RHKOA: Some Messes You Can’t Clean Up

You may have noted by now that I have hardly mentioned Harriet at all. Harriet is in my estimation, the most constant of the bunch. When there is conflict she generally chooses neutrality, but if forced will side with her family. In some ways that is admirable, but in others it’s unfortunate. I think she and I could have been great friends, but I see no possibility of that now.

After all the customer phone calls and emails laden with complaints, we held a company meeting. Big Lou and Harriet had decided 2 weeks prior that it would be a good idea to break up the teams to see where the disconnect was and what failures were happening on the job. Basically, they wanted to ferret out the weakest link. I had already made the decision to quit, but I have never left a job in poor standing. This cleaning job, menial and costly as it was, was going to be no different. It seems that Fate had something very different in mind.

For three straight days I had the worst time getting the kids out of bed. Their lack of cooperation meant I spent more time lifting and pulling bodies when I should have been directing them. The ricochet effect meant minutes wasted in the morning. I was 15 to 30 minutes late getting to my appointments during that week, and that was the week I worked with Hillary.

Eventually it was reported that I was habitually late. It didn’t help my case that I was also late for the meeting to discuss my lateness – among other things. My husband had gone to the grocery store an hour before I was supposed to arrive and didn’t get back until 2 hours after I was supposed to be there. Just as I was sending Harriet a text to explain, she called. Big Lou was thundering in the background.

“Tell Malaka to get her ass up in the morning!” she roared. Her miniature pinscher yelped loudly, added to the barrage of noise. I could barely hear what Harriet was saying.

“Momma said if you make her late, she’s gonna beat your ass,” Harriet said ominously. “She said come over here now so she can hit you in the head with this hammer.”

“Oh Jesus.”

I was actually worried. Big Lou was so unpredictable.

“I did not say that Harriet!” Big Lou yelled.

Harriet chuckled and told me to hurry up. I said I would be there as soon as my husband pulled up.

When I got to her house, there was a newcomer at the couch. I suspected that this was Tyranny, Samira’s cousin and a recent transplant from Tennessee. Big Lou abhorred her. She was 20 something and thought she was the ‘ish’, according to Big Lou.

“That little heifer said she didn’t want to touch this, and didn’t want to do that,” she snarled at the bus stop. “I quickly let her know she could take her ass home if she didn’t want to work.”

I said hello to everyone there and sat down. What had I missed out on? I looked around the room and noticed that everyone’s eyes were averted. They were either looking down at the floor or at a cell phone. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I was so late that Big Lou had long left to go meet her good friend the Stud.

“We’re discussing the floors,” said Harriet. “Is it the type of mop we’re using? Is it the solution we’re using? Do we need to go back to a bucket and old school mop?”

“I don’t think it’s the mop at all,” I replied. “I have all 3 mops that we’ve used in the past, and they’ve never given me a problem. I really do think it’s this blue Pledge that’s the problem. We never had this many complaints before we started using it.”

Samira nodded her head in agreement. Hillary didn’t say a word, which was uncharacteristic.

It was decided that we would use Zep, Pinesol, or any products that the customer had in their home to mop the floors with to clean and that should resolve the problem. Harriet reiterated that we were supposed to fold the toilet paper into triangles, wipe down the blinds, put mints on the bed and pass out doggie treats to the clients with pets. It was a good refresher. I have left several homes and forgotten to put mints on the bed. I was re-invigorated and ready to start the next week. It was my turn to be on rotation with Big Lou. I was terrified.

Where are a customer can only complain, Big Lou could cuss you out. She had this uncanny ability to build you up and make you feel really special, and then within minutes make you feel completely inept. I would much rather not ride those emotional waves, so I try to give Big Lou everything she wants. I asked Samira what she likes to have in her bucket.

“She loves Fabuloso,” Samira informed me, helping me pack my bucket. “And make sure you have lots of bleach. Keep your bucket organized too.”

“Got it,” I said. I felt ready, but I wasn’t sure.

“How was your week with her?”

“I had a good time with her,” Samira said. Her teeth shone in the darkness. She was smiling broadly.

Maybe I’d have the same fortune. The schedule said we only had one house to clean the next day at noon. I needed a good night’s sleep to prepare.

The next morning I work up with a start. I jumped out of bed and threw on my clothes.

Sweet Jesus! I’d over slept!

