"Jeremy, where are you?" Laura shouted. She kicked a plastic toy truck into a stack of yellowed newspapers with edges as brittle and curled as dead leaves. One of these days, when she could find the vacuum and muster the energy and determination of a housecleaning superhero, she'd hurl the piles of junk out the door with a single swipe of mighty muscled arms. Cobwebs dangled from high corners like swatches of daintily stitched lace, but she'd mercilessly yank them down. She'd unleash the famished vacuum cleaner and let the ravenous machine devour the dust that covered her floors like thick, wild fur. "Jeremy Joshua, come out, come out, wherever you are!"
Laura would repeatedly misplace the vacuum cleaner. It was a thigh-high, round, orange contraption, shaped like a crashed UFO and with an attached hose long and wide enough to suck up a platoon of toy soldiers, a city of legos, a fleet of toy trucks and a four year old..
"Jeremy Joshua Ringdale Robinson the Third, come out here!” she commanded. The alien orange vacuum cleaner probably lurked some-where under mounds of old coupons, crusty cat food cans, torn envelopes and magazine articles that she might read sometime, in that nebulous future of unrationed time, perhaps in the nursing home when dead time would fill the space around her bed like a suffocating curse. Now, Jeremy could be crouching or sleeping anywhere, his head on a pillow of dented Styrofoam, his legs clamped under a lost shelving plank. "No more time in Trashville for you, young man! Jeremy Joshua, get out here now! "
Glass clanked musically; a dark beer bottle rolled from under a skein of multi-colored wires, stopping at the shiny amber oblong where spilled honey had made the rug permanently sticky. Jeremy toddled forward, holding up a dried banana peel and a withered tatter of bread from which dangled stringlike wisps of gray meat. In his other hand, he clutched a mummified orange.
Laura's upper lip curled slightly as she gingerly extracted the petrified turkey sandwich from her son, looked away as she dropped it in a green plastic bag, which probably held garbage, and wiped her fingertips on her shirttails.
"That’s not good for you," she muttered, her shoulders slumping as the boy wailed and darted away.
Her house shouldn't be like this, not when she was the eldest daughter of a man who'd worked for 30 years writing ads for Tidy Bowl. When I was in my prime, Laura recalled her father telling his golf buddies, then his coffee cronies, then any dog who'd listen, I worked 80 hours per week to come up with a jingle; back then, I had a mission, a place in society. When he died, his wife commissioned the stonecutter to carve a marble tombstone shaped like a giant toilet; now, dandelions grew, blazing and defiant, around the bowl and birds perched on the green travertine flusher. Sometimes, Laura wondered how many stray dogs had raised a hind leg to mark the giant toilet; she imagined the hordes of cemetery angels and cherubs stirring alive at night and rushing to the only graveyard potty, to relieve themselves after a day's long vigil.
Laura followed the cord from its wall outlet, fumbled where it tunneled under stained papers until she felt a hard lump, pulled out the telephone, and called her friend Mary.
"Hello Mary," she jabbered. "I’m living in a Filth Fiasco. Jeremy disappears every time I turn my back; Just when I’m about to call in a missing-person report, he stumbles out from the mess. I could be phoning the cops ten times a day – but then I tell myself that he’s nearby; I just can’t find him because I’m a slob.“
"Don't think of yourself as a slob," Mary interrupted soothingly. "Or a packrat.”
“I don’t know what he’ll hold or what’ll stick to him the next time he crawls out. Last time, he came out clutching a rotten sandwich – his trophy.” Laura sighed. “Or maybe there’s been a landslide. Jars and moldy cardboard bury him with one of the cats. But I don’t do anything for hours – because he’s always getting lost in one of those piles – and he suffocates when he could have been saved.” she moaned. “I wish I had a "Reset" button for the mess here! And with my background - if my father's a ghost, he probably avoids my house; even ghosts don't like to shudder in horror!"
At his funeral, the preacher had praised Father's life work, cleanliness being next to godliness and a wisk broom being the surest way of sweeping away the grime and clearing a path to heaven. Living in the service of cleanliness had earned him bonus points, coupons for discounted salvation, redeemable when he arrived at the pearly gates and got grilled by St. Peter. Right now, her father hovered somewhere in the pure blue stratosphere, his wings glistening white as new porcelain, his angel suit as perfectly pressed and immaculate as a new shower curtain. "Pour it in, swish and scour; your toilet smells fresh as a flower"; she could almost hear the tune, plucked on a harp string as he sang, the rough edges of his once gritty baritone sanded smooth and polished by a divine cleansing process.
Think of yourself as respecting the past, holding onto it because you cherish it,” Mary encouraged. “That's rare in our culture of throw-away things and throw-away people. So, think of yourself as uniquely gifted with an appreciation of things past. Your piles are the products of nostalgia and reverence."
"Like yours," Laura sighed. "But yours are artfully arranged; I don't even have room to shove my ugly clutter into closets."
"Not too much actual garbage here, " Mary laughed. "Just the prizes of my dump fetish. I'm going on a dump run tomorrow - itching to see what people have left on the side, in the 'claim me' section. Last week, I found a hairless, armless 1920s rag doll, in her original dress faded to palest sepia and ivory. The week before, I had to rescue a rippling metal sheet, covered with intricate patterns of rust, from the masher. And remember that Walt Whitman candy tin?"
Laura always enjoyed tours of Mary's found finery. She imagined Mary’s apartment converted into a museum of the uncollectible, with pretentious labels attached to each object and fake histories mounted on plaques beside each. Item One: Genuine rag doll, born October 3, 1922; hair lost during chemotherapy treatments at local doll hospital; arm fractured and amputated after spat with abusive husband, GI Joe, who suffered Post-traumatic-stress syndrome after return from war against the trolls. Item Two: A 1930s Art Deco metal candy box that once contained all the artistic ideas possible for the human race; when a child opened it, hoping to grab a chocolate, all the ideas flew out, atoms with wings that took to the sky and were swallowed accidentally by birds and flies.
"If I started to clean," Laura moaned, "I'd just uncover dishes of uneaten cat food, cubes of petrified beef clinging to the side, or maggots swarming festively in goop. Add the heady perfumes of paint thinner and ammonia when I knocked over half-shut bottles, and the grit of airborne sawdust from an old wood carving project."
"Sounds suitably atmospheric," Mary joked. "Even marketable as a perfume - the hottest thing out of France. Like the lichen footprints I found on my porch last spring, after I'd left socks scattered out there all winter. Tip-toe down the moss-way, I had a salable new fad, until the sun dried the path away."
Laura coughed, remembering the life-sized, hideously gaunt clay head that Mary had crafted in a sculpture class, then nestled in the fiberglass flooring of an apartment crawl space, a secret installation to shock the plumber or landlord who eventually opened that door.
"What I'm saying is - don't worry so much about the mess. At least you're not like Adam, who put one of those ancient mechanical typewriters on the roof to see if the rain might clean out the insides, then forgot about it for six months. When he remembered to fetch it, tree sap and bird shit had cemented it to the roof and he couldn't wedge it loose; he lives in the only house with a typewriter permanently next to the chimney." Mary paused. "You don't have a typewriter on your roof. Besides, if cleanliness is next to godliness, why is the world a mess and the universe ruled by chaos theory?"
Laura shrugged, hung up, and dialed her friend Frances.
"Your problem," Frances began slowly, "Is that no one helps you. Your husband lives there; he should do his share of cleaning. He may need prodding at first: Encourage and praise him, first for doing little things, then for larger tasks. Say 'I'm proud of you, you did a really good job'; reward him with morsels of ego-candy." Frances paused. "You know how Cora keeps her house spic-and-span? She lines up her kids, barks out orders like a drill sergeant, and doesn't let them go on leave until the place sparkles. Of course, being built like a Viking doesn't hurt her commander image."
