Ludwig lived alone at the top of a hill, in a city, with an interstate cutting close to his back yard. Ludwig was 84, and was waiting for the new girl to come over and clean. His sister Anna used to do the cleaning. She would come once a week, or every other week if her schedule was too busy. Anna cleaned all the rooms and made two or three dinners, asked about his health, and was gone until next time. Ludwig and Anna had never been close. Anna had preferred her brother Heinrich, who died at age twelve, when they lived in the old country.
Anna asked if she should be there when the new cleaning girl came, to show her the house. Ludwig decided he could do it alone, but Anna was there anyway. She answered the door before the girl could ring the bell, and gave her an efficient tour of Ludwig’s home. Anna told the new girl to clean just as she had done it, keeping herself out of Ludwig’s way. First, clean the living room, then the study, the bedrooms, the porch, the bathroom, and finish with the kitchen. Her time card would be signed after her work was done, and if she arrived late, they would make note of it.
The first time, under Anna’s unblinking eye, the new girl cleaned just as she was told. She was young, the new cleaning girl, maybe only twenty years old. The second week of cleaning, the new girl started as Anna had instructed. When Anna saw this, she felt it was safe to leave. After finishing the study, the cleaning girl looked out the front window to see that Anna’s car was gone, then went to the porch instead of the bedrooms. She would clean her own way. Anna never returned.
Ludwig was pleased with the new girl, though he didn’t speak to her except to say hello when she arrived and good-bye when she left. He liked how she looked at the paintings and books in the living room and study, but did not ask after them. She was quiet, which Ludwig appreciated most of all. It made him feel like he was alone, but not.
The fourth week, when she was cleaning the kitchen, Ludwig said to the girl in his rutted voice, “You can cook?”
The girl was puzzled, unsure if he was asking her to cook for him. The cleaning service was strict in its policies, which did not allow for cleaning help to also cook. She nodded her answer as Ludwig shuffled to the refrigerator and showed her two soft yellow pears.
“Before you go tonight, put the pears in the water.” Ludwig set the pears on a cutting board, reached toward the cupboard as if to open it, then pulled his hand back and pointed to the knob instead. The cleaning girl opened the door with a smart tug, making a mental note to do something about the sticky latch, then looked to where Ludwig was pointing, to see what he wanted.
“And the raisins. The pears and the raisins in the water before you go.”
When the girl did not nod her head, Ludwig’s frustration came out in a sigh. She did not know what he wanted. Ludwig pointed to a small kettle on the stove. The girl brought it to the cutting board. Ludwig selected a knife from the drawer, placed it beside the pears. He pointed first to the knife, then the pears, the raisins, the kettle.
Finally, the girl seemed to understand. “You want me to cut the pears and put them in some water with the raisins?” The uncertainty in her voice made it clear she thought the dish unappetizing.
Ludwig smiled and nodded. He covered her hand with his, patted it to show his appreciation, then left her to her cleaning.
The next week, Ludwig led the cleaning girl to the kitchen as soon as she arrived. Two pears were on the cutting board, the box of raisins and a knife beside them. Ludwig pointed toward the display.
“Before you go,” he told her.
The girl nodded, but Ludwig wasn’t finished. He held up his hand to get her attention back. He pointed again to the pears and shook his head back and forth. “This time, no skin.”
At first, the girl was confused, then realized she had not peeled the pears last week. She nodded and smiled. Ludwig also smiled. He retreated to his bedroom, where he could study her time card until he remembered her name.
The sixth week the cleaning girl came, Ludwig stayed in his room. She knocked on the door asking if he wanted it cleaned, but Ludwig said no. He asked her to please make the pears but kept the door shut.
He did not want to see the girl today. He was thinking of Marta, how he should have married her that day and taken her with him when he left his family. Then it would be Marta who cleaned, not this girl, this stranger.
Ludwig went to the kitchen when he heard the girl start cooking. “Your name, it is German,” he announced without any warning.
The knife slipped as the girl nodded. She checked her finger to make sure it wasn’t bleeding.
“So. Catholic, or Lutheran?”
The cleaning girl instinctively reached toward her collarbone, where a delicate crucifix used to rest. “Catholic,” she answered as she fingered the bare space. She waited for Ludwig to continue, but he said no more and left the room.
The seventh week, after finishing her other work, the cleaning girl opened the refrigerator in search of the pears. There were none. There were also no raisins. She found Ludwig at his desk in the study. “You’re out of pears and raisins,” she told him. “Do you want me to run to the store?”
Ludwig stepped out from his desk, motioned for the girl to follow him down the hall. He opened the closet door and pointed at a box. It was old, flimsy, and the cleaning girl used caution when taking it down. Ludwig smiled at her care, ushered her into his bedroom.
With the box on his bed, Ludwig waved toward the girl to open it. “You might like it,” he said smiling. “You may have what you like.”
Inside was a collection of trinkets. Faded postcards, tarnished pins, old letters and forgotten coins. The cleaning girl did not know what to make of this. Her fingers barely touched the aged items, trying to find something that interested her. Ludwig wanted her to have something. She did not want to be rude.
The girl picked up a stack of postcards, scenes from nature grainy and faint. She started to thank Ludwig. He motioned for her to sit. Ludwig sat in a chair while the girl perched on the
edge of the bed.
One by one, Ludwig told the girl about the places on the postcards. There were nine in all, each somewhere the girl had never been to or heard of. She listened politely, tried to look attentive, nodding her head and occasionally smiling.
When Ludwig finished, he handed her the cards. “You keep these,” he told her, his eyes shining. The girl offered to put away the box. Ludwig told her no. He would do it later.
Ludwig walked her to the door after marking the extra half hour on her time sheet. The cleaning girl thanked him for the postcards, and Ludwig patted her hand. She smiled in return, her lips soft-looking and plump, the palest color of red that isn’t pink, like that of new raspberries, like Marta’s.
He reached up to touch her hair. “May I?” he asked, leaning toward the girl to kiss her.
She backed away. “No. I’m sorry. I really should go.”
The next morning, Ludwig found a note in his mail box. The cleaning girl would not be back. She thanked him again for the postcards.
Mia Kammeyer-Mueller is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and two children.
Photo "Fruit 1" courtesy of
Marjorie Manicke, Lima, Peru.
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