Theresa had very beautiful silverware and plates: antiques, precious heirlooms passed down through the generations from forbearers who were as royal as democracy permitted. The plates were fine, fragile as works of art must be, with borders inlaid with gold. The silverware was genuine, massive, with fine designs worked into its stately form. Theresa was proud of these possessions, which refused to stoop to being merely functional. They were like powerful, simple buildings which insist on having griffins on the façade.
But now, some of the silverware was missing.
"It must be the maid," Theresa thought.
Her husband preferred less upsetting possibilities. "Maybe you misplaced them, Theresa. You have being misplacing things lately. You are always forgetting your keys when you leave the house."
But she considered his suggestion to be nothing more than an effort to prove he was not completely under her thumb, though he was by now so bent in her direction that he seemed like the sagging tree in the park that seemed to be drinking from the lake.
"Keys are different," she replied. "They go in pockets, they go in purses, you come in and go out, you change coats. Silverware is silverware. You eat with them, you clean them, you put them in the drawer. There is no need to be so sympathetic towards Altagracia."
Theresa was always watchful of her husband, even though he seemed to be so much in love with her, or at least afraid of her displeasure. He was not an unsuccessful man, and she henpecked him. She knew that. And she knew that another woman could be his revenge. That was, in fact, why she had chosen Altagracia to be the maid.
The woman, from Latin America, was tall and somber, like a church in Spain, she seemed humorless and to have been beaten by life to her rightful station, the place that matched her ambition and her ability; humility covered her like blood, wolves had preyed upon her and she no longer rose like the sun in the morning. She was in some ways frail, as though the wind could blow her over, yet sturdy enough to work, although, at times, the mop seemed to overpower her, or was it merely depress her, like a song from childhood? She was at that age in life when she could no longer wash away the lines in her face, and she was too austere for make-up. Her hair was graying, as white worked its way into the black, like ants swarming into a garden to devour the fruits so carefully planted. When Theresa first hired her, Altagracia struck her as a nun: a nun in jeans. Whatever had made her shine long ago was in a closet somewhere, and would never be taken out again.
For the most part, once hired, Altagracia conformed to Theresa’s expectations. She continued to be a shadow, who came and went, and left behind clean floors, the only proof that she was a living being. Only once did Theresa see her smile, when she heard the boisterous voices of unseen people passing by on the street below, speaking to each other in Spanish. Altagracia understood something that she did not, and for a brief moment, the sun blundered and lost a ray of its light. It stepped out of the bath forgetting to cover itself with a cloud. And the maid’s skinny, unappealing body suddenly became supple and graceful, like a dancer, like a panther that had stopped being a glass crucifix. That frightened Theresa, because her husband was nearby. But the glow soon faded, and before long, Altagracia was dusting the bookshelves, carefully removing and putting back volumes on medical treatments and research with that stoical, uninviting look on her face, as though, in her hunger, she had just eaten grass and did not want anyone to know.
Theresa was a perfectionist, when it came to what others did, and she also knew that without a tight grip on the reins, you could lose control. Life was always looking for a chance to overthrow you. Although her husband showed no interest in Altagracia as a woman, and who would?, for Altagracia had withdrawn herself into an inaccessible place, he admired her cleaning skills, and that irritated Theresa who wanted the floors to be clean also, but not at the price of someone else capturing a share of the respect which was due her. Who was Altagracia, anyway, but an extension of herself, her way of keeping house, another arm Theresa had bought and added to her body because two were not enough? Did her husband praise Altagracia’s broom or mop? Of course not. Well, Altagracia was Theresa’s broom, Theresa’s mop. The credit for a clean house was, rightly, Theresa’s. But that was too abstract a concept for him to understand, he was a doctor, a prisoner of the tangible. Disease required viruses, bacteria, environmental stressors precipitating genetic meltdowns, it did not come from spirits or demons ambushing one from the middle of one’s dreams.
Theresa was an artist, or better said, a climber of the arts. The arts were already there, like giant buildings, she clung to the outside and scaled them like Spiderman. She was well-known at the MOMA, at the Guggenheim and Whitney, and she often volunteered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Everyone had their tastes, their favorite child; hers was French impressionism. She had a Degas print with a ballerina putting on her shoes hanging on the wall, she loved the delicate girl transforming herself into a dancer in the flower of the paint. If she had had stronger ankles, she would have danced. Theresa was also the owner of all the Russian novels in the house.
When her husband told her that Altagracia was a first-rate cleaner, a step up from that West Indian maid they’d had the year before, Theresa told him: "I almost had an asthma attack after she finished cleaning the bathroom. She uses so much bleach, you can hardly wash your hands before you choke."
