art by Melissa Mead
Moonlight and Bleach
by Sandra McDonald
Sandra McDonald is the author of the recent gender-bending collection Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories and the science fiction novels The Outback Stars, The Stars Down Under, and The Stars Blue Yonder. Her short fiction has appeared in more than 30 national, small press, online and audio magazines. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches college in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit her at www.sandramcdonald.com
My mother was the most beautiful werewolf in Brighton Beach. Four legs, sleek silver fur, and rows of well-brushed teeth that could rip your throat out. My father was a Russian immigrant who started a janitorial company that at one time serviced every public school and city building on Coney Island. As their only kid, I inherited the worst of both worlds: my mother's were-curse and my father's ruthless passion for cleanliness. Every month I transform into a magical creature who slinks along the city streets carrying a bucket and a mop.
Yes. I'm a were-maid.
"Like that's the worst thing in the world," Mom used to say, her face beet-red as she scrubbed at pots with steel wool. Until she and my father retired, she did her own housework every day. "Sweetheart, you'll see. A woman who cleans and cooks is a woman who will always have a husband."
She's from German stock, very traditional. She wanted me to be a wife; I wanted to be a career woman. She hoped that I would settle down in Park Slope with my boyfriend Jason after we both graduated from Fordham Law. Instead Jason announced he was dumping me for a public defender in Queens who didn't sneak out of the apartment late at night and return smelling like furniture polish. I told him about the curse. He insisted I had some weird obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"He's an idiot," Mom said when she heard the news. "His bathroom will never be as clean as it was with you."
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My parents' sympathy is long distance these days. They spend most of each year in Germany, where Mom can run free through the Black Forest when her arthritis isn't acting up. I'm their only child, and by day I'm an ambitious junior partner at the law firm of Sidoriv and Puginsky. I wear nice suits and expensive shoes. Under the full moon, whatever I'm wearing transforms into a black polyester dress, a white apron, and ugly black shoes. The yellow rubber gloves that coat my hands won't come off until sunrise. My hair curls itself up into a bun, tight and impossible to dislodge.
Tonight's one of those nights.
"Hey, baby!" A red car slows down and the driver leers out his window. It's one of those hot summer nights that makes you glad for the miracle of air conditioning. "Going to a party? Want to clean me up?"
I ignore him. The perils of walking around in a maid uniform at night in New York can't be overstated, but I've got a bottle of industrial grade cleaner in my bucket and I'm not afraid to use it.
He makes some lewd suggestions about sponges and finally drives on. Ten minutes later I reach my destination and knock on the alley door.
"There you are," grumbles my cousin, Alexi, after he opens it. "You're late."
"I had to get ready for a meeting with the D.A. tomorrow," I say.
The smell of chlorine is heavy in the humid air, but the halls are dark and empty. This is one of the smallest, most exclusive Russian banyas in the borough. A banya is a bathhouse to you and me. The bathroom stalls, locker room floors, steam room benches are all prime breeding grounds for germs and grime. It's good, hard work.
Alexi is top masseuse here. He's a big beefy man, and when he has bad news he comes out and says it. "Look, Tania. The customers. The morning after you come, they say it's too clean."
I push my maid's cap higher on my head. "Too clean? What does that mean?"
"Too much bleach. Makes them sneeze. Could you maybe try, I don't know, vinegar?"
"It's not as good."
"I'm just saying." Another shrug, a spread of hands. "Olga wants you to stay in the morning. She wants to meet you, talk it over."
Olga is his boss. We've met before, at business functions, but never while I'm under my curse. "I can't! She'll recognize me!"
"Then you better take tomorrow night off. Find someplace else for a month or two, give her time to get busy with other things."
It's not that New York lacks places that need cleaning. It lacks safe places that need cleaning. Without a haven like this, who knows where I'll end up tomorrow, the last night of the full moon. In desperate times I've broken into hotels and apartments, infiltrated hotels and motels, even hung around bus terminals with a long coat over my uniform. Once I almost got arrested for trying to mop the Brooklyn Bridge.
Alexi holds up one finger. "Good news, though. I've got a guy for you. Needs help."
I squint at him. "What kind of guy?"
"Nice guy," he insists. "Widow. Not a pervert, okay? Just needs a little help."
I trust Alexi with my secret and I'd trust him with my wallet, but you've got to be careful with a curse like mine. Some guys get off on having a woman in a maid's uniform visit them late at night. Leering can lead to groping, and groping can lead to me hitting someone over the head with a mop. I prefer to avoid personal injury lawsuits.
"Nice old guy," Alexi repeats. "University professor. I'll give you his number."
"Fine." It doesn't seem like I have much of a choice. "But first I've got some toilets to clean."
Not only am I the most ambitious junior partner at Sidoriv and Puginsky, I'm the only partner the firm actually has. My bosses are Igor and Boris, two cantankerous old farts with hearing problems, high blood pressure, and a fondness for cheap cigars. They've been partners in law for fifty years and closeted gay lovers for at least as long. Or maybe not so closeted. My father used to roll his eyes whenever he saw them, and wring his hands, and then say, "You'd think they could at least marry, have some children. A few seconds of poking and you're done. For appearances."
Most of the firm's work is citizenship problems, workman's compensation, and landlord disputes for the economically disadvantaged Russians of Brooklyn. I like most of my clients. They're loud and colorful, on bold new adventures in a foreign land, and the older ones bring us onion and cabbage pirozkhis. I also like being useful. America is full of predators who prey on immigrants the way my mom, during her werewolf nights, is a threat to stray dogs, feral cats, and luckless animals of the forest. Occasionally I do some criminal defense. My current client is an elderly cabbie named Vlad who tried to run over a couple of punks who stiffed him on a fare. I'm dead tired from scrubbing porcelain all night but I make it to the district attorney's office on time for my meeting.
"It was attempted murder," says the prosecutor.
"My client was upset and confused," I reply. "He thought they were trying to rob him."
"He braked, reversed, and then jumped the curb again."
Vlad has big blue eyes that make you want to believe him, but if he ever gives you a hug, be sure to check your pockets afterward. He waves his hands around and speaks rapidly in Russian.
"He thought he saw a gun," I translate.
"Your client is a menace," the prosecutor says.
By the time we leave I have a pounding fatigue headache, and the wretched heat of the day makes my suit cling to me like wet leaves. Back at the opulent offices of Sidoriv and Puginsky--that would be four small ancient, cluttered rooms over what's now an Indian grocery store--I gulp down a giant cup of iced coffee.
"She stays out too late," Igor says, the unlit cigar in his mouth bobbing as high as his bushy gray eyebrows.
"She needs a social life," Boris retorts, shuffling through a mound of folders. Both of them refuse to use computers. "Girl like her, who wants to be alone?"
At times like this, it's best to ignore them entirely.
When I get home to my apartment I feed Alfred, the gray tabby I adopted after Jason left me, and crash for a few hours. The full moon rising in the east calls to me, invokes the change. Like all were-curses, it digs unyieldingly into my sleep. Some were-folk dream of woods dark and deep. I get bleach and moonlight, and oven cleaner that never works as well as it should, and those extendable feather dusters for use with chandeliers and ceiling fans.
It's dark but still searing hot out when I knock on the door of apartment 501 in an old box factory on St. Mark's Ave. The door to 502 opens instead. Standing there is a handsome guy wearing green shorts and a Fire Department t-shirt. Dark hair, blue eyes, a physique to kill for--he could easily be Mr. January in that charity calendar the FDNY puts out each year.
And here I am, in my polyester dress and dorky flat shoes.
"I thought you were the pizza guy," Mr. January says.
My face heats up. "No pizza here. Sorry."
The door to 501 swings open to reveal a stooped-over old man wearing a baggy black sweater despite the heat.
"Ah, Miss Tania," my client says. "So nice that you came."
I'm waiting for Mr. January to misinterpret the situation and make a snarky remark, but he just smiles. "Hi, Mr. Federov. Thanks for the mushroom noodles. All the guys liked it."
Federov waves his hand. "It was just the extras."
"It was a four-quart casserole dish," Mr. January tells me. What a great smile. "Ask him for some of his fruitcake."
"Off with you." Federov sounds gruff and pleased at the same time. "Come in, girl."
Mr. January leans against his doorframe and watches me go into Federov's apartment.
The place is small but has high ceilings and windows from its factory days. The air conditioner rattles but doesn't do much for putting out cold air. Textbooks and foreign novels cover three old bookcases, and bric-a-brac of a long life litters the small tables--photo frames, tiny vases, hundreds of glass figurines. Lots of lovely dust.
"Alexi says you are very good," Federov says, sitting in a lumpy armchair. "That I should not ask questions. That if I ask questions, you will not return. That I should feel free to sleep away the long hours while you toil."
I nod. The raw, pulsing need to clean is making my head hurt.
Federov looks at me shrewdly. "You do this of your own free will?"
"For so little money?"
If I had my way, I wouldn't charge at all. Taking money for my curse just makes it all the worse. But a cleaning lady who only works while the moon is full would raise even more eyebrows if she refused to take any wages for it. My salary here will go straight to charity.
"The money's fine, Mr. Federov. Can I get started?"
"Hmmm," he says. He's thinking about whether to trust me. I might be a harmless housekeeper, or I could be a thief and murderess here to steal his secondhand books about the Bolshevik Revolution.
Finally he shakes his head. "Such a pretty girl, such a situation. Please proceed."
He turns the TV to some late night show with canned laughter and hip young guests. I inspect the premises. The bathroom is tidy enough for a man's apartment, but the grout in the old porcelain tile has gone gray and there's an impressive ring in the bathtub. The bedroom closet is jammed with clothes that smell like old cologne and which need to be thoroughly ironed. In the kitchen I find my true calling: a refrigerator filled with spills and crusted stains, a sink full of dirty dishes and coffee cups, an oven that hasn't been scoured in years. I'm sure there are roaches lurking in the cabinet by the hundreds.
I think I'll pass on that fruitcake.
By dawn Federov is asleep in his chair and his apartment is cleaner than it's been in years. The moon is waning, so I won't see him again until next month. But that means I won't see Mr. January, either. Which is a good thing. I don't need an incredibly handsome complication in my life right now. The district attorney still wants to charge cabbie Vlad with attempted murder; Boris and Igor are feuding daily over Igor's nephew, the no-good troublemaker who wants to borrow money again; Alfred swallows something which makes him get constipated and feverish, and I have to take him to the vet for two days of X-rays and kitty laxatives.
I've just finished hauling Alfred back into my apartment when my throwaway cell phone rings. It's the one I give to clients, but I don't recognize the number.
"Hey," says the guy on the other end. "It's Mike Hennessee. My neighbor Ivan Federov gave me your number."
It's Mr. January.
"Oh, hi." I get Alfred's carrier on the floor and swing open the door. He shoots out like a cannonball, knocks over a lamp, and plunges behind the sofa. The big white lamp breaks into a dozen pieces on the floor. I never liked it anyway.
"Everything okay there?" Mike asks.
"Just one unhappy cat. What can I do for you?"
"I was looking for someone to help me clean my apartment. Ivan said you did great."
Here's the thing: now that the moon is no longer full, I'm about as interested in cleaning as I am in knitting. Which is to say, nice for other people but not for me. I probably won't do my own dishes for a week. Besides which, I really don't want Mr. January--er, Mike--to see me in full-blown housekeeper mode.
"I'm really not available," I tell him.
He sounds genuinely disappointed. "Oh."
Alfred makes a plaintive mewling sound from under the sofa.
"Okay," he says. "What if I said I was lying, and I don't want you to clean my apartment, but maybe go out for beer and pizza? Unless you're not a beer and pizza kind of lady. Maybe wine and cheese. Or Thai and whatever goes with Thai food?"
This is a mistake. It can't end well.
"Beer goes with Thai food," I say.
The restaurant is a hole-in-the-wall establishment in what was once a bookstore and will one day probably be a coffee shop or internet cafe. Everything in the city changes constantly. Mike Hennessee shows up wearing a blue shirt that matches his eyes and shows off the long muscles in his arms. He probably gets those muscles from carrying children out of burning buildings or lifting wrecked vehicles off elderly pedestrians.
"Most of what we do are medical calls," he says when we talk about his work. "Heart attacks, diabetics, sometimes a woman in labor."
I've bypassed the Asian beer on the menu for an icy watermelon drink. It's about a zillion degrees outside, and if I keep my arms just right maybe he won't notice the sweat stains under my arms. Not that I was worried about this date, but I changed blouses three times before leaving the house and swapped my shoes twice. My best friend Maryanne is on speed dial, ready to show up and help me escape if Fireman Hennessee turns out to be a crackpot or serial killer. So far, so good.
"How long have you been a fireman?" I ask.
He stabs at some basil eggplant. "Four years, three months and a week."
"In my experience, people who count aren't always the happiest at what they're doing."
"When I was growing up I wanted to be an actor," he says. "Three years of casting calls cured me of that. Now I get twenty-four hour shifts, lots of spaghetti dinners, and people who throw up on me. But what about you? The cleaning business is okay?"
Already we're in tricky territory. "It's just moonlighting. I like meeting people."
He nods. But he doesn't look convinced. "It's just... look, Tania, I know some cops, some lawyers. You can trust me. If you're in trouble and need some help, they've worked with cases like this before."
Now I'm confused. "Cases like what?"
His gaze is intent and serious. "Your English is very good. I mean, you could pass for a local. And Ivan, he's a good guy. But lonely. I know how these things work. They get you a visa, they promise you all sorts of jobs, you get to America and now you're making house calls that last all night long--"
The realization that this handsome guy thinks I'm part of a sex trafficking ring makes my pad woon sen go right down my windpipe. Suddenly I can't breathe at all. Before I can make the universal sign for choking, Mike's out of his chair. He wraps his arms around my mid-section and levers his fists under my ribs. He smells nice, but this is not how I imagined ending up in his arms. One Heimlich thrust later, I'm ejecting broccoli and wheezing for breath.
"You okay?" he asks, breath warm in my ear.
"I'm going to throw up," I say. "I'll be right back."
I lurch off to the bathroom, sure that everyone in the restaurant is staring at me, and when I find the back door next to the kitchen it's an opportunity for escape too good to pass by. I feel humiliated and sick and I'm sure I have brown sauce on my face.
So maybe it isn't nice to leave him like that, but I don't know any happy couple who started off with the misunderstanding that one of them was a Russian sex girl. Luckily Mike doesn't know my real name or where I live. I throw away my cell phone, tell Alexi that I need a new client, and spend the next few weeks buried in work. Vlad the murderous cabbie gets a break when the two punks get busted for trying to rob a hack in Astoria. Igor and Boris stop fighting about Igor's useless nephew and instead start arguing about Boris's niece's son, who is in trouble with the IRS for several years of back taxes. My friend Maryanne starts dating a police officer; he's got a friend and we could double-date, she says.
"I'm never dating again," I tell her. It's not worth the trouble. I wish my were-curse turned me into a superhero or asset to society, but that's the thing about Old World curses; they're not useful at all. Mom transforms into a wolf but in her animal stage she doesn't drag children from swollen rivers or rescue Alzheimer patients who've wandered away from home. She eats things, and licks herself, and sheds hair all over the carpet. I can mop up a crime scene but not tell you who the perpetrator was; I can scrub smoke stains off walls but I don't save people from blazing infernos. I just clean.
Maryanne sighs over the phone when I turn down the double date. "You have to get over this Jason thing."
"I'm just not interested," I say. It's not like I think about Mike every night, wishing we'd met under other circumstances. Or that I checked with some friends and found out that he's stationed at Engine Company 234, and was honored last year for volunteer work getting homeless people off the streets during the winter.
"Meet us for drinks tonight," Maryanne says. "For me. Just this once."
Tonight's the full moon. I've never told her about the curse, and now doesn't seem like a good time to try.
"Boris is yelling for me," I say. "Bye."
Boris isn't yelling for me at all. He's sitting in his rolling chair, clipping his fingernails. Goodness knows that if all else fails, I could break in here and free his desk blotter from all those yellow pieces of fingernail that have accumulated over the years. I could dust the ceiling fan and venetian blinds, scrub and wax the floor, organize the shelves--but like Mom always said, you don't want to bring your curse to your job. Actually, she said don't piss in your own yard, but it's the same principle.
Ivan is at his own desk, ostensibly leafing through the pages of a Russian newspaper, but his gaze is firmly on Boris and is so obviously affectionate that I start to feel bereft. No one looks at me that way now. Certainly no one will look at me that way when I'm gray and wrinkled and seventy years old.
"Let's get some tea," Boris says to Ivan.
Ivan shrugs without looking up. "Who's thirsty?"
"Tea," Boris insists, and you don't have to be especially insightful to know that's not exactly what Boris has in mind.
I'm depressed and lovelorn, and unless I find a way to lock myself into my apartment tonight, come moonrise I'll be a madwoman roaming the streets with a carpet sweeper. Luckily Alexi calls around three o'clock. He has the name of "a nice old lady in a wheelchair, you'll like her" over in Brooklyn Heights. It's certainly a very nice neighborhood, with views of Manhattan and well-kept tiny gardens. She lives in a two-story brick house and answers her own door. She's seventy or so years old, with a gray braid of hair coiled to her waist and sharp eyes in a wizened little face.
"Alexi said you were pretty." Mrs. Vasilyeva wheels her chair aside to let me in. "I'm afraid it's so messy. I wish I could clean it on my own."
I get two feet inside the doorway before a snarl stops me. Sitting in the shadows is the most enormous dog I've ever seen--a big black hulk of a canine with wary eyes and a mouth of very sharp teeth.
"That's just Rocco," Mrs. Vasilyeva says. "He likes you."
Maybe he'd like me for dinner, sure.
"The kitchen's that way," the old woman says.
The marble hallway leads past a curving staircase and dark library to a modern kitchen that's all steel and granite. The recessed lights cast pools of cool light. The sink is empty, the counters clean enough to eat off, but the white floor is stained and scuffed. Nothing I can't handle. Some soap and hot water and scrubbing, hands-and-knees work that I'm good at, with wax and buffing –
Rocco growls from behind me. He's sitting now next to Mrs. Vasilyeva, who is fiddling with something in her lap.
"Maybe you could put Rocco in another room?" I ask, trying to sound deferential.
"He likes to watch." She lifts up a video camera and gives me a smile of her own. "I like to watch, too."
My throat dries up. "Okay. I need to use the bathroom first."
The bathroom is down the hall. I lock the door behind me, admire the cleanliness of the handicapped-accessible tub, and then shimmy out the window over the toilet. My uniform tears on the sill and I think my bucket cracks the glass. Soon I'm sprinting away from Brooklyn Heights and yelling at Alexi on my cell phone.
"I can't believe you sent me to that crackpot! I was going to be the star of some snuff video on the internet!"
"I'm sorry," he says. "Who knew?"
"You've got to let me into the banya to clean it."
"I can't. I'm in Jersey. Why don't you go see Ivan Federov?"
"I can't do that."
"What are your other choices?"
Clean an alley full of puke and other excretions. Been there, done that. Swab down the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall. Hard to do since they opened a police sub-station across the street. Hospitals always need cleaning but I've nearly been caught twice--the black dress and tea apron always stand out.
The need to clean something makes my skin itch like there's an army of germs dancing all over me. The compulsion to scrub the world fresh has me strung out like a heroin addict needing a big bad fix.
You've got to do what you've got to do, Mom always says.
I don't have Federov's number, so I go straight to St. Mark's Ave and slip through an ajar side entrance. Up on the fifth floor, I knock on Federov's door. The hallway is too bright, too open, and I feel totally vulnerable. Please don't let Mike be home and waiting for a pizza. A minute of silence passes, and the only sound is the humming of the fluorescent light overhead. I tap on Federov's door again.
Mike opens his door.
"Hey," he says, face neutral. "You're back."
I nod, unable to think of a single thing to say.
He leans against his doorjamb. His hair is tousled and there are sofa creases on his face, as if he fell asleep while watching TV. "Ivan went into the hospital a few days ago. Broken hip, but he's okay."
"Do you have a key?" I ask. Surely beyond Federov's door there are dirty dishes that need scouring, and dust bunnies under his bed, and a coffee filter turning moldy.
Mike's eyebrows go up. "You look--kind of anxious. Are you okay?"
At times like this, my nose goes on high alert. From behind Mike I smell something going bad--old Chinese food, I think, sour with old soy. If he doesn't move out of the way I'm going to knock him flat and storm the apartment.
"Please don't ask questions," I tell him. "It's just this thing. I need to clean something. Your kitchen or your bathroom or anything you want, but please."