Laura nodded, recalling Cora's black, furnace-hot eyes and warrior-broad shoulders. Even when she said and did nothing, Cora's personality filled a room like a force field, drawing some instantly like admirers to the queen while others retreated, pushed back by something invisible but overwhelming. Laura, who had to work at making herself heard and who often felt camouflaged by mists of invisibility, could never play warrior queen or drill sergeant. And she didn’t know how well her husband Ted, whose life motto seemed to be “I’m happy as long as no one bothers me”, would respond to prodding.
"But even a house-broken husband’s going to be better at some jobs than others," Frances continued. "My Richard was a class A vacuumer; he even removed the burner plates from the stove to vacuum it out! Lifted the dryer on wedges and vacuumed ten years of sludge from under it. I wondered if he liked jobs that made a visible clean path, or just liked hearing the rattles and whooshes of debris whizzing up the hose. So, I let the toilet bowl get dirtier and dirtier, figured that swipes of the brush would make a gratifyingly white, clean path in the brown. But, he never took to toilet cleaning. So, I decided that that he liked the clatters and clinks, the noise of machinery."
Laura lifted an old shopping list from where it had fallen near her feet, and squinted at the fading print on the torn yellowing paper; this list from the past could replace her current one.
"The husband should help," Laura agreed. "He makes half the mess. But, if he's going to help, he has to see that something's wrong. When Ted comes home from work, he doesn’t want any intrusions from the world; he wants to roll in a ball in his cozy shell and pretend nothing out there is real. Easier to ignore the mess than to do anything about it. He says he's an expert in selective obliviousness; he lies down on top of five books, a dog collar, yesterday's trousers, and a scattering of videocassettes, and he's asleep in two minutes. "
"Maybe you need to take lessons from him," Frances laughed.
Laura grunted, hung up, whispered a fortifying mantra, paused, muttered the mantra again, and dialed Cora.
"I know just the thing for you!" Cora boomed. "It's meant for people like you and it's brilliant, guaranteed to work! My sister, who never could keep her socks separate from her oranges, is with the program and raves about it; her house has changed from squatter-squalid to showplace clean in a month. Just call the Domestic Bliss people. If they're not in the phone book, they're in the newspaper - always advertising in the 'home and garden section. You do get the daily paper, don't you?"
Laura panted, catching her breath after so many loud, exclamatory words had battered her ears.
"Yes," she whispered, not admitting that she forgot where she had placed it. Jeremy dashed past her, paused before a mountain of papers, then dove in; envelopes, faded letters and old bills cascaded down, an avalanche filling the hollow made by his plunging body. Clutching the phone receiver in her left hand, Laura crawled into the heap, groping with her right hand until she felt cloth and flesh.
"Call them, they'll solve everything! They're the best," Cora exclaimed assertively, then shifted to a breezy tone. "It was great hearing from you. I'd love to talk longer but my call-waiting light's blinking. It's long distance, so I'd better get it. Love you!"
Cora clicked off; Laura dropped the receiver on the floor, listening to the dial tone and the faint giggles from within the trash heap as she tugged on her son’s arm.
“Jeremy,” She pleaded. “Come out of there. You don’t know what’s growing in there. Jeremy,” she paused “There are monsters growing in there. Mean, gooey monsters made from garbage, who like to eat little boys.”
Jeremy scurried out.
Laura sighed and mentally retraced her steps since entering the house with today's junk mail, spotted the newspaper beside the green garbage bag, flipped to the 'home and garden' section, scanned each page and read the ad, printed in bold crimson:
"Is domestic bliss forever beyond your reach? Are you overwhelmed by clutter? Disoriented by debris, dust and disorganization? Has grime infested your house like an evil, stubborn parasite? Has the broom become your enemy and tormentor, an invasion of guests your greatest fear? We know everything about your plight; we can solve all your home problems. Call Domestic Bliss Inc. for a free initial consultation. $25 weekly maintenance fee; lifetime guarantee on all services."
She nodded as she read the testimonials. For a 26 year old bank teller, dust bunnies had proliferated faster than real rabbits, until Domestic Bliss had intervened; Laura herself had sometimes wondered if household clutter had sex while people slept, with spring and fall being estrus season for newspapers and glass bottles doing the mating dance in summer. A 56-year-old biologist had lost her hamster for a month in a pile of debris; the animal finally had scuttled out, plump from a long feast on old lettuce and bread, stiff as plaster. A 42-year-old mother had decided to change her ways when her children repeatedly claimed to have lost their homework under a newly fallen avalanche of papers.
"Sorry, honey, I lost the kid," Laura muttered to the wall. "But don't worry, he's in the house somewhere. He can’t really be lost, he’s not far away. I’ll find him eventually – maybe in a year, maybe after he’s died from eating antique tuna sandwiches." She scribbled the Domestic Bliss hotline number in indelible marker on the back of her hand.
What's the first-born child of a Tidy Bowl expert doing, calling on others for domestic aid? she wondered, as she punched each button on the phone. But 'a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do', 'cleaning or dialing, it's all in a day's work', she thought as the succession of tones beeped in her ear; practical, tenacious, maybe she was her father's daughter after all. Maybe Father hadn't mail-ordered her from the local Adopt-a-Kid warehouse; maybe he hadn't rescued her from under one of the huge pumpkin leaves where reluctant mothers dropped their newborns. Maybe, in that neighborhood without a local cabbage patch, he hadn't found her on a park bench, sleeping in a cardboard box labeled "Take me, I'm yours".
"Domestic Bliss," a shrill voice squawked. "You break it, we re-make it; you spoil or soil it, we boil or --"
"My name's Laura Robinson. You take care of dirt emergencies, catastrophic filth?"
"Filth emergencies, that's our game; Domestic bliss, that's our name," the voice squealed. Laura wondered if the woman had been beamed down from a planet where people spoke only in rhyme.
"I mean real filth, a horrible, bad mess," Laura sputtered. "Clothes heaped so high, my son gets lost behind them.. Empty cans, plates crusted with food so old you could carbon-date it." Engineers had planned equally spaced houses on identical ruglike squares of lawn and had designed the streets to intersect at right angles in a perfect grid; Laura thought of her mess as a dark heart of chaos that threatened to expand and engulf the enclaves of perfect order and predictability.
"Magazine mountains, skyscrapers of paper, four-star Reek-o-ramas right in the heart of Cleansville, USA?” The voice paused. “Yes, we take on jobs like that all the time." Laura sank back in her chair on hearing the woman speak prose, but her stomach tightened as the voice accelerated to a shrill staccato, yapping com-mands. "We'll need your vital stats. The vital stats of your house. Your age. Married, single? Number of kids? Elderly depen-dents? Pets and how many? Your age. Their ages. House size. Number of rooms. Size of rooms --"
"Excuse me," Laura stammered, "Could you say that again? A little slower?"
The voice sighed theatrically and repeated its demands; Laura gave the information.
"We'll have an expert there at 10 Am tomorrow," the voice declared. "For a preliminary inspection, beginning restoration, and provisional rehabilitation plan. Be there at 10. We're never late."
A click ended the phone connection. Laura flipped through her day planner. Tomorrow, tomorrow... She could reschedule any appointments, claim an emergency; she wouldn’t be lying. Catastrophic clutter, devastation by dirt, grimly groping grime; act now, or be crushed in the avalanche. Anything to tame and cool the wild, hot, dark heart of chaos, anything to kill its passion for expanding, anything to crush that raving core to a safe, lifeless cinder. Anything to bring her living room closer to godliness, make her stairs fit for the climb to heaven, prove that she was her father's child and belonged.
The next morning, at exactly 10 o'clock, a glistening white van pulled into Laura's driveway. Side and rear doors rolled open; five workers in shiny silver suits leaped out, lifting and rolling equipment off the truck. Laura knew instantly that the suits were sterilized and disposable, incinerated after each job. In their reflective surfaces, the anemic overcast sky burned with feverish incandescence; the clothes were mirrors of the immaculate.
Behind them, a meticulously dressed woman parked a spotless white sedan and ambled towards the front porch where Laura waited.
