The morning of the interview Gladis showed up exactly on time, something she never did. Endless maple and pine trees towered over the mansion and drew shadows like darkness, like night. To the right of the house: a wooden playhouse and two swings dangling from rope on a branch. To the left: more trees.
“Hello? Gladis?” Mrs. Johnson appeared on the front stone steps. She had silky blonde hair parted down the middle and a small constellation of freckles sprinkled on her forehead and cheeks. She looked like she smelled nice, like the color pink. “Welcome,” she said.
“Thank you. You have a lovely home,” Gladis answered. “I read in the ad about the three-car garage, five bedrooms, and seven bathrooms. You know, odd numbers mean good luck.”
“Oh, you mean like feng shui?”
Gladis didn’t know what that meant.
“Oh—wait, where are you from?” Mrs. Johnson asked.
“Oh... Gladis from Guatemala. Well that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
“That’s a good word, Gladis.” Mrs. Johnson eyed her up and down. “Very good.”
Gladis stood up straight. She liked to learn English from watching soap operas. The actors pronounced each word with emotion, clarity, and matching gestures, so she picked up the words easily. Are you saying you want a divorce? She had heard on General Hospital just the previous afternoon. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Gladis looked up the word exactly in the thesaurus she bought for fifty cents at a yard sale with her sister Isabel and decided she liked the word precisely better.
“Well, please come in,” Mrs. Johnson said.
During the house tour, Gladis admired the plastic storage shelves in the basement—endless colorful rows of pasta, breadcrumbs, olive oil, detergent, shampoo, conditioner, and enough fabric softener to last for ten years—the linen closets full of fluffy towels and silk sheets, the bed-rooms with ceiling-high windows (that thankfully she wouldn’t have to clean because a special service did that once a month), and the exquisite master bathroom whose Jacuzzi tub left Gladis breathless. She’d never taken a bath before.
Afterward, Gladis and Mrs. Johnson sat on the wood stools at the kitchen island.
“Well, I’d like to offer you the job,” Mrs. Johnson said.
The conditional always confused Gladis.
“My husband Bill works a lot. He’s always traveling on business.”
What did her husband have to do with it?
“So it’s not likely you’ll ever meet him. And the children will be in school, of course.” She looked away.
A blue ceramic bowl filled with lemons sat in the middle of the counter. Gladis had the urge to pick one up and squeeze it.
“I know what you’re thinking. Why do I need a housekeeper, right?”
Gladis opened her mouth but no sound came out.
“Between my husband, the kids, the house... Oh, and I’m returning to some consulting for my old firm,” she said, using her ring finger to move a piece of hair from her forehead. “Listen, I need someone reliable.”
Gladis pictured accidentally dropping a wine glass into a million pieces, or using the wrong cleaning spray on the antique table in the dining room. She cleared her throat. “I am reliable.”
“Great, then.” Mrs. Johnson reached in the kitchen desk drawer and pulled out a checkbook. She scribbled on it and handed a crisp check to Gladis. “For the interview time.”
Gladis glanced at it before folding it and placing it inside her purse. “Thank you!” Fifty dollars. That was what she made in four hours at the airport. Her mind spun with numbers. Five hundred dollars per week, how many weeks per month... For the first time in a while, Gladis felt hopeful, happy. Tonight she’d even stop at the Chinese take-out place and treat everyone to dinner. She’d get the egg rolls that Ito loved and the Wonton soup that Isabel said made you lose weight because you peed a pound afterward.
Mrs. Johnson tapped a fingernail on the calendar in the back of her checkbook. “Can you start tomorrow? It’s the seventeenth. An odd number.”
Gladis lived in a duplex she had bought so she could keep her family under the same roof, her only family in the world. Her brother Ito rented the apartment upstairs, while she stayed downstairs with her sister Isabel and eleven-year-old daughter, Sophie. Gladis often nursed Isabel’s broken heart or funded her fad diets. She let her raid her closet, jewelry box, and even her imagination whenever Isabel needed to be rescued from some crisis that couldn’t be resolved with a jug of Carlo Rossi. It was all supposed to be perfect. Only, Ito hadn’t paid rent in months, and on top of that, his live-in girlfriend Veronica had started up a hair salon in the living room, hiking up the electric bill. Not to mention, lately the foreclosure notices had been piling up like dirty rags.
