The Listener

So, won’t you listen to what the man said …” – Paul McCartney

“I can’t believe that Mrs. Wheeler complained,” Tara exclaimed as soon as Ted finished lecturing her in that firm but kindly preacher-voice of his.

Ted and Sally, husband and wife, owned Maid It!, but Ted tackled all the hard stuff. Sally was the salesperson who “dearly loved” every homeowner she visited, and was certain that the beloved had better things to do than clean their own house. She signed them up, made them feel good about it, and moved on to the next prospect. Ted made sure the cleaning got done and the bills were paid. Emma Wheeler was a weekly account assigned to Tara, who had been a cleaner with Maid It! for about two years. Tara had the thick glossy hair of a young woman, but her face showed the migrating patterns of puffiness and hollows that marked her as close to fifty.

Ted tapped his desk to ensure he had Tara’s attention. “It wasn’t Mrs. Wheeler; it was her daughter, Lucy. She’s visiting from Cincinnati and she told me there was dust everywhere – among other things. Many other things.”

Tara should have known that it was the snippety daughter with the $200 coloring job who complained; Emma (Mrs. Wheeler) would never have said a word.

“Mrs. Wheeler is always very happy with me. Gives me top ratings.”

“That may be true, but it’s her daughter who pays the bill, and she is one unhappy lady from Ohio. And don’t argue, because Sally has already been out to look at the house and it is definitely not up to standard.” Ted stared steadily at Tara who was wearing her funky green and white uniform and looking like she was being dressed down by her drill sergeant. Except Tara was no private; she had been around for over four decades. She needed a job, but she didn’t necessarily need this one.

They stared at each other until Ted couldn’t stand it and started opening desk drawers as if he was going to remedy the situation by pulling out a gun and ridding the world of a poor housecleaner. Tara concluded she might as well defend herself.

“Mrs. Wheeler – Emma – doesn’t want me to do anything while I’m there but talk to her. Or read to her. It turns out that her husband wrote stories – even published some of them – but she can’t see well enough to read them herself. She insists that we read at least one story every week. And then we talk about his story – she loves to wonder who he based his characters on, whether she’s in the story. For her, it’s like talking to her husband and to me at the same time. It’s hard to pull away and clean the bathrooms. And you keep me on a tight schedule – so when it’s time to go to the next house…”
“Wait, a minute. You are not being paid to read to the old lady. If they want someone to read to her they should call services for the blind or something…”

“She’s not quite blind…”

“Doesn’t matter! Her daughter hires us to clean her house. What were you thinking of? What do you suppose we should do now?”

“She’s lonely. Emma is desperately lonely. Prissy-hissy Lucy only shows up for twenty-four hours every three months and hardly ever calls. She writes a check once a month – never tips – and thinks she is doing something for her mother. I sit with Emma. I listen to Emma. That’s what she wants. And I’m good at it.” Tara pulled back a little before letting her arrow loose. “You should know.”

Ted turned red. He started sweating. Tara was afraid that his beer belly was busy sending a blood clot up to his heart.

Tara took mercy. “Calm down. I’m just trying to explain.”

Ted didn’t look like he was calming down. He was waving his left arm and wiping his face with a red bandana which he had fished out of his back pocket. “When you took this job, we agreed that we would never ever talk about that.”

“And we’re not talking about… that. I’m just pointing out that there are a lot of people in this world that want nothing better than to be listened to. Believe me. They are looking for someone who will just pay attention to them. Waitresses, housecleaners, taxi drivers – they all hear the world’s problems. I should know. You weren’t the only one.”

Ted looked both horrified and intrigued. “I wasn’t the only one?”

Tara smiled. “Hell, no. Sex workers listen a lot more than they do anything else. Sometimes that’s all they do. Well – maybe the low-end girls do quickies and blow jobs and don’t have time to talk – but the rest of us hear it all. Sometimes we hear it all over and over again. Did you think you were the only one who ever came in once a week and was only able to get his money’s worth about once a month? But that’s my point – you did get your money’s worth. And I bet you miss our conversations.”

Thursday afternoon had been Ted’s standing appointment; it was also when Ted’s wife and partner Sally had her hair and nails done, finishing the bodywork off with a massage at the cut-rate Thai place downtown. She apparently never wondered what her husband was doing while she was taking care of her own physical needs.

The situation could have continued indefinitely if Tara hadn’t ended it. Tara had told Ted she was getting out of the game because her son was moving back to town and she didn’t want to embarrass him, and that, in any case, she had to think about getting enough quarters into social security so she could eventually collect. Ted had immediately offered Tara the job at Maid It! Tara took the job, and although she still did tricks occasionally, she never hit on her cleaning clients and never saw Ted behind closed doors again. Until today, of course.

Tara initially wondered if Ted hired her so she would be around to talk to, but with Sally in and out, he avoided her like the plague – looked downright tortured if the three of them were in a room together. This was the longest conversation they had had since she had put on the green and white uniform.

Ted tried to get a grip and put a hand in his pants to relieve the pressure the waistband was putting on his stomach. “We’re not talking about me, here.”

“No, but I’m just trying to explain that you and Emma are not so different. She wants to talk about her dead husband and the stories he left behind, and you wanted to tell me stories about your wife.” Ted looked even more panicked for a moment. Tara rushed to reassure him, “I never let on that I know anything. Never will. I think Sally likes me. Or used to before she heard from prissy-hissy Lucy.”

Ted looked slightly relieved. “Sally does like you. You get the best ratings of all of them – I bet your tips are great. She was really surprised we got a complaint. She did remind me that I hired you, however. Did I really talk that much?”

“Worse than Emma. I had a standing dinner date with my sister on Thursdays and I often had to shuffle you out the door while you were still talking. Luckily, you had hardly ever stripped your clothes off…”

“Please, please, never tell Sally any of that. Any of it. Never. I’ll make this situation OK.”
Tara wondered what he was most afraid of – her telling Sally he paid for sex or that he paid for sex and then didn’t get any.

Tara just nodded. “I’m not blackmailing you. Just explaining. Anyway, I’ll try to get Emma to let me get more cleaning done and have her warn me when Lucy’s coming – but, as you know, I am a really good listener. It’s too bad I can’t find a job where I could just listen.”

Ted was still blotting his face and fiddling with the waistband on his enormous chinos. “You are a good listener, I guess. I always felt better when I left…even when we didn’t… you know. Probably saved my marriage. I started seeing someone else on Thursday, but she wasn’t the same, and she made me feel embarrassed about … you know. And Sally hasn’t gotten any easier – wait till I tell you what she and her mother cooked up….”

Tara tapped the desk. “Let’s get back to Emma, OK? Are you going to convince Sally that we can work this out and she can trust me to work with Emma to make Lucy happy? Emma would really miss me and – believe me the house isn’t so bad. She doesn’t even have a cat, she makes her own bed, and washes up her dishes. Old Sam Whittemore’s house would be worse even if you went in every day to clean up the cigar ashes and spit jars.”

Ted waved his hand back and forth as if dismissing the problem. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll work it out with Sally. But let me tell you about the scheme Sally’s worked out with her mother. I think her brother is in on it too. Not that anyone has asked my opinion.”

Tara slouched in her chair and crossed her legs, well aware that Ted had found somewhere to share his opinion. And she wondered how she could log this time on the clock. And then she listened.