He hesitates, maybe cataloging my mental state for the call to 911. But then he says, "Go for it," and steps aside.
His apartment is dark and minimalist, with some old movie posters hanging on the wall over secondhand furniture and bookshelves filled with DVD cases. The Chinese food is right where I expect it to be, and there are some dirty dishes in the sink, but aside from that I've evidently met the cleanest firefighter in Brooklyn. His bathroom has only one stray hair in the sink. The tub looks like it was scoured by magic brushes from some cartoon TV commercial. Even his bed his perfectly made, and smells freshly laundered.
"What are you, a clean fanatic?" I demand of him.
He laughs. "Says the lady in the maid uniform."
My face heats up in a fresh new wave of humiliation.
Mike stops smiling. "Tania, sit down. Please. Tell me what's going on. Is this a bipolar kind of thing? You can trust me. I'm not going to judge you for it."
Trust him. Trust him not. This is how my father met my mother: he was walking by Brighton Beach Pier early one winter morning when he recognized the tracks of a wolf in the sand. Not your usual kind of wolf, he thought. He took to sitting out at night with scraps of meat. It took months of patience before he befriended the animal, who was skittish and wary of humans. He followed it through the dark streets of Coney Island until it climbed through a bedroom window. In the morning my mother came down to breakfast to find him drinking coffee with her parents, and their courtship started.
"I will tell you everything if you find me something to clean," I vow.
He purses his lips, deep in thought, and then grabs his shoes. "Come on."
Six blocks from Mike's apartment, there's an old building that was once a Jewish hospital. The courtyard is locked off by big iron gates. Mike has a key to the gates and then to a basement Laundromat that must have been the hospital laundry once. He flicks on some of the fluorescent lights and steers me past some old industrial washers and dryers. Dozens of paper and plastic sacks sit piled in the corner.
"How do you feel about doing laundry for strangers?" he asks.
Clothes that reek of vomit, sweat, spilled alcohol, stale cigarette smoke. Sleeping bags and towels with stains of brown and red and yellow. Underwear and clothing with very questionable stains on them.
"What is this place?" I ask.
"Homeless shelter," Mike says. "I volunteer here. There's about two hundred people sleeping on cots upstairs, and none of them can afford a Laundromat."
I can't help myself. I kiss him right there and then.
I'm in heaven.
Mike stays with me all night. I tell him he doesn't have to; he says I owe him a story.
Between soap and bleach, fabric softener and lint sheets, I reveal the improbable tale of my parents and the were-curse, and what drives me to the streets every full moon. He drinks soda from a vending machine and nods in all the right places. He lets me teach him how to fold a fitted sheet, and we have a long conversation about the best way to fold socks (tie them together or invert one into the other), and near dawn he looks at the clock and says, "We better scoot before the day shift gets here."
"What are you going to tell them?" I ask.
"That they were visited by the laundry fairy godmother." He stretches with a grimace; plastic chairs are bad for the back. "I bet they'll beg you to come back tonight."
By the time we lock everything up and go outside, the sky is gray with pre-dawn light. The air is fresh and clean. Or as fresh and clean as it gets in a metropolis of grime. Mike says, "Let me take you home," but that means he'll know where I live. He'll learn my last name. The were-maid's final secrets will be revealed.
"Look, thanks for all you did--" I start.
He puts one finger to my lips to silence me. Uses the other to point at the sky.
"See that? It's beautiful. Like dirty dishwater." He steps closer, a warm smile on his face. "I don't care that you're cursed. I want to spend more time with you. Full moon, half moon, no moon. Maid uniform or blue jeans. Apron or high heels."
It's a risk, trusting people. They can break your heart as surely as lemon rinds make a garbage disposal smell nice. But I kiss Mike anyway. He touches my hair just as the rising sun makes my yellow gloves dissolve. The were-maid is gone for now, and cleaning is the last thing on my mind.
This story was first published on Friday, October 29th, 2010
Werewolves per se are not my thing--too much hair, too many claws. The challenge here was inventing a were-creature who wasn't noble, exciting, or full of dramatic angst. Just someone trying to get her job done. Much of this story was inspired by a trip last summer to New York City and the fine essay collection Brooklyn Was Mine.
- Sandra McDonald
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