In the mornings, Meimei arrives at one of the houses arranged for her by Mr. Wong. From her cart, she takes out her supplies: her string mop, her bucket, her vinegar, baking soda, orange oil and soft rags. She drapes her canvas lunch bag across her chest and with her mop in one hand and her bucket of supplies in the other, she makes her way to the front door, her flip flops padding against her sock covered heels. She rings the doorbell. When the client answers, she manages a nod and a smile. It is friendly to smile in this country. It is what is required. It is how Chen, her mother since she was six, taught her to behave. Mr. Wong, Chen’s husband, has only a hard face for the Americans. They are big clumsy bears, he tells her. They know very little, though they think they know a lot. They do not care about the man and the woman who comes from China. Chen tells Meimei to smile despite what the Americans are like, that smiling will make her clients feel comfortable. Chen works in her husband’s grocery store. She is good with the customers, and they like her. Mr. Wong makes the specialty items and manages the business. He has seen he can succeed without resorting to foolishness.
Once inside the client’s house, Meimei takes off her shoes and places them neatly, side by side, close to the door. Sometimes the person who has allowed her to come inside will leave her. If it is her first day, she will stand inside the dining room and living room area. Many new American homes combine the dining and the living room. She thinks the combination of formal spaces by those who could afford to have separate rooms is unwise, for your eating should be separate from your not-eating and there is a time to do one and not the other. Maybe, she surmises, this is why many Americans are so large. Whatever the arrangement of the formal spaces, these rooms tell her about the relations of the inhabitants to the outside world, the visits the house has sustained and how the house has sustained them, what the nature of these encounters has been. Many Americans have large tables, chairs, and chandeliers and even if the dining space is very small, they sometimes cram these pieces into whatever space is available. There are houses in which the inhabitants seem to take into account the scale of the rooms and to purchase furniture accordingly. There seemed to be no set rule, however, for perfectly scaled furniture and the happiness of the home. Some of the strongest smells, the aftereffects of a presence, the evidence of gracious toil, linger in the rooms farthest away from the kitchen. If, in the dining and living rooms, there is the heavy scent of cologne and freshly washed skin, of vegetables cooked in oil and garlic, of fish and fatty meats, of furniture oil and silver polish, the house likely enjoys friendly relations.
Meimei does not wear gloves when she cleans. She likes to touch, to know things through her hands. All of the products she uses are natural to the earth and to the air and to her skin. If it is her first day, she will spend the daylight hours with her face close to the surfaces she must understand, the problems they have absorbed, the sounds they have heard, the blows and footsteps they have sustained. In bathrooms she sniffs for the mildew, the places of pooled neglect, the weeping of showers, the glutted clogging of drains. She examines bedrooms for signs of the inhabitants’ losses and frustrations, their current happinesses, their secrets, their nightmares and dreams. Sometimes she will find broken furniture, a full length mirror propped up against a wall, a knob pulled off of a dresser. More frequently, the wood cries out from water spots or stands in obvious forbearance under a coat of dust or sometimes an improper application of furniture oil. If there are carpets, she kneels on them and feels them and sniffs. Wall-to-wall carpets are unnatural. Both sides cannot be washed with her brush and vinegar, or taken outside and beaten. There is too much negative energy pent up in these carpets tacked to the floor, and the wet vacuums that are used on them only set the sorrows and frustrations deeper into the fibers. If there are pets, the animals usually treat the carpets like the grass outdoors, which was why, Meimei thought, it is unnatural to keep an animal indoors. It is unlucky too and causes deeper dreams, traumatic dreams, dreams you remember when you wake up, the ones you can barely escape from. Animals know many things. They are close to the earth, and it is necessary to safeguard the consciousness of people from their brute knowledge and their sad, ancient memories.
Meimei pulls out her rags and cleaning brush on the second day. On this day and on the third and fourth days, she applies what is needed. Some clients hire her when there is no dust or mildew or scratches on the walls or floors. In one house, someone had arranged the fringe on all the Oriental rugs so that they lay flat and straight like perfectly combed bangs. Meimei had never been so worried about a house. What spirit is this who lays out the wool threads of a rug so neatly, in so much fear? There was no milk in that house. In a closet in an empty room she found an unassembled crib and changing table. She lit an incense stick that smelled of rose, a flower of the sweet, passionate spirit, of profound mystery. She polished the floor with a cloth that had been handed down to her through her family. It was worn and soft and contained the nature of mothers. She caressed the wooden floor with orange oil, a drop for every square foot of mahogany board. There were no unnatural carpets in this house, an auspicious sign. She caressed the boards of the master bedroom with the oil pressed from the skins of lemons. It would enliven the spirits, open the senses, renew and refresh.
