I don’t like crud under my nails. Or the crud she tracks in but never bothers sweeping. Or the filth she eats, and the plates she never seems to have time to wash, but seems to have plenty of time to let migrate into other rooms of the house. Or the layers of oh-my-god-what-is-that caked on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
Living in such conditions is inhumane. Only a matter of time before I slip some Clorox into her tea, hoping she’ll take the hint. I mean, the whole point of having windows is to actually see the outside not the streaks of bird dung. Three more months of living in this crap-happy place and I’ll go senile before her.
I think it’s why I love the medical field, helping people through an ordered environment. A clean environment.
When Grandpa was still alive five years ago they spent hours gardening together. Mrs. Howard Daapt, she insists on being called now, introduced me to gardening when I moved in for a medical internship three months ago. She showed me the dried hydrangea bush he cut flowers from to decorate the kitchen table. The seeds were an anniversary gift, ordered with money long slaved over.
So when she gives me the morning while she goes shopping for groceries and garden-flowers, I take advantage of it.
First, I rearrange the furniture, getting to corners and cracks where the dust is a good inch thick. I find five-year old newspapers, rusted over bobby pins, an old tea bag stuffed between the couch cushions, and bowl of greenish gelatinous substance.
Next goes the vase with the empty stem, which probably hasn’t been moved in years. A sticky crust formed around the bottom lip, gluing it to the tabletop. A good five minutes pass before I wrench it off. I even resort to nail polish remover, a miracle worker in getting rid of things unwanted.
I had just finished wiping down the kitchen counters when she comes home, arms full with Cheetos and whipped cream, another gripping a grocery bag.
“Did you find everything, Mrs. Howard Daapt?”
“Naturally. Bring the rest in, will you?” Her hair is curled in the tight perfect circles grandmas perfect. Her skin, though still pendulous, is soft from decades under a cloudy sky.
I close the garage door behind me when a shriek raises the hairs on my cervical vertebrae. I bang my patella on the door frame when I dash back in.
“NO, no, no, NO.” Her voice is filled with panicked anguish.
The grocery bag is split open upon the ground, as though in surgery, jalepeño-queso splattered like blood over the hardwood floors. The old woman is at the side of the yellowed couch, tugging desperate. It moves about two inches.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” I reach for her, but she shoves my hands away.
She clings to the couch, moaning to herself.
“You can’t do this. It goes back. It goes back. He doesn’t like it over here, he doesn’t.” Her saggy arms shake with the effort of moving the yellowed bulk.
“Is it the couch? I moved the couch. Is that what’s wrong?”
Her red-rimmed pupils focus on the kitchen table. She gasps and stumbles, flailing arms grasping at chairs to sturdy herself. “No, it’s gone!”
She runs her fingers over the spot where the vase used to sit, or used to sit until I threw out the decomposing hydrangea stem and scrubbed it clean. Her scapulae shake as she sobs, and she plops to the floor with a thunk.
A twinge around my liver. Maybe I should’ve left the vase. “I’m sorry. The place was a mess.” I say, reaching again to touch her arm. “I’m so sorry, Grandma.”
“My name. Is. Mrs. Howard. Daapt.” She stands and jabs at the door.
She jabs again at the door. “My husband died once. You will not kill him again. Leave.”
I leave, shutting the screen door, and sit on the back step. It’s not like I can actually go anywhere. I live here now, too.
Cleaning is exactly like the med field. You can’t move past if you let the past pile high. You mop up the illness and move on. That’s how you get better. That’s how you heal.
Behind me is the futile tugging of furniture.
An hour later I come back inside to a happy high-pitched yip, the queso dried and flaking. The yellowed couch has only moved about a foot, but the lightest side table is back in its original place, long dark scratches marking the route in the wood. A lamp is knocked over, light bulb smashed. Another happy throated squeal comes from the back bedroom.
I follow the noise. Grandpa’s clothes are heaped about the room, drawers dumped upside down, and her bed stripped clean of sheets. Mrs. Howard Daapt kneels next to the nightstand, hiccuping through her tears. Her smile is so large her denture lines are visible.
“Look, look dear. Look what he left me.” She holds up a small, thin white package.
A small packet of hydrangea seeds.
Perhaps I should tell her the truth, that I put them there this morning, and clean away the virus once and for all.