Being a housekeeper was not all bad, as there was a sort of honesty that came with the labor. I provided a service that makes folks happy, and it was something I did well. I was not making myself rich by doing it. Working as a contractor for Francis Street Cleaners - a small cleaning business out of Chicago, Illinois - yielded enough money for me to break even. I made about eleven dollars an hour, plus tips (that I didn’t always get to keep, but that’s another story). I was reimbursed for parking fees here and there, and received a pittance for mileage. With all of that, I made enough money for rent, utilities, food, gas, insurance, and even a few slices of cheesecake here and there. Plus, my rum. I had to have my Bacardi rum.
The truth was that housekeeping was beneath my intellect. However, it was something I could do my own, which was very important to me. Years of disappointments, heartbreak and devastation created in me the desire to keep my life in compartments. I enjoyed exercising control over what happened to me. The occupation of cleaning for others allowed for that.
I preferred to housekeep by myself. It wasn’t that I abhorred the company of my fellow housekeepers at Francis Street Cleaners, it was just that I worked better alone. If I only had myself to think about, I could make a plan of attack for whatever job I had to do.
If the Holiday Inn called me to clean two wings worth of rooms, I knew what I had to do. I pushed my cart down the halls at a certain speed. I had an efficient but quick knock. I even knew how long to wait before I used my master key to get into a room. Once there, I would strip the beds, remake them, do a walk-through to retrieve the trash and put that in my cart. After that, I’d clean the bathroom and would spray down the spaces. The last thing I would do would be to vacuum the room before moving on to the next room.
The pawn shop I cleaned for meant for far less work than the Holiday Inn; I swept and mopped floors, dusted the glass-enclosed cases and cleaned three bathrooms. I could be in and out of there in about two hours or less.
My least favorite cleaning gig was the Scarabino condo. It wasn’t that I had a problem cleaning after a busy family of five. It was that Mrs. Scarabino was a bit of a hard ass.
At the request of the missus, I was going the green route with the cleaning of the condo. The week before, Mrs. Scarabino, had told me her concerns regarding the fumes that came off of the typical cleaning products. In fear of losing a contract with her, I told her of the eco and family friendly cleaning products that I could use. The green-eyed accountant told me that I could give it another go with my alternate cleaning products.
Me and my mouth, I groaned while I scrubbed. The bathtub in their hallway bath was made of formerly white (but now beige) acrylic, and it was old. The once-smooth surface was pitted and rough. Deep scratches held old dirt; the footprints of the Scarabino children and the paws of their labradoodle had left marks, too. My green abrasive pad was not removing the dirt. Neither was the bleach, nor the baking soda. What would help would be the wonderful, disappearing magic erasers I usually used on jobs like this. However, that was on the Mrs. Scarabino’s list of banned cleaning products.
The only other option left to me was a combination of warmed vinegar and dish soap. However, making such a concoction would be time consuming and a bit funky smelling. An additional item on Mrs. Scarabino’s “No” list was lingering odors of any sort. She would not forgive me a bathroom that smelled like the inside of a jumbo bag of Salt and Vinegar potato chips.
Carajo was my Spanish cuss word of choice, and I used it liberally as I carried on with my green abrasive pad.
I left the condo on North Ada Street, and headed to Jamie’s Pawn Shop on Division Street near Wicker Park. The Scarabino home and the pawn shop were good Tuesday morning jobs. Tuesday mornings held less foot traffic for Jamie’s Pawn Shop. Thankfully, traffic wasn’t too terrible that time of morning. But it was still terrible as it was Chicago.
Chicago traffic is a beast. Getting around anywhere - while relying on my car and not the CTA or the Metro - was a major thing to contend with. There was no such thing as “down the road” driving; a trip to any destination meant traffic, red lights, a lack of green lights and/or arrows, weather issues, and accidents. I suspected that an infrastructure designed before the advent of cars probably caused difficulties as well. So turned off was I about the traffic, that I spent a lot of my free time at home, watching TV and reading books. However, unable to go home, I sought another distraction.
I put on some Adult Contemporary music on the radio while I drove. After parking and quickly making my way through the brisk autumn air and to the rear of the pawn shop, I put myself into the proper mindset for cleaning that shop.
