I have yet to meet my new housekeeper. She comes highly recommended from, well, shall we say an intimate acquaintance of mine. The agency is headquartered in an anonymous building along the industrial riverfront where, if the amateur historians are to be trusted, a loose affiliation of second-rate magicians used to gather during the Depression to practice their dark arts. Like those illusionists, my housekeeper finishes her duties and vanishes with remarkable punctuality moments before I arrive home from my office at the graphic design firm.
Her schedule never changes. Every Friday afternoon, while I’m obsessing over fonts of varying blandness for a newly commissioned minimalist logo, my housekeeper attends to the dreadful messes I make during the week and puts everything back in its proper place. She sweeps up the broken glass and shattered plates and disposes of the food I leave all week on the kitchen counter. She waters the neglected aspidistra and waxes its wilting leaves. She pulls the sectional sofa away from the exposed brick walls to collect any empty bottles that may have rolled away and vacuums the dust that gathers in furry gray clumps along the baseboards. She cleans the three enormous loft windows overlooking the downtown streets, though I have no idea how she reaches the highest panels. I can only guess that, along with her brooms and dustpans, her mops and spray bottles, her soaps and disinfectants, she lugs a step ladder from apartment to apartment. I also have good reason to believe she wears a toolbelt. During hard freezes and winter storms, the big square-cut carpentry nails have a tendency to pop out of the hardwood floors, but the housekeeper hammers them back into place. In the six months she has worked for me, she has oiled squeaking hinges, repaired dripping faucets, patched and sanded small holes in the plaster, and adjusted the wobbling blades of an incorrectly calibrated ceiling fan.
When it comes to manual labor, you see, I have no natural ability.
Ever since my husband and I divorced last summer, I’ve been renting this two-bedroom apartment in a converted warehouse not far from the lake. The building is more than one hundred years old, a relic from the sweatshop days of the early twentieth century when children as young as eight and nine were sent at dawn by their half-starving parents to work twelve-hour shifts at the looms and presses. In my dreams, I see them sometimes, the shades of those miserable little boys and girls, their faces sparkling with graphite dust, their tiny fingers darting between the spindles of those unforgiving high-speed machines. I have an 18-year-old daughter who lives with her father. Had she been around in the days before the enactment of child labor laws, she would have been a professional saboteur. Within an hour of entering the building, she would have cut every wire, jammed every gear, and snapped every lever. What’s more, an entire army of cigar-chomping overseers, their eyes scanning the floor for whimpering slackers, would have been hard-pressed to catch her in the act. She is a genuine sneak, my daughter, and an exceptionally accomplished liar.
To blame her for my divorce might sound callous but trust me when I say she made life far more stressful than it needed to be. Now, instead of living in a suburban colonial with my family, I live in a fashionable, if drafty, downtown loft for upwardly mobile young professionals with a tentative grasp of the city’s past. Well, “young” might be something of an exaggeration. I turned forty-five yesterday.
At five o’clock sharp, I crept unnoticed from my cubicle and headed home. I was actually relieved when my colleagues, who lack the usual social graces, forgot to wish me a happy birthday. Not that I cared. I was looking forward to an evening alone with my customary bottle of Chianti and carry-out from my favorite Italian restaurant. Solitude, that’s what I craved, but when I opened my apartment door, I was surprised to find dozens of gray helium balloons rolling like angry thunderheads along the tin ceiling. It was only a matter of time before the balloons popped against the rough wooden beams. My daughter, still wearing her black overcoat, looked up from her phone and sprang like a startled cat from the recliner, her engineer boots scuffing the freshly polished floor.
“Surprise?” she said with a sheepish grin.
I glanced at the kitchen counter. Evidently, the candles on the cupcakes had been burning for quite some time. Thick pools of wax had congealed on the chocolate frosting. I set my portfolio down on the coffee table and calmly explained that she wasn’t scheduled to stay with me until next weekend. I pointed to the calendar hanging on the wall where I’d circled the dates with a red highlighter.
“But Mom, you shouldn’t spend tonight alone.”
