Florence liked routines. On the fortieth floor she had staked out her territory: two conference rooms, four executive suites, and six offices. The other women she worked with didn’t seem to care or notice the spaces they were cleaning.
“Start with the thirty-fourth floor tonight, Flo.” Her supervisor, Anna, marked her name off the assignment list. “The office manager of True North just called. He told Jovack, he wants it done first.” Anna looked up to make sure that the rest of the women were listening. “When you’re finished with thirty-four, you and Sophia can join the others on forty. Work your way down as usual.”
Florence started to take her supplies. Placing them in the caddy attached to the large garbage bin on wheels, she checked her vacuum and made sure that the waste bag was new. Anna handed her the keys to the offices on thirty-four.
“What’s the change for?”
“Big party last night—big mess. They requested special attention.” Anna looked at Sophia and Carmen; they had already put on headphones and were shaking out black plastic garbage bags.
“I’ll page you when I’m finished thirty-four.” Florence told Anna as she pushed her bin to the service elevator where five women were waiting for the doors to open.
“Big mess, big party—damn, these people are spoiled. They can’t even hit the garbage can, let alone recycle.” Sophia said.
“Yeah, it’s a joke to them.” Carmen added.
“They have their minds on other things, important stuff we wouldn’t understand,” Florence said.
“And we, we have our minds on their garbage.” Sophia laughed and pushed her cart into the elevator.
The five women followed her into the massive elevator car that was used for moving furniture and large deliveries. She looked over at Sophia who was assigned to join her.
“How do you want to split the floor up?” Florence said.
Sophia took off her headphones. “What?”
Florence repeated herself.
“I don’t care, Flo. You decide.”
The elevator started to climb and at twenty Florence felt her ears pop.
“Let’s see how bad it is first,” she smiled.
The doors opened on thirty-four and the women going to forty acknowledge the others departure.
“Where do you think they had the party? Anna didn’t say.” Sophia turned to Florence as she held the swinging door of the service entrance open for her.
“Let’s check out the large conference room first and then maybe the reception area.”
“I bet the bathrooms are going to be fill with vómito. Que va a hacer que me enferme.”
Sophia gave Florence a look. “You should know what vómito means, Flo. We are going to be up to our elbows in it tonight.”
“You’re right, mierda too.”
Florence didn’t really mind when some of the women spoke Spanish. To her the language was music; it reminded her of her late husband Nat. A few hours of cleaning and she stopped hearing them.
“I wonder how you say mierda in Serbian?” Sophia said.
Both women started to laugh. Russians owned their company, JVB Cleaning. Anna and Jovack were Serbs; when Anna had her boss on the phone, she never spoke English.
As they pushed their carts along one of the halls the automated lights, programed to sensors slowly lit the corridor ahead of them.
“I think I can smell cigarette smoke.”
“That’s not going to be easy to get out of the air by Monday.” Florence said.
“I think I have some air freshener in here.” Sophia looked inside her bin and pulled out an aerosol can.
Florence picked up some plastic cups and napkins as she walked down the hall. The main conference room was in the center of the thirty-fourth floor. It had a sliding wall. When the wall was pulled open, it enlarged the space by half. The windows faced the Chrysler Building. The mahogany table still held plates of uneaten food. The sideboard had empty bottles of wine, a few were tipped over and there were several stains on the rug.
As Carmen had predicted the empty plastic glasses were on the floor next to the garbage. The empty cans and bottles were mixed in with the paper.
The two women separated and worked at opposite ends of the large room.
“You know they weren’t going to hire you, Flo.” Sophia had finished vacuuming and was watching Florence finish polishing the conference table. “Yeah, now they only hired Latinas with thick accents.”
Florence ran her cloth one last time across the table checking for streaks.
“They assume that we don’t speak English well enough to understand them.”
“And…” Florence stopped and looked up at Sophia.
“Well, they never hire Blacks, too much trouble and they’re always late or never show up.”
“And why are you telling me this, Sophia?” Florence started to pull the sliding wall closed.
“My grandmother always told me that if I had something good to say, I should speak and not hold it in. I like you Flo, and I think you do a good job.”
“You mean for a Black person?”
“No, for any kind of a person. Do you have any kids, Flo?”
Florence took a deep breath. She didn’t want to cut Sophia off. It was hard for people to speak from their heart and when they did it should be appreciated.