I didn’t have to behave in too subdued a manner. I would easily be ignored, as I was typical: a Hispanic maid; a Puerto Rican maid, to be more specific. Chicago’s upper class, upper-middle class and social climbers ignored me easily enough. Here at the pawn shop, though, the owner and his family were polite to me. Perhaps a bit stand-offish, but that was okay.
I was finishing up with the employee bathroom when my cell phone rang. I set my mop down and reached into my apron for my cell phone.
“Hello?” I inquired, holding back a sigh. I hadn’t wanted any interruptions to my morning. I particularly wanted to avoid speaking to the folks at Francis Street Cleaners.
“Marta?” inquired the voice of Candida Castro, the secretary for Francis Street.
“Hi Candida. How are you?”
“Bien, Bien,” she answered in Spanish, before switching to English. “Look, a law firm on North Clark needs special cleaning.”
My eyes widened at the word “special.” We didn’t have any law firms for clients (although the owner, Maria Alvarez, was always out to land new customers). I wondered what kind of “special” I might encounter at such an office.
The thought of lawyers and law offices brought to memory my own divorce. Anibal and I had gone through cheap attorneys who’d helped us divide our assets and our lives with expediency. The signing of the documents did not result in any bombs going off, thankfully. All of those had detonated and cooled down during our twelve year marriage.
I shook myself to the present and asked Candida about the nature of the cleaning.
“Well…a disgruntled partner left the business and made a mess,” she enunciated. “You have to go there, now, and clean it up.”
I groaned. “Please tell me that he didn’t shit on the carpet.”
“I don’t know, but if he did, that would be a bonus. More money for that kind of shit.”
Literally, I knew. Maria would charge more money for the removal of bodily fluids, which was only fair. I’d only see a slight bonus for that kind of work, unfortunately.
I looked at my watch while I considered my options. My plan had been to go home and catch up on Judge Judy shows, which I’d been looking forward to. I had the option of rejecting the job; Candida could call someone else to do it. Still, a few extra bucks and maybe a new contract for Maria (and hopefully a steady add-on gig for me) might be a good thing, too.
“Text me the address and the contact name,” I said to Candida. I didn’t contain my sigh that time.
After paying a ridiculous amount of money to park at a garage two blocks away, I walked to the high rise that housed the law firm I was contracted to clean. It was a very swanky building. Tall glass windows and plenty of benches scattered around a small, but well-manicured garden made for a pleasant outdoor scene. After making my way through security, I asked for the service elevator.
“Broken,” said a uniformed, middle aged African American man. “Should be fixed later on today, though.”
I took a breath and released it. “Okay…how about right now, though? How do I get where I need to go?” I asked as I motioned to my wheeled bucket, which was filled with cleaning supplies.
He widened his eyes behind his glasses. “Your lucky day. Had it been 4th or lower, you would have had to huff it up the stairs. The folks up on the upper floors don’t like their help to look disheveled and sweaty.”
While not thrilled, I knew my role. Still, I didn’t relish the thought of riding an elevator filled with yuppies. Not that I had a problem with them; it’s just that they seemed to have a problem with me in my maid’s uniform.
“Regular elevators, then?”
“Yep. Make your way down that hall and to the left,” he said as he pointed a finger to a spot behind me.
With that, I rolled my wheeled bucket and walked down marble floors that led me to the elevators. I stood at the back of an empty elevator car, hoping that the doors would close before anyone else would climb on. I released a breath as the doors closed. My relief was short lived, though, as they opened again on the next floor. Young men and women dressed in business suits joined me in the elevator. They ignored me for the first couple of floors, which was nice.
It wasn’t meant to be, though. Seconds later, a pretty woman with short brown hair turned to me.
“Hi,” she said to me.
“Hello,” I answered.
I braced myself as I wondered what she would want of me. I didn’t mean to stereotype her, but I did. Our conversation would not go well because of our differences. She wore high heels that didn’t look cheap. Her pantsuit was dark and sophisticated. Her hair and makeup looked expertly coiffed and applied. I wore a maid’s uniform and didn’t care too much about flyaway hair.
“Do you not know where the service elevators are?” she drew out. She probably assumed that I didn’t speak English well.
“I do, and they are broken,” I answered.