Deciding for the moment to play along with her charade, I took a seat at the kitchen counter and patiently smiled as she sang to me. My daughter has a unique voice, a sort of scratchy but pleasant baritone that resonated through the loft. It’s still hard to believe that only five years ago, she was the rising star of her middle school choir. For the annual spring concert, the music director always singled her out to perform a solo. My husband and I encouraged her to train with a professional music instructor, but our daughter had no interest in pursuing music. She liked working with her hands and playing rough with the neighborhood boys. In high school, she dropped choir altogether and enrolled in shop, but as the weeks went by, my husband and I grew uncomfortable with her morbid creations—an elaborately carved coffin keychain, a large picture frame on which she’d chiseled grinning skulls and a scythe-wielding reaper. At night, while my husband slept soundly beside me, I often heard disturbing choral music rumbling from our daughter’s bedroom in the basement. I tip-toed downstairs, and when I pressed my ear to her door, I heard her chanting a refrain in a language that sounded ancient, almost ceremonial. Latin? Sanskrit?
Now, after finishing a rushed and surprisingly flat rendition of “Happy Birthday,” she pushed the tray of cupcakes across the counter and told me to make a wish. I leaned forward, but before blowing out the candles, I thought deeply about the nature of my wish. An ordinary divorcee might, I suppose, wish for the restoration of her family, a reconciliation with those friends and neighbors who’d been forced to take sides and from whom she was now estranged, but in the year leading up to my abrupt departure from suburbia, I secretly wished for the opposite of these things and—wonder of wonders!—my wish had been granted. But granted by whom or by what? The universe? God? A legion of devils? To wish now for the invalidation of my first wish seemed like ingratitude, and from what I could tell the universe was already growing impatient with me. I decided to play it safe and wish for an uneventful conclusion to this evening’s impromptu party.
After gobbling two cupcakes and without bothering to wipe the chocolate from her fingertips, my daughter reached into her purse, a great big unwieldy thing that looked like a tool bag that had been dragged across a boiler room floor, and produced a crumpled pack of menthol cigarettes. With her unvarnished thumb, she expertly flicked open a butane lighter the size of her fist and said, “Saved up for a new flamethrower. You like it? Oh, you don’t mind if I smoke, do you? Here, I’ll crack a window, okay? They help me relax, Mom.”
My psychiatrist advised me not to make too much of my daughter’s bad habits. A cigarette was far better than some of the other substances she used to enjoy. I leaned back in my chair and asked how she’d managed to gain entry to the apartment. I hadn’t given her a key.
“Are you serious, Mom?” She looked at me in that infuriatingly cryptic way of hers and said, “Your maid let me in.”
“Oh, so you’ve seen her then?” I removed the foil liner from a cupcake and snapped off hardened bits of wax from the frosting. “Well, you should have told her that under absolutely no circumstances is she allowed to let guests, especially uninvited guests claiming to be my daughter, into this apartment. Did she at least ask to see some form of identification? A social security card? A driver’s license? Oh, wait, you had your license revoked last year and you don’t carry a photo ID.”
“Are we going start on this again? It’s your birthday.”
“I’m just making a point. And what if a few of your friends had tagged along tonight? Would she have let those shop goblins in, too, with all of their tattoos and body piercings and offensive animal odors? Have yourselves a little party in my honor?”
My daughter exhaled two jets of smoke from her nostrils and then jammed her cigarette into a cupcake where a candle should be.
“Excuse me,” she said and stomped off to the lavatory.
I had no intention of upsetting her, but I had every right to be angry. I had a mind to call the agency and lodge a formal complaint. Did the housekeeper just wave my daughter inside? Offer to take her coat? Ask if she’d care for something to drink? Did the housekeeper even know how to make a proper cocktail? Maybe while cleaning the loft, she’d gotten into the habit of fixing herself a stiff drink or two. I do not mark the bottles. Also, whenever I know my daughter is coming to see me, I lock the liquor in a storage unit in the basement, always making sure to reset the electronic code. Even someone as devious as my little girl can’t figure out how to get in there. It’s a pity when a mother can no longer trust her own daughter.
Then something even more dreadful occurred to me. What if, over the past six months, the housekeeper had allowed my ex-husband into the apartment? Or that strange woman from across the hall who keeps asking me to join her bowling team, the Bipolar Rollers? And then there’s the mysterious gentleman I met last summer at the corner cafe, Professor Baphomet. Every morning, while waiting to place our orders, we would chat. A learned man with mischievously arched eyebrows, a distinguished French fork beard, and a head of thick white hair, he struck me as a devilishly handsome older gentleman. One Friday morning, after the incompetent barista confused our orders, he shocked me by asking if I might like to join him for dinner. Enchanted by his vaguely continental accent, I accepted his offer a bit too eagerly.