"But Theresa, you don’t have asthma."
"It was like World War One. The chlorine gas."
"It was sparkling. And the mirror. I didn’t realize how dirty it had been until I saw it clean! I just stood there admiring myself for half an hour. Your husband still looks pretty good."
She laughed and hugged him, while dark thoughts of smiling nurses lurked in the background.
"Altagracia," she asked one day, noticing the impeccably clean rack where the toothbrushes were stored. "Where do you put the toothbrushes while you’re cleaning the rack?"
"Here, Ms.," said Altagracia, pointing to the counter.
"Is the counter clean?’
"I clean it first. Then I put the toothbrushes on a napkin."
"Yes, Ms., I fold like this." She made a gesture with her hands, like a child comfortable playing with invisible things. "Then I put down here on the counter and I put the toothbrushes on top. Don’t worry." She pointed to her head. "I think about these thing. I keep very clean."
When, one day after Altagracia had left, Theresa climbed up on a chair with a kleenix to wipe the top of the ceiling fan, she could not believe that the kleenix came back clean. There was no dust and no smudge of dirt on it. She tried to be pleased, although she felt disappointed like a fisherman who has felt a huge prize tugging on his line, only to have the line break and the sea win. But Theresa was not one of those people who spent her days looking through a window into herself – she could not even bear to prick herself with a needle. Since she should be pleased, she was pleased, though Altagracia began to disturb her, like a cold that wouldn’t go away.
One day, as she came upon Altagracia examining the leaves of the plants on the window sill, she decided to strike up a conversation. "It’s an African violet," Theresa told her.
"Yes, Ms., very beautiful."
"It’s an extraordinary plant, really, and a very temperamental one, it requires a lot of attention, just the right amount of water and sun; it is easily killed by love."
Altagracia looked puzzled.
"Do you understand, dear? Too much water rots out the roots. People think they are doing it a favor by watering it, but chances are, unless they know what they are doing, they are only killing it. Drowning it."
Altagracia nodded, but her face was expressionless, as though she were now nothing more than a shield deflecting the world in which she lived.
Theresa thought it was the language barrier, and so she spoke to the maid in Spanish, telling her" "Las violetas de Africa no bueno el agua. Mucho agua es malo. Las violetas morir. Poco agua es importante. Amor para la violeta es poco agua."
For a moment, some trace of revulsion appeared in Altagracia’s eyes, as though a rat had just peeped its head out of a hole. But quickly, she swept away the disgust, like she swept dirt from the floor into the dustpan; the hardness of the world creates masters of opacity. Spanish on the tongues of the gods is almost always raped, others drag your wings on the ground until they break.
"I understand," the maid replied in English, which infuriated Theresa, who felt as though her extended hand had been rejected. She did not know how powerful was the hammer of her condescension, nor how glass-like was the beauty of what was for her the moon, but for other people, their earth. You are not intimate with someone else’s husband. You do not nail smiles onto their sorrow. But being as this was her country, and the whole world was, in fact, her country, Theresa felt she had the right to speak Spanish to her maid, in a way that was an insult: the right of the first night, to plunder Altagracia’s delicate, angry soul! I am mistress here, I even seize your own language to force you to face your stupidity, to show you how wretched your English is! The dog cannot learn to speak, so I must bark for it to understand me! Of course, Theresa did not see the encounter in this way, she felt herself gracious, and the maid sullen and cold. "My floors are cleaned with resentment," she told herself. "She is envious of the wealthy and carries a chip on her shoulder; the conquistadors haunt her, still; she will never forgive them, and she will never let them rest beneath their graves."
Now, Theresa was certain that Altagracia was responsible for the disappearance of her silverware. Three spoons, three forks, and three knives. "A nice set," she said with irony in her voice.
"Maybe your niece, Tilly, borrowed them," suggested her husband. "Doesn’t she already have some, and wasn’t she going to have guests over?"
"She hasn’t been here this week," said Theresa.
"She was here Tuesday, remember?"
"That was last week."
"No, it was this one. Remember, I got the phone call from Dr. Edwards. About the article in the Lancet?"
"Oh, that’s right! But she should have told me if she was taking anything."
"Maybe she did."
"Darling, you are really being dismissive. I don’t have Alzheimer’s, you know." And she added, "You know how those Spanish people are. They have big families - nieces, nephews, grandchildren – their families are like nests full of newly-hatched birds with open mouths. My silverware’s worth good money."
"Theresa, you can’t jump like that from A to C. You need the B."
"Haven’t you noticed how gloomy she is?" demanded Theresa.
"Who says she has to be happy? Is the place clean or not? Would you be happy if your whole life was spent cleaning up other people’s dust?" Opening up the window of their seventh-story apartment, he said: "It’s like being a coal miner in the sky."