I watched as curious heads turned back to face me. That usually happened when people heard my fine-speaking American English voice coming out of my very Hispanic looking body. I had the typical olive/tan skin of Puerto Rican folk, along with the dark eyes and dark hair. I was “tall” for a Puerto Rican woman at 5’6”; however, my body fit the stereotype as my waist was small and my rear was ample.
“Oh! Your English is so good,” said the young woman.
That was not a compliment, as English was my first language, and Spanish was my second. I wanted to say something snide, but at thirty nine years of age, I knew better than to run my mouth in an elevator full of strangers. Who knew where I’d see this woman again?
“Thanks,” I replied.
She gave me a condescending smile and nod before facing forward again. To her cohorts she whispered that the maintenance elevators were broken. It sucked to be ignored, condescended to, and disregarded. I was used to it, though. I rolled my eyes and waited for the number fourteen above the door to light up.
Once I arrived at the doors to the law office, I straightened out my work shirt. It was brown, along with my pants. Embroidered on my shirt was “Francis Street Cleaners” in a yellow thread. I didn’t mind it. While Maria, the owner of Francis Street, had many faults, bad fashion sense was not one of them.
After taking a breath, I pushed the door open and greeted the woman behind the desk. She was a pretty, young black woman.
“Are you the maid?” she asked.
“I am. I’m here to take care of a recently vacated office.”
She sighed and nodded. “Yep. That would be the office of Ronald Moore.”
The woman, Leonore, judging by her nametag, stood up and motioned me to follow her. With my wheeled bucket, I did.
The offices were swanky. Zen music whispered over discrete speakers. The air was aromatically fragranced. Large plants gave life to the suite of rooms. The waiting areas appeared to be comfortable, and the conference rooms were inviting, too. Feeling my feet sink into the carpet, I knew that I wouldn’t mind cleaning the place on a regular basis.
At the end of long hallway, Lenore tapped a key card against the door. After an audible click, she grabbed the handle and pushed the door open.
I sighed out loud. “Oh dear,” I muttered as I entered the office.
There were legal-sized sheets of paper strewn all over the room. They were on top of plants, inside of books, on the floor, on the shelves of a bookcase, in between seat cushions of an overturned couch, and atop a desk. The previous occupant, a Ronald Moore, according to the secretary, also left notations of a handwritten variety - all over his desk, on the walls, and even on sections of the ceiling. Even the windows had graffiti on them.
“He wasn’t a short guy, was he?” I asked.
Lenore laughed. “No. Ronald Moore was six feet five inches of asshole.”
After grasping the scope of work, I gave Lenore the rundown: time, efforts, and cost.
“It’s looking like three hours of work; three and a half tops. Tidying up won’t be a problem, but scouring the paint off of the furniture and glass surfaces will take the most effort. The cost for this will be a few hundred dollars. No less than five hundred, but no more than eight hundred.”
“The partners don’t care. They just want this all to go away,” she said as she waved to the room, “as soon as possible, and as confidentially as possible, too.”
I nodded. “I can do that.”
So I went to work. I started by getting two large cardboard boxes and sorting the strewn papers in there; I had separate boxes for the ones that looked like trash and the ones that looked important. After, I righted the couches and vacuumed. Following that, I wiped down furniture, and removed the writing from the windows and from the desk.
During a few moments break to rest my hands, I sat down on the couch and read the graffiti on the walls. Aside from the profanities, a lot of the writings were thought provoking. I recognized one piece of writing, but not the rest. After that, I got up and went back to my cleaning.
Three hours later, I sat down on Ronald’s office chair and stared at my completed work.
The spray painting on the walls I could do nothing about; while I could use a magic eraser to get rid of the graffiti, the faded spots on the walls would remain. The law firm would have to hire a painter to come and cover it with a few coats of primer, and then some paint.
The last thing I had to do was push the drawers back into the desk. I got all of them in, save for a long, skinny drawer. I pushed it in, but try as I might, it would not go in all of the way.
“Shit,” I cussed.
I was determined to make the office look as pristine as possible. Getting off the chair, I pulled the drawer out again and set it atop the desk. After that I looked inside the desk, to see what I was missing.
That’s when I spotted it: a skinny grey envelope taped to the inside of the desk. It matched the desk’s interior color, which is probably why I missed it when I pulled out the drawers to begin with.
I reached inside the desk and pulled the envelope off. I stared at it for a moment, wondering if it was my business to open it. Ethically speaking, it probably wasn’t. Legally speaking, the area was grey. After tearing open the envelope, I found an old cell phone.
“What do we have here?”
It was an older Nokia model. If I remembered the model correctly (I owned a similar one a few years back), it had video capabilities, but not web surfing. I turned it on and looked through it. Seconds later, I clicked on the right pointing arrow, indicating a video.
“I’ve got you now, motherfucker,” said an angry man’s voice over the phone’s speaker.
A shaky picture emerged then; the video focused on a rotund, balding fair skinned middle aged man wearing a very expensive suit. He was filmed entering what looked like a motel room. Following him was what looked like a teenaged girl.
“No,” I groaned.
The video skipped to the filming of documents; I read names as well as monetary amounts that shocked me. The video then switched to a meeting of some individuals seated at a table in a dark room. Some men didn’t talk, but had their arms folded over their chests. Other men spoke quickly; too fast. They seemed scared.
“I’ve got all of them now,” whispered the angry man’s voice, “and they are going to pay.”
I couldn’t watch anything else, so I turned it off.
“Shit,” I whispered. “Oh, shit. Shit. What did I just see?” I whispered.
After a few moments of deep breathing, I came up with a plan. I then reached for the office phone and dialed what I thought was Lenore’s desk.
“Ummm…is this the maid?” she asked.
Sigh. The maid had a name, of course.
“Lenore, I think that Ronald left something behind. Something pretty sensitive.”
“What?” she asked, sounding very concerned.
“I think that you should come back here to see it.”
“I’ll be right there.” She said.
I hung up the desk phone and waited. Thinking better of my position, I got off the chair and leaned on the desk. As soon as Lenore walked in, she did a spin to look at the room.
“Wow. You did great work,” she said, sounding surprised.
“Thanks. It’s not that hard, just time consuming. You’ll obviously have to get someone in here to paint the walls.”
She nodded. “Yeah. A painting crew will be in here tonight.”
Just then, the door opened again. A sandy haired man wearing a blue suit came in.
“So what’s this sensitive material?” he asked.
“Who is this?” I asked of Lenore. I hadn’t been expecting anyone else.
“This is Mark Simpson. He’s one of the lawyers here.”
I stared at him and tried to match his image to one of the one’s I saw in the video. I could not. While I wasn’t a legal professional of any sort, I got the feeling that the least amount of eyes that watched the secret video, the better it would be.
“Is he a name partner?” I asked.
Lenore blushed; the now named Mark looked a bit put out.
“What do you have, and why are you holding it back?” he asked.
I looked at Lenore again and shook my head. “Lenore: this is not something for the eyes of those who…aren’t part of this. You need to get a partner in here.”
Lenore suddenly understood; she looked worried. She turned to Mark then. “Mark: could you please give us the room?”
“No,” he argued. “I want to know what’s going on.”
I watched as Lenore’s chest puffed up. “You don’t need to know what’s going on. Maintenance is under my purview. You need to go, Mark,” she asserted. I watched as she took a couple of steps closer to the lawyer, which invaded his space and made look threatened. Way to go, Lenore, I thought. I was impressed.
“Fine,” he said, retreating a couple of steps back. “I’ll learn what’s on that thing anyway.”
He then turned around and left. After the door closed, Lenore sighed and faced me.
“What’s your background?” I asked her.
“What do you mean?” she asked of me.
“I thought that you were a secretary.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
Lenore shifted on her feet for a moment. “I’m a dual psych and law major. I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, too.”
I laughed. “It shows.”
Shaking my head to the present, I gave her the phone. “A grey envelope was taped to the inside of the desk; this phone was in it.”
She took it and was about to hit the power button. I stopped her with a hand. “If you turn that on, you are going to see things that…will bother you.”
She hesitated over the power button. “Really? Who’s in involved in this…video?”
“Was Ronald Moore a partner?”
“Yeah,” she asked, folding her arms over her chest.
“I don’t know the terminology, so you’ll have to bear with me. Was he a…major partner?”
She shook her head. “No.”
