The maid is not herself. She hands me a can of Easy-Off and walks away. The kitchen is not clean. The beds are unmade. Something is bothering the maid. Her long white arms seem longer than usual.
It’s barely eight and already she has dropped the mop, causing a serious bang and scaring me half to death. Now she is hiding in the bathroom eating an entire can of sardines. I hear her pull the tin lid back to get to the last one. It sends a shiver through the house. Because of her, the refrigerator’s hum is off. The vegetables are dead. The milk, like a ghost, is turning. By noon she will ask me (as she now asks me every day) if I love her. Why does the maid ask me this? Isn’t it obvious? And then half past the same hour she will ask me what moon I am. Waxing or waning? How do I know what moon? She has lost her sense of precision. Her technique is off. If she ever had a plot her plot is long gone. She has forgotten to bring Mother Mother, who is dying in the living room, her pills. She has abandoned a pink sponge on the stovetop. It has been a lousy winter. The maid has begun to smell a lot like ash. Frankly, she has begun to smell like an entire house burnt to the ground. She has neglected Bye Bye Francoise, the family parakeet. Her cage is in shambles. And now Bye Bye Francoise is not herself, though Bye Bye Francoise is more herself than the maid is herself given the maid is less and less herself as each hour goes by. She has replaced the grocery list with #1 a prelude to nothing #2 a war poem, leaving me with no idea of what we need. Bread? Eggs? Sparkling water? It’s anybody’s guess. Who does the maid think she is? Herself or not herself?
The maid and I once were best friends. I called her Claudia, and she called me Claudia though our names were nowhere near Claudia. We knew how to be everything: rubber, dirt, glass, wire. We even knew how to be children. We even knew how to be happy. Now the maid stands at the kitchen sink, still as stone. And I stand beside her waiting for the dirty, dirty dishes to be washed and dried. “Claudia, are you there? Claudia?” No answer.
I cannot stop thinking about the maid. Mother Mother, who is dying in the living room, urges me to rest. “But the maid is not herself.” “Of course the maid is not herself,” says Mother Mother. “How could the maid possibly be herself?” I lie beside Mother Mother’s quietly dying soft, brown body, and fall asleep and dream I am walking up and down the aisles of a supermarket. In my cart is an old orange. It costs seven thousand dollars, and when I open my purse all I have is an ocean. “We do not accept,” says the cashier who is really the maid who is not herself, “an ocean.” The waves crash, which embarrasses me.
I wake up against an area of Mother Mother that has been designed to rot. No doctor can explain why.
It is possible the maid is a Jew, which could explain why the maid is not herself though I have never asked her whether or not she is a Jew. Mother Mother is a Jew and I am a Jew and Father Father (who is missing) is a Jew. I read somewhere that some Jews escaped Poland by hiding in coffins. We are more or less ourselves, given our history, but the maid (Jew or not a Jew) seems more not herself than necessary. Around her head, she has begun wearing a silk scarf printed with tiny hatchets all over it. Hatchets she will never bury.
The maid and I go outside. I say something and she disagrees. Snowflakes begin falling on her head, but not on mine. The maid points to a swimming pool in the far distance. “You see that swimming pool?” “Barely,” I say. “As a child, I swam in that swimming pool. I didn’t drown once.” The maid and I hold hands and walk eleven blocks before we run into Sweetie Pie, my maid before my maid who is not herself. Sweetie Pie is pink and fat. She shakes my maid hard until a small snail falls out. Sweetie Pie picks up the snail, cleans its shell carefully on her flowery dress, and hands it to me. “Did you know,” says Sweetie Pie, “that snail shells and the inner ear follow the same spiral?” “No,” I say. “That is how we know the snails are listening.” “Oh,” I say. I look at Sweetie Pie. I miss her so much but not as much as I miss the maid who is not herself. I give the maid back her snail. She pops it into her mouth and sucks on it like it’s hard candy. “I am sorry,” I say to Sweetie Pie. “I know so little about snails, and now the maid who is not herself and I need to go home.” Sweetie Pie looks at the maid hard. “How is she with floors?” she asks. “Left to right or right to left?” “Nowhere,” I answer.