Meimei only stays in a house for a week. Mr. Wong always informs her clients: “She is not a regular housekeeper. She helps houses. She fixes houses like a doctor. Be patient and do not bother her and do not make her anything to eat or drink. Put your pet in a kennel. Do not show her your family photos or give her a tip. Do not try to tell her about your Jesus. Meimei is a Buddhist. Put away your Christian tracts with your spiritual laws because they will only interfere with her purposes. She will find her God in heaven, in her heaven, not in your heaven. Her God has many rooms, just like you say. Her God has many mansions. She is a housekeeper and he will give her these mansions. Do what I tell you, and you will be rewarded.”
Every day Meimei is in a house, she puts her mop and supplies in the laundry room. She takes off her canvas bag and pulls out her lunch which is packed in a white sack. She places it on one of the shelves of the refrigerator, off to the side, out of the way. She looks at the inside of the refrigerator. It is the heart of the house. It tells her many things. She stands before it for a moment, looking. She closes the door, having formed a mental picture of the condition of the shelves, the freshness of the food, the variety of the beverages, produce, meats, and condiments. If the refrigerator hums or rattles, this tells her something. The food, what is put into the body, is the spiritual refreshment to the soul. A rattling refrigerator is a signal of ill fortune, soul sickness, a haunted dwelling, anxious spirits. A bare refrigerator or a refrigerator in which there is an overabundance of one item, usually liquid – beer, juice, milk, champagne, cola – is a signal of loss. A refrigerator full of forgotten leftovers as well as meats, vegetables, and fruits long since cut off from their life source is a sign of persistent boredom and ennui. A humming refrigerator full of fresh things is a happy dwelling.
“Do not stay in the house when Meimei is working,” says Mr. Wong to Meimei’s clients. “If Meimei is bothered at all by something that happens, she must be permitted to leave at once. Meimei is a respectable housekeeper and not a girlfriend for Americans. I do not like to have to say so much, but I say the same thing to everyone. Do not touch Meimei. If you are a lonely person, please go out to the market or to the coffee shop, or you can come to my store if you like. We have many good items for the American diet and I have recipe cards, made up special, in English. Come get recipe cards and come shopping, only don’t stay at home and talk to Meimei because Meimei does not speak English and she has her own tea.”
Meimei’s third client in the States was a portly man with a greasy combover and no children. The yard was ill-kept and this was almost always a sign of portent. She was not usually sensitive to plants, but she heard them, crying out in their struggle to breathe under weeds. The earth uttered a “harumph” in protest of its exposure to the sun. There were patches of dirt where there should have been grass. She did not like the sense of it, but she walked up the path anyway, quickly, not stopping to dwell on the sight of slow ruin.
Mr. Butler opened the door before she could knock, another portentous sign. He was too eager for her presence and was not respectful of the time at which she wished to be found there, on the doorstep, her cleaning instruments in hand and her senses attuned, her spirits bolstered for the work to be accomplished. Mr. Butler was saying something to her. Come in, please. Come in and put your things down and have some coffee. She did not understand him. He had not listened to Mr. Wong explain that she was not to be engaged in conversation. The man with the seaweed tendrils sweeping over the dome of his head was talking to her through his quilted lips and she could not make a connection between the blocks of sounds that issued from him and anything she knew. He waved his hand, giant and red as a lobster claw. He seemed to be indicating something, she knew not what. She bent down to take off her shoes and she felt something through her t-shirt at the small of her back, one of his clumsy claws perhaps, just the tip of it, because there was only the slightest pressure. She felt her face flush but she was not to indicate embarrassment. This would shame the lobster and so she pretended to have some difficulty with her sock while she regained her composure. He touched her again, this time on her bra. By now, she had grown accustomed enough to his intent that she could compose a blank face. She picked up her mop and bucket of supplies and moved away from him. Her first two customers had not been like this. They had been obedient and listened to Mr. Wong. She put her supplies in the laundry room. She drew out the sack lunch from her canvas bag and put it on a shelf in the refrigerator which contained a bag of rotting carrots and a case of American beer.
He grasped her with a claw and led her to the TV room. He talked to her while he did this, speaking in the way one does to encourage a child to walk. He sat her on the couch before a coffee table on top of which were a plate of cookies, two teacups, a plastic carafe, coffee creamer, and a bottle of amber liquid. He handed her a cookie, then he poured the amber liquid into both cups. This he topped off with steaming coffee and a dollop of cream. He gave her the pink flowered cup, which she took in her tiny hand and he took a cup in his claw. He clinked his cup against hers, murmured something, took a sip. He watched her as she put the cup to her lips. He groaned, took it from her, and put it down. He took her hand and put it between his thighs. He said something hard and rough and moved her hand against him. She tried to pull away, but his claw pinched the bone of her arm. She grasped at the seaweed on the dome of his head and pulled hard. He yelled and she sprang from the couch and raced out of the door without her shoes, canvas bag, or cleaning supplies. She raced barefoot down the street where she called Mr. Wong from a neighboring house. She was able to do the hand motions for telephone to the elderly lady who answered the door. Mr. Wong set it straight with the man and got her things back.
