them. We agree that we will perform the beer census on the following evening after dinner. I go to the office area to clean.

The next day at work I'm as fidgety as an expectant father. I keep praying that the beer is not disturbed. When I get home, the house is at a degree of incandescence that I have never seen. I'm convinced that Josephine has slipped Esmeralda an extra fifty. Josephine is glowing so brilliantly that I have to put on my sunglasses to look at her. And for dinner we have Porterhouse steak and baked potatoes with cherry pie for dessert.

After we've all eaten, I say, "I guess it's time to see the results of our little test." I'm thinking that Josephine is so peppy because she has peeked and found nothing missing. Alec looks up after polishing off his third piece of pie.

"What test?" he asks.

"Watch." I go over to the refrigerator and when I empty the bottom shelf, I feel like all of those Budweiser horses have run over me. "What the hell's going on? There are three Heinekens missing."

I have no choice now. I have to go through the whole routine. "This is it. That damn Esmeralda has to go."

Josephine says nothing.

"I don't understand," Alec says.

I tell him about the beer experiment. He looks down and begins scraping at his empty plate with his fork until sparks start to fly. "There's no pie left," I point out to him.

He half looks up. I just see the top of his eyes.

"Dad, I've got to tell you something. You know how I sometimes go over to Kevin's house after school? Well, we thought it would be kind of fun to try some beer - I mean you're always drinking it - so I... I... I like snuck two bottles from the refrigerator before I went over there today."

"You did what?" So Alec has suddenly developed a taste for beer. I am both outraged and relieved at the same time. "You and Kevin are too young to drink. This better not happen again. You're grounded indefinitely, and I'm telling Kevin's folks."

I try to keep a stern face, but inside I'm smiling. I did similar things when I was a kid. Best of all, I'm off the hook about the cleaning.

"You might as well make a complete confession," I say. "What did you do with the third bottle?"

"I swear, Dad, I only took two bottles."

I feel my back stiffen. "Don't tell me Esmeralda took the other one."

"It looks like she did," Josephine says. "So?"

"So like I said. If she can't give us a good explanation, she goes."

"Are you going to tell her?"

I hadn't thought that I would be the one to fire her. This is not something I want to do - particularly in these bad times. The Mariachi band inside of me is warming up.

"You're the one who deals with her," I say. "You do it."

"It's your beer and you're the one who's P.O.'d. You need to do it. By the way, I don't think I ever told you this, but Esmeralda is a widow with four children. The oldest one, a son, is married with five kids and just lost his job. The next eldest is married with a small child - her husband left her and she moved back in to live with Esmeralda. The two other kids are still in school."

Josephine pauses - I guess to let the information sink in. "You want her phone number?" she says, twisting the dagger. "You can call her right now."

Now it feels like a dozen bands are playing in my digestive tract and not in unison. I had no idea about Esmeralda's life. If there were a shovel around I'd dig a hole and jump in it.

"No, it can wait until tomorrow," I murmur.

"You know I just can't believe you got all riled up over some beer. Is it that you just don't like Esmeralda or is it the money, or what?"

Money is definitely an issue, but I don't want to get into that now. If I do, Josephine will start the ″how - hard - she - works″ litany and wind up by telling me that she is so concerned about saving money that, rather than buy new clothes, she is content to wear rags.

"No, the beer isn't that important and Esmeralda seems to be a nice woman," I say. "It's that even after all these years I still can't get used to having some person come into our house and clean our dirt. We didn't have cleaning women when I was growing up."

"You barely had indoor plumbing when you grew up."

"Very funny. Look, I know that teaching school is hard and you need some help around the house but sometimes I feel that Esmeralda is more important to you than I am, and you'd rather lose me than her."

Josephine lips part and she smiles. She sparkles once more. She comes over and kisses me. "I love you, but you know husbands are easier to get than cleaning women. I was just giving you the opportunity to show that you could clean like Esmeralda."

"What do you mean?"

"I took the other bottle of beer on Tuesday night, after you put it in the fridge."

I can't believe what I'm hearing. There are not one but two members of the family stealing beer.

"Do you have some hidden drinking problem?"

"No, I hate the stuff. I suspected that Alec may have snitched some bottles, but I didn't think he'd do it two weeks in a row. So I grabbed a bottle to make sure that you'd find some gone on Wednesday evening."

"And what was the reason for that?"

"I wanted to see you vacuuming on your head."

"Oh, yeah? That doesn't frighten me one bit. I can clean as well as Esmeralda, but I've been thinking..."

Josephine's lips are tightly clenched, but her eyes are twinkling. I can tell she wants to laugh. She doesn't believe a word I'm saying.

"If I do the cleaning," I continue, "I won't have time for the lawn and yard work." Then I add the zinger. "And I don't have anyone to help me do that."

I stop for effect. Josephine's face is now one big question mark.

"So if I take on the cleaning, we'd just have to hire someone to do the lawn." I sigh. "We might as well keep Esmeralda."

Josephine's face relaxes, her mouth widens. I'm still a sucker for her smile.

"There's just one more thing," she says. "We haven't given Esmeralda any more money since she started to work for us. With the price of gas and everything, she's overdue for a raise."

I begin thinking of that list of chores. My legs feel weak. I don't want that band to start playing again. "OK, OK," I say. "I'll tell you what - this Christmas I'll even give her a case of Heineken."


  1. That was a beautifuly story. All us old married men can definitely relate!

  2. This happens to me every week when our cleaning crew comes.Great story Burt even though every word of it is true. I am sure all husbands will agree.

    1. Anonymous lives in Laguna Woods Village in the USA

  3. I certainly can identify with your story and you made me giggle as I read on and on!

    Anonymous November 26, 2012 2PM

  4. Well done! Universality shines through like Wednesdays.

  5. cute story. So much is true.

  6. I enjoyed this short "piece of life" contribution from Mr. Baum. I would like to see more of his writing. His humor just hits me the right way :-)

  7. The story was a catch 22. This husband learned, happy wife/happy life.
    This was a who done it until the very end. Thoroughly enjoyed! dsl

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