“I’m Matilda, from Domestic Bliss, but you can call me Tilly.” The woman’s cheeks glowed ruddy as cherries and tiny ringlets covered her head in a neat golden halo. She shook Laura’s hand firmly with scrubbed, pink fingers and smiled as she rummaged through her white straw purse. “I’m here to explain a little about what Domestic Bliss does, introduce you to the process before our workmen get started.” She glanced conspiratorially towards the van, heaved her shoulders in a loud sigh and smiled apologetically; her teeth seemed whiter than the brightest showroom tiles and her pink suit as lint-free, perfectly fitting and uncreased as a new Easter outfit. “Unfortunately, some of our workers need lessons in etiquette. They’re well intentioned, committed to the cause and competent, but they can be a bit gruff. So, we ask you to excuse them if they sound mechanical or rushed.”
Matilda drew a rectangular package, wrapped in tin foil and stored in a vacuum-sealed clear bag, from her purse.
“The cause?” Laura asked, squinting at the men who scurried around the van.
“Cleanliness, good housekeeping,” Matilda murmured as she unzipped the transparent bag; Laura smelled the intoxicating aroma of chocolate. “But more than just good housekeeping. We believe in the betterment of individual lives, which leads to the betterment of society. Most of our workers are volunteers with a strong sense of community. That’s why we can offer our services so cheaply – only $300 for the initial cleaning - the House Revitalization step - plus follow-up inspections and periodic instructions to keep you on track. Domestic Bliss doesn't want you falling back into squalor; Domestic Bliss can't afford to let you backslide, your success is our success, the success of a community. We’re a non-profit organization; your success is our reward.”
She unwrapped the foil, revealing a tray of home-baked brownies; Laura sucked the fragrance deep into her lungs.
“Nowadays, there aren’t enough people who care,” Matilda continued, offering the tray to Laura. “These are for you and your son, little boys all love chocolate; I baked them myself this morning. Think of us at Domestic Bliss as the good neighbors you always secretly wanted – helping you in a time of need, welcoming you to your new, clean home with a little housewarming gift. I would have brought coffee too, but I don’t know you well enough yet to know what you drink in the morning.”
Laura took the tray, bit into a brownie and let the smooth sweetness cover her tongue like velvet. Matilda slid an efficient hand into her purse, pulled out a sheaf of spotless white papers, and handed these to Laura.
"The contract." She offered Laura a gleaming silver pen; Laura didn't see a scratch or smudge on its surface. “Really just a formality.”
Laura flipped through pages of miniscule print. The letters seemed to swarm over the paper like gnats; she wanted to blink and swat the illegible dots and dashes aside, wanted to clear the air. She’d need a microscope to read the words; they must have been written by a computer, by a mechanism with fine motor movements more precise than the human hand's and vision keener than the human eye's.
“I know,” Matilda smiled sweetly and shook her head. “Lawyers and their fine print. It'll take you hours to slog through all the jargon. Best that you just sign at the end, so that we can get on with business, and give the house back to you by 5 PM. Domestic Bliss Inc. guarantees the contract, until the death of either you or the company, whichever comes first." She stared directly into Laura’s eyes. “I have the same problem with contracts, all the legalese that no one can understand and print so small that only an ant can see it. But I can personally vouch for Domestic Bliss; would I be volunteering my time for something I didn’t believe in?”
Laura gripped the shiny silver pen, signed the contract in a larger, bolder script than she'd ever used and held her breath as she waited for the electric vibrations in her hollow chest to subside. “I’ve just signed on for a major life change,” she thought, “A truly clean house. And major changes are supposed to make you tremble a little, aren’t they?”
“Thank you,” Matilda said in a carefully modulated contralto and dropped the papers into a zip lock plastic bag. From her purse, she withdrew a container of disposable, sterile, moistened tissues. She pulled one through a tiny orifice, wiped the pen and her hands, and dropped it in a second plastic bag; she plucked out a second tissue and polished the pen until it glistened.
“The virtues of cleanliness,” she sang out, with a smile that momentarily seemed like a smirk. “You’ll learn to appreciate such virtues. And now, I’ll let the workers do their job; please excuse their manners.”
She strode briskly towards the white sedan as the foreman climbed the steps to the front porch.
"Ma'am," the leader barked as Laura kicked a plastic truck with bulging red wheels away from the screen door, "We're the Domestic Bliss cleaning brigade." He displayed a badge bearing the company name in screaming red letters, the logo of a winged mop, and a tiny photo of himself; behind him, in unison, the other workers did the same. "Ma'am, do you have any animals or children in the house?"
Laura glanced at the front porch strewn with fat rubber balls, miniature plastic shovels, action figures that had lost the ability to grunt and stomp enemies into the concrete after their batteries had died, and stuffed toys resembling cartoon super-heroes. Why would these toys be scattered on the porch if she had no children?
“Do you have any botanicals?”
"House plants, Ma'am. Flowers growing in mud, Bonsai trees, cacti in pots of sand. Roses made from silk, cloth daisies and vinyl leaves don't count. Fake plants always stay the same; they may gather dust but they don't die. So, strictly speaking, they aren't botanicals."
Laura sighed. "If I have any botanicals in here," she muttered, "I haven't seen them in months. They're buried under the piles; they've gone without sun and water so long, they're probably dead."
The worker blew out a long, loud breath. "That's good Ma'am, very good. Our job's easier if we don't have to worry about killing a forgotten botanical." He paused. "What about animal species?"
Laura glanced towards the living room, where a book thudded and papers rustled, like terrified birds fleeing an avalanche of magazines. The worker followed her gaze and winced.
"A dog, three cats and my son," Laura said.
"And yourself, you have to declare yourself," the worker asserted, solemn as a customs inspector. "You're human, and human beings are animals."
Laura craned her neck, following the magazines as they slid into dusty valleys; in the pale light, their glossy covers resembled puddles scattered among clumps of dying weeds. An orange and white tabby dashed through a doorway as her son leaped from behind a pile of dirty towels, underpants and jeans.
"You'll need to remove all these life forms from the house. Domestic Bliss Inc. usually recommends that you put them all in your car, and park that no closer than 30 yards from the property while we rehabilitate your home." Laura frowned as the man scowled towards the room behind her; the thin veins etching his temple and nose gave his coarse skin the blue overcast of cleanser; Matilda had been right to warn her about the workers’ gruff manners. "In cases like yours - in especially egregious cases of filth, and I can see that this house qualifies - a swish of the mop, a push of the vacuum cleaner, a sloshing of Lysol and a spritz of air freshener won't do. Cases like this require an eradication of rats, an evacuation of all the slumbering bats, a banishing of mold before it creeps up the walls and invades the ceiling --"
Laura shuddered as she imagined rats gnawing the dry wood and mold dissolving the moist timber, until only peeling wallpaper and flaking paint covered a skeleton of rot.
"In your case, we need to use every pesticide, bactericide, vermicide, herbicide and insecticide; every tetra-chloro- and dihydrobenzo- in the book. Who knows what evils lurk under a grimy rug?" As soon as Laura looked away, the man's face dissolved into a blur as featureless and lumpy as a bar of soap left too long in water. If she didn't concentrate on his words, his speech droned, like the whirring of a washing machine during the rinse cycle. "You have ten minutes to get the desirable life forms out of your house, " he announced, turning to Laura. "No longer. At Domestic Bliss, we start when we promise to start; we believe in speed and punctuality." Laura nodded mutely as her stomach churned. Where was Jeremy? Could she catch the cats if she found them? Were the pet crates still in the basement, or lost under a mountain of magazines?
She turned into the house and screeched.
"Jeremy!" The call, too loud to be intelligible, made the windows rattle. The boy and the dog galloped forward, summoned by her alarm. The cats, awakened from limp-limbed naps, jumped over beds, scooted past jumbles of old computer parts, and pounced into the tiny bathroom. Laura found the pet carriers on a basement shelf, thanked a God she didn't believe in for the blessing, blew Lady Luck a kiss in gratitude, wondered how she'd pay for this new karmic debt, and promised the cosmos a sacrifice at some dawn in the distant future.