That same night, at one of the city’s oldest restaurants on the river, in an isolated booth bathed in smoky red light, Professor Baphomet and I drank two bottles of Cabernet and discussed his work on secret societies and the esoteric teachings of ancient cultures. I found it all so fascinating. After finishing our meal, instead of ordering espresso or an after-dinner liqueur, we went back to my apartment to uncork a bottle of bubbly. He boldly suggested I dim the lights and put on some music. Within minutes he managed to charm his way into my bed, a clumsy and ultimately regrettable affair on my part. During an uncomfortable lull in our post-coital conversation, he cast his gaze around my bedroom and suggested I contact a housekeeping agency he knew. “It’s near the restaurant,” he said. “They’re quite professional and discreet. I’ve been quite satisfied with one housekeeper in particular. She does a thorough job. The prices are rather extravagant, but I’d be delighted to cover the cost.”
He was only trying to be helpful, but I took this as an insult. At the time, coming so soon after my separation, my new apartment was still a bit…disordered. Piles of unwashed clothes had accumulated in the corners, and the cardboard moving boxes, stacked high against the walls and windows, made the place feel claustrophobic, maze-like, purgatorial.
I was probably too harsh in ordering him from the apartment. I had an important appointment, I said, and needed to leave early in the morning. He seemed to understand and left without protest. After that, he stopped coming to the cafe, but I always hoped he might return bearing a bright bouquet and a box of chocolates. A silly thing for a woman my age to wish. Instead, the following Friday, I came home to find that someone had cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. On the coffee table, I found the agency’s business card and a note that read “Courtesy of Professor Baphomet.” How the housekeeper had gained entry to the apartment, I did not know and was too frightened to find out. Had the professor stolen a key that night while I took a scalding shower?
As I picked half-heartedly at the chocolate crumbs on my plate, I wondered why I never canceled the cleaning service or changed the locks. A lifelong procrastinator, I never seemed to get around to doing things. It was now six o’clock, the loft was glowing red with a winter sunset, and I gasped when I saw my daughter standing in the lavatory doorway, her arms crossed, a fresh cigarette jutting from the corner of her mouth. I didn’t like the way the light played on her face. She cut her hair short and refused to wear makeup, not even lipstick and eyeshadow. Four years ago, around the time she was starting to change, I voiced my concerns about her appearance. “She’s just experimenting with different expressions of identity.” That’s what my husband said, but to my ears this sounded suspiciously like ideological jargon, the kind of thing he’d picked up from listening to public radio during the morning commute.
After taking a deep drag on her cigarette, my daughter showed me a modicum of courtesy by turning her head and exhaling toward one of the windows that rattled from the icy gusts barreling across the frozen lake. I shivered, and for the tenth time that day, I dreamed of moving away from this miserable midwestern burg and relocating to a warm and exotic city.
“Why do you feel the need to mock me?” she asked.
I sensed something terrible was about to happen but calmly folded my hands in my lap.
“Mock you, dear? What are you talking about?”
She regarded me again in that strange way of hers and pointed inside the lavatory.
Curious, I strode across the room and stood in the doorway. I directed my gaze at the vanity, my reflection obscured by a line of dark red lipstick defacing the mirror. The tube was still on the counter, deliberately placed there like a votive candle before the diabolical figure now leering at us. What name did the cosmetologists give such a distasteful color? Crime Scene? Dark Fiction? Demon Lover? I’ve always been superstitious, an embarrassing vestige from my days as a Catholic school girl when the nuns, stalking up and down the rows of desks with rulers in hand, told stories I could never find in the bible. They told us how Joseph, fleeing from Herod’s wrath, brought Mary and Jesus into the land of Egypt, and there he took for himself another wife. And this wife gave birth to Jesus’s sister, a stubborn and rebellious little girl who abused her parents. She grew up to become a glutton and a drunkard, the plaything of tax collectors. From these stories, I learned that human nature is fraught with a thousand terrible impulses, the most wicked of which was a child’s lack of honor for her mother and father.
My daughter stepped into the lavatory and ashed into the sink. “Professional job, wouldn’t you say?”
I laughed. “What is that supposed to mean? Did you think I’m actually capable of drawing anything so fiendish? The lonely graphic designer with a secret flare for the occult? No, this is obviously the housekeeper’s doing. I must have done something to upset her. Maybe it’s because I haven’t tipped her since she started cleaning for me, not that I’m under any obligation to do so.”
“Remind you of anyone you know, Mom? Take a good look.”
