Jenna pulled her Mercedes wagon into Double-D-Bar Ranch as she did most Wednesdays. To avoid spooking the animals, she parked just inside the front gate marked by one “D” superimposed on another and underlined with a bar. Four cowdogs barked half-heartedly when she stepped out in her work-slacks and loafers, her straw-colored hair French-braided down her back. The wagging canines escorted her past the two front arenas, dusty ovals ringed by green metal panels. Dale, owner of Double-D, loped a gelding around the larger arena, and Ignacio—everyone called him Natch—was fighting a big bay colt in the smaller one. Dale slowed to greet her. “Hey Sis,” he drawled, although they were not related. Natch concentrated on the waspy colt.
On Wednesdays, Keith drove his mobile farrier unit, a one-ton diesel Ford, outfitted with anvil, forge and lockers of metal shoes, pads, and plates, to Double-D-Bar, shod the racehorses and trimmed the hooves of thoroughbred mares and babies. Mute, ageless Lalo, his snap-up plaid shirt worn but clean, handed Keith a list as he pulled into the barn, a steel-roofed structure with 15 paddocks on each side and a clean dirt floor. Compared to hitching posts in the sun or barns with crazy horse girls, Keith appreciated the shade in summer, cover in winter, Double-D’s orderly systems, and quiet Lalo. The ranch hummed with activity year-round, training horses for Santa Anita racetrack four hours south, tending mares and foals, and rehabilitating equine athletes.
The headquarters of Sun Sweet Raisins, where Jenna managed the dried fruit account: “simply sun and sun-sweet fruit,” was just 3 miles from Double-D, so on Wednesday mornings, as she packed the kids’ school lunches, she also packed a cooler for Keith and herself. Jenna was no cowgirl, but she liked being around horses, loved the salty smell of the animals and sweet alfalfa. Ranch dogs hung around for the hoof trimmings, happy, quiet McNabs or Queenslands. Keith and Jenna’s dogs had all been puppies from Double-D.
Keith looked up when she walked into the barn and smiled with lips closed around the points of horseshoe nails, his forehead wrinkled up in an expression of welcome. “Hi, You,” she said to her husband, and to the quiet man holding the lead rope, “Hola, Lalo.” She set down her cooler and found three director’s chairs. Dale headed to the house beyond for lunch, his spurs clinking as he climbed the concrete kitchen steps. Fierce, exquisite Natch—at 4’11”, small even for a jockey–would just keep at it till the last colt was mastered. The final nail hammered and crimped, Keith slid the rasp around the hoof to finish. “You keeping those prunes in line?”
Jenna smiled, “Got a new big order for apricots—headed to Japan.”
Lalo picked up a plastic grocery bag from behind the door and sat, pulling out three foil cylinders, which he placed on a paper towel on his lap.
“I brought atún para ti,” she said to Lalo, lifting a ziplocked sandwich in each hand.
Keith took one and laughed. “She’s trying to fatten you up, Lalo,” whose mouth was already full of his first bite of burrito. “Before long, you’ll look like Dale,” he said, holding his hand out where a belly would be.
“Doesn’t Natch eat?” Jenna asked.
Keith shook his head. “Just jerky Chepe makes him.”
Natch and Chepe lived in one of the little houses on the ranch, white with red trim tucked under mulberry trees. Lalo lived in another, whose faded trim was green. Chepe cleaned Dale and Darleen’s house and had looked after the boys when they were younger. Doug had played with Chepe’s sons on the ranch, but by high school they sat in different parts of the bus. Chepe’s boys took to wearing white t-shirts and baggy khakis, while Doug wore snug Wranglers, boots, and a Stetson with a cowboy crease. Doug spent his free time roping the plastic horns of a steer jabbed into a hay bale and riding his own horse in the back arena or a paying horse whenever his father would let him. Chepe’s boys more or less disappeared. It was Doug who idolized Natch and studied his moves. He adopted Natch’s manner of pulling his back forward with his abdomen tight, as if a string connected spine to navel to neck of the horse.
Keith ate quickly and Lalo ate slowly. Jenna opened the bag of apricots; Keith stuffed a couple into his mouth and swung his leather apron back on. Lalo looked down at his lap, which still had two burritos and a small pile of fruit. Jenna laughed. “I’ll hold the next one.”
