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Striking Matches


The New Housekeeper

"Harvey, please come in here and show me how you like your bed made up. Look, I'll tuck the top sheet in at the foot of the bed, but do you want it tucked in on the sides or left out loose? And the pillows, do you want them laid on top of the top sheet, or should I just pull the top sheet up over them and leave it that way?"

"Out loose on the sides and don't put the top sheet under the pillows. If you do, then when I pull it out this gets tangled up in the sheet." I lifted the middle pillow of the three on my king size bed and revealed the holstered 357 magnum revolver lying there, where my hand can find it in a hurry if I need it. "Are you familiar with firearms?"

"Oh, that's a surprise, but it's not a shock. Back when I was growing up on a farm there were always guns around, and we didn't think they were anything out of the ordinary. Every farmhouse had a shotgun by the back door for foxes and other critters that tried to get our hens, and another favorite was a 30-30 rifle for the occasional deer that would come along to nibble the kitchen garden. They were always good for a few steaks and a pot roast. To me, a gun is just a tool, like a hammer or a shovel, and they don't scare me or anything. Don't worry, I can just pick this up in its holster and set it over here, and then put it back after I've changed the sheets and pillowcases. I won't fool around with it, any more than I'd play with any other tool. Tools all have their purposes and they all have to be respected or somebody can get hurt."

"Well, that's good, because you may come across other weapons in places where they're out of sight but easy to grab if I need them. They're simply a necessity of life when you're old enough for everybody in the neighborhood to think they might be able to do a number on you. When you're young you can scramble around better, but anybody whose hair has gone gray has already lost a step or two, and there'll be some drug addict out there who thinks you'd be easy picking."

"Did your last cleaning lady have any problems with loaded guns tucked away?"

"No, not after she got used to seeing them pop up when she'd be vacuuming the sofa or whatever. She grew up in a barrio in Chicago, and guns are pretty common there. Having guns around the house is a real problem when there are kids around, but I'm way past that point. Now my kids have kids of their own, and they don't live within a thousand miles of here."

"Well, enough chitchat. I've got to get hustling because I want to get a load in the washer and be able to dry it and put everything away before I leave. If there's anything special you want me to do, just let me know."

Later, when she was cleaning up the kitchen, she had to ask me where I wanted the pots and pans and cooking utensils put. "Those spatulas I keep right here, where I can reach them while I'm cooking. But the strainer and those pots and lids go down here. If in doubt, think of me trying to save as many steps as I can while I'm fixing meals, and your hand will go right to the places where I keep everything. And if you can think of a better way to arrange my stuff, just let me know and we can talk it over. When Grace was doing my housekeeping she had a lot of good ideas, and I'm always open to suggestions. She knew a lot more about kitchens than I ever will, and I'm sure you do too."

"What happened to Grace? Did you fire her?"

"Oh my gosh, no! She was wonderful. But she moved away, to live with her brother in Oklahoma. His wife died recently and he needs her there to help him, and it's a good deal for her because it really reduces her living expenses.

"I've had good luck lately with part time help. Grace worked for me for two years and I never had to worry about the place being neat and clean, and everything being where I could find it. I had another lady before her who was pretty good, too, though not as good as Grace. But before that, it was a nightmare. There was one who did a great job as long as she was broke, but when she got a few dollars ahead it went for drugs and she was like a zombie. So that one I fired. And there was another one before her with a drinking problem. So if you plan on getting high on something that will alter your personality, just tell me now and I'll fire you in advance. I just don't need those problems."

"Not a chance. I know what you mean. I got rid of a husband who seemed real nice at first but turned out to be a drunk and later got hooked on cocaine, and he left me with a very strong dislike for the things that chemicals can do to people. When I get together with my sister and her family at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I take a glass or two of wine with the meal, but that's the extent of my wild side for the rest of the year.

"Another thing I ought to mention is that I respect your privacy, and I never gossip about any of my clients and what goes on in their homes. You could be carrying on a wild love affair with a goat, and as long as it's your house and your goat, it's nobody's business but your own."

"That's good to hear, but I promise you, no goats. No women, either, not for years now. I sort of miss that part of my life, but that's what it's like when you get old."

"Actually, that surprises me. Usually I hear from senior citizens that the women outnumber the men, and what men there are left can take their pick."

"Maybe you haven't met many of those old women. The reason they outnumber the men is that they've worn their husbands out, physically and mentally, until the old guys just gave up and died. And every one of those old women is trying to get her hooks into any man who will stand still long enough. So I'm very cautious around them, and I always have someplace I have to go to right away. Talk with one for five minutes and she thinks you've fallen in love with her. Another thing I do is spread the word that I'm in serious financial difficulties. If I have to, I can even invent some kind of disease that I need so see the doctor for."

"Do you really have a lot of medical problems?"

"Not me. I'm healthy as a horse."

And so the light conversation went, while Helen washed, dusted, swept, vacuumed, and generally tidied up my house to take away the usual signs of a week of bachelor living. As I was paying her we discussed scheduling her weekly visits, and I opted for the middle of the week, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and left her to pick the day, acknowledging that she might have to change her routine some weeks. One advantage that I have in retirement is that to me every day is like every other day, and I can be flexible about what's going to happen when.

Considering that I had just picked Helen out the classified ads with no advance knowledge of her work habits, I figured I'd done pretty well. She worked while she talked, a lot better than a few I'd had who thought I wanted to pay them by the hour for sitting down and running their mouths, either talking to me or calling everybody they knew on their cell phones. I may not have much of a social life, but if I'm going to pay a woman by the hour to keep me amused it won't be for conversation. Helen worked hard to make my house look good, and it did ,after she got finished doing her thing every week. And in the course of many casual conversations, we got to know each other pretty well. One day, while she was arranging the knickknacks after dusting the shelf by the television, she asked, "Why don't you ever date any more? You said that your friend Susan moved to Florida to be near her grandchildren, but why haven't you ever found a replacement? You ought to get out more and socialize, and that's hard to do when you don't have anybody to enjoy it with."

"Oh, I guess I'm just too old for that. I think my skirt chasing days are behind me."

"Well, it's your life, but you don't seem over the hill to me. I've seen the things you've built in your workshop, and I've watched how you move around. You're not really old, like feeble. So I'm surprised that you don't want to have any female companionship. You wouldn't have to move in with a woman, but you could just go out with somebody now and then. We've talked about all those women out there who seem to be looking for a man. Maybe you ought to think about picking one of them to spend some time with. Or maybe you'd do better to pick two, so neither one thinks she's caught you."

"I'll put that idea on my list of things to think about, but it won't be up near the top of the list. Part of my trouble is that I always had active, attractive women in my life, and the old ladies that are my age now just don't appeal to me. The last one that I spent a lot of time with was fifteen years younger than I was. The last woman my own age that I had anything to do with was my wife, and she died a long time ago. After that, I got involved with women younger than I was, but now I'm so old that no younger woman would want to waste her time with me. They all want young men, and I can't blame them. I'm just too old for the women who would appeal to me. I'm an alumnus now, a graduate of the school of social interaction. And whatever you do, please don't try to fix me up with someone."

"All right, but I still think you're making a mistake. There are a lot of women out there who would love to meet a man like you, with your intelligence and refined tastes and your cheerful outlook. And they're not all old hags, either. You could have your pick of some really nice ones, and you wouldn't have to make any commitment you don't want to, either. Oh yes, I see you shaking your head, but if you finally get feeling lonesome enough, let me see if I can help you out."

"What are you, a matchmaker?"

"Don't you worry about what I am. Just stop and figure out what you are, and what kind of a life you want to have. I think you're missing out on fun and companionship. And I'll tell you what's going to happen: tonight or tomorrow night, when you go to bed . . . alone . . . you'll remember this conversation and you'll wish you'd listened to me."

The Prophecy Comes True

"Helen? You were right. I lay in bed last night and all I could think of was what you told me before you left on Tuesday. What exactly did you mean when you said you could help me out?"

"What, you called me at eight o'clock in the morning to tell me that? You must have been lying awake all night thinking about it."

"No, but I woke up early and it was on my mind again. Why'd you go planting those ideas in my head, anyway? I was contented the way things were, until you messed with my mind."

"I don't want to sit here talking about this on the phone. Are you going to be at home this morning?"

"Yeah, I don't have anyplace that I have to go to. Why?"

"I just finished my coffee. I'll tidy up the kitchen and then I'll come and see you. Say, nine o'clock. That okay with you?"

"Perfect. See you then."

I jumped into the shower. No. Let's start that over. I stepped into the shower. I don't jump into anything any more. After I'd got all cleaned up and refreshed, I selected a shirt that would look good with my pants, a deliberate, decision making process that I seldom bother with any more when I'm getting dressed. What the hell, nobody cares what I looked like. I have three or four shirts that I like for the warm weather, and I usually just grab whichever one of them is hanging nearest to the closet door. But that day for some reason I felt different, and I dressed casually but carefully.

The doorbell announced Helen's arrival, and she came in carrying a small notebook that had so many papers stuffed into it that the whole bulging package was held together with several rubber bands.

"Talk to me about what you were thinking last night in bed. When you were very sleepy, ready to nod off, what were you picturing? What exactly did you think of that you didn't have right there at your fingertips?"

"A woman, what else? You still thinking about a goat? That was your idea, not mine. I guess I was thinking about how nice it would be able to snuggle up to a woman in my bed."

"What kind of a woman?"

"Oh, not too big, but not skinny with bones sticking out all over. Say about five foot two or three or four, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds or so. Nice looking. Not real young, but not all wrinkled either. Maybe about sixty years old, but well preserved. You getting the picture?"

"Tell me more. What about her body? Buxom? Flat chested? What?"

"Oh, medium sized boobs. B or C cup. They wouldn't have to be real perky like silicone specials, but not real droopy either. Say if she's lying on her back they'd flatten out a bit but they shouldn't wind up in her armpits."

"Her stomach: what would that look like?"

"Well, not all blubbery and floppy, but it wouldn't have to be flat as a board, either. A little curve to it would be okay. If she looks pregnant then she's too fat for me."

"What about her legs and feet?"

"I do like pretty legs. I'm not a foot fetishist, but I don't like feet that are all misshapen from being jammed into stupid, too-tight shoes all her life. Big bulging bunions are pretty ugly, a definite turnoff. But I don't care if her feet are tiny or big, high arched or fairly flat. Nicely trimmed toenails with a neat paint job in a subdued shade of red would be nice."

"So you've got some pretty definite ideas in your mind about what she should look like. Let's switch to something else. When you're having a conversation with her, how should that go? Do you care what she says, or how she says it?"

"I guess I do, although I haven't thought about it. I like to be able to have a pleasant conversation without having to work hard at it, and I couldn't stand for every response to something I say being 'Oh, gee,' or 'Like wow,' or 'I don't know anything about that.' You know how it is when you're working here and we're talking about something, anything. Last week I mentioned the Border Patrol agent who got shot, and you knew what I was talking about, and you had some opinions on it. The words flowed easily, and we went from one topic to another in a relaxed, natural way. It's nice to be able to talk with someone like that, nothing forced or artificial about it. I'd hate to have someone in bed with me who looks terrific but never reads a newspaper. If it's like talking to a wall, then I'm probably better off with a wall. And if I happen to say 'shit' or 'fuck' I'd hate to have her faint from the shock."

"What about cultural questions, like race or ethnic group or religion or politics?"

"Well, I'm no bigot, but for a woman to share my bed I'd like to have her sort of like me. Caucasian, nominally Christian, or I guess Jewish would be okay. Any political party, speaking pretty good English although I don't mind western European accents. As for grooming, I'm accustomed to women who shave their legs and armpits. Pubic hair could be trimmed, but if it's all shaved off it can get stubbly. On the other hand, if she has a huge, shaggy bush it's a turnoff."

"What about smoking and drinking?"

"Smoking is out. Oh, I suppose I could tolerate a woman who smokes five or six cigarettes a day, as long as she doesn't do it in the house or car. The smell really bothers me, I guess because I smoked so heavily that it made me sick and I had to give it up years ago. Taking a drink now and then is okay, but I don't want anything at all to do with a drunk. Been there, done that, don't need to do it again, ever."

As we had been talking Helen had been making marks on a piece of paper, but I couldn't make any sense out of them, so I asked her what they were all about. "This is just an easy way for me to remember what you said you want in a woman. There's a line for every item of your specification, and the little marks I put there are just my own shorthand for your preferences. If I don't know what kind of a woman you're lonely for, I can't possibly know whether I can help you out."

"And just exactly what do you intend to do to help me out? Do you have a warehouse stocked with women of all sizes and descriptions, lying on the shelves waiting for you to pull one out to fill my order?"

"It's not that complicated. I've lived here most of my adult life. I've been active in church groups, parent-teacher groups, library committees, girl scout troop committee, voter registration drives, all that sort of thing, and I've met a whole lot of women. Some years ago I was asked to fix up a couple of people with dates, and one of them took root and turned into a happy marriage. That got me to thinking, and I decided to try to sort out who liked what, in case the opportunity ever came up again. As time went on, there were changes in people: some moved away, got married, got divorced, got religion, had kids, whatever, and I kept updating my file on the women I knew around town. If I were just starting out now, I suppose I'd have a computer with a data base. What I have instead is a bunch of pages in my little notebook, one name to a page, and I can shuffle through them pretty fast to find possible matches for people who are lonely. It's not a business, but I suppose you could call it my hobby."

"With all the information you must have collected on people, you could probably become a blackmailer."

"That's true, which is why I have to keep all this information under wraps. People don't want their personal information to become public knowledge. This is like the CIA."

"What about your family? Your husband must know where you keep the notebook."

"Two solutions to that problem. First, all the information is coded. I know what it means, but nobody else does. Second, no husband. I got rid of him a long time ago, after his love affair with vodka and cocaine, and I've been living alone ever since."

"So all this talk about how I'm missing out on a chance for happiness and companionship is just your sales pitch. If it's such good advice, how come you don't apply it to yourself?"

"First rule of parenting: do as I say, not as I do. Actually, I'd probably latch onto some guy if I found one who'd be compatible with me. It's just like that song in Snow White, 'Some Day My Prince Will Come.' Just have to be patient."

"And how long has it been since you tossed your husband out?"

"Ten years. But I was so mad at him and so down on men that it took me at least five years before I even started to feel lonely. Of course, doing housekeeping for people gives me a chance to be with people all the while, so I don't get the feeling that I'm living like a hermit. Whereas you, on the other hand . . ."

"Okay. I don't need that whole lecture all over again. Now that you've asked me all those questions, what's next?"

"I'll go home and sort it all out. I take a few pieces of paper and jot little notes as I go through my notebook, working at the kitchen table where I can spread it all out in front of me. I'll try to pick out two or three ladies that I think might be suitable for you, and I'll call you with the information on one of them in time for you to call her up, introduce yourself, and ask her for a date for next Friday or Saturday night. Then you'll get back to me and tell me how it went, but you won't be obligated to do anything else with her unless you want to. If you want to try somebody else, we'll go through the same routine the next week with another lady. Unless you're really very picky, or there's something wrong with you, by the third try you ought to have at least one who'll be suitable. Simple, huh?"

"So all I have to do now is sit and wait for you to call me up with a name and phone number?"

"You've got it. Expect me to call you later today, or maybe tomorrow morning."

Hey, Got a Match?

Sure enough, just before suppertime, the phone rang. "Harvey, call Julie Morris. She lives about five miles west of you, just off Route 87." She gave me the directions to Julie's house and her phone number.

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