I stepped forward, squinted, tilted my head. The image in the mirror did bear a passing resemblance to my suitor from the cafe, but his enormous buzzard wings and two majestic horns protruding from his head made him appear somewhat less desirable than I remembered. With one finger, I traced the pentagram in the middle of his goatish face and let out a sharp cry. Backing away from the mirror, I gazed with the intensity of a palm reader at my trembling hand. Why had I touched it? I felt polluted and worried I might contaminate the entire apartment with bad vibes.
“I need to call the agency right away,” I said. “The housekeeper is obviously trying to put a curse on me and my new home.”
“Would you stop it, Mom!” My daughter flicked the butt of her cigarette into the toilet. “I’ve been trying to be responsible, I really have. I’ve been trying to be good. I’ve had the same part-time job for almost a year now, cleaning apartments after school. I thought you’d be proud of me.”
“Impossible! You? Cleaning apartments?” I stumbled from the lavatory into the loft. “We both know you’re incapable of holding down a job for more than a week.”
“Mom, we’ve been over this a dozen times.”
“Besides, I never gave you a key.”
“He gave me the key months ago.”
“Who do you think? I clean his place, too.”
“This is one of your jokes.”
“Professor Baphomet is a kind man, patient, charitable. He’s taught me a lot. I’ve been reading his books and practicing his…discipline. Are you okay, Mom? You don’t look well. Maybe you should lie down and rest for a while.”
She took me by the hand and led me into the master bedroom. I tried to interrogate her about her new occupation and catch her in a lie—how many apartments did she clean each day; did she find the job rewarding; did it pay well; did she ever steal anything—but the moment I saw the bed, I felt a kind of paralysis spreading from my tainted fingertip, up my arm, and through my torso. I collapsed against the pillows and shuddered. From the doorway, my daughter watched me with her big glassy eyes, and I knew then that she had raided my medicine cabinet and drugged the cupcakes.
“Where are you going?” I said. “Please don’t leave me like this.”
“I won’t be gone long. I want to clean that mirror. Try to rest.”
The moment she closed the door, I heard the distinctive click of the lock. I threatened to call the police, but when I tried to reach for the phone on the nightstand, I found that I was unable to move. Pinned to the bed, I shouted my daughter’s name. That’s when the music started, a frighteningly familiar fugue played at full volume. Since I didn’t own a stereo, I assumed she’d smuggled a portable speaker into the apartment, one with a subwoofer that made the pictures rattle against the walls. Good, I thought, let her blast that nihilistic noise. Sooner or later someone would come to my aid, the superintendent, a neighbor, a sympathetic mother on her way home to face her own little monsters. How many of us were there in the world, how many parents imprisoned in their own homes, living in mortal terror of their disobedient children?
It grew dark. After an hour had passed, I could hear other voices. Above the music, I detected bubbling bong hits, coughing, clapping, howling, peals of manic laughter, the sound of a glass shattering against the granite countertop. My room soon reeked of marijuana. I attempted to roll off the bed so I could crawl across the floor and wedge a wet towel under the door, but I couldn’t budge, couldn’t even blink.
As I stared helplessly at the ceiling, I wondered how long it would take before the bedroom door burst open and I saw a tall figure silhouetted against the smoky light. Which of my daughter’s guests would do the honors of punishing the morose birthday girl? But I already knew the answer. Not wanting to spoil the party, I would fully cooperate with my impeccably groomed inquisitor, the dashing stranger from the remote mountain village on the edge of a dark forest where the peasants still whispered the old stories and practiced forbidden ancient rites. Maybe, if there were no profanity-laced temper tantrums on my part, no more promises of self-abuse, no gleeful threats of suicide, the good professor would administer an antidote and let me join the party. Perhaps, before informing me that I had been relieved of my duties as a parent, he would raise a glass and say, “On your birthday, I propose a toast. To mothers!” I could already feel his hands caressing my face as he leaned over my bed to pour the burning libation into my mouth.
“Of course,” I heard him whisper, “under unfortunate circumstances such as these, the best thing to do is accept the fact that children are an evil spell that can never be lifted.”
After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills in Ohio, Kevin P. Keating became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University and John Carroll University.
His essays, stories and reviews have appeared in over fifty literary journals, including Salon, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, Blue Lake Review, Red Rock Review, Whiskey Island, Juked, Inertia, Identity Theory, Exquisite Corpse, wordriver, and many others.
The Natural Order of Things, his first full-length novel, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction Award. The novel has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.
His second novel The Captive Condition, published as a Pantheon hardcover, was featured at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International.
He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio.