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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Cleaning Lady

J. Kyle Turner lives with his wife in Virginia, but never seems to stay in one place for long. His job is in Numbers, but his hobbies are mostly related to Words. He hopes to one day introduce himself as a writer without feeling all weird about it.

On Monday, the cleaning lady does the upstairs rooms.
Her listing says:
All Cleaning Done By Hand
so she makes a big show of unpacking her bag, laying out her tools, and rolling up her sleeves. Her clients--a well-to-do couple in their early forties--watch from the door.
"It's just so nice having a human touch around the house," Mrs. Lawson says.
The cleaning lady smiles and scrubs the baseboards.
"Not that we can't afford a robot," Mr. Lawson assures her. "It's just, well, you know."
The cleaning lady stands back and adjusts the paintings.
"It's a matter of preference, really."
The cleaning lady nods knowingly, but they keep on for another twenty minutes before they have to leave. They won't be back until late, "So go ahead and lock up when you're done, dear." She waits until she hears their car roar down the street and disappear around the corner.
Then she brings in the robot.
In a matter of hours, the robot has the upstairs looking spotless. The rooms are aired out and the linens changed. The floors and walls are vacuumed and scrubbed, and the bathroom tiles sparkle. Everything is taken out, dusted, sorted, and put away. The windows might be invisible.
Then the cleaning lady packs up the robot and does a walk through of the house. She moves the lamp in the reading room to the opposite side of its desk. She pulls a nightstand out so that it's just a little too far from the bed. She spends twenty minutes sprinkling dirt in the hard to reach places behind the furniture and re-scuffing the baseboards.
Human touches.
The Lawsons are out all day Tuesday, so the cleaning lady shows up with the robot in tow. She's careful to bring it in through the garage where the neighbors can't see it. If anyone asks her about the box, she'll tell them it's a vacuum cleaner.
While the robot is busy with the entryway, the cleaning lady goes through newspaper classifieds:
Entry-level Manufacturing Engineer. Prefer candidates with a Master's degree or higher.
Assistant Professor of Robotics. 3+ years teaching experience required.
Programming Intern. Unpaid; may lead to job offer.
And in between them, two dozen listings with the header: Non-Mechanical Worker Desired.
By now the robot is hard at work in the living room. It sweeps, vacuums, dusts, scrubs, polishes, and tidies--sometimes all at once--its multiple attachments flailing about the room like a fastidious kraken. It even tries to vacuum over her legs while she's on the couch, but she rolls her eyes and fends it off with the newspaper.
In the afternoon, the cleaning lady makes herself a meal and leaves the kitchen dirty. The robot skulks and whines at the mess, but she gently shoos it away. When it turns to leave, she can almost imagine its exasperated huff.
When the Lawsons show up at half-past six, she's long gone. There's a note on the table, which reads:
So sorry I didn't get to the kitchen today. I got a little carried away with the living room. I promise I'll take care of it first thing tomorrow.
The Lawsons survey the damage. Their eyes are practically beaming.
Wednesday is laundry day, so the cleaning lady catches up with friends while the robot manages the washer and dryer. She can hear it whirring and clacking at its fellow automatons while her friend drones in her ear.
"You should move to Charlotte. There's a place like two blocks from me that's always hiring your major."
She doesn't want to move to Charlotte.
"So what are you doing now?"
Working. Living. Looking for something better.
"No, I mean like right now."
Sitting on the couch, talking on the phone.
"Have you ever thought of going back to school?"
All the time.
Mrs. Lawson is home for half the day every other Thursday, so the cleaning lady spends two hours pretending to clean. She opens and closes doors and cabinets. She carries her bucket full of rags from one room to another. So long as she looks busy, no one seems to notice that the cleaning lady doesn't actually know how to clean a damn thing.
Mrs. Lawson is talking on the phone in the drawing room. "It's just so much nicer giving the money to someone who actually needs it for a change," she says.
The cleaning lady pretends to scrub the baseboards.
"No, I don't think she went to college. Poor thing."
By Friday, the cleaning lady is sick of it all.
On Saturday, the cleaning lady wakes up and puts on her clothes. She unpacks her tools one by one and lays them on the table. She rolls up her sleeves and pulls her hair back into a ponytail.
The servos are the trickiest to maintain, so she does those first. The simpler motors get stripped down, cleaned, and reassembled. Same for the actuators. Then she checks the cables, the wires, the connectors. The air vents, the dust filters, the sensors. The outside plating is last, and she buffs it to a mirror shine.
It's the one thing she actually cleans, and she tries to do it right.
Afterward, the robot--her robot--lies on her homemade diagnostics table. The systems check out okay. Everything is fine.
Except for the fact that its arms are too long, and it has too many, and they're too good at all the wrong things. Its circuits and programming are in order, but not the right order. It looks too human. It doesn't look human enough. It has attachments where its hands should be.
It isn't fair, she thinks for the thousandth time. It isn't fair that someone made it the wrong way, told it to be the wrong thing. It isn't fair that it was born with the wrong ideas in its head, or that it has to hide what it really is because other people might find it useful, but never beautiful.
In a perfect world, it could just be itself, and that would be good enough.
The robot, of course, feels the same way about her.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Author Comments

This story sprung from a writing prompt in the book 642 Things to Write About. The cleaning lady was inspired by a number of people, which is probably why none of the names I gave her seemed to fit. The Lawsons are based on those unintentionally condescending people you seem to run into a lot after you finish school, but before you find a job you're proud of. I have no idea where the robot came from, but everyone seemed to like it, so I figured it could stay.

- J. Kyle Turner
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