Every time Gladis looked at the red stamped envelopes she was yanked back to the day when the local bank man who wore a blue button-down shirt and thick-rimmed glasses approached Gladis in the grocery store parking lot. He’d been passing out glossy pamphlets while Cuban music played from nearby apartment windows. Most customers just took a brochure along with the free candy bars and refrigerator magnets, but Gladis talked to the man. Meanwhile, Sophie inserted quarters into the mechanical bus that she was too big for but rode anyway. The bank was offering a special first-time homebuyer loan. Aren’t you sick and tired of paying someone else’s mortgage with your rent? The bank representative wiped his glasses with a handkerchief about fifteen times that half hour, eventually convincing Gladis, and a cluster of other adults, that home ownership was a human right. So she sold her wedding ring and her sewing machine to pay for the fees. The bank promised her the adjust-able interest rate wouldn’t budge too much. But the bank lied. Now she owed thirty thousand in interest, something invisible no matter how she looked at it—like paying for air—and this was killing her.
At home, Gladis heard a chair push against the linoleum floor upstairs. Ito. He’d been avoiding her for weeks. Even tonight when she had Sophie ring his doorbell and tell him they’d had ordered Chinese take-out, he said he wasn’t hungry. Gladis suspected he was in some kind of trouble, but for now she shoved the thought away.
“What are the toys like?” Sophie asked as they set out the white cartons across the plastic-covered kitchen table, a painting of The Last Supper hanging on the wall behind them. She was nonstop with the questions about Gladis’s new job.
“I couldn’t really tell. They were stored away in lots of big wooden boxes. What do you call those?”
Gladis stirred her plastic spoon in the wonton soup to cool it down. “Chests.” Her mouth tried on the word. Next she prepared a plate for Isabel and covered it with aluminum foil. Isabel would be home late from her shift at the mall. She volunteered three nights a week at a kiosk that her church had set up by J.C. Penney. A shift that didn’t pay? Normally, Gladis wouldn’t understand it. But Isabel had lost a baby, and then another, all within the past year. Her boyfriend had left her. She’d suffered enough.
“Did you do your homework?” Gladis asked Sophie.
“Make my bed? Yup.”
“Good. And m’ija, say no and yes, not nope and yup.”
“Oh, Mom. I meant to tell you. I need a dress for the winter performance. Lizette and Sarah already got theirs.”
A dress? Where would Gladis get the money for a dress? If anything, Sophie needed new sneakers, not a dress. “What kind?”
Sophie poured duck sauce onto her plate of noodles. “Something cool. You know, pretty. Velvet and sparkles and stuff.”
The sound of footsteps above, then pounding down the stairs, a door slamming behind. “Ay, Sophie. I have to do something about your tío. He’s gonna have to find another place to live.”
“Mom, it’s going to, not gonna.”
Gladis took a sip of her iced tea, resisting the urge to smile.
“Why does tío have to leave? I like this girlfriend. She can French braid my hair, in like, two commercials’ time.” Sophie slurped a noodle.
“Ay, m’ija. Please eat like a lady.”
Sophie placed her fork at twelve o’clock on her plate. Then she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a paper towel that had been ripped in half to double the life span of the roll. “Is this better, mother?”
Gladis cracked up. “You.”
At the end of each workday, Gladis left the Johnsons’ kitchen glistening. Even her vacuum lines in the carpet boasted an artistic pattern. She washed produce and sliced the stems off strawberries so the Johnsons wouldn’t be inconvenienced when reaching for a healthy snack. Of course, Gladis also filled Tupperware containers to take home, one for Ito and another for Isabel and Sophie. Mrs. Johnson had told her, Help yourself. And Gladis did. She fed Sophie, Isabel, and Ito the leftovers from the meals she often cooked for the Johnsons—roast chicken, chili, or fish and baked potatoes. Sometimes while Mrs. Johnson was off doing whatever it was she did, Gladis sat in the closed-in porch, a room she wasn’t required to clean, and talked to Isabel on the phone until the potted plants and musty furniture made her sneeze. Once, using her cell phone, she snapped a picture of a sparkly peach gown Mrs. Johnson had hanging in her walk-in closet. She sent it to Isabel, who texted back: QUE LINDO!! Another time, Gladis snapped a picture of a professional photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson on their wedding day in the hallway. Their faces stared back at Gladis from inside a silver frame. The flash left her sightless for seconds. Then she took a picture of the family portrait on the same wall. The gold letters in the corner told her that the photo was taken three years ago. Just like on TV, the boy looked like the father, and the girl looked like the mother. A frame protected every picture in the house, even the ones on the refrigerator doors. Gladis searched for more recent photographs of the children, but she couldn’t find any.
Of all the rooms in the house, Gladis loved the master bathroom the most. She ran her fingertips over everything from the curved bar of soap to the candles and bath salts beside the tub. When Gladis was younger, she would watch American sitcoms with subtitles in Spanish. She had rarely read the words. It was the American products, the fashions and décor, that kept her staring at the television set in her family’s cramped living room in San Marcos. Gladis had always wanted a house of her own someday, to fill with the best kitchen appliances and pastel-colored sheets that money could buy. Deep down, she knew she had agreed to follow her ex-husband Roberto to Massachusetts—a place she couldn’t pronounce much less spell—only because she wanted what everyone wanted: something more.
Gladis dreamt of taking a bubble bath, but every time she ran the water, she couldn’t bring herself to undress and indulge in the warmth of it. What if someone came home? Mrs. Johnson was always com-ing and going in a rush, so much so that she often left her underwear beside the shower. The occasional stray brown pubic hairs answered Gladis’s question of whether Mrs. Johnson was a real blonde. The kids? They were never home. According to the calendar in the kitchen, Mrs. Johnson had them booked like celebrities, going to all sorts of birthday parties, gymnastic meets, and art classes. Gladis wondered if she should enroll Sophie in some art classes, too.
So far, this was the best job Gladis had ever had. She was able to do her family’s laundry, eat two meals a day at work and often cook the third to take home for everyone, and stock up on free garbage bags, shampoo, deodorant—for Isabel and Ito too—and endless cleaning supplies, not that Ito ever cleaned the bathroom. One thing Gladis never took: wine. Mrs. Johnson would probably notice that. Lately, Mrs. Johnson had taken to leaving empty bottles in the closed-in porch. Gladis never knew whether to pick them up or not because technically she wasn’t supposed to be in that room.
“What are the kids like?” Sophie asked Gladis one night.
Sophie sat at the kitchen table, completing a homework sheet while Gladis and Isabel painted. According to the digits of her birth date, Gladis was creative, resourceful, and artistic. She liked to paint designs onto fabric pieces—fruit baskets, flower bouquets, volcanoes, and sunsets—which she then sewed onto pillows or place settings and sold at the flea market in Lynn or gave away as gifts. Lately, Isabel had been painting her own designs too.
“You know, I don’t know. They’re always in school. Then they’re in after-school.”
“You still haven’t met them?” Isabel held a paintbrush in midair.
“That’s strange.” Isabel’s hair sat in a top bun. She was working on a painting of the sunset.
“Do they have video games?” Sophie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, m’ija?” She dipped the tip of her paintbrush in a green tube.
“Did you buy me a dress yet for the winter performance?”
“Stop bothering your mother,” Isabel said. “You don’t need a new dress. Just borrow one of mine. We’ll take it in here and there...” She moved her hands really fast, the paint on the tip of her brush threatening to drop.
“Ay, careful. Don’t get paint on the rug!” Gladis snapped.
“No offense tía, but I don’t want any of your dresses,” Sophie said.
Isabel stood up. “And why not?”
“I’m just saying... they’re not my style.”
Isabel, who earlier that night had Saran-Wrapped her torso with Vaseline so she would lose half a pound of body fat by morning, stepped very close to Sophie and leaned in quickly before dabbing a drop of paint on her cheek.