Laura left the house, pushing a cart stacked with a case of bottled water, a six-pack of Coke, a grab bag of high-cholesterol, high sugar, high-salt snacks, the tray of brownies, and three pet cages; in each, a cat wailed for release and scratched at the steel grating with long, desperate claws. Beside her, the two other desirable life forms trotted, one gripping her hand, the other tensing and relaxing his leash as he bounded forward and back. As she passed the crew from Domestic Bliss, each worker raised a silver-gloved right hand and waved.
"A messy house is the devil's workshop," one sang out as Laura's cart bumped over a riot of dandelions that had pushed between slabs of pavement concrete.
"Cobwebs are the devil's plaything," another added, and moved closer to the first "Sludge is the devil's clay, and grime is his coloring medium." A paint imported from hell, Laura thought, each speck of pigment is a tiny black hole. She imagined walls and doors of a blinding whiteness uninterrupted by fingerprints or spattered cooking grease, a house where no one moved because no one wanted to spoil the antiseptic perfection. The shining whiteness would burn through her retinas until she spun through a universe of screaming, condemning brilliance, unable to move or even blink; even a flickering eyelash might send eddies of invisible dust hurtling towards and into the walls, killing the perfection.
"That's why we believe in Total Educational Rectification," the third worker exclaimed. "A strict rehabilitation program for your home and for you; one can't hear a true sermon too often. But you already know that; you signed the contract." Any sane person knows that an unsightly home is the devil's handiwork. But Domestic Bliss is always here to help you; we stand by you for life."
Laura glanced uneasily down at her purse, into which she'd shoved a copy of the contract.
"An untidy house is the devil's playpen.,” she stammered back as Jeremy tugged at her arm. Best to recite the mantra; best to placate these workers who probably were chronically intoxicated from the fumes of industrial-strength solvents. Best to keep the dog, who poked his nose into smelly burrows and rolled in mud after every bath, far from the gleaming van. "A fall from order points to a fall from grace," she muttered to the fourth and fifth workers, who glared at her expectantly.
"My Dad's not just turning in his grave," she muttered to herself. "He's sitting upright, banging on the ceiling of his coffin, demanding to be let out so that he can dance a jig in his tattered Sunday best atop his toilet tombstone."
Jeremy clutched her hand more tightly; the dog huffed and twitched one floppy velvet ear.
"Your grandfather dedicated his life to cleanliness and orderliness," she explained, even though a three year old wouldn't understand the concepts; drifting into the slow cadence of a mother reading aloud, she felt calmed; stories and distant memories didn't threaten her so much. "Inside and outside, his house was a shrine to neatness and cleaning fluids. No one dared lean against the whitewashed picket fence and smudge it." The living room and dining room furniture had glowed, dust-free and a luminous golden-brown, like museum pieces. The reproduction Oriental rugs had spread out, magic carpets sprouting floral arabesques in a mythic realm scourged free of germs. The cut glass vases sparkled, miniature stars trapped in their facets; the silver and brass bowls reflected upside-down and distorted images of the room, fun-house mirrors that resulted from hours of buffing. Father had called the house "preacher ready", as spotless and godly as any human habitation could be. Laura would stand at the living room entrance, forbidden entry by her father and kept from entering as though a thick velvet cord blocked off the space. She'd kick off her shoes and socks outside the front door and walk barefoot across the burnished hardwood floors; shoes tracked in mud and leaves, heels could gouge and scratch perfection. She'd learned to routinely scrub her hands and confine her wayward hair in a net upon entering the house; human fingerprints marred the mirror-glossiness of a knob. The toilet water had been clean enough for a miniature man to swim in when his boat capsized or a cat to drink, but she'd been allowed no pets; gerbils spat pellets out of their cages and cats wouldn't submit to being shampooed three times daily.
"He spent his life writing jingles about toilet bowl cleaners," she mumbled to her son. "Creativity in the service of his god." Right now, Father wouldn't be dancing. He'd be standing on his tomb, as proud and tall as a skeleton could be, holding a bronzed bottle of cleaning fluid aloft like a trophy and shouting his manifesto for anyone above or below the tombstones to hear.
"Mommy." Jeremy fidgeted as Laura opened the back door of her car. "Are we going on a trip?
Laura pushed aside a faded bathing suit, an expired bottle of vitamins, a jar in which one Aspirin rattled and a paperback with mold festooning the edge of its damp cover, then set down the three cat crates. Forgotten shopping lists and stained receipts crackled softly, settling under the weight of the pet carriers; an unopened Christmas card from the plumber wafted down from the back seat. Laura knew that crushed pretzels, Hershey's kisses melted into slabs, a dried peach pit, wrappers streaked with solidified grease, raisins as hard as wrinkled pebbles and shriveled orange rinds had settled to the car floor. As the dog jumped onto the back seat, his speckled head almost touching the roof, an empty tin of cashews clattered across the seat into the door.
She rolled the back window down several inches; the dog wedged his nose in the opening, panting happily and eagerly inhaling the vapors from passing trucks.
"No trip," she replied as she lifted her son into the car and strapped him into the special child seat decorated with grape juice stains and grinning bears holding lollipops. "We just have to wait until those men are done fixing our house."
"The space men?"
Laura shook her head; as she trudged towards the passenger's side, the phrase "masked marauders" clanged in her mind.
At the house, two hooded workers wheeled a six-foot tall chrome vacuum cleaner towards the front door; behind it trailed a white bag as long as her living room; a flexible black tube, three feet wide and as long as her bedroom, protruded in front. The bag would expand into a bloated belly, holding and digesting the piles of dust, newspaper and garbage that her house could keep no longer but couldn't eliminate by itself. The corrugated tube, like a giant snout, would hungrily sniff and devour, sucking whatever it touched into the vacuum's famished maw. A child and a cat could easily be sucked into the bowels of the roaring monster until someone heard the screams, slashed the vinyl sides and plucked them from the churning innards of the evil beastie.
"If someone even could hear the screams," Laura thought, remembering the man whose mechanical voice had sounded like a computer simulation of human speech and wondering if such a huge machine would roar louder than a tiger genetically engineered to grow to elephant-size.
"Not space men," she muttered as she started the ignition and drove the car to a parking space down the block. "Just men in strange suits and hoods." Three of the workers wheeled giant chrome canisters towards the front door; even at this distance, Laura saw the skull and crossbones painted in stark black on the side of each. Enough poison to kill a nation of mice, a city of cats, a town of large dogs and many humans. Maybe they were space men posing as housecleaning specialists, eager to kill off humanity with their extraterrestrial concoctions and take over the planet.
"What are they doing in the house?"
"Cleaning it." A bread pan with brown crust peeling from the interior had slid forward; Laura kicked it back under the seat. What would the Domestic Bliss crew think if they saw her car? What would her father say? Last year, a wedge of cheese had rotted under the front passenger's seat until the car stank enough to challenge a fumigation squad. Laura had pawed through the mess for hours, stopping to re-read every letter and reminisce about every artifact in her roving house of memories, as she'd searched for the source of the smell. She'd joked that she was a survivalist, able to live for a month off the leftovers in her car; she hadn't even worn a mask, although she could have been dealing with a biohazard. "You live in a garbage receptacle," her father would have scolded, the disapproval smoking up from his wan lips and his ghostly mouth opening into a black hole of absolute scorn and despair.
"Can we go to McDonalds?" Jeremy clapped his hands and bounced in his seat until the car shuddered. Laura started the engine and drove into the street as Jeremy whooped, the dog barked and the three cats wailed for freedom.
The Domestic Bliss crew had already left when Laura arrived home, her stomach bloated from three chocolate milkshakes and her ears ringing from childish shrieks and soprano caterwauls intermittently interrupted by basso barking. She glanced at the sign "Rehabilitated by Domestic Bliss Inc.; for emergencies, call..." glued firmly to a door that gleamed as white and glossy as one just released from the factory. Not wanting to mar the finish of the knob, brass that had been concealed for years by layers of grime, she wrapped her hand in her shirttail before opening it; polyester left fewer marks than skin.