"Darling, ignorance and rage are a very unsavory mix. I am surprised you cannot see past the surface of her character. You have not read enough Dostoevsky."
"Maybe you’ve read too much." But then, realizing that he was forgetting to be tame, he said, "Theresa, so what if our stoic cleaning lady has five hundred years of history bubbling in her veins, underneath ‘Yes Ms.’ and ‘Yes Sir’? Can’t we live with that?"
"I don’t want to be hated for something I didn’t do," Theresa protested.
"I don’t see hate, I just see silence."
"Underneath the silence."
"Maybe it’s just caution. You pick up a cat once and it scratches you. You don’t pick it up again."
"You’re too sympathetic."
" You let someone look into your mind once, and they see the thing that will break you. Maybe she just needs to live on the other side of a trench. We don’t have to take it personally."
"Do you like her?"
"Oh good lord, no!" And he came over to Theresa and gave her a convincing hug. "She may have been beautiful once, but now she has faded. She may still be beautiful in a photograph somewhere, a black and white photograph that stayed behind. But today, she is like a branch that has fallen off a tree. The few green leaves that cling to her have no future. This job must be important to her, Theresa, the alternative to the street. That’s why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the silverware."
Theresa took advantage of the hug to press her point. "You are very compassionate, dear. But you never heard of the farmer who took in a snake he found frozen on the way home."
The doctor nodded. "He placed it by the hearth to warm it up, and when it had recovered, it bit him."
"Spanish people are great thieves," she told him. "Nearly as great as the Rumanians."
He looked at her doubtfully.
"Since Lazarillo de Tormes. They love the picaresque robber, the tricky street boy who gets the gold. Stealing from a blind man is just delightful! You need to read more. Something besides your journals. Then there was Cortes, and look at how much he stole! His genes are everywhere now, even in the people who hate him. You know – didn’t they break into your car outside Columbia Presbyterian?"
"Who knows who did it?"
"Of course, they’re lovely people, the Spanish – I mean the Latins and all of them - it’s just that they’re poor. Poverty makes good people do bad things. When you are ignorant and uneducated you lack options. Temptations become stronger than morality. You know, I do the right thing at the polls. Maybe one day our world will be better, and people like Altagracia won’t be thieves!"
"Theresa! Please!" She looked at him with a stern, preemptive expression, the one that drove him towards submissiveness. "Theresa," he said, pleading now more than objecting. "Don’t say that. We don’t know."
"And if she’s taken our silverware, already, who knows what else she may take? Darling, I have jewels you know."
"They’re locked up."
"Not all of them. And what if she takes the whole box?"
Her husband shrugged, there were new breakthroughs being made in his field, why spend so much time scratching skin that didn’t itch? "So what do you want to do, fire her?"
"No," said Theresa, looking over towards Altagracia’s bag lying on the table. "That wouldn’t be fair." Altagracia had gone out on the leash of Theresa’s shopping list, and would probably be gone for another fifteen or twenty minutes.
"What, then?" asked her husband.
"All I want to do is look in her bag," said Theresa.
"Honey," he protested, "don’t you think that’s a little invasive?"
"I have to know who I am dealing with," Theresa said. "Do you know, I couldn’t find a pair of earrings this morning? The gold ones with the little cuts of emerald? The ones you like so much. Remember, when we went out to the theater?"
"And you think you’ll find them in the bag?" he asked. "Or the missing silverware?"
"I need to know who I’m dealing with," said Theresa, insistently. "She’s gone. She’ll never know."
Her husband shrugged once more. He did not like it, but his wife, when she was convinced of something, had the force of a juggernaut, you stepped out of the way if you did not wish to face a month-long cold-shoulder. Agitated, in spite of his compliance, he stood by as she went over to the bag, examined it with careful thought as to how she would restore it to its original position, then unzipped it, and spread it open like a woman about to undergo a gynecological exam. The bag was large, folkloric, with little designs sewn onto it, it was bulky and accommodating to the wishes of people. Slowly, intently, Theresa began to go through the contents. "A mirror – what for?, better not to know what time has done. A bottle of pills, and another, sickness that she hides, but not too well. A bag of condoms, oh, our little nun has a double life!"
"Darling," protested the husband, "we are going too far!"
"Aspirin. Cough drops. A comb, lotion for the hands and face.." With irritation, Theresa pulled out two books which were getting in the way of her search, one of them obviously a Bible. "The meek shall inherit the earth," laughed Theresa. "Did you know that the Bible approves of stealing," she told her husband.
"Yes, David took the bread from the altar of the temple to eat, and to give to his companions."