When Darleen opened the door to the house across the courtyard, Lalo stood up reflexively. Jenna smiled and smoothly handed him the lead rope. Darleen’s silhouette in the bright sun was all curves–broad hips, waist cinched with a silver barrel-racing buckle, and a bountiful chest. Jenna set the chairs back against the wall and washed her hands in the sink. Sashaying into the barn, Darleen smiled a broad lipsticked greeting. Jenna offered her the rest of the apricots.
“For me?” Darleen asked, accepting the bag with coy surprise. “Why thank you. How’re the pups?”
“Oh, they herd the kids and the chickens all over the ranch.”
As Jenna walked to her car, Doug drove out with a boat hitched to the back of his truck and careened left toward the lake. Jenna thought it was funny that boys like Doug souped their cars up extra high, while the Mexican boys lowered their cars until they practically dragged metal on asphalt. At stop signs in town, she’d see them chunk down with hydraulics, bouncing the passengers in the back seat. At the corner, a lifted jeep with wide tires and a roll bar cruised through the stop sign and turned left in front of her. A shirtless boy and two girls in bikini tops sang to a twangy radio.
At dinner Keith had been quieter than usual. He ate his pot roast, drank half a Miller and silently carried the rest of the bottle with him to the office to make scheduling calls, leaving Jenna to chat with the kids about their day and whip the kitchen to spotless order.
Usually she gave Keith space to do his bookwork and settled herself in the living room to read. Her grandmother had been an English teacher, and Jenna had her accumulated novels alphabetized by author around three walls of the office. The children picked up her reading habit, even though Keith read only Money and Farrier’s Journal.
On this Wednesday, once the kids settled into their homework, Jenna went into the office and sat on Keith’s desk facing him. “Is everything okay?” She picked up his empty bottle and peeled at the soggy paper. He leaned back in his chair and put his hand inside her closer knee. “No, actually,” he said meeting her eyes. Jenna’s mind rummaged in her closet of doubts, but he pulled her onto his lap. “After you left today…” He sucked in air as if to taste it. “Natch’s dead, Jen.”
Jenna turned around to look at him. “What happened, exactly?”
Keith shook his head, “Who knows? Dale and Darleen were in the house. Doug wasn’t anywhere. Lalo had gone out to grab one of the mares off the hot walker and came running back with his arms flying. He pulled me out to the small corral, where Natch lay still, and the colt was standing over him, still snorting.” Keith paused. “Darleen called 9-1-1. We roped and tied the colt. Paramedics came.” He squinted his eyes. “Lalo found Chepe but not the boys.”
Jenna laid her head against his chest, and Keith held her. She studied the orderly rows of books as she listened to him breathe.
“What will she do?” Keith asked.
“Chepe. How will she survive?” He looked away. “Her boys’re already half-gangster as it is.”
Jenna frowned. “They just dress that way, don’t you think?” Jenna hadn’t met the boys—she hadn’t actually met Chepe. She’d seen her coming from Darlene’s house, a Natch-sized woman whose teeth shone white against her dark skin in a half-smile when Jenna waved, then disappeared into her house under the mulberries. Jenna couldn’t imagine what Chepe would do–it made her grateful to have Keith there.
Keith didn’t bring up Natch and Chepe all week. They both had had busy workdays Thursday and Friday, and the kids had had back-to-back events on Saturday. Sunday, Carol had a little party for Randall’s birthday that involved margaritas, and Keith choked up telling Natch’s story. Carol had them all pray for “spousal health and well-being.” They were collectively grateful not to share Chepe’s fate.
Tuesday after dinner, Jenna came into Keith’s office where he was writing out invoices. “Hey,” Jenna said softly, “are they going to have a funeral for Natch?”
Keith bit his lower lip. “It was yesterday at St. Mary’s. I only heard about it today.”
“Were Dale and Darleen there?”
“I heard Doug was.” He shrugged. “I guess Dale had work to do.”
“’They going to let Chepe and the boys stay in the house?”
Keith nodded. “Looks like it.” He turned his chair now to face her. “Jen—we should hire Chepe to clean the house.” When she squinted her eyes in resistance, he added, “You’re busy with work–and with the kids.”
Chepe wasn’t home Wednesday at lunchtime, but Jenna got her number from Darleen, who called Chepe–which she pronounced “Cheppy”–a “dynamo.” Jenna assumed was a good thing. While Darleen’s house was dark and cluttered and smelled of cigarettes, Jenna supposed it was pretty clean. That evening, she dialed the number on the Double-D notepaper.
Jenna told her she was Keith’s wife, that Darleen had recommended her. Chepe said she knew who she was. Although Jenna had trouble understanding the sharp, staccato voice, Chepe agreed to come Friday mornings while Jenna worked from home.
Jenna had cleaned the toilets and hung a load of laundry on the line Thursday morning before work and folded the clothes into each family member’s basket first thing when she came home. Jenna threatened to clean the kids’ rooms “with prejudice” if they didn’t have them super-tidy.
“Is Grandma visiting?” Lizzie asked.
Jenna was scouring around the burners of the stove. “We have a house cleaner coming tomorrow.”
Lizzie and Kyle exchanged their “Mom’s crazy” look.
“I’m going to take a shower,” said Kyle.
“Perfect—wipe the shower down with your towel when you’re done and set it in the laundry room sink. I’ll do one more load when you’re out.”
When Chepe drove her orange Datsun up the drive the next morning, Jenna walked out to meet her. “I’m so sorry about Natch.” Jenna took Chepe’s hand with hers. Chepe pulled her hand away and marched to the office door, through the office, kitchen and living room, down the hall, silently scanning each of the three bedrooms. Jenna followed her as she turned right through the kids’ bathroom and into the laundry room. Chepe opened the dryer.
“I don’t really use that,” said Jenna, glad to have something to say. “I generally hang the laundry.”
Chepe frowned and headed back the way she came. “This house already pretty clean.” She crossed her arms across her boy’s striped polo shirt. At the threshold of the office, she pronounced, “I do dip cleaning.”
Jenna would understand momentarily that Chepe had meant deep cleaning, but at first she was stunned. She cleaned the house the way her Depression-wise grandmother had, avoiding chemicals or costly products, certainly not dipping anything. “Dip cleaning?” Jenna asked, now standing two steps above diminutive Chepe.
Chepe waved her arm around the office and said, “I take everything out, clean it real good, put it back.” She pulled out Dickens and Dickinson with her left hand and blew dust off the top edge. “I start with this room.”
Since she had several calls to make, Jenna brought her briefcase to the bedroom phone. As she talked, she paced from the bedroom across the courtyard, where she could see Chepe powering around the office, as Darleen had said, a dynamo. As she was talking to the packinghouse in Fresno, it became clear that she was going to have to call Japan, and long-distance calls had to be made from Sun Sweet. She called to Chepe as she grabbed her keys that she’d be back in an hour.
She pulled back in at 11:20 right behind Keith. “I thought you were home today,” he said, examining Chepe’s little orange truck. “Is Chepe okay by herself?”
“Of course she is, and I couldn’t really work when she was cleaning the office.”
“The office was clean,” he said as he headed toward the office door.
Keith opened the door to reveal Chepe turning in a slow circle, arms crossed, smugly surveying her work. Keith walked to his desk where all his careful piles of bills and invoices lay merged into a single stack. He looked back, eyes wide, at Jenna, who stepped trance-like towards the library wall. All three walls of bookshelves were scrubbed. So were the books. They sat, a little damp, with their spines facing all directions, all shoved against the back wall.
“All clean now,” Chepe said forcefully.
Keith walked past Jenna into the kitchen with the stack of mixed paperwork. Jenna turned to watch him set the pile on the dining room table and stare at it as if it might magically transform back into order.
“You worked hard,” she said to Chepe.
“What you do with all these books?” Chepe asked, raising both arms and slapping them lightly on her thighs.
Jenna tilted her head to let her first answer slip to the bottom of her brain. “I read them,” she said. “We all do.”
Chepe picked up the rags piled on the corner of the desk.
Jenna slowly lifted a backwards book and turned its spine facing out. “We turn them this way, so we can see which book it is.”
Chepe shrugged. “What you want me to do now? Is only 11:30.”
“We can wash these,” she said, indicating the windows by Keith’s desk. “I’ll go outside; you go inside. Do you have a squeegee? I might have two.”
“I use paper towels,” she said, but Jenna shook her head.
“Waste of paper. A rag with white vinegar,” she explained pantomiming, “a squeegee and old newspaper.”
Chepe looked doubtful and tilted her head. She said nothing as Jenna retrieved the supplies.
Standing on the desk, Chepe stretched to reach the top of the window. Jenna faced her from the outside, standing on the kids’ old footstool. Chepe followed Jenna, up and down with the rag, across with the squeegee, wiping the streaks and the edges with newspaper. Without talking, they went from window to window—four six-by-six windows in all–each woman studying the other out of the corner of her eye. Jenna smiled at Chepe. Chepe looked away.