“Thanks, Sophia. Yes, I have a daughter. She ran off with a Dominican,” Florence said.
“You don’t see her anymore?”
“She left me her daughter to take care of. I see my daughter everyday in my granddaughter’s face.”
“Oh dios mío, estoy tan triste por ti.” Sophia said.
“Let’s keep up our pace. We just started. We can take a break after we finish this floor. The bathrooms are next. Okay?”
“Ugh…you’re right. Let’s get this over with.”
The two women finished the bathrooms and then went in opposite directions. Sophia took the North side of the floor. It was a maze of grey cubicles. Florence could see her head bobbing up and down as she finished one cubicle and moved on to the next.
Florence had just finished two offices. She could see a light through the opaque glass in the door of the next office. She knocked on the door and twisted the knob; it was locked from the inside. Florence was hunting through her ring of service keys when the door opened and a young woman stood facing her. She was dressed in a navy blue business suit and her face was streaked with mascara.
“Sorry.” She looked away and continued to speak. “I came in to do some work and I guess I fell asleep at my desk. Go ahead and take the garbage, I’ll just get my things and be out of your way in a second.” The woman tucked in her blouse and buttoned her jacket.
Anna had told Florence on her first day that she might run into people working late. This was an advertising agency and they had deadlines. Anna told her not to make eye contact, take the garbage and work around them. If she couldn’t clean the office, she should make a mental note of the number and come back to it before she left for another floor. Florence took the small basket filled with shredded paper and dumped it into the green recycle bags. As she left, she noted the room number under the nameplate: Susan Miller VP, 3410.
Florence moved down the hall to the next office. She looked across the floor and saw Sophia stand up and arch her back. She waved at Florence, took off her headphones and yelled: “twenty minutes and I’m finished.”
Florence had just given the thumbs-up when 3410 walked by her. The woman tried to throw a crumbled piece of paper, but missed the bag.
Florence went back to the office; it was empty, she hadn’t notice before that there was no computer or phone. There were no pictures on the wall, no books.
“Are you finished?” Sophia stuck her head into the room. “What’s this,” she looked around, “it’s empty?”
Anna had instructed Florence on her first night to just put the garbage in the black or green bags. “You want to get home? Right? So do I. You’re on a timer and so am I. Remember that.”
Florence must have looked confused.
“Don’t waste your time being nosey. Remember Flo: we need to keep to the schedule. If you don’t, Jovack will find someone else for the job.”
Florence looked at her watch and then looked at the green recycle bag.
“Yes, the office is empty,” she said to Sophia. “I did it in two minutes. I’m right behind you, let’s go up to forty now.”
Sophia pushed her cart ahead to the service elevators. Florence reached in the green plastic bag, pulling out the paper on top; she smoothed it open, folded it and put it into her pocket.
Once they reached the fortieth floor Sofia turned to Florence. “See you when we clock out.” She smiled and put on her headphones.
Florence went straight to the large office suite. It was usually spotless. All it needed was a little dusting and vacuuming. The first time she saw the bathroom that belonged to this office she thought it was just like one in a fancy magazine. It was usually clean unless he had taken a shower; then there were towels all over the floor and shaving cream on the sink.
When she opened the door she thought she heard someone. The door to the bathroom was slightly open and the light went off.
“Buenas noches señor,” Florence said quietly.
“Buenas noches,” said the man.
His face was pale, almost ashen. The hair near his neck was wet and his shirt had a red stain on the left shoulder. When he saw her staring at him, he took the towel that was in his right hand and covered the mark.
“Afeitar, señora. Afeitar,” he said as he walked over to the leather sofa and picked up his jacket.
Shaving, thought Florence? How do you cut your arm shaving? She turned from him and said: “me clean” in a thick accent.
He walked past her without saying anything. Then he pointed to the blood stained towel on the sofa. “Por favor ponga las toallas en el basura, gracias.”
Florence nodded her head and he smiled.
Florence had learned to speak Spanish from her late husband, Nat, who was Dominican. All his friends and relatives called him Nasterio. Her granddaughter, Claudia, called him Nest. Florence smiled and picked up the towel off the sofa, pushing it into the black plastic bag as the man asked her to.
When she turned on the light in the bathroom, her eyes adjusted to the brightness. First she saw the red footprints on the floor and then the towels that had been thrown all over. The sink was filled with smears of blood. All the cabinet doors were open, bottles had their tops off and there was a box of medical adhesive tape that had unrolled across the toilet tank.
“Anna, you need to get up to forty, corner office right now. That’s right, 4000… that’s the number, something has happened here.” Florence spoke into the crackling pager. “I don’t know there is blood all over the bathroom.” She had backed out of the bathroom without touching anything. She stood in the office, waiting for Anna, staring at her reflection in the wall of glass overlooking the city. She looked transparent, almost invisible, against the lights.
When Anna opened the door to the bathroom she gasped. “Did you see anything?”
“He was still here when I walked in, said he cut himself shaving and told me to throw all the towels in the black bags when I had finished cleaning the bathroom.”
“Was he bleeding?”
“Yes, from his arm, I think we need to call the police, Anna.”
“First Jovack, then the cops, Flo.” She took out her cell phone and called her boss.
Anna started speaking in Serbian while she paced back and forth.
“Jovack said he will call the cops and that you shouldn’t say anything. Just finish the rest of the offices on this floor and then go to thirty-nine.”
“There was an awful lot of blood, Anna. Do you think that someone else was in here with him?”
“I don’t know. It is not up to us to think about anything but cleaning. You saw him and he looked like he was okay? Right?”
“Yes, but all this blood. He was very pale.”
“You spoke to him in Spanish like I told you to?
“Yes, Anna, he spoke to me in Spanish too.”
“Good.” Anna’s phone rang and she started talking to Jovack again. She turned her back to Florence and then looked over her shoulder. “What are you staring at? Do what I just told you to. I’ll call you if we need anything else.”
Florence left the room and wiped down one of the two desks that were in an alcove outside of office 4000. As she was reaching for the trash basket under the desk, she saw a framed photograph of the man with two women. The picture was of a celebration; the three people were raising their glasses in a toast. The frame had an inscription: 2013-Most Valuable Employee.
After another six offices and the conference room on forty. Florence checked her watch. It was almost two. She started toward the service elevator and looked at her pager to make sure it was working.
At the second ten minute break nothing was said about the party mess on thirty-four. The women talked about Sophia’s boyfriend; no one said anything about what Florence saw. By five the next three floors had been cleaned and emptied of trash. Anna never called her.
Florence swiped her electronic key card and turned toward the service doors that led to the street.
“Flo!” Anna called after her.
“I’m glad I caught you before you left. Jovack took care of everything.”
“What did the police say?”
Anna looked down at the floor. “They laughed at him, told him that there wasn’t enough blood for a dead bird in the bathroom. Jovack is really pissed Flo; he told me to keep my eye on you and that there better not be a next time.” Anna looked up. “I had to clean that mess up. Next time, do as you’re told…understand?”
Anna was visible shaken. Maybe she could have been fired for what Florence had gotten her into.
“I’m so sorry, it’s just that I never saw anything like that and….”
“Forget what you saw and who you saw.”
At five thirty the city looked haunted: the light took another hour to fully expose the street and the buildings in Manhattan.
Florence walked past a few early commuters with their ties loosened. The small brown bag and paper cup of hot coffee identified those who would soon fill the offices she had cleaned.
The subway entrance was across the street. As she descended the steps the heat surrounded her and only when the doors to the subway car opened did she feel revived. Maybe she had imagined everything; maybe she had been watching too many stories on television. Yes, his face was pale, she thought…but they all have pale faces.
The subway car held a few people in uniform: nurses and hospital workers. There were the other cleaners, like her; those were the people that looked like they had been up all night; most of them had their eyes closed. The old man in the corner seat near the door was asleep with his mouth open, snoring as loud as a jackhammer. Florence smiled and thought of Nat snoring, her Nasterio. She told Nat when they first met that she had never heard of his name; it sounded like the flower, Nasturtium. He laughed.
Florence looked at the window across from her and saw her fifty-eight year old reflection. It was then that she felt the papers she had stuffed into her pocket the night before. Not going to ruin my day. Rather read today’s message, she thought.
Poetry in Motion was the title on the small turquoise placard above the subway door. Florence got up, held on to the metal pole and read the poem: Grand Central by Billy Collins. It made sense, she thought; she was a part a “moving hive”.