"Wasn’t that good – like the Sabbath was made for men, not men for the Sabbath?"
"Of course, everybody who steals thinks he is Robin Hood."
Out, next, came a magazine, with a picture of a pretty young woman on the cover and many words in Spanish printed across the cover. Quickly leafing through the pages, Theresa said, "Fashion. Interior decorating. Horoscope, something about love. Amor. All the fantasies of the poor. How to get there when you don’t have the tools? Such a superficial woman, really; for her the mop and bucket must be nearly as complicated as Ivan Karamazov."
"Please," begged her husband, now beginning to feel indecent.
"Now I have room to look," explained Theresa. She felt around in the bag, took out a set of keys, no, two sets of keys, two little souvenirs - a see-through dome arching like a sky over little landscape, which would snow if you turned it upside down, and a dolphin that said "Sea World" – a little pack of kleenix tissues, and some coins, quarters, nickels, and many pennies. "So, she hates pennies as much as me!" laughed Theresa. "Even though she’s poor. I throw them in fountains, and she holds onto them but does not use them." Among the coins were some strange ones with the figures of foreign presidents or generals. "One of the compartments inside is torn," Theresa commented, as though she were Sherlock Holmes getting closer to the answer. Looking over at her husband’s blank face, she explained: "Poverty. Motive."
He just looked away and shook his head, but a moment later, she was shouting, "Voila!", and struggling to pull something out of a fold at the bottom of the bag.
"Silverware?" he asked.
"No, earrings!" she exclaimed in triumph. And she pulled them out of the bag, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
A look of dread on his face, her husband gravitated towards her, prepared to behold the evidence which would cause him a moment of genuine regret and several minutes of acute social discomfort as he watched his wife confront Altagracia. It was never enjoyable to catch a criminal; never enjoyable to fire a worker. He wondered if she would cry, or merely go without saying a word, like a ghost, disappearing back into the mysterious world of the dead. But Theresa’s white hands, opening up like the shells of an oyster to reveal the pearl inside, suddenly froze, half open. The earrings were not hers! They were silver, with turquoise swirls designed like tiny turtle shells – wonderful little works of art, actually. Maybe Altagracia had bought them at some Native American crafts fair, they seemed like symbols meant to bring the rain, or drive it away. Her husband could tell from the look on her face that Altagracia had not been caught.
"She’s due back any moment," he told Theresa, nervously.
Pretending not to be disappointed, Theresa began to put back the items into her maid’s bag. "Well, this doesn’t prove anything," she insisted. "Thieves aren’t, when all is said and done, as dumb as we imagine them. Just like roaches, they know how to come out and get a crumb and run back into the darkness. She must take things in the afternoon, just before she goes home, so they are not in her possession by the time we notice they are missing."
"Speculation," said her husband. "If you want, we can fire her," he said. "If you don’t like her, that’s good enough."
"Oh no, it’s not that. It’s not that at all," said Theresa, continuing to refill Altagracia’s bag. "If she hasn’t stolen from us, there is no reason to fire her. It would be wrong. I have my suspicions, but I’m still not sure."
Her husband, still shaking his head, left for the other room. Thank God people in the world were sick! It gave him something else to do.
Picking up the other book, the one she had not yet looked at, to return to Altagracia’s bag, she decided to take a quick peek. She turned quickly past the cover with its cheap design of green leaves and roses to discover what seemed to be the pages of a journal. The handwriting was large and idiosyncratic, with giant dots over the I’s and bold curves that were not extravagant but somehow needed to carry off the energy which, without being displaced by superfluous extensions, would fly too far ahead of the words to use them well. These curves and flourishes - curlicues that were not evasive - were in some ways perfect brakes, to make the words reflective and precise. The handwriting was like an artistic jug, meant to carry life-giving water, but determined to be beautiful in its own right – to be worthy of the precious substance it bore. Theresa fled from her knowledge of graphology, turning the pages quickly, past dates and entries, and a little yellowed folded piece of newspaper that said something she could not understand about an archaeological find uncovered when people were digging to make a subway station; then on to pages, in the same handwriting, that had the waistline of poems. Her eyes scoured the pages for words she knew, little islands in the incomprehensible sea of someone else: amor, angustia, passion, corazon, vida, and anhelo, which she thought meant angel, but which actually meant something far deeper. "My God, she writes poems!" exclaimed Theresa. "She actually writes poems!"
"What?" asked her husband, appearing from the other room, thinking she was talking to him.
"Nothing," said Theresa, slowly closing the book and putting it back into Altagracia’s bag. "I was talking to myself."
"I thought you’d found the silverware," he said.
"No," she said. "Not yet."
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents