The house looms before him now that he’s decided he’s going to try and clean it. Like a fortress, like a castle in the sky, like the manse of giants, something from a fairy tale, the impossibility of his task more apparent, more real, more profound than the conspiracies overheard in an executive washroom.
Bobby has found the vacuum cleaner. He’s found the cleaning closet, something he knew existed but couldn’t ever imagine, like Shangri-La, or the smell of a porn set. Inside the closet, not just a vacuum cleaner, but assorted environmentally sound liquids, rags, cleansing pads, dusters, mops. The accoutrements of civility. Of a lifestyle. As important to the idea of the western world as Marilyn Monroe and the Magna Carta and Disneyland and Plato. Perhaps more.
The regular housecleaner, Martha, from Jamaica, almost a member of the family, almost, someone who had entered their house twice a week for the last decade, and washed and scrubbed and dusted and made their home look clean and proper, she had to return to Jamaica for a family emergency, it sounded bad, something about her brother, and Bobby had told her to take the time she needed, not to worry, they would survive without her, he could do the cleaning he figured, why not, what else was he going to do, this would ground him, it would be good for him, he convinced himself of this, and he told Martha not to worry, he repeated that phrase over and over and by the end of the call Martha was calling Bobby a sweetheart, and he liked the way she said it in her sing-song Jamaican lilt, and he asked if she needed money, he was feeling magnanimous now, but no, she had money, there was no need, and she thanked him, told him where everything was, he told her he knew, but really he didn’t, and so he was thankful she was so thorough, because she knew his house better than he did, and he went to the cleaning closet, he found the closet, and the house, well, it loomed.
I can do this, he thinks, and he finds an outlet and plugs in the vacuum and searches for the button that will turn it on and he presses a button and turns a nob but this vacuum cleaner is designed, it’s German he thinks, and it’s so well-designed he can’t figure out how to turn it on. He finds a switch on the bottom of the handle, where his hand would be were he already vacuuming and he flicks it and the machine comes to life, it’s an amazingly silent vacuum, he never thought a vacuum could be so quiet, and he wonders if it works at all and he starts vacuuming, slowly, and it seems to be, it’s not that the carpet in the hallway is so dirty, but the carpet where the vacuum has been seems cleaner, or perhaps it’s vibrant, it seems transformed, the after is better than the before, and so he continues vacuuming, the hallway is his, it’s him and the vacuum, when did vacuums become so quiet? he wonders, because this thing is almost humming, you can tune instruments to the hum of this vacuum, and Bobby thinks this isn’t so bad, this business, I can do the whole house quickly, what does Martha do all day? and then the hallway is done and Bobby feels a satisfaction he has not felt since Lamontagne told him his work had earned the division an unforeseen profit and that he was in line for a bonus that would make his knees weak. And he takes the vacuum to the living room and the shag carpet.
Martha had told him about the shag. There was a setting on the vacuum for deep carpets, the pictogram showed a shag rug and he finds it and turns a nob so that it is pointing to the right pictogram and away he goes, he’s vacuuming some more, he’s cleaning the shag. The sun pours into the living room, illuminating the rug, and Bobby can see bits of dirt in it, it’s shag after all, and so now he can see the vacuum’s accomplishments, its effectiveness, and all that time that Mimi lauded the virtues of the vacuum and he’d dismissed he’d like to take back now, he’d like to retract whatever dismissive thing he’d said about the vacuum cleaner because this thing sucks dirt like a tornado sucks trailer parks. And it does so with love: This vacuum cleaner tugs at the shag but then releases each strand, tenderly, it’s as if this cold appliance is kissing the shag. It cares for it.
Bobby zooms through the house, riding the vacuum cleaner to a finish line of unexpected pride. The joy of knowing a new pleasure. He returns the vacuum to its magical closet home and he takes a long look at the duster and he takes it and he starts dusting the house, the shelves, the tops of doors, behind books and statues and hummels, the tops of cabinets, the dark recesses of the entertainment unit in the bedroom. He cleans the toilets. He’s seen it done before, on television, and he feels a previously unimagined kind of paternalism in cleaning the receptacles for his family’s various wastes. He scrubs the sinks. He dons an apron and does the kitchen floor. He gets on his knees and becomes intimate with the Dutch tiles of the kitchen floor.
Abbie comes home. “Dad?” he asks.
Bobby stands. He bounds up. His apron is festooned with butterflies and both know it is ridiculous looking, even when not worn by a human, let alone a man. “Hi,” he says, not embarrassed exactly, but uncomfortable. “Martha had to return to Jamaica. Something about her brother.”
“He’s having surgery,” Abbie says.
“Oh, I didn’t know that. I don’t think it went well.”
“Something about his stomach.”
“I’m always the last to know.”
“And you decided to clean?”
“The entire house.”
“OK.” Abbie gives him the most skeptical look he can muster, which doesn’t take effort because he has never seen his father clean — he can barely load the dishwasher — he sees what unemployment is doing to his father, to the changes that pile up day after day, to the transformation that becomes suddenly apparent, like continental drift on a time lapse camera spanning millennia, and he backs away, and he runs up the stairs and heads to his bedroom. And once Bobby hears the door close behind his son, he gets back on his knees and he prepares himself to once again pray to the Platonic ideal of a spotless kitchen floor.