The Vacuum Cleaner

Mrs. Evers was that rare thing, a tall white person who made herself look smaller than she was. She wore jeans, house slippers, and a light blue men's shirt so wide she seemed to disappear in it. She blinked at the sight before her with wide gray eyes, as if a plus-sized black woman and her supply cart standing in the hallway were alien objects beyond her comprehension.

"Bonjour," said Marie, not quite certain whether to be offended or amused. "Hi."

"Ah … hello," said Mrs. Evers in English.

"I'm the cleaning lady," Marie prompted. "Part of your contract with the landlord. Didn't he tell you? Wednesdays, once a week?"

"Oh!" Mrs. Evers smiled. "Of course. I remember. Come in, Ms. - ?"

"Marie is fine."

"Marie. Please come in."

Her accented voice was surprisingly soft to Marie's ears, nothing like the military snap of World War II movies. She pulled the apartment door wide open to accommodate the cart, with its tall mops and brooms and yellow garbage bag, but even so, it was still a tight squeeze. "Tabernac," Marie muttered under her breath, betting that the German woman would not understand. Montreal was the perfect city to be bilingual, but only if one of the languages was French.

"This is my daughter," said Mrs. Evers, gesturing to a small girl hovering at the end of the inside hallway.

Unlike the mother's outfit, the child's had been chosen with great care. She wore a white dress patterned with pink flowers, a pink ribbon in her shoulder-length brown hair, and black Mary Janes. The only things that did not match her 1950's sitcom image were her thick round glasses and the look of complete bewilderment on her face.

"Come and say hello," said Mrs. Evers, in both English and German. The child obeyed in a whisper, her eyes level with Marie's apron.

"Hello there. My, aren't you pretty? Did your mommy tie that ribbon for you?"

The child only stared.

Marie had met plenty of shy children during her work. They could be awkward, but she much preferred them to the noisy ones, who would break expensive objects during their games, or distract her with a bucketload of questions, or make a mess and pass the blame to her. The important thing with shy kids was to break the ice; get them laughing once and you had them on your side, and their parents too. She unloaded her vacuum cleaner from the cart, turned it on, and made a playful dart in the little girl's direction. Her grandchildren loved it when she did this at home; they always shrieked with laughter when she chased them, pretending the familiar old machine was a monster coming to eat them. Those were the rare moments she actually enjoyed her job.

The little girl squeaked and ran through one of the doors. Marie followed, cackling like a Disney witch above the whoosh of the vacuum – "IIII'm gonna getcha!" – and burst into what appeared to be the master bedroom. She noted with appreciation how neat the place was: the queen-sized bed already made, no dust on the vanity or the nightstands. This shouldn't be too hard, she thought with a grin.

Then the child hurled herself onto the bed, throwing the cream-colored cashmere blanket into a mass of wrinkles, and a piercing shout came from behind them which Marie could not believe was Mrs. Evers': "Please stop, you frighten her! STOP!"

Marie paused, the vacuum's nozzle aimed correctly at the carpet. She had been shouted at often enough, but it never failed to set her teeth on edge.

"Something wrong, madame?"

"Please – don't do that," said Mrs. Evers, breathless and wild-eyed, as if she were the one being chased. "She … she really hates loud noises. She never hear a thing like that before."

"Aren't there any vacuums where you're from?" Marie could not help exclaiming. Where does she think the dust goes?

"Yes," said Mrs. Evers, ever so slightly piqued by the doubt cast on her German housewife's credentials. "But not so loud. Everything's so loud in this city, the streets, the music, the people … " She rubbed her forehead with one hand and sighed. "This is the only place we can be quiet. I like to be alone with her, you see, until my husband comes home."

On one of the nightstands was a wedding photograph: the bride, a beaming Mrs. Evers in a silvery '80's dress; the bridegroom a lanky, bespectacled man with one arm around her waist.

"How old is your daughter, madame?"

"Four years old. She goes to school in the autumn. I think … I hope … she will learn to fit in better there," in answer to a question Marie knew better than to ask.

"Oh, I'm sure she'll do fine. Same with my kids. Nothing like making friends your own age."

Both women's eyes were drawn to the child, small and shivering, her hair ribbon askew as she buried her face in the blanket.

Marie switched off the vacuum.

She watched as Mrs. Evers sat down on the edge of the bed and spoke to her daughter in low, musical German. The child replied in a sulk, pointing an accusatory finger at Marie; to her relief (and somewhat to her surprise), Mrs. Evers firmly stopped the gesture. Not every parent nowadays would be so careful.

"Right, Marie?" returning to English. "She knows you were only trying to make a joke. She don't mean to – how do you say? – insult you."

The young woman sounded painfully sincere, as if her negotiation had just prevented World War III. The little girl looked up from her blankets, a miniature mirror of her mother's face behind her glasses. Marie found it impossible to be insulted.

"It's okay, honestly," she said. "No problem. I know this old thing can be scary," patting her vacuum, with a comfortable laugh that made Mrs. Evers smile in return.

"It's okay, sweetie."

She offered her hand for the little girl to shake – which, after long and grave consideration, she finally did.