"Be careful, take off your shoes before you go in," she whispered to her son as she gazed at the spotless walls and floors. She hadn't known that the living room carpet was green, had forgotten that she even owned a footstool. Only the architectural layout and the rooster-shaped wall clock, every number now legible through the glass, assured her that she'd returned to the right house.
"You'll have to stay outside," she told the dog as she hooked the leash to a garden pole. "At least until you get a bath."
"I should be pleased," she thought, "Now I can find things; now I won't lose my son. Cora will be pleased; she no longer has to admit to having a slob for a friend. My father would be pleased, is pleased if he's still around as a ghost." She glanced out at the twilit lawn, at the silhouettes of unruly hedges and the grass, crew cut in some places, as shaggy as a bum's beard in others. Thistle and dandelions rioted in purple and gold abandon where someone had once planted dahlias. She bent to pluck a square of paper from Jeremy's trousers - part of a faded old shopping list, residue from the car.
When her husband arrived home from the office, Laura stopped him at the front door, asked him to take off his shoes, and escorted him indoors.
"It looks good, doesn't it?", she beamed.
"Uh huh, very good," Ted mumbled through a mouth of potato chips, sank into the sofa as he did every night, and clicked the remote. Laura retreated quietly from the room; when Ted withdrew into his private inner world after a hard day at work, using the TV’s flickering light and humming voices to repel intruders, she knew not to interrupt him.
My family would be pleased," she mused while lying in bed. "Especially my father."
"Your father's dead," Ted grunted, and rolled in bed to face away from her.
"Sure, I know. But, remember how he always had the house spic and span, ready to impress the deacon. Even his car shone as though no one ever drove it, and his garden would have impressed the neatest landscaper?" Laura paused. "My car --"
Ted breathed deeply and rhythmically beside her. As she listened, she remembered how her father had painted the handles of his pruning shears glossy red each April, how he'd sharpened the blades until they gleamed and had scoured every speck of rust from his rake. A shiny green seal on the mower's aluminum casing certified that the engine had just had an annual tune-up and that the blades had been adjusted to exactly three inches above ground. His sickle and a machete had hung on stainless steel hooks above the garage worktable where he'd tidily lined up the best gardening books on the market as though diligent lawn care were a civic and religious duty.
"But he had a mental problem; he went to the extreme. A mind obsessed is a mind possessed," Laura told herself as the house's unfamiliar stillness folded around her like a suffocating blanket. She knew that worries could ossify into obsession, that fear and rigid compulsiveness could cause an insidious mental rot.
She listened for the crunch of paper under a scampering cat's paw, the clatter of a can dislodged by a large and clumsy dog, the thud of a magazine falling as Jeremy crept to the bathroom, all the comforting noises of life continuing in the dark. In the sterile silence on antiseptic sheets, she lay, too stiff to fall asleep, falling down, down, down in a dark mute void that led to a place that promised no solace.
Every other night for the next two weeks, at exactly 6 PM, a representative from Domestic Bliss knocked on Laura's door, entered before she had invited him in, and inspected the rooms. He ran his finger in parallel rows along each tabletop, examined the walls for fingerprints with a portable halogen lamp, and crawled across each rug, feeling for dust or grit lodged between the fibers.
"Dirt," he droned in his metallic monotone one evening, and held up a short white cat hair. "How many hours do you spend daily in domestic maintenance?"
"One," Laura mumbled into her collar.
"One, but my son and my husband also do their bit," she muttered, hoping that exaggeration and little lies would placate the inspector.
"Not enough, a house this size needs at least 2 hours and 27 minutes daily for the upkeep of domestic bliss," he scolded and stomped out to the white van. Laura backed away as he wheeled in the giant chrome vacuum cleaner, cringed as the motor growled and gurgled like a hungry belly and the long tube sucked at her rug like the proboscis of a famished mutant insect.
"We'll be back again tomorrow," he said, after switching off the vacuum. "To begin Phase Two of your Educational Rectification. Domestic Bliss is with you now and forever; achieving domestic perfection can be a lifelong task, but we're by your side all the way. Cleanliness is our mission, our reason for being; all our workers are thoroughly devoted, we'd never desert you. Be here tomorrow at 3 PM."
The next afternoon, Laura spent two hours and 28 minutes, 60 seconds more than the prescribed minimum, on housework. At exactly 3 o'clock, a woman with sharply creased tan trousers rapped commandingly on the front door, displayed her badge and directed Laura onto the front porch.
"External domestics division, deputy director of the Delinquent vehicle Reform Squad" she rasped in a tinny, staccato voice. Her neck was broom-handle-thin and her skin as was a perfectly pressed white sheet. Laura frowned.
"We've seen your garage and what's kept inside it," the woman continued. "You don't drive a car; you drive a Trashmobile. A car should be a spotless transportation device, not a motorized garbage container. As we speak, a crew is towing your vehicle to our depot for fumigation, pest removal, debris eradication, grunge excision, and a 24 hour autoclaving."
Laura gasped. "But, I need my car. I go shopping, I take Jeremy to the playground." She started towards the road, but stopped abruptly as the truck towing her car disappeared over the hill. "And my husband uses it too. Besides, we didn't ask for all this; we only wanted house cleaning --"
"It's for your own good, the good of your household; achieving domestic bliss requires lifestyle overhaul. Your husband doesn't need a car; he uses the train. You can take public transportation too, and walk to the store. Walking tones the muscles - and your figure does need attention, but we don't need to focus on that yet" the woman asserted in a shrill monotone. "After the thorough cleansing, our team of electronics experts will install dust, fur, mold, food particulate and fetor sensors in your transportation device. You should clean your rehabilitated vehicle at least once weekly and avoid allowing furry life forms entry. Should you fail to maintain your cleaning protocol, should any designated particulates, mildew, digestible matter or foul odors be present, an alarm will sound here and in our home office, alerting us to the infraction."
The woman pulled a clipboard from her briefcase and decisively placed a check mark beside the second entry on a list that extended to the bottom of the page. Her gaze roved rhythmically back and forth like a searchlight, scrutinizing each of Laura's pores for a telltale blackhead and probing the yard for an incriminating dropped peach pit.
"When – ?" Laura began. Hearing her son whoop in front of the TV, she wondered how she'd tell Jeremy and her husband that the dog could no longer ride in the back seat beside the open window, his head bobbing and shaking happily as his tongue licked the wind. Already the dog, recently banished to the back yard, implored Laura with doleful brown eyes that accused her of sadism until she atoned by tossing him an extra bone; she felt like converting to Catholicism, just so that someone could absolve her of the accumulating guilt. "And Ted? What about when he goes fishing, throws the catch in a bucket in the back seat? And how can you expect a four year old to sit in a car for an hour with nothing to eat? I didn't ask for this! Why?"
The woman sighed loudly; to Laura, standing too close, her cool, odorless breath seemed too steady, like the streams emitted from a new air conditioner not yet personalized by rust stains from the owners leaky gutter or grape juice dripped from a child's cup.
"The car will be back tomorrow, fully sanitized," the woman said, then raised her right hand to her head. No strips of scratched-off polish on the pearly nails trimmed as perfectly oval as slabs cut by machines according to computer specifications. No torn cuticles, no scuffed knuckles, no fingertips calloused from years of gripping steel wool; who cleaned the home of this manicured woman? "And you did ask for this. Remember the contract? You signed on for lifetime management."
"Oh, and don't worry about your husband; he'll soon be too busy to think about fish. A man must contribute to Domestic Bliss; we just haven't gotten to his part yet. We start on that tomorrow, when we look at the condition of your lawn. Be here tomorrow at 8 AM. Have your husband beside you; it's a Saturday, we know he's off from work."