I sighed. “Videos; plural. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that name partners…important folks above him in the food chain are in that video and they are doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing.”
She blinked long and sighed. “Shit.”
I tried to describe the faces of the folks I saw in the videos. Lenore nodded, appearing to know who I was talking about, but not confirming it either.
“Did you see a short Asian man in there?” She asked of me.
The only group video I saw was the one with the…gentlemen seated at a table. There wasn’t an Asian man there. I shook my head. “I did not.”
I watched as she let out a sigh of relief. “Okay. That would be Stephen Nguyen. He’s a name partner, and a good guy. He’s here today, thank God.”
“Are you going to give it to him?”
She nodded. “Yeah. This is a bit above my paygrade.”
I sensed that my cleaning time had come to an end. I gathered my gear and looked at Lenore.
“If you’re happy with the work I did here today, please let my manager know. The work order you were emailed will list her contact information.”
“Of course,” Lenore said, with a slight bow.
I made my way to the doorway when she stopped me. “Marta?”
That surprised me; I didn’t think she remembered my name.
“Yes?” I asked as I turned to face her.
She tapped the old Nokia phone in her hand. I figured that the old, sturdy phone could handle it, so I said nothing to that.
“What’s your background?” she asked, with an emphasis on the “your” part of the question.
My eyes widened and I took a breath. “I used to be a cop. Once upon a time.”
I gave her surprised looking expression a nod before gathering my gear and leaving the law office.
The law office cleaning job caused me to make it home three hours later than I expected I would. That meant more traffic and a harder time finding parking at home. Thankfully, my five year old blue Ford Focus fit into small spots with ease.
I lived in an apartment at 6245 North Springfield Avenue, which was a neighborhood in the west side of Chicago. The neighborhood featured pawn shops, pharmacies, Hispanic grocery stores and a few garages. The street I lived on featured brick homes that looked largely alike. Mine, like the one across the street from it, and the ones on either side was a three unit townhome. It was fortified like Fort Knox, with an eight foot fence and a locked gate that barred unknown individuals from entering.
I lived on the third floor. It was small, but it was nice. The entrance to my apartment opened to the dining room; to the right of that was the living room. To the left of the dining room was a small hallway that led to the kitchen. Within the hallway was the entrance to the bedroom and the bath. My décor was simple; affordable furniture and as little clutter as possible. If I had to clean during my off time like I cleaned when I worked, I would probably lose my mind.
The neighborhood was livable. It wasn’t inviting, but it was familiar. Doña Justa, the elderly, widowed owner, lived on the floor level of the town home. She liked to check up on me on a weekly basis. That was alright by me, as I liked to do the same for her. The basement level was shared by a set of brothers who worked as mechanics. I didn’t see them much.
The neighborhood itself was predominately Hispanic, and mostly Puerto Rican, but interestingly enough, not much like Puerto Rico - a place I was very familiar with, as I had lived there twenty years ago.
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and lived there until the age of ten, which was when my parents - Zoraida Mercado and Esteban Morales - moved me and my older brother Rafael back to Arecibo, Puerto Rico - the land where they were born and raised. That transplantation was the culture shock of my life.
Prior to living in Puerto Rico full-time, we’d gone there on summer vacations. It had been fun. We’d visited grandparents in their homes in the mountains, played with our cousins, chased after roosters, helped slay and roast pigs, and had indulged in all sorts of foods and beach pastimes before going back to our home in Boston.
The plan had been for us to grow up in Boston. My dad had a job as an insurance salesman, and moonlighted as a furniture store manager. My mother was a secretary for the parish where we attended Sunday mass.
All of that changed when my then thirteen year old brother Rafael fell in with the wrong crowd. My dad worked his two jobs, so he couldn’t be counted on much; mom worked lots of hours, too. My dad said that he’d been keeping an eye on the neighborhood kids, who were starting to find trouble to get into. Esteban Morales swore that the first time he had to go pick up his son Rafael Morales from the police station was the last time he would ever do that. The day after my dad was called to pick up my brother from a local precinct, he put our house on the market and bought four one-way tickets to Puerto Rico.
