Her voice greeted me in the cleaning supplies aisle.
“Hi, Scott,” she said, as I squatted before the bottom shelf reading Drano directions. Her voice was vaguely familiar, not enough to mentally bring to fruition her face, but enough to rob my breath just the same.
I looked up from the Drano, and there she was with her parked shopping cart. I did a double-take, just to make sure. I stood shakily. How long had it been? One year? Two?
I recalled our last phone call, the one when I called the whole thing off. I couldn’t remember if I had broken the news directly or via voicemail. It wasn’t her, it was me, I likely said.
I inhaled deeply to recalibrate my breaths and was overcome by the guilt-induced scents of Pine Sol and Ty-D-Bol and lemon-scented Pledge and Windex and S.O.S.—oh how my heart beat its own S.O.S. at the mere sight of her. The surrounding labels for those colorful cleaning product packages antagonized me with illustrations promising to add sparkle and shine back to my life, something I desperately missed but could not muster alone.
Of all the Walmarts in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
We faced each other, both knowing all along that fate would eventually bring us to this awkward moment. I’m surprised Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” didn’t play from Walmart’s speakers. Contrary to what’s said in that song, it didn’t feel “so good.”
From the spurned, sparks will fly, I feared, planting my feet solidly on the floor, preparing myself for firefight. I eyed a toilet brush to aid in self-defense, should it come to that.
In the spring of our relationship, anticipating her visits, I actually made half-assed attempts to tidy up my house a bit, so I didn’t appear to be too much of a slob. But eventually, I got over that. Or, to put it another way: The honeymoon was over.
“How’s it going?” she asked. I was surprised by the sheepishness of her tone. I had expected claws.
I could see it in her face then. She wanted me to want her back, her unspoken invitation to re-invite and retry the whole thing over. It would’ve been easy to cave right there. Life would be so much simpler. I could come home to sparkle and shine, not dust and dirt.
Back then, we seldom saw each other. I’d leave for work, she’d work from my house, conveniently gone when I returned to find my house spotless, a happy-face note sometimes on the countertop, the checklist I had left for her dutifully checked off, a bachelor’s dream.
In the aisle, I had to remind myself that it hadn’t always been peaches and cream. I recalled coming home to find my favorite decorative vase missing from the living room. Had she stolen it? It must’ve been worth . . . well . . . nothing really since the furniture store gave it to me for buying a bookstand. She called later that day to confess. She had accidentally knocked it off while dusting. It shattered. She offered to pay for it. I downplayed the dusting disaster, told her it hadn’t cost much, withholding the fact that it was free. I still wanted her to feel somewhat bad. After all, I liked the vase.
At some point, too, my space began to feel invaded. She changed the placement of my microwave a few inches, making it more perpendicular to the wall instead of caddy-cornered, conserving surface space, but I moved it back, reminding myself, though, to return it to “her way” before her visits. She also relocated my vat of GermX without asking, and I would move it back. It was like she was moving in. I felt suffocated. I wanted a way out.
It was the air-conditioner that finally broke us up. It died. A new one had to be purchased. The cost: $4,000.
I couldn’t afford her anymore. I didn’t have a spare $80 per month. So, I made the dreaded call, cut my housecleaner from the payroll.
Don’t get me wrong. She was great. Thorough. Dependable. Punctual. My floor, toilets, tub and sinks shined like the product labels promised. I looked forward to coming home to uncluttered surfaces. I liked the little notes she left behind: “Need more Clorox spray with bleach.”
I do miss her after-presence, her sparkle and shine, her chemically compounded perfume. My house has been a pit ever since. The mere thought of housework exhausts me, so I seldom do it. I have self-diagnosed house cleaning attention deficit disorder.
In the cleaning supplies aisle, I imagined falling to my knee, holding out the toilet brush like a microphone, and crooning Player’s 1977 hit, “Baby Come Back.” How I wanted her back in my life, but it was not meant to be.
The irony of meeting me in the cleaning supplies aisle was not lost on her, for she said, “You know, if you ever need your house cleaned . . .”
“I’m getting by,” I lied, then compounded the lie, “Maybe I’ll call sometime,” giving us both false hope.
Then I left her alone there in the aisle. I had a shower drain to unclog. If only she was free, I thought. If only she was free.
Scott Saalman and The Will Read and Sing for Food Players perform next on Sept. 26 at the Kimball International auditorium.