Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.
It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.
So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.
I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there. But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.
One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.
The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.
“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.
Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.
“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”
Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.
“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”
The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.
But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.
My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”
He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.
I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.
One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.
It is a sign of something.
This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.
The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.
“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”
The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.
He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”
“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”
It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think so.
The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.” She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff. He’s five.”
“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.
“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”
We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.
“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”
How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”
From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.
I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.
“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.
I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.
“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”
I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”
“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.
“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”
“What do you pay?”
Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”
“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”
Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”
Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”
When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.
So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.
When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.
Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.
I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.
After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.
“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.
“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.
“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”
“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.
Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”
“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”
At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.
“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”
I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?
“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”
“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.
“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”
A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.
“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.
Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”
“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”
I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.