Monday, October 24, 2016

What The Cleaning Women See

Went through a compilation of 43 short stories written by Lucia Berlin (1936 - 2004), edited and with an introduction by Stephen Emerson'A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories'. These stories have been published in magazines and journals, but I've never read her writings. Bought this book based on the strong praise for Lucia Berlin's writing. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)

The author doesn't sugarcoat the stories. They're gritty, grim and realistic. I love them. She tends to write in first person narrative; as much as I tend to think these are different women and protagonists, they might really be her life experiences at different stages and under varied circumstances. The Guardian wrote that apparently Berlin's own eventful life provides enough subject matter for her stories,

Berlin appeared to fit many lives into her 68 years. Brought up in the remote mining camps of Alaska and the mid-west, she was an abused and lonely child in wartime Texas; a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago; a bohemian loft-living hipster in 50s New York; and an ER nurse in 70s inner-city Oakland. By the age of 32 she had been married three times, had four sons and was battling a chronic alcohol addiction.

I wondered if 'Her First Detox' was about the author's real-life experiences too. She used third person narrative to tell us Carlotta's story, about how she has blackouts, seemingly likes Jim Beam, and has four sons who know her problem with alcohol.

The story that lent the title to the compilation, 'A Manual for Cleaning Women', is less action-packed. It tells readers the lives of cleaning women of that era, what they do and what they think. It seems all proper and rather boring. But in those mundane details, lie the author's powers of observation.

(Cleaning women: Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong … five to ten inches off, or facing the wrong way. When you dust, reverse the Siamese cats, put the creamer to the left of the sugar. Change the toothbrushes all around.) My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs. Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. Doing everything wrong not only reassures them you are thorough, it gives them a chance to be assertive and a “boss.” Most American women are very uncomfortable about having servants. They don’t know what to do while you are there. Mrs. Burke does things like recheck her Christmas card list and iron last year’s wrapping paper. In August.

I found 'My Jockey' hilarious. It could have turned totally sexual. But the modest little story focused on giving comfort to another human, as done right by the protagonist's job as a nurse. When she's at Emergency, she always gets the jockeys because she speaks Spanish, and the jockeys are almost always Spanish-speaking, and rather injured each time they come into the hospital.

I like working in Emergency—you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays. 
Get him to X-ray, Dr. Johnson said. Since he wouldn’t lie down on the gurney I carried him down the corridor, like King Kong. He was weeping, terrified, his tears soaked my breast.  
We waited in the dark room for the X-ray tech. I soothed him just as I would a horse. Cálmate, lindo, cálmate. Despacio … despacio. Slowly … slowly. He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.

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