Watching the woman drive away, Laura shuddered. As she tiptoed down her spotless hall, she imagined driving to a hidden clearing, rolling down car windows smudged with taffy and road grime and burger grease, dumping buckets of mud on the back seat and letting buttercups grow there; she'd convert the Junkmobile to a Weedmobile, a Dreammobile, a tiny, roving, secret field of hope, where golden blooms could flourish unseen and revive her as the Domestic Bliss inspectors searched in vain for the car owned by an incorrigible slob.
"What's wrong with the lawn?" Ted asked over dinner. "It's green. Green is green, what more do you need in a lawn?"
Laura shrugged, wondering if she should just throw down Astroturf, then stick in clusters of silk irises and sunflowers. Some artificial flowers looked more real than the live ones and never wilted, never shed messy petals. Fake grass remained uniformly short, didn't let dandelions take root; a family could avoid mowing, seeding and digging, but maintain the perfectly barbered, weedless look that suggested domestic bliss to all.
"She mentioned the crabgrass and said the lawn was irregularly mowed, looked mangy in some areas and like it had a 5 o'clock shadow in others."
"Yeah, like I'm really going to waste every Saturday with fertilizer and pulling out weeds. Especially with a dog and a kid tearing up the ground." He stabbed his fork into a meatball and mashed it flat. "Who do these people think they are, anyway? Butting in everywhere, when we only asked for a housecleaning? They're beginning to sound like clones of your father."
Outside, a hedge trimmer buzzed. A few of the block's dedicated gardeners continued working after sunset, pulling weeds and pruning branches by the light of portable flood lamps; the sputtering engines and whining saws reminded Laura of her childhood with Father, spent being silent, stealthy and invisible.
"What's wrong with weeds?" she'd innocently asked her father. How could anything as cheerful as wild daisies, tiger lilies and buttercups be vile? What would happen if the rose suddenly grew wild, didn't need gardeners to reproduce, and took over lawns the way sumac and thistle did? What if roses defied human control by sprouting anywhere with weedlike abandon. Would we shout ‘This is great! Let the roses overrun my lawn; let the roses, in their new freedom, overrun the world!' Or would we add the rose to the list of forbidden plants? Even blacklist all the poetry and old gardening books that touted it as the paragon of beauty? "Would a rose be a weed if it could grow anywhere?"
Her father had whipped off his leather belt and held it, looped in his fist, over her head.
"You need an attitude adjustment, young lady," he'd roared. "Do you need the strap to teach you what's right? A rose can never be a weed; a rose is too beautiful to be a weed, a rose needs human cultivation too much. Weeds are rebellious, independent. They're like delinquent kids. Like scavengers. Like demons. Weeds flourish without love; they flourish on neglect. And where there is love, they suck it up like parasites. Weeds are the vampires of the soil. Weeds are always ugly; anything as beautiful as a rose could never be a weed, even if it comes with thorns. So, what have we learned about roses today? What should we have learned about roses a long time ago?"
Her gaze never moving from the belt, poised like a snake about to strike, Laura had stooped, trying to make herself smaller.
"A rose can never be a weed," she'd recited.
"Even if it has thorns?"
"Even if it has stabbing thorns," she replied. Thorns that impale the soul, thorns that draw blood like a vampire's teeth. "A rose can never be ugly, a rose can never be a weed," she'd stammered, while wishing that a particularly long and poisoned thorn would pierce her father's fist like an ice pick and promising the universe that she would never end up like her father if only she could learn the art of making herself too small and insignificant to attract the strap.
The sudden silence, after the last mower on the block had coughed to a stop, jolted Laura back to the present and her husband’s scowl.
"If they keep coming around, I might call the police," Ted fumed as Laura scraped uneaten food off three plates into a garbage bag. "Get them for trespassing, harassment."
Laura didn't mention the contract, not now. She jammed the forks and knives into their dishwasher compartments and imagined fleeing to a squalid trailer park under an assumed name. She'd dye her hair orange, wear rhinestone-studded sunglasses and clinging purple velveteen pants, learn to yack in a nasal twang, become the queen of the motor home motor mouths with an achey-breaky heart, a cliché past and a future as unpromising as a road of potholes. But she'd cringe whenever someone knocked on her rickety front door, fearing that one of Domestic Bliss's agents, with his electronically enhanced vision and long-distance telepathy, had targeted her location and uncovered the woman behind the costume. He'd cuff her, interrogate and lecture her, bring her back to this home of the immaculate, demand lifelong allegiance to the cause of cleanliness, demand her life.
"They came around here for one job," Ted complained. "Now they act like they own us."
Laura didn't pull out the contract; she didn't gather up her five magnifying glasses that, assembled in some particular order one atop the next, might perform optical magic and let her read the small print. She turned on the dishwasher and retired to her bed, where she lay watching slivers of light cut the dark ceiling like knives.
The next morning, a bright green van and a spotless white automobile pulled into the driveway. An unfamiliar man and woman, stern-faced and immaculately clad, marched to the front door. Ted, in a threadbare T-shirt and paint-spattered jeans, tried to block the entrance.
"Domestic Bliss, Sir," they intoned in unison, showed their badges, and pushed inside as though Ted were as lightweight as a fly. Ten figures clad in shiny green suits leaped from the van and swarmed around its rear; Laura heard the buzz of speech, then watched them uncoil the longest, fattest hose she'd ever seen.
"Martians!" Jeremy shrieked, tugging her hand as the man and woman returned from inspecting her house. "A monster snake! Can I touch it, can I?"
The woman scowled at Jeremy, put two check marks on a page in her clipboard and showed the document to the man, who nodded. Jeremy cringed away from the accusatory stare, gripped Laura's hand tightly and squeezed his body into hers.
"You can't....What right?" Crimson faced, Ted lurched towards the strangers but stumbled back, as though punched by an invisible force. "What gives you the right to go through our house," he stammered, dazed and desperately grasping for lost words.
"What kinds of assholes invade someone else's yard like this?"
The woman frowned and solemnly checked another entry on her paper. Three of the workers pushed a machine, six feet high with a tapering chrome nozzle and a humped plastic back attached to a collapsed cloth bag. To Laura, it resembled a mutant, hungry anteater; as it fed on grass and worms and unlucky birds, the bag would expand like a slowly bloating stomach. Two others pulled a glossy chartreuse dome suspended above tiers of variably sized rotating blades, all dagger-sharp. Laura thought of an extraterrestrial stealth helicopter, with propellers for landing and spinning blades for decapitating any tree top or human in its way.
"We’re using our biggest machines on your lawn. More efficient that way,” the man explained. “Industrial strength equipment for an industrial-sized job.”
“Yours is obviously an end-stage case. A case requiring extreme measures, extreme labor, extreme dedication." The woman shook her head. "So many problems."
"Faults in all sectors, not a single area free of serious blemishes." The man shook his head in rhythm with the woman.
Several uniformed workers bustled around the van, holding shiny sickles, machetes and weed-whackers high above their heads; Laura thought of dancing tribesman, drunk before the sacrifice. The willow decked in its filigreed gown of tiny pale leaves, the pine attired in a gentle fuzz of green, the pert dandelions eagerly poking their golden heads above a ridge of grass seemed like offerings to be stripped or beheaded in deference to a newly victorious god.
"What do you mean, 'end stage case'?" Ted blustered.
Jeremy wedged his body between Laura's legs; she cupped her hands under his chin, a protective cocoon.
"Cleanliness is next to godliness," the woman intoned.
"Tidiness is next to godliness," the man added.
"And don't we all aspire to heaven?"
Laura, Ted and Jeremy stared at the two, unable to speak.
"That means clean, tidy housekeeping. Everything in its place and the right place for everything."
"That means neatly pruned bushes, perfectly rounded hedges. That means - no weeds, no fallen branches; permitting weeds is a form of sloppiness, like letting grime grow between your tiles. An untidy lawn is the devil's doing; fallen branches point to the fallen man."
"Our mission is to pull up the fallen man, restore him to perfect cleanliness," the woman droned. "It's our reason for being."