When they finished, Jenna sat down at her desk to write a check. She stood and handed it to Chepe, who looked at it suspiciously. “Cash is better.”
Jenna smiled and shrugged. “I don’t have cash here. I’ll try to remember to get cash for next Friday.” She followed Chepe outside. “Thank you, Chepe,” Jenna said, careful to pronounce the name correctly. She waved as Chepe drove away without responding. Jenna expected her to turn right toward Double-D, but she turned left, hardly stopping to look for traffic.
Keith was still sorting invoices. “It’s like she shuffled them,” he laughed shaking his head.
“The office is certainly cleaner,” she said, “but the books…”
“Maybe the authors like hanging out with somebody new—mix up the conversation.”
“They’re upside down and backwards,” Jenna said. She sat down on the barstool on the kitchen side of the island.
“I’ve got three stops after lunch—all close by,” he said, changing the subject. “Grill me a tuna sandwich?”
“Sure.” She set the pan on the stove. “But save some appetite. The Carters will be here at 6—I’m making oso bucco.”
“And alphabetizing the library,” he said, kissing her ear as he carried his paperwork back to the office.
Jenna was sitting at the kitchen bar, sipping wine with Randall and Carol. Lizzie, Kyle and the Carter boys had inhaled their pizza out on the patio and were tossing grapes into each other’s mouths when Keith came out with wet hair and opened the Miller Jenna had set out for him.
“I heard you had some secretarial help this morning,” Randall chided Keith. “Heard you got your dip cleaned.” Keith glanced at Jenna.
Having surveyed the deep cleaning in the library, Carol was lobbying Randall to hire Chepe as well. A doctor, who always carried a novel in his bag, Randall’s book collection numbered at least as many as Jenna’s. “Chepe did an awesome job. Our bookshelves could use a healthy disruption.”
The next Friday, Jenna stopped by the neighbors’ after dropping the kids off at school to see if Araceli could babysit Saturday evening. Ernesto was sliding thick paddles of cactus into a bag. Araceli had already left for school herself, but her dad said she’d be free. “I’ll make sure she is free for you, mi amiga.”
“I’ll call her after school, Ernesto. She may have a date.”
He scowled and shook his scraggly beard. “Not till she’s 25.”
Jenna laughed. “How old were your sons when they started dating?” She knew that at least one of them had a child, and they weren’t much older than Araceli.
Ignoring her, Ernesto handed her the bag of cactus. “Nopales.”
“Gracias, Ernesto, but I don’t know how to cook cactus.”
“Chepe, she can show you.”
While Chepe deep-cleaned the kitchen, emptying everything onto the counter and scrubbing, Jenna sorted through the contents of each drawer and cupboard, cataloguing everything by frequency of use as she put them away.
“I didn’t know you knew my friend Ernesto.” Jenna didn’t know why she used such a possessive tone; it just came out that way.
Chepe didn’t answer at first. “Our boys are friends,” she said, attacking the spice cupboard.
Jenna combined one coriander container with another and set it next to the cumin. “I don’t know his boys really, but Araceli babysits my kids. How are your boys doing?”
Chepe moved on to the stove. Jenna wasn’t sure if Chepe didn’t understand, or just preferred not to respond. She lined the spices up, ultimately choosing alphabetical order over affinity because so many spice families overlapped. “He said you could show me how to cook nopales.”
Chepe looked at her. “You like nopales?” she asked, almost laughing.
Jenna smiled. “Actually, I don’t know. He just gave me some and said you could show me how to prepare it.” She brought out the bag and dumped the cactus into the sink.
Chepe looked at the oven clock. “You got bacon?”
“I don’t eat bacon.”
“It don’t taste so good without bacon, but you can do it with manteca.”
Jenna would use bacon before she’d use lard. “How about olive oil?”
Chepe shrugged. She pulled pliers from the tool drawer they’d just cleaned. “First, you pull out the pinchos.” She handed the pliers to Jenna who yanked awkwardly at the stickers. Chepe chopped an onion and set it sizzling in the big skillet.
When Chepe reached for a metal spoon, Jenna grabbed it and handed her a silicone one. “It’s Teflon.”
Chepe just asked, “You got chiles?”
“I have Ortegas,” Jenna said. She pointed with her foot to the pantry. “I have some jalapenos from the kids’ pizza the other night.”
“We use both. Your beans in a can, too?”
“Coriander. Same thing.”Jenna rinsed off her hands and opened the coriander for Chepe to smell.
Chepe scowled and shook some in. Jenna pulled a plastic Solo cup of limp jalapenos from the refrigerator.
Chepe started chopping the de-spined cactus on the same cutting board she’d used for the onion, while Jenna pocked and bruised the grey-green shiny surface of the remaining leaves. Chepe slid the chopped cactus in the pan with the knife and salted it liberally. Jenna chopped the rest while Chepe started to stir. “Is better with bacon.”
Jenna smiled. “It smells fabuloso, Chepe.”
Chepe looked at the clock. “Find pintos.”
Jenna looked in the pantry. All the beans were together, but there were only vegetarian refried beans and two others. “I have cannellini or black beans.”
“Lemme see,” Chepe said and, looking at the pictures, pointed to the Italian white beans. “Dos.”
The nopales simmering, Chepe cleaned from the stove heading right towards the sink, and Jenna cleaned from the refrigerator across the counter heading left to the other side of the sink. It was ten minutes before noon.
“You go in the office. I mop.”
Pausing at the imperative command, Jenna stepped down into the office and pulled her checkbook from her purse. Jenna didn’t even own a mop; she washed the kitchen and bathroom floors with a rag, backing her way out on hands and knees. The rest of the house was hardwood she and Keith had lovingly installed themselves.
“Sorry, I never remember cash.” She said, handing Chepe her check, and Chepe loaded mop and pail into the back of her pickup and headed to Carol’s house, where she went now each Friday afternoon.
Carol and Jenna were standing behind the children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cafetorium for the elementary awards ceremony. Umbrellas lined the corridor and, try as he might, Danny, the janitor, couldn’t keep the muddy tracks off the floor where the children sat. Jenna joked with Danny about his Sisyfusian chore, except she didn’t use that term.
The country school was a 50-50 mix of White kids and Mexican kids, and each of those groups were half long-time residents, the other half of each shuffled through the school on the way to somewhere else, migrant workers or trailer park residents. So many of the kids were on free-or-reduced meals that any child could eat in the cafeteria without paying, but Jenna and Carol both fed their children breakfast at home and sent sack lunches with notes of peppy encouragement. Their four kids made up a third of the Destination Imagination team, which had won the district and would represent the school on Friday in Fresno for the county competition. Thursday, Keith was going to help the team with “MacGyvering.” So far, “the cowboy way” had been the team’s secret weapon for the problem-solving portions of the contest. Randall had to be at the hospital, but Keith, Jenna, and Carol were all going on Friday to cheer the team on.
“Do you think it’s okay for Chepe to be in the house when we’re not there?” Carol asked, stepping closer.
“Oh, absolutely.” She searched Carol for her meaning. Chepe had been cleaning both their houses for several months now. “She’s not going to take anything.”
“Yeah, but last week she put a silk blouse in the regular wash.”
“You have to hide delicates!”
“I caught her before she put the whole load in the dryer.”
“Choose something safe. Have her dip clean the laundry room. She’ll pull out the appliances and get all sorts of crud up if yours is anything like mine.”
Thursday evening, ten 11 and 12 year-olds had worked on bridges made from baling string and drinking straws until almost 9PM. Jenna had served them taco salad on a card table in the entry where they were building. She’d wiped up a spill of salsa, but she let the chip crumbs and footprints go. They had to get up at 6AM to check in at 7 at Caesar Chavez Middle School, so Jenna apologized in her note to Chepe:
I am so sorry the house is such a mess!
¡Lo siento la casa es sucia !
Please clean the floors and kitchen.
Por favor, limpie los pisos y la cucina.
I will be home before noon to pay you.
Yo retorno en casa antes del mediodía a tu pagar.
Jenna wasn’t sure if her terrible Spanish helped, but it doubled her chances of being understood.
Jenna pulled up the driveway around 11. “¡Hola, Chepe!” she called. From the office, she could see the kitchen looking restored to its accustomed shine. But, as she came through the kitchen into the entry hall area, she gasped. “Chepe, no!” Chepe was dragging the sopping strings of her mop across the wood floor. Liquid puddled in her wake.
Chepe looked up and leaned on the mop as water seeped from it.
“Chepe,” Jenna said. “¡No agua! Es madera. It’s wood!”
“Es sucio,” Chepe said matter-of-factly to her back as Jenna darted to the laundry room.
Chepe was standing in the same position when Jenna returned with an armful of old towels. She laid one against the door touching the left wall and another next to it spanning the width of the entry. From all-fours, she started dragging one towel backwards, crawling in reverse. She looked at Chepe, still standing with the mop. She couldn’t remember the word for mop. “The mop.” She pointed harshly. “¡Afuera!” And she pointed emphatically to the door. She kept backing across the entry down the hall. “¡Por favor! ¡Ayudame!” she insisted, her voice tense and rising. “Help me!”
For a dynamo, Chepe walked slowly to the door. She stared at Jenna for a moment before crouching down and mimicking Jenna’s backwards crawl with a towel. Jenna had switched out the wet towel for a dry one, tossing the wet towel into the kitchen as she passed. She finished her lane and started crawling forward to meet Chepe in hers. Chepe stood up abruptly and watched Jenna finish.
Jenna held her breath before speaking. “The kitchen looks amazing,” she said. “It really was a mess after last night.”
Chepe blinked and looked at her watch. “What you want me to do? I got 30 minutes.”
“Here, take one of the wet toallas and wipe down the doors and handles.” She sighed. “Then you can go.” Jenna gathered the towels and put them in the washer without starting it because it was peak energy hours. She went out the laundry room across the courtyard and back in the kitchen door to avoid the wet hardwood and eye-contact with Chepe. She had remembered to get cash from Keith, and she brought it out to Chepe, who looked at her ruefully.
“You want I come next week?”
Jenna smiled slowly. “Of course, Chepe. Yes. Lo siento. Sorry–we just can’t use water on the wood floor. Next week, I’ll be here.”
Chepe took the cash, and Jenna watched her gather the mop and pail and drive away. She went inside to call Carol, whose dining room and study were hardwood.
Jenna and Chepe got into a routine over the next few years. Jenna usually started a project with Chepe, then she’d go for a run or work in the office while Chepe finished. When Jenna edited Keith’s closet one Friday, purging mostly sweaters and shirts her mom had given Keith for Christmas and birthdays that he never wore, she asked Chepe if her boys wanted any of the clothes. Chepe said she didn’t know, but loaded the whole pile into a black plastic bag, tied a knot, and grimly carried it to her pickup.
One Wednesday, Dale met Jenna at her car. “Keith, he says he’s not feeling so good. He don’t look so good neither.”
“Did you tell him that?” Jenna asked, hopefully. Keith had been complaining of a numb left hand and his face was sagging on the left side, but so far he’d refused to see a doctor. “Can you ask him about it? In front of me?”
Chepe step out the door of the house to wring out the mop.
“Do you see Chepe’s boys around at all?” Jenna asked
“They’re working for her boyfriend laying carpet.”
“Chepe has a boyfriend?” Jenna asked, a little offended that she hadn’t known.
“Yeah, ole’ Walters. ‘Has that Carpet King in town.”
“Well, good the boys are working. Good she’s happy.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go jumping to no conclusions, Sis.”
Keith was sitting on the tailgate watching Lalo lead a high-strung filly and listlessly slapping his left wrist with the back of his right hand.
“What’s wrong, Buddy?” Dale asked, stepping between Keith and the horse.
“It’s just–I can’t feel my left arm.” He brought his right hand to the left side of his face.
Dale took off his Stetson to reveal a white tan line above his brow. He shook his big sweaty head. “We gotta get you to a doc, Bud.”
“You know Randall will see you right away,” Jenna said.
Keith nodded slowly. Lalo closed his eyes.
When Keith stopped radiation treatment for the brain tumor in the fall, he declined rapidly. Chepe just cleaned around dad-in-the-daybed, and, when Chepe was there, Jenna felt she could go to the market. When she returned, lugging grocery bags, Keith and Chepe were talking. When Chepe moved to help her, Jenna said, “That’s okay, Chepe. Es bueno.” Throughout Keith’s illness, Jenna kept a check for Chepe taped to the corner of her desk at all times lest she ever forget.
Jenna invited Chepe to the memorial service, which she held at the house to Keith’s exacting specifications. On the Friday before, Chepe cleaned carefully, but she didn’t show up at the service, although 100 other people did. Of course, Lalo was there, standing quietly behind Dale and Darlene’s table.
Jenna wore her wedding ring tapping gently against Keith’s on a gold chain. The next December and early spring, Carol invited her to a round of holiday parties, and she danced with friends’ fathers and friends’ husbands at Christmas and Mardi Gras functions. While it was good to get dressed up and get out, Jenna felt like the amaryllis she grew in an ikebana vessel on the dining room table. Her grandmother called that “forcing” the bloom. But when Jenna and the kids returned a trip to the coast one Thursday night after school was out, three messages beeped on her answering machine:
“Carol here. Jen, I’m planning a dinner on Sunday with some people from church, a few couples, and there’s someone I want you to meet. 5:30?”
“Hi Jennie, it’s Mom. When you and the kids come down for Mother’s Day, I have someone—he’s a professor at USC–you might want to get to know better.”
Another friend called with a seat at a fundraiser table for 8. “And I’ve seated you by someone in ag business–just like you!–and recently divorced.”
Lizzie asked for the phone, which Jenna gladly handed over, and the teenager brought it into her room. Jenna poured herself a glass of wine and thought about her kids. Kyle had already shut himself in his room with his guitar. Even as she was beginning to uncoil, Kyle was receding into himself in worrisome ways. How did Chepe do it? She sat by the window looking out across the pasture where they had scattered Keith’s ashes. It had been a year.
The next morning when Chepe came, Jenna suggested they deep clean both bathrooms starting with the big shower. Two scrub brushes shwooshing, Jenna asked about Chepe’s boyfriend Chuck Walters.
“I don’t know. He give my boys a job. He give me a exercise equipment.”
Jenna laughed. Chepe was as chiseled as Natch had been; the last thing she needed was a gym set. Chuck, in fact, was a doughy White guy.
“You want, I give you the ma-cheen. You like stay in shape.”
“Oh, Chepe, thanks, but the ranch keeps me fit—and running after those teenagers.” Jenna stopped scrubbing for a moment. “It’s been a long time since Natch died.”
“Right.” She paused and looked at Chepe. “Keith said that, after one year, he wanted me…”
Jenna laughed. “He told you, too.”
“He’s telling everybody.”
“How old were you when Natch died?”
Jenna raised her eyebrows. “I’m 44 now.” She started scrubbing again in long vertical strokes. “I guess I do want to be married again, but not date.” Jenna looked at Chepe scrubbing and thought she looked attractive in a fierce way. She was strident and sometimes sullen, but she was capable. “How did you meet Chuck?”
“My kids, they say, Mom, Chuck don’t have a lady. He like you. He buy me things, take me to eat. Is okay.”
Jenna resumed scrubbing and thinking about the possibilities: on the one hand, of being alone for half a century or, on the other, of a new chapter in this crazy life.
Jenna’s Japanese counterpart had moved to San Francisco to be closer to his daughter Rae, a drummer in a band. Yoshi was also widowed, it turned out, and funny, Jenna thought, and handsome. Over the next few months, Yoshi started spending more time close to the Sun Sweet Headquarters, and to Jenna. Kyle now could drive Lizzie and himself to school. He called Yoshi “Mom’s Ninja” when he wasn’t around. After awhile, Jenna went up to San Francisco some Thursdays after work and came back on Friday. She was always home on the weekends, often with Yoshi. When Lizzie found out Rae’s band was opening for a group she loved, she begged Jenna to bring her along to San Francisco. Sometimes Jenna and Lizzie dragged Kyle and his dark cloud with them. Sometimes Jenna let him stay by himself on a Friday night. She consoled herself knowing Chepe would be there half the day cleaning. She paid Chepe to stop in on those Saturdays also and made up chores for both of them.
One Friday when Yoshi and Rae would be coming for the weekend, Jenna stayed home to work with Chepe.
“How did things go last week?”
“Oh, it’s clean. I mean, did you talk to Kyle at all? Did he help you?
Chepe looked at Jenna as if there were nothing more ridiculous. “Kyle never leave his room. Probably keeps food in there. Maybe pees in a jar.” She wasn’t looking at Jenna, just following the Webster in pursuit of spider webs. “I hear his music.”
“Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?” Jenna generally respected the kids’ privacy, but the thought of him eating—peeing?—in there revolted her.
“I dunno. My boys’ music is ugly too.”
“We’ll go in there and clean while he’s at school.”
Chepe turned around and looked at her doubtfully.
“C’mon.” Jenna shrugged. “It can’t be that bad.”
