Jan Bowman

Unnatural Disaster

Appeared in Folio, Winter 1995

I worry about world peace, corrupt politicians, breast cancer, and why water collects in the bottom of my refrigerator. I worry that the odd tingling sensation in my left breast is cancer, or maybe it’s just the beginning of an early menopause. I worry about what has happened to my cleaning lady, Brenda.

Last week I noticed that Brenda, failed to place the hairbrush in my bathroom in the regular spot by the sink. This is the second week in a row. I worry she is getting sloppy. She is taking me for granted after five years. Or maybe something’s going on with her.

The only worry I can deal with today is the refrigerator, so I stay home from work and wait for the repairman. I worry he won’t come. While I wait, I read in Reader’s Digest that people who worry are rehearsing mentally for life’s worst-case scenarios. Disaster films play in their heads. The article says worriers spend energy in futile attempts to be prepared. I’m reading this article because my computer network is not working this morning. I’m prepared to wait until after lunch before calling the help line. Sometimes my computer heals itself. I’m prepared to wait.

Be prepared. I think of the Scouts’ motto. I was a Girl Scout and I remember I worried, even then, about being prepared. Just in case, we were told. Always carry money for a phone call on a date. That was before cell phones changed that. I wonder what kinds of advice girls get now in the Girl Scouts. I think there is some kind of link between worrying and scouting. Maybe compulsive young women become Scouts, or perhaps the experience, during a formative period, welds us to our prepared state.

Worry, the article in the magazine says, wastes human energy. If that’s the case, I waste a lot of energy. I never feel prepared enough. I am not prepared for many of life’s nasty little surprises, in spite of my best efforts and good intentions.

Take breast cancer. I read the statistics and know the probabilities. I watch my friends discover breast lumps and they are never prepared. I’m not prepared. Never will be. I’m scared shitless. I’m in the highest risk group: women over forty who never had a child or breast-fed one. I wonder why these two things are listed separately. Seems to me one must occur before the other—a prerequisite. And for either to have occurred, I should have prepared. Should have lowered my chances decades ago.

I think of calling my doctor and scheduling a mammogram. I worry they will find the lump I’m not prepared for. Perhaps I’ve waited too long to prepare, let alone have a mammogram.

Now as I look around the house, I realize that someone else is cleaning. The kitchen towels are folded wrong. Brenda is precise. A stickler for perfection. And predictable. Someone else has dusted and left books piled haphazardly on tables.

While I wait for the refrigerator repairman, I check the phone number twice to be sure it’s right and I call the agency and ask about Brenda.

“Just a moment,” the secretary says in a thin voice. “I’ll need to let you discuss this with someone in management.” She pauses a moment and says, “Can I have someone call you back in a few minutes? Will you be at this number?”

I get a cloth and dust the living room while I wait. I straighten the books and notice that the windows need to be washed on the inside. I write a reminder to Brenda.

She has a key and lets herself in on Wednesdays. On Tuesday nights, I always worry that I will forget and set the deadbolt. I forget sometimes and have to drive over from work to let her into the house. I rarely see her. The agency hired her, sends her, and takes care of the paperwork. I use an agency because I once considered running for city council. I worried that some improper paper trail might seal my fate, but now, I have changed my mind about running for political office. There are too many social issues beyond repair. I am prepared for something I’ve decided not to do.

Brenda and I send each other notes about things that worry me, like the spot where the cat throws up under the table in the living room. I scrubbed the spot and watched the stain grow larger. It left the carpet discolored. I wrote Brenda a note. Needs something stronger, I say. Later, after Brenda removes the stain, I worry that the chemicals she used are dangerous. I worry about her and the cat.

All stain gone, she wrote on the bottom of my note. Next time leave spot alone. You make stain worse. Old cat! Die soon?

Once when I spent a Wednesday in bed with a cold, Brenda brought me a cup of soothing honey-herbal tea and we talked. Of her early years in Haiti, of her grown daughters and her dream to retire to Florida. I told her I was divorced and recovering from years of treading water in a tedious relationship. Told her I regretted not having children. Wished I had daughters.

She sighed. “I remember my old mother used to say, a woman yearns to take back the best of her past, but must live in the present.” She adjusted the shade in my bedroom window so I could see the autumn leaves falling from the maple trees, and she smiled. “We can only anticipate a little,” she said. “Everything else is luck.”

Brenda is much older than I am. She reminds me of my mother’s older sister. She is small and precise in her movements, with a voice that flows like ribbons waving in an island breeze.

After we talked, I always pictured her brown eyes in my mind as I wrote her notes. I cannot bear to ask her to do any more really awful tasks. I think of my own mother and I am thankful she is not cleaning someone’s house.

I think about Brenda and I worry. Why hasn’t she left me a note for the past two weeks? Has she retired and moved to Florida to live with her daughter? At least, I think, she’d say good-bye. I worry I’ve offended her somehow.

The manager for the cleaning agency calls me back. “Brenda,” the manager says, and she clears her throat a couple of times, “is no longer with us. Is the new person, Reba, unsatisfactory?”

“Reba?” I say. “Who is that? Where’s Brenda?”

“We can send out someone else, if you like”

“What do you mean, Brenda is no longer with you? Did she retire?” My voice is too shrill. “Don’t tell me she quit?”

The manager hesitates a moment. “This is quite difficult,” she says. “Awkward, to say the least. I had planned to send a note.”

“I hope you didn’t fire her,” I say, worried the agency has treated Brenda badly. “She does wonderful work.”

“Brenda is deceased.”

I sit in silence. Unprepared. “How?” I whisper. I’m thinking heart attack and regret the times I asked her to clean behind the sofa. I look at the note beside the phone. The note that I’ve just written, asking her to clean the windows.

“Unfortunately, she was killed. Stabbed by her boyfriend. Two weeks ago. It happened right after the holiday. All the local news channels covered the story.”

I realize I do not know Brenda’s last name. Five years she helped me and I don’t even remember her full name. I probably saw the news report and thought it was just another stabbing.

“Oh no.” I feel my throat closing up and I cough. I can’t think of anything useful or appropriate to say. I mouth the word boyfriend, but for Brenda, the word boyfriend doesn’t sound quite right. I can’t imagine this.

The manager takes my silence as a cue to say more. “We all loved Brenda,” she says. “We saw the bruises and worried about her. We told her to kick him out.”

“Did they arrest him?” I ask, and I worry he could still be out there. Perhaps he’s got keys to all the houses Brenda cleaned. Maybe he’ll break in to steal. And kill again. The thought repels me, because I think it at a time like this, and because I know he could be out there, waiting, and I’m not prepared.

“He’s dead, too. Killed himself when the police came.”

She says this and I feel relieved. I notice that I need more compassion and an alarm system. My eyes burn as if I’m standing downwind from a fire.

“So tragic.” She says this and I hear her blow her nose. “It happened on a Tuesday night. We almost canceled, but Reba agreed to add you to her list.”

I thank her for telling me and hang up the phone. I don’t want to know any more. I go into the bathroom and pick up my hairbrush. I look at the yellow bristles for a long time. I notice more gray hair in the hairbrush than usual. I stare at my aging face in the mirror and think of disasters. I know we’re never really ready.

Someone knocks at the door. And I wonder, as I put my eye to the peephole, if the man I see is really the refrigerator repairman.