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Eye of the Optimist-short story (Housecleaning)

Housecleaning

She rounds the corner tentatively and surveys the scene that seems to have become frozen in time: two of her brothers sit, mouths open while her mother lays on the couch clutching a paperback romance novel, oblivious to all else. It is scary to her, the daughter. There ought to be talk, movement, a glance or some sign of life.

Sometimes the existence in this place feels like the shadows where death lies taut waiting to snatch them. It might just shut down. Their bodies might dissipate and turn into some vapor to float out and be absorbed by the pollution of decay and dust of the winds of time. She even has dreams when she dreams she is awakened while laying in bed when some ominous force pulls her against her will out of her bed and along the floor out towards who knows what. It is scary, this life but mostly it feels sad when she wants to feel happy. It feels morose when life beyond the house (she never calls it “home”) beckons.
This young budding woman of 14 shudders. The scene is always disturbing and she must look away. She steps back and retreats in some vague hope of finding refuge from the oppressive and forlorn silence. There is nowhere else go outside of school except into her own mind, not that it is very fertile ground for it is starving. There has been nothing much to feed it, though she craves knowledge, light, love and life. Some days she just tries to push her mind to create some feeling and some light inside her, but often she just gets a headache. She wants to read, and walks miles to the city library to get books until she has read everything in the section for her age group and the librarian tells her she is not allowed to read other things. Same goes for the school librarian, whenever the young teen reaches for the over-age fourteen material. Well, a lot of these books are not as interesting as their celebration heralds. Like the pop songs she used to strain to hear to drink in all the allegedly important content, the experience is just as disappointing and baffling. Anyway, she thinks she thinks too much, in fact. Also, she has seen enough of human weakness and failure that she feels afraid to learn more of some aspects of life. She wants to live—to feel something. Yelling and protesting or arguing for the sake of excitement seems to be her only resort open, it appears sometimes. She causes a brief moment of panic and a response of consternation, but nothing much else. They soon crawl away and back into their caverns of silence and futility.

She can feel a pulse at school. There are things to do, and faces that open their mouths and release words of acknowledgement and some praise, though mostly blandness except when the opportunities to scorn, scoff and criticize present themselves to others, mostly girls and women, who resent her for her appearance or the rumours about her. She believes that she somehow gets less of the the latter than some students probably get, and that may be because her modus operendi is to get along and be polite, stifling her own anger and critical voice, withholding her true responses for the sake of getting by and getting along. The teachers—they are generally a hopeless and mindless lot, in her opinion. For one thing, they do not actually teach. Rather, they manage classrooms and attendance lists and ratings. They mostly frown at her if they pay her any attention at all. They not actually show much control, for they mostly give way to the mouthiest students and parents, and we know who they usually are: the richer ones of course, the ones with dentists and doctors and lawyers or petty community leaders as fathers. The teachers look away, or allow her to receive a benign smile once in a while, when they are not saying, “That’s good, but…” No, it is her peers, the ones she hangs out with at lunch time or plays sports with or visits in their homes (on rare occasions) who have something positive to say, like “You’re smart,” “You could be a beauty queen,” or “You know how to speak to the teachers.” We all want some advice, some tips on what we should do in life, and how navigate life, but it all seems to be a game wherein we must guess and figure it out on our own. It is like their tests and procedures. They could just explain, give examples and methods, coach us and, you know, lead and really teach us skills and useful information, and let us discuss things. The young teen comes to the conclusion that the adults, despite their assigned roles and titles, have not figured out much and are just muddling through. Her parents are further evidence of that, for they seem bewildered and unequipped for life, and waiting for someone to instruct them, waiting, year after year, waiting…Yet, the required school life activities make her feel alive. She does any sport they let her do just feel herself move. She just wants to run, use her body, feel the wind and her pounding heart to let her know that she still is alive, and has not slipped away into the other side only to observe life proceed without her.

At age 14, she is already dedicated to self-directed learning. She figures she will have to get a real education, and it would be best to start now instead of merely passing the time until graduation. She believes she is on her own, and that basically every human is to one degree or another, and that she will need to learn how to defend, support and make decisions for herself, so she is alert to any clue at her disposal to guide her way.

For her, the street is not an option. She feels too vulnerable and ill-equipped. She wants to graduate, rather than leave school early. She does not want to run away from home, for that does not seem like a viable option. Anyway, it is not really that she has anything she needs to escape from. Rather, she needs to bring things into her life, into her home that fill it with life.

In any case, she possesses some kind of insight, some understanding of the workings of the world and what kinds of people and situations are out there, an awareness that some of her peers marvel at. She does not know how she came to such “understanding”, which feel like hunches, so she prefers to call it her intuition, not realizing that intuition is a form of intelligence. Not there have not been clues. Though not fully cognisant of it yet, she has a foggy notion about mental illness that she has gotten from association with certain relatives and certain school mates with certain relatives. That is a real danger, and she feels that she is a candidate to be one of those minds that slip into an abyss, so she is determined to avoid that by all means. Also, she has observed strange men in the woods on her trips to and from school since grade five. While her chums appeared to be oblivious, she knew that the guy with his pants down standing at the gate to the park path should be avoided. On another occasion, she observed a boy with an odd smile on his face walking out of the brush with a man lurking in the trees behind him, and knew that someone could be lurking around some trees or a dark corner and want to grab her one day. She preferred to be cautious. She has heard of knife fights around town that end up bloody, and sometimes deadly. She knows there is a drug trade growing in and around her junior secondary school, and that it was a trap to be evaded. She knows that girls and woman can be used, abused and traded. She knows enough by now, and does not need to discover more details about such goings on herself, thank you very much. No, as sad and as boring as it was, the best thing was to keep to the straight and narrow, stay the course of a basically conventional life for now until she could find some security for herself. She is committed to going along with the program until she thinks she is strong enough to take to her own path in life.