The two inspectors studied the paper on which the woman had jotted notes and put ominous checkmarks. Laura scowled; Jeremy, trying to wriggle free, pointed to giant gleaming hedge clippers that chopped away branches like the teeth of an insatiable scavenger. Workers squatted to dig invasive clover from between blades of approved bluegrass; they yanked out dandelions, scraped shelf fungi as small as fingernails from the trunk of a birch, and tossed the debris into gaping garbage bags as topsoil and flakes of tree bark rained over their impervious boots. On de-weeded areas of lawn, the huge mower growled ahead in undeviating straight lines, spitting out grass; behind it, the hump-backed machine snorted hungrily, sucked the clippings into its snout, and left a swatch of grass as short and uniform as a green rug. How would the Domestic Bliss inspectors have reacted if Laura had poured asphalt over the whole yard and painted it bright green? The attentive homeowner would maintain rows of soldierly tulips, rigidly erect beside shrubs as symmetrically domed as helmets and garden zones where geraniums mixed strategically with petunias in a watercolorist's wash of placating pinks and violets; on the ideal street, her lawn would merge with other lawns, all uniformly painted green. Today, the Domestic Bliss monitors came as lawn police; what role would they play tomorrow?
"Cleanliness means more than good housekeeping and lawn care," the woman intoned. "It means cleanliness of body and mind, clean speech and clean thoughts. He--" The female inspector glared at Ted. "He recently referred to a posterior excretory orifice by using a profanity; he likened us, dedicated delegates of Domestic Bliss, to that orifice."
"Wha-at?" Laura stammered.
"He called us 'assholes'," the man barked. "That is unclean speech, unclean thinking. The man obviously needs rehabilitation. His speech will need to be monitored and every breech of proper vocal protocol attended to."
"Tidiness means having the right things in the right places; that also refers to behavior," the woman continued in a slow falsetto as she frowned at Jeremy and tapped on her clipboard. "That means keeping the body where it's supposed to be, and only inserting words where they belong. Blurting out 'Martians' and fidgeting in the middle of a serious discussion are forms of disorderly conduct. The boy needs re-education; he already shows signs of pernicious untidiness at the core of his being."
"Think of your home as a tiny Eden in a fallen world." The man's voice whirred like a motor. "Remember that this Eden, every day and in every way, can only get better and better."
Ted snorted, arms crossed over his chest. The woman inspector scrutinized her checklist and nodded solemnly.
"The adult male's vocal indiscretions and the behavior of the home's minor member are hardly surprising," the woman droned. "Analysis of our observations shows an urgent need for Interior Aesthetic Adjustments and Sartorial Re-alignment."
Laura’s jaw dropped.
"Re-decorating. Different colors, different fabrics," the inspector clarified. "And an overhaul of how you approach the task of dressing yourselves."
Laura, gripping Jeremy's shoulders, noticed the mud spatters on his socks, the sneakers faded to an indifferent gray-blue by so much wading through puddles, the bur sticking to the back collar of his rumpled shirt.
"But, what's wrong with our house?" she sputtered. "It's bright and cheerful. And Jeremy's not even in school yet. Why should I worry about whether his outfit matches or his shoes get stained? He liked playing in the woods, and the rabbits don't care what he looks like."
The female inspector inhaled deeply and briefly shut her eyes, as though willing forth the patience to explain the obvious to the incorrigibly ignorant.
"That's not the point. Whether you like your house doesn't matter." She signed loudly and pointed to the yard. "You have rows of forsythia bushes - fortunately not in bloom. You've also fallen for the daffodil and marigold craze. And your lawn's a breeding ground for buttercups and dandelions. Up to me, I'd outlaw yellow flowers, after scientists proved the neuroexcitatory effects of some colors." The inspector narrowed her eyes. "You do remember those studies, don't you?"
Laura nodded, confused but reluctant to encourage a lecture, perplexed as she recalled blazing forsythias lining the streets in early spring, the first explosion of cheeriness after a gray winter.
"Yellow doesn't stop with one buttercup," the inspector asserted. "Yellow expands to a field,"
Laura nodded automatically, as she'd often done before her ranting father. Laura knew what he'd said about orange, what this lady would say about yellow. Yellow was the color of warning signs and dandelions. Yellow screeched, flashed, set off every howling siren in the mind, made the heart race, jolted the muscles into tense alertness. Yellow spread beyond the forsythia bush; yellow became an epidemic of glowing dandelions, a field of fire and too much light. Too much razzle-dazzle, which excited and irritated the mind; too much razzle-dazzle was bad. Razzle-dazzle-yellow is the devil's plaything; we must let no yellow in our yards.
"Your son's bedroom is bright yellow," the inspector scolded. "How can you expect orderly conduct from a nervous system exposed to so much yellow? Your kitchen and bathroom are yellow. How can you expect a husband to speak properly when his brain sparks sizzling, helter-skelter currents and short-circuits from a toxic overdose of yellow? The decor must be converted if the man and boy are to be converted."
Laura and Ted stared blankly, speechless.
"Blue soothes, pink pacifies," the male inspector recited in a nasal monotone. "The trinity of blue, lavender and pink is the trinity of tranquility. Harmonious colors lead to a harmonious society; community peace grows out of the colors of peace. The home must be a peaceful place."
Laura cringed and glanced imploringly at her husband. Ted stared fixedly ahead, his jaw clamped shut, an artery on the side of his neck throbbing to the beat of a primordial war dance. The female inspector gazed smugly at the clipped, pruned yard, sucked clean of a decade's infiltrating detritus, of the rot that had seeped in and spread under the eyes of the indifferent and unvigilant. She tapped her clipboard, commanding attention with the staccato raps.
"With all our devoted workers, we can attend to sartorial re-alignments and adjustment of the interior aesthetics simultaneously," the woman yipped, as though Laura should feel overjoyed by the news. "You'll get verbal lessons along the way, but you'll learn most from doing and experiencing; we've found that habit-replacement leads to faster and longer rehabilitation than does mere talk. The wrinkled, stained, torn, faded and patched clothes must go - too messy for safety. The mind copies what the mind sees."
A crimson blaze had surged over Ted's face; his eyes burned darkly hot, like coals ready to be stoked to fire by any comment.
"The state of the mind mirrors the state of the body," the male inspector added. "Messy attire encourages messy thinking; a clean mind grows only in a clean body. We'll also have to monitor how often he bathes."
"And whether he washes behind his ears."
"Keeps his fingernails short but scrubs them anyway."
"Scours between his toes. An often forgotten place in the bathing ritual, a frequent entry point for infiltrating impurities."
"Monitor the adult bathroom rituals as well. Plus their weights and the flabbiness of the musculature." The inspector scrutinized Laura and Ted, and shook his head. "A definite need for Appearance Rectification - trainers at the home daily for work-outs, weekly measurements of biceps thickness, fat to muscle ratio, body mass index. A slovenly body engenders a slovenly spirit."
Laura bit down to control the quivering in her lower lip and gripped a wad of abdominal fat between her thumb and index finger. "A non-detachable floatation device around my middle," she thought, "Meant to keep me afloat as the whitewater currents of life send me crashing into rocks." This life preserver wouldn't keep her buoyant though; even among the neighborhood ladies, far less demanding than the Domestic Bliss delegates, revealing this blubber could send her sinking towards the sludge at the bottom of the social pool. Ordinary people, as well as the purified, demanded bodies stripped clean of fat.
"We know this is hard for you. So much to do, so much to change," the woman continued. "We're not without compassion. That's why we're assigning you personal guides, who will be with you most of the day to watch your progress and correct your ways."
"Prison guards," Ted grunted, and pounded his fist against his palm; the inspectors ignored him.
"We'd like to mentor you with a totally person touch, have your guide with you 24 hours per day for face-to-face, up-close-and-personal teaching. Unfortunately, we can't do that. Our workers also need to sleep and be with their families; they're dedicated to the mission, but sleep and kin contacts are vital to domestic bliss. So, to save our devoted guides from perditions, we've made other arrangements to accommodate your needs in their absence --"
"Like a frontal lobotomy? That'll do the trick," Ted spat out, rocking up and down on his toes and repeatedly hitting his palm with his fist. "Implant electrodes. Then we'd run to let you throw the collars around our neck, and follow behind you on the leash. Lobotomy, that's the way to go; we'd even jump in the river on command."