In the back room of his grocery store that night, Mr. Wong held the weeping Meimei. He had made a list of instructions for the Americans, the clumsy bears, the people who do not care about the Chinese man, the Chinese woman. Included in his list were the following: Do not make her anything to eat or drink; do not try to engage her in conversation; do not speak to Meimei because she does not know English. Now he would have to extend the list of instructions: Meimei does not need coffee when you are there; she does not eat cookies; she does not drink liquid from a large glass container; Meimei is not a whore; I repeat, no cookies, no touching; Meimei is a respectable housekeeper.
When Meimei went back to work following the incident with Mr. Butler, Mr. Wong insisted on going with her, but Meimei refused. Before Mr. and Mrs. Wong had taken Meimei and her grandmother from China, her father had spoken with her. She was six, but old enough to understand. He cradled her head in his hands. “You see and understand and know many things. You are of my blood and even if you go away, you carry me with you.” For many days, he spoke to her in words he had never used before. His face became drained of color and the lines around his eyes and mouth deepened. “Never let a man or a woman change you. You must be strong as a mountain in the face of a storm.” Meimei’s mother and father taught at Beijing University. Her father explained that it was time to speak for change in China, but not everyone would believe they would be speaking out of love. In fact, they would be in great danger. Meimei and her grandmother were to go with Mr. and Mrs. Wong to France and then to America. “Do not become lazy,” said her father. “Do not forget, you are my daughter. And do not forget you are from China. When people look at you, they will be looking to see not only you, but your country. Let them see beauty and strength.” Many years later, Meimei would not let Mr. Wong help her. The spirit of her father kept her safe. It was the spirit of her father who told her how to handle the lobster and get away.
Before she fled China with the Wongs, Meimei told her father men would come and steal things from their house. When her father asked her how she knew this, she laid her head on the telephone. “They are listening, all the time. They are angry.”
She had sensed they were being watched by the Party.
“What else do you understand about this place?” he asked her.
“Someone killed my sister.” She took his hand and led him to the bathroom. “Her blood was here.” She pointed to the concrete floor beside the toilet.
When Meimei was a year and a half, her mother was forced to have an abortion. Tai-shan thought his wife might die from the miscarriage the drugs had induced. The blood streaming down her legs those first few days was almost more than he could bear, and yet he had to be strong.
“I speak to her,” said Meimei.
“Never tell anyone of this,” he said, alarmed. People practicing illegal religions could be imprisoned, tortured, sent to a labor camp. He wasn’t sure what her gift meant, what it was. He only knew she wouldn’t always be safe.
When Meimei was in the United States, living with her grandmother in an apartment over the Wongs, she was able to develop her unique talent. She helped Mr. Wong make improvements in the store, but she was sorry to discover much sadness at the Wongs’ home, sadness she could not bring herself to reveal to them. Things appeared to her separate, mismatched, inoperative. Curtains would not draw together properly, light bulbs constantly burnt out, the laminate flooring – which was fairly new – peeled away from the places where it was supposed to meet the walls, as if it was resisting placement, resisting use.
Chen was the closest thing Meimei had to a mother. Chen taught her certain things about being a woman, about dating, about men. The sadness Meimei detected in the Wongs’ house cast a skeptical light on some of Chen’s advice about love and the happiness of weddings. She did not tell Chen when she had started dating a boy who could speak Chinese and English and who touched her in places grown women were touched. She began to think she did not want a wedding with a white dress or a red dress or a Mao suit.
At about the time she got a boyfriend, she started working at houses. At the end of her time at each house, she would dictate to Mr. Wong her prescription, outlining very simple home remedies for upkeep and maintenance. On her prescription she would include spiritual insights, asking in advance for apologies in case she was in error. Many times, at the end of each week, after careful watchfulness through her senses, she could read a house and its inhabitants. She could tell the inhabitants what they needed to change. People wanted her to decorate, to rearrange their furniture. One family offered to send her to school to become an interior designer. At first, she didn’t want to think of it. It would require that she become fluent in English and she was afraid she would forget the tongue of her mother and father, would somehow lose her connection with them, and a part of herself as well. When she was growing up in the United States, she had not wanted to go around with the other Chinese girls her age who had learned to look, act, and speak like other Americans. In fact, Mr. Wong was able to shelter her from having to attend school altogether. It was only when her boyfriend asked her to live with him that Meimei began to consider her options.
* First appeared in Best New Writing 2011