What to do, then? Though there is not much to the art department, and she has hardly had any encouragement about art, she spends a lot of time sketching, so that she gets better and better at it. (After all, no one has encouraged her much about anything, and she has been evaluated as ordinary and middle-of-the-road without talent but most likely to marry soon after high school.) She sketches everything, the teapot, the telephone, and moving on to plants and the dog. She really likes doing faces, though. She fills pages of her sketch pad. At the house, no one remarks on this activity.

She opts for a drama class, although there is no drama to act in. The lessons are about body movement and control—doing the tree, playing dead, imagining and so on. Her grade is supposed to be part of a collaboration with grade 10, but it is only the grade tenners who are given parts to play. We are to observe, take note and learn from them. Yeah.

She is so desperate that she joins a local church choir. She loves singing, though a lot of the Christian hymns get her down. No one comments on her ability or shows gratitude for participating. She hangs in there, for she likes the sensation of singing, even if she does not believe in the words that she is supposed to sing. She has enough faith in music. Also, it is a safe enough place to go in the evening and on weekends. (Eventually, she will join a school choir, which acts as the chorus for a school musical, and the director will praise her voice but say she is too quiet, without trying to draw her out or instruct her how to project her voice. It is all so lame.)

By this time, there is an ancient piano in the house. It has been abandoned by a relative. Her father refuses to get it tuned, and there is inadequate space for it in the basement where it is stored. Her mother remains neutral about the matter, but then she remains neutral about nearly everything. She finds enough voice to get a piano teacher, mostly out of the relative’s insistence (her grandmother, the previous owner of the piano) and he is a nice university student who comes once a week and remains steadfastly polite about the state of the piano, never hinting to her mother that it should be tuned, to her knowledge. He’s not a bad teacher, and he is encouraging. He chooses pieces suited to her personality and ability, and is playing some parts of concertos after only a few months. Her mother seems totally dumbfounded when she tells her daughter that the teacher said she had some musicality. (It was just like the time when her aunt told her mother that her niece was strikingly beautiful.) The girl tells the teacher that she just wants to learn for pleasure.

Although she most certainly does not want to be involved in any sort of secretarial work, she takes speed typing, which she decides is one of the few useful skills that schools offer these days. It is a skill in demand, that may help her survive. (It turns out that it does, later on.)

She elects to take other subjects that may help her in the future: languages and “home economics.” She already has a knack for learning French, much unlike most other students and is rewarded by pleased French teachers time and again. She takes the cooking class, not because she dreams of finding refuge in a marriage; she enjoys it and knows she will always have to feed herself. (It’s true, she did all her life. Friends and neighbours came to marvel at her ability to whip up home meals, though the family members continued to refrain from dishing out compliments in return.) She learned some basics, and gained a repertoire of survival skills and nutritional knowledge (such as it was in that day and age—the five food groups, and all ad nauseum…).

In science class, she got interested in plants. She does an impressive little experiment in nurturing a plant.

As she knows she will need money, she wants to start earning it as soon as possible. She has already taken up babysitting (much to the relief of her stingy father, who would prefer to give his very hard earned money to strangers and wager it on dubious causes than use it to see help his family thrive). By the summer after her fourteenth birthday, she accepts a job. Her mother takes credit for the accomplishment, and does not seem to worry that her beautiful curvy daughter is exposed to the elements of a lumberyard and hardware store.
At the house, though, there is not much to do. The boys take over the TV and she usually can not watch something she liked, not that she wants to waste a lot of time in front of the noise box. She reads, but there is never enough to read. (She used to spend time reading dictionaries and pages in the encyclopedia, even her mothers’ discarded cheap paperbacks, in her desperate desire to learn. By 16, she resorts to reading the New Testament of the King James Bible, things get so bad.) She takes scraps from her mothers’ futile and abandoned sewing projects, and cuts them into shapes to be glued onto boxes and colored glass bottles, but that cannot amuse her much these days. She would sing along to the radio, if she ever got to select a station or play a record when her mother or her brothers were not, but she found most songs to be silly or completely irrelevant. She used to bring a friend from school over once in a while, but that had gotten way to embarrassing. The house can be deadly boring at times.

That is why her fourteenth year becomes her housekeeping year. She takes to scrubbing, pressing, sorting, sweeping, folding and vacuuming the place. After all, nobody else is doing it. It needs to be done. She can be useful, even if no-one appreciates it. It empowers her, gives her an occupation and role at home, for herself, anyway. It keeps her active and it keeps her from brooding. She endures her mother’s scorn and the ridicule from her father and brothers who label her “little mother.” She endures the disapproving looks and shaking of the heads of her neighbours who see her hanging up something to dry on the veranda, or sweeping the stairs, or shaking out a dust-mop. She does not care what others think. It is worth it to be in action. It is a defense against the doldrums of this family’s shipwrecked life. It is resistance to the passivity and ineptitude. She does not want to be swallowed up in neglect and debris. She does not want to be part of the backsliding. She wants to pick up the dust balls, sweep up the trash, iron out the wrinkles, and place things neatly in drawers and on shelves where they belong. It is better to at least maintain some order, stick to some ritual and routine, than to let everything slide. She is on the side of tidiness and cleanliness and not on the side of slovenly lassitude that leaves things jumbled and rumpled, scattered with no conscious care and placement. She is not going to let Them turn Her into That. 

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