The woman turned to Ted with her plastic, mannequin smile and continued. "We've installed electronic monitors strategically through your home so that someone can hear you even when no actual person's available. Our Embedded Ear program, it lets us catch slip-ups before they fester into dangerous habits. Even when none of our representatives is with you in person, our electronic monitors will let you know when you’ve done wrong; you’ll get the message loud and clear. No escaping our dedicated surveillance; we want you to learn your lesson."
The inspector tried to widen her glossy painted smile into something seemingly benevolent and patient, humane but without human imperfections. She added a dash of falsetto sweetness to her voice, but too late. Ted stormed towards her, his face aflame, his body lunging, his arms reaching for the woman's neck, ready to shake and throttle her. She flailed her arms to block an attack, stammered "No....Don't....You...." in a breathless raspy whisper, and stumbled backward until stopped by the porch railing. Suddenly, Ted stopped, looked at the people who were watching him and at the neighboring houses where invisible witnesses might hide behind unlit windows. He lowered his hands.
"What kind of shit is this? What are you nuts, you assholes - yes, assholes – trying to pull?" he bellowed.
The male inspector started back, as though blasted by breath stinking of brimstone. The female cautiously edged towards her colleague.
"You cleaned our house well; we paid your fee," Ted thundered. "But what the hell gives you the right to stomp all over our lawn, prowl through our house every day, redecorate our rooms, re-parent our kid, correct our speech? What kind of crap is this?"
The woman loosened a sheaf of papers from her clipboard and offered them to Ted.
"Yeah, so what's this?" he snarled.
"The contract," the woman replied in an even-paced monotone. "That your wife signed." She paused, then spoke more slowly. "Our complete service contract"
Ted whirled towards Laura, his right eyelid twitching on his crimson face, his blocky chest and shoulders set rigidly forward. "You signed a contract with these people? A contract?" He swung his fist up, beat the air and started to pace. "Allowing them to meddle in our lives, to own us? What kind of woman did I marry? Couldn't you tell they were nut cases?"
Ted kicked the doorjamb, then marched to the female inspector and snatched the document from her hand. Laura shrank back as Ted began to read, staring at her feet and clutching the porch railing for support.
"It was all so tiny," she whimpered. "Hardly visible, almost as small as bacteria. A blur. The words, I mean; they weren’t big, like what you’re reading now. The part about the initial housecleaning was clear, big and bold letters. But then, a lot of fuzz. A lot of the print looked like dots, mites in the cat's ear, a page of smudge. I'd have needed a microscope to read it. If it was writing, that is. Jeremy's not old enough to have a microscope. They were already here and all set up - to do the house cleaning. And the first lady, the one who had me sign, seemed so nice, like a friendly neighbor; she even gave Jeremy a brownie. You know how often we lost Jeremy behind all those piles, a housekeeping emergency. The lady said that the small print was a lot of legalese, ‘wherefore’s and ‘whatnot’s that just promised us a thoroughly cleaned house. We wouldn’t have to lose Jeremy any more; I couldn’t have found a microscope even if Jeremy had one --"
"Enough!" Ted roared, the pages shaking in his fists as he glared at the print.
Like mites in a cat's ear, Laura thought. Now the cats' ears are clean in a disinfected house. Now a new kind of pest invades. Our front door's an orifice, letting in the missionary mites from Domestic Bliss to feed on our lives, to grow and multiply in our home until they've sucked it dry of spirit....And I'm as good as a mite, I let them in; I didn't question the mite-sized print. I should be squashed like a mite, sprayed with pesticide, swept from a world that might be ideal without my kind nibbling at its polished surface, turning the planet into an irritable itchy boil.
"It's all spelled out on those pages," the woman inspector said. "Big and bold, loud and clear, in black and white. Ours is a program of progressive edification, rehabilitation at all levels. A messy home is only a sign of dangerous chaos breeding at the core; achieving domestic bliss requires purification of the entire organism."
Ted crushed the papers in his fist, shoved the crumpled wad in his pocket, then jerked it out; the meaning of the words on his copy of the contract, all in 14 point boldface, was clear.
"Purification is a full-time job for us and for you; luckily, we're dedicated." The woman turned her lips up in a thin, practiced smile beneath stony eyes. "Think of us as giving the home a long needed enema; we wash away the toxins."
Late that night, after the monitors had finally departed, Ted opened the refrigerator door, pawed through the contents, muttered something under his breath, and shut the door.
"Nothing in there," he grumbled, and kicked the base of the dishwasher. "Can't a man even eat what he wants?" A cheeseburger after a trying day, Laura added silently; can't a man indulge in a bun drenched in grease, in medium-rare sirloin dripping juice, in a cold beer to lower the temperature of his anger?
Domestic Bliss had removed the six-pack of Guinness stout, Ted's favorite. They'd replaced the marbled red meats with tofu and skim milk; they'd tossed out Jeremy's Oreo cookies, the day-old chocolate donuts, the caramel-coated popcorn, the corn chips and the ice cream, replacing these with onions, carrots, brussel sprouts and enough spinach to feed a city of bulimic rabbits. Laura's stomach gurgled as she imagined scoops of chocolate-marshmallow ice cream in a bowl, the hard, frost-glazed spheres melting into shiny lumps of goodness.
"I could go for some ice-cream myself," she mumbled, keeping her eyes averted from Ted, fixing her gaze on the ovals of light reflected off the buffed floor.
The mowers had stopped snarling, belching and spitting; the hedge trimmers had stopped hissing and screeching; the weed whacker had stopped shrieking. Even the refrigerator seemed asleep, napping between periods of low groaning and rumbling. Laura shivered in the silence. From the town dump, the thousand papers that once cluttered these rooms mutely begged to be resurrected from their ignominy; hundreds of discarded letters and cards, bearing forgotten names, vowed revenge from the pit of anonymity.
Ted banged his fist against the refrigerator door.
"Tofu! That's not a meal, that's wet cardboard on a plate." He slammed his arm against a cabinet; the hinges creaked in protest as he spun towards Laura. "The fine print, Laura, didn't anyone teach you to read the fine print? If it's too small, don't sign. Why the hell didn’t –“
A metallic clanking reverberated through the house as steel bars dropped over each window. A siren blared from somewhere in the wall. As Ted cringed, hands over ears, Laura rushed to the back door, turned the knob and pushed; the door stayed closed. She pulled the handle and rammed her body against the wood paneling.
“Locked, we’re locked in,” she gasped when silence finally came.
Jeremy stumbled into the kitchen in his pajamas, clutching his head and wailing.
“The indoor alarms!” Laura blubbered. “Didn’t they say something about ‘embedded ears’? Being able to hear us, even when no one’s here in person? About ‘no escaping’, using alarms to set us right?”
Ted yanked open a closet door, snatching a hammer, drill and handsaw.
“Indoor monitors? Alarms in the wall, you say? I’ll find them all, even if I have to drill through every inch of these walls. Pull them out, pound them to smithereens. Even if I have to smash half the house, I’ll show them what they can do with their damned monitors! I’ve had enough of their shi—“
The sirens screamed in ever room, louder and shriller than before. Laura, Ted and Jeremy collapsed to the floor, hands clamped over ears. The screams drilled through their skulls, blasted through their hands, beat through their skin and muscles. The walls shuddered; the windows rattled; the overhead light flickered, mockingly in rhythm with their pulses and vibrating bones. Laura, Ted and Jeremy crouched, waiting for an end but locked in an eternal present of unending screams; they crouched as the moon drifted nonchalantly above lingering clouds, as constellations set, as a scarlet dawn seeped into the eastern sky and the neighbors awoke to another turn at breakfast, bus schedules and business.