I ran into the girls’ room and shooed them to the bathroom. They needed to get dressed and into the car asap. I had to pick up Big Lou no later than 7:15 am. After racing to the bus stop, I paused and took a look at my emailed schedule again.

NOON. The house cleaning was at NOON, not 8 am. Shaking, I went back home and crawled back into bed. Big Lou was frowning when I went to pick up. I grinned foolishly in greeting. That usually had a way of disarming her.

“Shut up, Malaka,” she chortled. “And don’t start nothing with me today!”

The client we were doing was a repeat customer. Her entire bottom floor was laid in wood, save the carpeted living room.

“What are we going to use to clean the floors?” I asked earnestly.

“This,” she said, pulling out the gallon of Pledge.

“Not this sh*t again,” I mumbled.

“It’s not the Plede,” she shot back. “It’s you. You’re the one who doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing!”

Any other person would have taken offense to her tone and accusation, but I was fortunate in that I grew up with a mother who took pleasure in berating me for the majority of my formative years. I shook off her indictment and inspected the bottle more closely. The solution was no longer blue. It was clear – almost like bleach, and it smelled like lemons. What was in it? Was someone trying to sabotage me? I refused to pour the substance on the floor until I saw Big Lou do so. The floor came out fine. I decided I needed to get a grip. No one was out to get me. Big Lou turned on Pandora and we cleaned the house to an 80’s and 90’s soundtrack. It was shaping up to be a decent day, until the ride home.

“You know I cleaned with Samira last week,” said Big Lou.

“Yeah!” I smiled. “She said she had a great time cleaning with you. It was a lot of fun.”

“That’s because I cussed her out like her Mammy do,” Big Lou chortled. “She sat there in the passenger seat like she was scared or something.”

She demonstrated a recoiled pose. I laughed. I could certainly see Samira huddled in the corner like a frightened marsupial.

“She said that you’re the one who messes up every time y’all go out to a house,” Big Lou continued.


“Yeah, you should have heard her at the meeting. She was lighting your ass up! Malaka don’t sweep corners, Malaka don’t do kitchens, Malaka don’t do master bedrooms.” Her voice was mocking as she imitated Samira.

I was surprised. Samira and I had a really good working relationship. We had a rhythm when we went into any home: Do the masters together and then fan out from there. Where was all this coming from? I explained this to Big Lou, who grunted in response.

“Well I got back on her too for all the sh*t she don’t do,” Big Lou replied. “How she don’t fold toilet paper or wipe blinds, while she’s accusing people!”

That was true. Samira never folded toilet paper, but it wasn’t an infraction so dire that I felt like I had to report it. However, what she was (allegedly) accusing me of was not doing my job, plain and simple. I dropped Big Lou off shortly after that and decided to forget about it. It didn’t matter.

But Fate would not let it be.

For the next 2 days, Big Lou had more information about things Samira was saying about me and my work…or lack thereof. I was incredulous, almost bewildered.

“What is going on with this girl?” I wondered out loud.

“She’s so stupid,” Big Lou spat. “I can’t stand her or her family because they’re all beggars. They just beg for e-v-e-r-y thing.”

“How do you mean?”

“They don’t pay for nothing,” she explained. “I mean nothing.”

My mind went back to a conversation Samira and I had had about her mother and some dispute over the furniture in their house. She revealed that a church had donated all the bed frames and mattresses and a few other key items.

“You’re right,” I nodded. “She’s never given me a dime for gas.”

“A be the first one with her hand out when it’s time for a tip,” Big Lou concluded.

I was angry. I can’t control much in this world, but I can control my reputation. At the end of the day, it’s all that anyone will remember me for. I just didn’t get it. Why was she talking about me this way? I asked Big Lou what she thought.

“Women always talk about each other,” she said, her voice deep and ominous. “I’m sure all of y’all talk about me, although it’s never gotten back to me.”

I paused and thought back. No, no one had said a disparaging word about Big Lou – at least not to me. We had all come to the conclusion that she was crazy, but in that no-nonsense, angry Black woman in the big creepy house on the corner kind of way. It was endearing. A fleeting thought passed through my head. Perhaps Big Lou was trying to drive a wedge between Samira and I. She had already confessed that she didn’t like her. She wanted Harriet to fire her before she had a chance to quit, just as one of the other cleaners had done over the summer. She wanted to fire her so bad it had become a passion. But what did that have to do with turning me against her and vice versa? What did Samira have to say for herself? I would have the opportunity to ask her on Friday morning.