“Isabel...” Sometimes Gladis didn’t know which one was her daughter. Yet she loved these moments when they were all together, and she was glad to see Isabel’s playful personality coming back.
Isabel had a point, though. By now it had been three weeks since Gladis started working for the Johnsons. Why hadn’t she met the kids? Once Gladis watched an episode of 20/20 about crazy white ladies who raised dolls like actual babies. It was so bizarre. So the following week, Gladis took inventory.
She inspected the children’s toothbrushes. They looked unused, but that wasn’t saying much. Kids hated brushing their teeth.
The Barbie doll she tucked under the girl’s pillow on Monday was still in the exact same spot. Gladis noticed a butt print (Mrs. Johnson’s?) on the end of the bed. She eyed the pillowcase next. It was crisp. Maybe the girl slept in her parents’ bed.
Backpacks! There were no backpacks! Her satisfaction at having spot-ted this clue instantly deflated when she realized backpacks would be at school with the children.
Next stop: the hamper. Empty. Gladis did minimal laundry, changing only the bed sheets and table linens. Mrs. Johnson had insisted Gladis not touch any of the hampers. It’s not you, of course, but I’ve just had too many shrunken cashmere sweaters over the years. Gladis, of course, did not complain.
One afternoon while Mrs. Johnson was out, Gladis opened the girl’s closet. Some of the clothes still had tags on them. A white jean jacket. A polka-dotted skirt. And a pair of unworn sneakers sat in its cardboard box at the bottom of the carpeted space. Sophie would have ripped the tag off that skirt before they made it out of the store parking lot. She had been like that since she was real little, opening packages of markers immediately after the checkout line, swapping old sneakers for new ones in the car on their way home.
Then Gladis noticed the dress.
A purple beauty with a belt the same color covered in sparkles. Spending lots of money on clothes never made sense to her, certainly not forty-eight dollars for a child’s dress! Gladis ran her palm over the velvet fabric. She peeked at the size. Same as Sophie.
Back at home that evening Gladis sorted the mail. She stared at the words FINAL NOTICE stamped in red on the front of a legal-sized envelope and rubbed her temples with sliced potato wheels, an old Mayan remedy for headaches. That’s it, Gladis decided. She rang the doorbell to the other side of the duplex. Ito answered the door shirtless, looking disappointed to see his older sister. She followed him upstairs and into the kitchen.
“Oye, Ito.” She massaged a palm with her thumb. “You have to move.”
Ito bent down, ducking his head inside the refrigerator. Gladis could see it was empty, save for a bowl of sauerkraut.
“I think Veronica’s cheating on me.”
“Ito, did you hear what I just said?”
“Veronica said she had to go do hair for six girls, some kind of bach-elorette party in Springfield. But she left the bag of heated curlers here. She always takes that with her.”
“Mira Ito, I’m behind on the mortgage.”
“Where do you expect me to go?”
Ito’s thick eyelashes and charming smile had landed him a string of girlfriends since he moved to the U.S., and his fake-diploma business was doing better than Gladis or Isabel expected. Sunnyvale High School, Springfield University, Bexter College, Megson & Seal Design School. All made up. Ito charged a hundred bucks for each, twenty extra for framing. It was a brilliant idea. He no longer had to work the register at McDonalds, collect the shopping carts at supermarkets, or sell fried sausage from an old ice cream truck. He wasn’t a bad boy, often buying his girlfriend of the month whatever she wanted: makeup, a hair iron, a tattoo. Back in San Marcos, he’d spend hours taking apart an old toaster or lamp he had found in the junkyard by the missionary school. He could substitute a missing part with a reshaped safety pin or the tiny springs inside clothespins. Then one day he was finally granted a visa to the United States. So he moved to Boston with Gladis. Right away, she had enrolled him in the website design program she saw advertised on the bus. But the first semester Ito came up with the fake-diploma idea, and he dropped out. Lately he’d been keeping a low profile, to avoid too much attention from the authorities.
“One week. This time I mean it,” Gladis said, realizing how many times she had said it before. But now there was no alternative. “I placed an ad, Ito. Someone is coming to look at the place this weekend. Make sure the bathroom is clean.” She returned to her side of the duplex to scrub the sink and stove until she could see her reflection; this was her way of crying.
The next afternoon at the Johnsons’ house, thunder rumbled in the distance. Outside, the rain fell in sheets. The Johnsons’ puppy paced in circles under the dining room table. It was almost six, time for Gladis to go. She stood in the doorway and fumbled with her purse and keys to let Mrs. Johnson know she needed to be paid.
“Gladis, why don’t you wait out the storm for a bit? Want a drink?”
They had never been alone in this way, like friends, like two women who had more in common than their ages and their admiration for stainless steel kitchen appliances.
“Thank you, no,” Gladis said. “I have to go. Sophie, my daughter, is waiting for me.” Gladis was planning on depositing the check on the way home so the money would be in her account by Monday. Every dollar counted these days.
“Oh... your daughter,” Mrs. Johnson said. Her face froze as if Gladis had said something wrong.
Then, a blast of lightning sliced through the trees in the multi-acre backyard, taking the power with it. The puppy whimpered. “Oh, it’s just a little storm,” Mrs. Johnson said as she scooped him up in her arms. She turned to Gladis. “Come on. I have candles in the kitchen.”
“I can’t really stay...”
“At least stay for a soda. Don’t leave me alone in the dark.”
Annoyed, Gladis followed her to the kitchen where they sat at the island. The lemons, now weeks old and still unwrinkled, were clearly fake. Tall, slim candles sat snug in brass candleholders. How romantic. Mrs. Johnson drank red wine from a glass the size of a bowl while Gladis sipped a can of Diet Coke. She wanted to ask where Mr. Johnson was, where the kids were, why Mrs. Johnson wasn’t making calls to see if they were all okay, but she didn’t want to encourage a long conversation. Gladis excused herself to the bathroom where she called home to check in on Sophie and Isabel and told them she’d be home late. She wanted them to order a pizza using the coupons on the refrigerator and to buy a meatball sub for Ito in case he hadn’t eaten. But there was no answer. When Gladis returned to the kitchen, Mrs. Johnson was staring at one of the flickering flames.
“So, Gladis,” she said. From the tone of her voice and the several seconds of silence that followed, Gladis could tell that Mrs. Johnson wanted her to be the one to make conversation.
“In Guatemala,” Gladis said, “sometimes the power would go out for days sometimes.”
“What else was it like? Growing up in Guatemala?”
“Well,” Gladis looked at the clock on the wall behind Mrs. Johnson’s head. Where were Sophie and Isabel anyway? Maybe they were closing all the windows and didn’t hear the phone ringing. Gladis didn’t want this conversation with Mrs. Johnson to go on too much longer so she simply responded, “Guatemala was great.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Johnson took another sip of wine.
Something in the look on her face softened Gladis. Here was this woman, a mansion she called home, with a husband, kids, a dog, and yet there was a stamp of loneliness on her face that no expensive makeup could cover up. Gladis cleared her throat.
“Well, most days my brother and sister and I would play at the lake with the other kids until the sky looked like the color of a bruise. That’s when my mother said we’d know it was time to go home. It worked, too,” Gladis said, not mentioning the fact that they’d be beaten and likely bruised themselves if they came home any later than that.
“How interesting,” Mrs. Johnson said, finishing her glass of wine and pouring herself another.
Gladis told Mrs. Johnson how she had helped her brother Ito enroll in college. Then she told her about Isabel and how she had a boyfriend, but he left her after the second miscarriage. After that, Isabel moved in with Gladis.
“Isabel, my sister, she still keeps a shrine for her unborn babies in the corner of her bedroom.” Gladis had never talked to anyone about that before tonight. The dim lighting made her more comfortable, she sup-posed. Mrs. Johnson listened intently and asked good questions—Does your sister know that’s very common? I have some small framing jobs for your brother, if he’s interested—do you think he’s interested? How did you get interested in painting? Gladis had forgotten what it was like to have someone ask about her, for someone to care about her. Mrs. Johnson made her want to share more. By her second can of Diet Coke and Mrs. Johnson’s third glass of wine, the two of them were chatting like old friends.
“Well,” Mrs. Johnson said, “your daughter sounds delightful. My kids would have loved her.”
And there it was: would have. No mistake about it this time. Gladis swallowed. “Would?”
After a long pause, Mrs. Johnson said, “There was a car accident.”
“Oh,” Gladis whispered, unsure of whether to stand up and give Mrs. Johnson a hug.
“You must have suspected. You probably know...” Her hands were trembling.
“No, I didn’t,” Gladis lied.
“For months afterward I rotated sleeping in each of the kids’ beds. And I still buy them back-to-school supplies.” She looked down, her face a mess of dark shadows.
“I’m so sorry.”
Mrs. Johnson nodded, poured more wine. They talked for what felt like hours, but in a good way, until suddenly the lights came back, illu-minating the fact that it was so late. Gladis stood up.
“I should really go.” She looked at her phone. A text from Isabel: Don’t worry. Sophie and Ito are back.
Back from what?
“Of course,” Mrs. Johnson said while reaching for her checkbook.
At home in the kitchen, Gladis grabbed Sophie by the elbow. “Where were you!”
“Ow, Ma. Calm down. I was with tío.”
“They went to Staples,” Isabel said as she waddled on her heels, cotton swabs secured between her toes. She opened the refrigerator and reached for the carton of orange juice.
“Relax, Mom. Geez.” Sophie massaged her arm.
“Wait,” Gladis said. “What were you doing at Staples?”
“Seriously? We were, you know, making copieeees.”
Gladis raised her hand and just as she was about to slap Sophie, Sophie charged down the hall and slammed the door to the bedroom she shared with Gladis.
“Gladis! What’s wrong with you?”
“Me? Isabel! You know what he was making copies of, and I don’t want Sophie around that. What if he got caught? Sophie could’ve been his accomplice or whatever. I’m going to kill Ito.”
“Sure you are,” Isabel said.
Gladis and Ito, oldest daughter, youngest son. In Guatemala, when the nuns handed out one pan dulce to each child after mass, Gladis would nibble around its edges and save the bulk of it, the soft middle part, to give to her brother who was skinny as a little bird. That’s how he got his nickname, Ito, short for pajarito. Since their parents died, Gladis felt all the more responsible for him and for Isabel. But it was getting to be too much.
Gladis checked the answering machine. More messages from a bank person explaining that her account was delinquent. What an ugly word. Immediately, Gladis erased the messages, but hours later, her shoul-ders still hurt from the tension. She had been working so hard to try and hold onto something for the good of her family. What else did she have? And where would they be without her? She had failed them, she thought, as she tossed and turned that night in bed.
In the morning after Mrs. Johnson peeled her Lexus SUV out of the S-shaped driveway, Gladis decided to take her first bubble bath in all her life. She undressed and scanned her saggy middle in the mirror of the master bathroom. Flesh peeked out from the sides of the sand-colored bra-and-panty set she had bought on sale at J.C. Penney for $9.99. Even having inherited her father’s generous height and strong physique, she was still considered petite in this America.
The cool stone tiles underneath her flat feet gave Gladis goose bumps. Her fingertips traced the Japanese artwork on the backsplash of the Jacuzzi tub while she ran the water and poured a generous amount of bath salts. She squirted bubble bath in next. The jets did their work, generating a frothy and luxurious frosting. Gladis reached her bare leg over the edge and lowered it, slowly, deliciously, into the water. Just as she had imagined for weeks, the bath felt better than sleep, and definite-ly better than sex from what she remembered. Damn Roberto and his get-rich-quick trucking business. Gladis had moved here for him, but he had left her only a year into their marriage. Right now he was probably fixing a flat tire at a rest stop somewhere in Nevada. She brushed the thought away. She did the same when Ito came into her mind, Isabel, even Sophie, and their many requests. Right now, she was alone. Right now was blissful. She closed her eyes.
What felt like a minute later the garage door grumbled. The temperature of the water was lukewarm. Realizing she had fallen asleep, Gladis quickly stepped out of the tub and grabbed a towel. She could hear Mrs. Johnson calling her name.
“Ay, you scared me!” Gladis told Mrs. Johnson, who was now standing in the bathroom doorway. Mrs. Johnson’s cheeks were flushed, and she did not look amused at the sight of her housekeeper wrapped in her Laura Ashley towel. The suds collected in patches on Gladis’s torso before dissolving down her legs.
“Gladis,” Mrs. Johnson said. “We need to have a talk.”
“I’m sorry I took a bath. It’s because I was done with—”
“Get dressed, Gladis. Please,” Mrs. Johnson said, looking away. She adjusted her silver watch, tinkering with its buckle. “Meet me in the kitchen.”
Gladis was trembling as she cleaned up the bathroom and stepped down the spiral staircase. Sophie... Isabel... Ito... her bills. The house.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Johnson had her hands placed firmly on the countertop. Before Mrs. Johnson could say anything, Gladis started in. “I’m sorry. I just never took a bath before, and I wanted to see what it was like.” It felt strange to say this aloud, especially after their heartfelt conversation just the other night. Was that just three days ago?
“That’s not it, Gladis.”
Had Mrs. Johnson noticed the missing jar of olive oil? Was Gladis taking too much toilet paper? Her mind was spinning. Gladis didn’t know what to say. She desperately wanted something to do, so she began loading the dishwasher. Her thick hair was still wet, and the ends trailed water onto her shoulders.
“Gladis, hold on. You don’t need to do that.”
“No, I mean.” She let out a long breath. “You’re no longer needed here.”
Gladis stopped. She held a beautiful blue bowl with specks of bran flakes crusted on the inner perimeter. She gently placed it upside down on the top dishwasher tray. “Because of one bath?” Gladis asked, with-out meeting Mrs. Johnson’s eyes.
Mrs. Johnson hesitated before saying, “The dress, Gladis.”
Gladis’s face felt hot. “The purple dress?”
“Oh, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“But I didn’t take it,” Gladis said. “I swear.”
“We don’t have to do this, Gladis.”
“Let me show you.” Gladis then led Mrs. Johnson to the dead girl’s bedroom where the two women faced the enormous closet together.
Gladis dug in the closet and pulled out the purple velvet dress, the one she wanted for Sophie, the one she would have taken had it not been for a nagging pull in her chest. A dress was not toilet paper. A dress was something special to be worn by a girl at a dance on a Friday night. Something a mother and daughter shopped for, together, even if only on sales racks. That was something Mrs. Johnson would never have, no matter how many bedrooms and televisions and cars she had. Right?
“I...I don’t know what to say, Gladis. I feel so embarrassed.”
Gladis didn’t know what to say, either. The dress was still in her arms. Only then, maybe because her palms were sweating, did Gladis realize the dress was covered in plastic and had a dry cleaning ticket stapled to it. She checked the date. Last week. Did Mrs. Johnson go so far as to actually have her dead children’s unworn clothes dry cleaned? Gladis stared at Mrs. Johnson. The stamp of loneliness on her face had been replaced with one of horror.
“Please don’t leave, Gladis. I know what you must be thinking. I am getting better. I swear. I just...” She sighed. “Well, you know how it is.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Johnson. Good luck with... everything.”
On her way out the front door, Gladis stood on the stone steps facing the dark wooded yard. Her hair was still wet from the bath. She felt cold. How desperate Mrs. Johnson must be, to hold onto some reality that existed only in the past. How could she fail to see what was right in front of her?
Gladis drove just above the speed limit on her drive back home. She was dying to get there but not enough for a speeding ticket. Especially now that she was unemployed. That night, after Gladis turned the key to her house and stepped inside, she inhaled the smells and sights of home: Isabel painting, Sophie making tacos. Even Ito, eyes all apologetic, handing Gladis a mug full of wine. She didn’t mention anything about what had happened that afternoon with Mrs. Johnson. Gladis knew foreclosure was inevitable, much like the rain predicted for Saturday, and she knew Isabel would have to get a paying job. And Ito, her baby brother. Maybe he’d find a new girlfriend and hopefully find a way to live with her. It was time for everyone to move on. But not Sophie. Not yet. Tomorrow Gladis would take her to the store to look for dresses, to see what they could find, together.