It wasn’t so filthy. There were piles of clean clothes on the unmade bed. Four boxes of Cheez-its lined up on his desk next to his computer, and an empty one nested in the trash can surrounded by wads of lined notebook paper. The magazine photos on the wall showed sunken-eyed men with long stringy hair and tattoos. While the metal rockers wore leather vests and scowls, Kyle generally wore his scowl with long-sleeved t-shirts like his dad’s. Jenna went to open the window as Chepe thrust the Webster into its corner and, at the same time, they both saw the knives lined up on the sill like a surgeon’s prep table. Chepe turned to leave.
“It’s okay,” Jenna said. “Let’s clean up without moving anything. I’ll have an excuse to talk about it.” They cleaned in silence. Stripping the bed, Chepe unearthed a green college-ruled notebook with the color erased off in dagger-shaped patches and realistic gory details drawn in with red ink. Jenna opened the book. The words were configured like poems, but she soon recognized they were lyrics, violent and sadistic phrases with rhythmic repetition. While she wanted to think they were copied from the ghouls on the wall, lines were crossed out and edited, rewritten with careful attention to meter and macabre. She looked at Chepe and swept the knives carefully onto the notebook. “That’s good enough.”
“That boy, he’s not so happy,” she said over her shoulder.
In the name of equal time, Jenna had Chepe clean Lizzie’s room too. While the vacuum roared, Jenna slid the knives into the locking box safe in her closet with the birth and marriage certificates, death certificate, and passports. She sat on her bed and read the lyrics while her heart pounded until it hurt. She picked up the phone, dialed the school, and asked the counselor for a psychologist. She made an appointment for the following Monday after school.
Yoshi and Rae would be there by dinnertime, so Jenna busied herself in the kitchen, deciding ultimately on Kyle’s favorite pesto pasta. When she came in from the garden with a swatch of basil, Chepe was standing, waiting by the door. It was 12:20. “Sorry,” Jenna said, setting the herbs in the sink and lifting her purse from the desk chair. “I have cash today.”
Chepe reacted not at all, and just watched Jenna count and fumble with the bills.
“How are your boys, Chepe?” Jenna asked as she re-counted. She couldn’t make the exact amount.
“Are they happy?”
“I don’t know,” she answered curtly. Chepe watched Jenna count.
Jenna ended up having to overpay by ten dollars. “That’s good,” Jenna said, indicating the cash.
“A raise?” Chepe said without intonation, at least not any Jenna could read. Jenna hadn’t given Chepe a raise before, hadn’t ever thought about it. “Yes, a raise,” she said, proud of her magnanimity.
Once the girls were in college and Kyle enlisted in the Army, Jenna sold the ranch and she and Yoshi moved to a modern home half the size of the ranch house with high windows looking out on the river. Chepe kept the ranch house clean for realtors and helped smooth the chaos of moving by deep cleaning as Jenna and Yoshi unpacked.
When Jenna mentioned to Chepe that Yoshi wanted carpet in the den, Chepe announced, “My boys do it,” so they hired Chepe’s boys to install carpet while Jenna and Yoshi were at work. When they came home, the job was done, but there was a lifted roll of wrinkled carpet a foot into the room on either side, not to mention nails scattered here and there and a faint smell of pot. The phone rang–Carol–who said she’d heard about Chepe’s sons’ drug use. The only number Jenna had for them was Chepe’s, so she called to demand they do the job right. On Friday, they drove in right behind their mother, who ignored Jenna’s greeting. The fix wasn’t very good, but Yoshi said they could live with it until the first big spill.
The day before the housewarming party, Chepe was dusting the bookshelves while Jenna was wiping the floor under the dining table.
“Carol’s house is messier. Always really dirty,” Chepe commented casually. “And Darleen’s, it smells.”
Jenna stood up. “Chepe, you can’t tell me that,” she said slowly. “It’s not any of my business.” She returned to her floor, but continued. “You can’t talk about people like that.” She took her rags to the laundry.
Half to herself, she added as she came back into the room, “I mean, what would you say about me?” Her house was tidy, Jenna reflected, she paid well and worked with Chepe. They were almost friends.
“You’re mean,” Chepe pronounced.
Dumbfounded, Jenna repeated, “mean?”
“Yeah,” Chepe said, moving around the corner to the kitchen.
Jenna stepped outside into the orderly garden to phrase the note she’d send–talking behind people’s backs! She decided she’d send one last check since Chepe’d been coming for such a long time. Her watch said 11:45. Today’s check was taped to the desk as usual. She wandered slowly from box to box, her back to the house, snagging weeds.