It had been super rough assimilating to the culture. In Boston, I’d left the friends and routine I knew and loved. Out were the radio stations I listened to, as well as the TV shows I knew and loved. In were music styles such as salsa music and merengue; my favorite cop shows were gone and replaced with novelas and game shows.
Puerto Rican schools were very different from those in Boston; everyone wore uniforms in Puerto Rico - public school kids and private school kids alike. The schools themselves looked very different, too. All of the classrooms had to be accessed from the outside. Also, the sports programs could not compare to American school sports programs. The weather was different, and so were the people.
So, we had to become different. And we did; mostly. Fortunately, our schools featured American transplants just like us. We commiserated with them about adjusting to life in Puerto Rico, and at the same time, kept practicing our English speaking with each other.
While we arrived to Puerto Rico speaking some Spanish, we were nowhere nearly as fluent as our cousins, aunts and uncles; they were quick to point out our deficiencies, unfortunately. The negative attention served as a good motivator to perfect our Spanish as quickly as we could.
My brother Rafy assimilated to the Puerto Rican culture rather quickly. While playing the part of the gringo ladies’ man, he buckled down on his studies. He graduated from high school with a 4.0 average and then went to community college to get an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice. He then became a cop. He’d been a member of the Municipality of Arecibo police force for over twenty years. We were all proud of him.
As for me, life hadn’t turned out the way I’d planned. Trudging up the steps to the six-foot wrought iron gate that protected my apartment building, I thought about how I lived. Life, in its current state wasn’t much to be proud of. I sighed as I unlocked the gate and made my way to my third floor apartment.
It was quiet, of course, as I lived alone. I’d divorced my cheating, son-of-a-bitch, life-sucking asshole of a husband eight years ago. Anibal Robles had since remarried to the puta he’d been cheating on me with, and had even made a new family with her. My heart - my son, Hector Adan Robles, was gone, too.
It was just me, now. Well, just me, a DVR, and Judge Judy recordings.
The next morning, I was awakened by the sound of my cell phone trilling. I shoved my long, brown, curly hair off of my face and looked at the nightstand. Six a.m.
“What?” I groaned to no one or nothing in particular. I wasn’t due to be at my first cleaning job until 9:30.
Still, I leaned over and grabbed the phone.
“This is Marta,” I groaned.
“Marta Morales Robles?” asked a voice that was clearly unused to saying my name.
That and the combination of my maiden name attached to the son of a bitch’s last name made me sit up straight and tall.
“This is her.”
“Hi. This is Detective Kevin Connelly of the 12th Precinct at 1412 S. Blue Island Avenue. I need you to come downtown to make a statement.”
Make a statement for what?
“What’s this about?” I asked, even though I already had my suspicions.
“Were you the maid that cleaned the law office of Ronald Moore at Smithers and Associates yesterday afternoon?”
I sighed and answered that. “I am.”
“We need you to make a statement about the cell phone video you watched.”
I blushed, feeling like I’d been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. Maybe I had been.
“Okay…when do you need me there?”
“How’s 8 a.m. sound?”
I mentally calculated the distance between Blue Island Avenue and my first job of the day: forty minutes.
“I’ll be there.”
I didn’t want to dress in my maid’s uniform, but had no choice. It would be stupid to go home to change, and waste all of the time in traffic and the money in gas. To make myself a bit more presentable, I put a bit of makeup on and some scented lotion on my dry hands, too. With that, I departed my home.
That was two times in one week that I had to pay crazy parking garage fees. I’d only get reimbursed for one occasion, though. ¡Que mierda!, I cussed in Spanish.
I made my way towards the police precinct. It was pretty swanky and modern with lots of glass and blonde bricks. The aesthetics looked far better than the precincts I’d seen back in Puerto Rico, so I had to give it that. However, the coffee at the precinct couldn’t have been as good as Puerto Rican coffee. They were missing the deep-fried fritter kiosks lining the streets, too.
After making my way through the entrance, I went through the metal detectors. For some reason, the security guard decided to pull me aside to use a wand on me. I sighed as I extended my arms and legs. I kept a keen eye on him as the wand went over my chest.
Once it was done, I grabbed my purse and went to the elevators.
I didn’t have to go too far up - only to the third floor. Once there, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Memories flooded my consciousness and again, I longed for what I could have been, but didn’t turn out to be.