In the morning, I look in the mirror until my reflection thins enough for me to see Mother Mother staring back at me and then it thins again and there’s the maid.
I scrub the house. I check on Bye Bye Francoise. I clean her cage. I wipe her perch. Bye Bye Francoise is not herself. Her eyes are black and still. I gently pet her small blue feathery head, but she turns her head away. I dust the sills. I beat the rugs. I polish the banisters. I wash and dry the stacks and stacks of dirty dishes. I change Mother Mother’s sheets. I brush her hair. I apply rose-scented gloss to her lips. I empty her darkening bags of fluid. I give her the pills.
My work doesn’t matter. There is always dirt. There are always things where they should never be. The minute I look away, what wasn’t just a mess will become a mess and the mess will be a holy one.
“Are you fed?” asks Mother Mother. “No, I say, “I’m fine.” “There are wonder cakes,” says Mother Mother. She touches her lips with her thumb. “I left them for you somewhere. Long ago and far away.” I take Mother Mother’s hand. “Go eat them,” she says. “I will,” I say. “Go eat them forever.”
I leave Mother Mother to go looking for wonder cakes. I find a trail of wrappers leading me straight to the maid who is hunched in the pantry. “Claudia?” Claudia doesn’t turn her head. “Remember when you wiped all my countertops until they glistened? Remember when you swept up all the dust. Remember the broom?” She slowly turns, then smiles at me for the first time in months. White and yellow wonder cake crumbs fall gently, like snow, from her mouth.
I bring Mother Mother a glass of water with a pink straw. She takes a sip, but the water doesn’t reach her lips. It rises slowly, stops, gives up, and falls. For a second she drifts off, but the bony sunshine snaps her awake. “Your skull once grew inside me,” says Mother Mother. “I know,” I say. “I know you know,” says Mother Mother. “And now there are these falling children. Make it stop.” I do something with my hands, like untying a pretend knot. “Thank you,” says Mother Mother. “They have stopped,” says Mother Mother. “Except for one. One is still falling, but she is quiet and I don’t mind.” She takes my hand. “She looks,” says Mother Mother squinting up at the air, “just like you.”
It is impossible to describe how much I miss the maid. I write her a note.
It is so obvious you got into my collection. My Apple Snail, my Great Pond Snail, and my Trumpet Snail are missing. I still have my Red Spotted Snail, the Crown Snail, and all my Mystery Snails (four). I didn’t want to say anything to Sweetie Pie about my vast knowledge of snails. I didn’t want to give it away. I was protecting you, Claudia, like you once protected me. I want to shake you like Sweetie Pie shook you until all the snails fall out. I want to jump into the swimming pool you never drowned in as a child. I want you to clean my whole entire house again. It is so dank.
I fold the note up seven times. I find the maid curled up on the disheveled bath rug. She is sound asleep. From her beauty, my heart just mildews. I don’t think she will ever clean my house again. I open her gigantic, white hand then close it around my letter.
I follow a long, thin blur of dirt back to Mother Mother. “You should’ve drawn a line, says Mother Mother, “between you and the maid.” “I did,” I say, “but it was shaped like an arrow pointing in the direction of my heart.” There is so much grime in the air it coats my skin, and makes it sticky. “Did you know,” says Mother Mother, “that an assemblage of snails is called a rout?” Mother Mother’s legs seem to be completely disappearing beneath the crumpled sheets. “What’s a rout?” I ask. “A disorderly retreat of defeated troops,” says Mother Mother. “That makes sense,” I say.
One week later, I look out the dirty window and see the maid standing in the yard. As if waiting for a trumpet to sound, her body has turned skyward. I leave her alone. I go to Bye Bye Francoise’s cage. Bye Bye Francoise is not there. In her place is a Milk Snail. I’ve always wanted a Milk Snail. I peel it off Bye Bye Francoise’s perch. It waves its tentacles, sleepily. I bring it into the living room, where Mother Mother is no longer dying. I put the Milk Snail in her empty bed, and climb in beside it. The bed sheets are so sour. I call for the rest of my collection to join us. The whole rout. They will come. I am certain of it. I just need to be patient. They are snails. And it will, as everything does, take forever.