The return trip from Manhattan to Hart Street took almost an hour. After the subway Florence waited for an express bus and then walked the remaining four blocks home. She believed the last blocks were the best part of her routine. By 6:30 in the summer, the sun was rising across the neighborhood. The sealed storefronts and brownstones were quite; most people were still asleep. The peacefulness gave Florence a hint of what this place must have been like in the old days. That’s what Poppy Daniels called them; he had lived in his house longer than anyone else on Hart Street. His mother owned the house before him. One Saturday night they were sitting on the front stoop trying to catch a cool breeze and he told her how cornfields grew on DeKalb Avenue.
“Imagine that…imagine that,” Florence said, as she climbed her steps and opened her front door. Florence put her purse on the front table and walked back to the kitchen. She could hear her granddaughter, Claudia, in the bathroom. She surveyed the kitchen, looking for traces of what Claudia might have made herself for dinner the night before. Florence opened the refrigerator door and took out the last piece of cod, milk, and one egg. The rest of what she needed: flour and spices, for her personal fish fry, as she called her dinner-breakfast, was in the cupboard.
She leaned into the back staircase and shouted up to her granddaughter. “What time is your appointment, hon?”.
Claudia was singing along with a pop tune that her grandmother couldn’t understand.
“I said: What time is your appointment, Claudia.”
The music was lowered and she heard the sounds of small heels click to the top of the stairs.
“Ten-thirty, Grandma Wren. I think it will take me ninety minutes.” Claudia paused, and Florence heard papers being rustled. “Don’t make me a big breakfast—please. Only cereal. I’ll do it myself.”
“That’s not the way to start such an important day, hon. You need to be fortified for that kind of journey.”
Florence poured a half-inch of cooking oil into a black iron skillet and turned the gas up to high. There was no further response from Claudia so she set the table. During the bus ride she had decided not to tell her what happened the night before on the fortieth floor. Florence felt the side of her dress with the papers in her pocket. She turned the flame off on the stove.
“What are you reading?”
“Nothing, child, just some papers I found in an empty office.”
“Why did you take them home? Isn’t that just trash?”
“I guess so, but you know sometimes I get curious. Right? Just like you. You know I’ve always told you that you take after me.”
“And not my mom?”
“No, Lord. You do not take after her. Look at you child, all dressed and polished to get to the city.” Florence looked away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to mention her. Let’s not ruin the day; it’s going to be a good one for me. I can just feel it.” Claudia looked at her watch. “Oh—it’s already late. I need to do a little reading for my Tuesday night class.” Claudia went back up the stairs. Florence heard her bedroom door close.
“So Susan Miller, 3410, had been fired,” Florence said. She reread the memo addressed to Ms. Miller that stated she had become redundant. Florence went into the living room to find her dictionary. When she returned to the kitchen with the dictionary and her newspaper, she was ready to make her breakfast.
The man’s photo was on page six. He was grinning at the camera and had a young woman on his arm. The caption under the photo read: Donny Palmer, CEO True North, with guest, leaving the Met Gala, in happier times. Florence held the photo closer…the woman was Susan Miller. Florence opened the dictionary and read the definition of redundant: “no longer needed or useful; superfluous. Synonyms: unnecessary, not required, inessential, unessential, needless, unneeded.”
“You be careful out there today, Claudia. The world is complicated and not always what it seems.”
“It’s a job interview, Grandma Wren. Don’t fuss over every little thing, you’ll make yourself sick.” Claudia finished her cereal and rinsed out the bowl.
“Come back to me.” Florence said before the front door closed behind her granddaughter.
Florence’s favorite program The View had started. Starr Jones introduced today’s topic: Sexual Harassment. “When Will It End?” Starr turned to the audience. Behind the five women seated around a table a screen filled with photos of seven young female faces.
“It seems that something happened to Donny Palmer last night.” Meredith almost laughed when a woman in the audience yelled out skewered. “It appears that Donny Palmer…” The screen behind the women changed to a large photo of Palmer, hands in front of his face, trying to hide from the cameras that were blinding him, as he exited the Lenox Hill Hospital. “…may have been stabbed last night. There were no clues and he had no comments on how it might have happened.”
“Shaving.” Florence said as she took a bite of her fish.
This story appeared in – WORK Literary Magazine – in October 217
Photo credit: Ronan Shenhav