Canada |

Thirty-Seven Women

by Carolyn Black

We were a community of thirty-seven women. Each woman lived alone in one of thirty-seven apartments in our six-storey building. The tall caretaker with fine manners did not own the building, nor was he the superintendent. The owner and the superintendent were unmannered and squat. They blustered into our apartments without notice and walked through every room without removing their shoes first, as the caretaker always did. They asked how we were managing but left before we could answer, because we might ask them to fix a smoke detector, heft an air conditioner into a window, or perform various other favours they did not feel were their responsibilities. They treated us with fearful belligerence as though we, the thirty-seven women, were wild animals who might leap at their throats if not mastered. It was the superintendent who vacuumed the hallways with a round industrial vacuum and who was paid by the owner to fix our plumbing. The caretaker, on the other hand, was not employed to be in our building as far as we could see. We did not even know whether he lived in the building. He stood in the stairwells and hallways on his stilt-like legs and took care — he held open the front door when we approached with armfuls of groceries, he warned us of ice on the sidewalks, he reminded us that the weatherman promised rain as we dashed recklessly from our apartments, causing us to creep back in and retrieve umbrellas. Often, when we felt neglected by the management of the building, we invited the caretaker into our apartments to listen to our worries about cracks forming on the walls or taps that would not stop dripping. While we complained, he smiled politely. And sometimes he fixed things that the superintendent had not yet fixed — he patched up the cracks with a rusty trowel and some filler, or brought a plastic case of rubber washers into our bathrooms and tended to the taps. He took our cares upon himself, for that was the sort of caretaker he was. Because the caretaker’s manners were so gentle and his pale hair so long, pulled into a ponytail like a woman’s, we allowed him to come into our apartments and touch all our things, without a thought. Always we spoke of his fine manners and demure smile, when we spoke of him to one another. He had the nicest manners. The nicest manners of any man we knew. That was the first thing we spoke about when we mentioned the caretaker. Oh and his lovely manners, we murmured, our voices hushed with reverence. We were thirty-seven women, all with different backgrounds and experiences, but on his lovely manners, we could agree. At night he made sure we were safe. After we had come home and locked our doors against the night hallways and each other, he walked the hallways, past each door, and we heard his long arms swish-swishing against his yellow T-shirt. It was always the same T-shirt, the colour of the sun in a child’s drawing, and it was always as clean and bright as if he’d bought it new that morning. We lay alone in our beds, listening to the sound of him walking past our doorways in that shirt, and it was a ritual that meant the day was over and we could go to sleep. The thing about him was this: during the whole time he was cleaning up our messes and knocking gently on our doors at three in the morning — just when we were wishing he would knock, just when a toilet had become stuck on a repeated flush — during the whole time he was listening to our fears and watching our lives unravel, he accepted no payment. Not one glass of water after hauling heavy boxes up the stairs, not one homemade cookie, not one wine bottle with a bow. If we tried to offer him these things he would smile mildly and insist that we keep them for ourselves. We might need them. We would enjoy them more than he. He thought only of us. All we could do in return for his unselfish devotion was thank him and thank him in voices that seemed to grow shrill with nerves and gratitude. Sundays were the days that we felt some friction, some rub of unpleasantness and discord in our relationship, when he cared for us less than normal. We were a community of women, all living under one roof, and we liked to do our laundry together on Sunday mornings when we streamed from our building and down the street to the Laundromat, prepared to whiten our whites as church bells chimed forth in the blue air. The caretaker stood at the base of the stairs, in the front entranceway, and when we passed he would avert his eyes from our laundry bags. At first, this seemed polite, but it began to wear on us after a while, as though he, in his clean yellow shirt, reproached us for dirtying the towels, sheets, and clothing. We began to conceal our dirty laundry in grocery bags or gym bags. One woman took to wrapping dirty laundry in a clean white sheet before putting it into her see-through mesh laundry bag. Perhaps we were imagining the caretaker’s distaste, we each reasoned privately. Perhaps he did not like Sundays because we were all out of the building, away from his care. Perhaps that was it, but we knew that he did not like Sundays.
I myself once walked past the caretaker with a load of dirty dishcloths and underwear in my arms. I felt ashamed for mixing the two, for being so unsanitary, although I could not decide whether it was more unsanitary for underwear to be against dirty kitchen things, or kitchen things to be against dirty underwear. In my apartment, throwing the laundry into a bag, I had not felt this shame. I only felt it later, as I passed by the caretaker and his averted gaze. He had such good manners himself, it was hard for him to be around people who dirtied laundry and carried it through the streets. I was not a good person, I thought. Then in my mind I blamed him for this thought. Not long after the day I laundered my dishcloths and underwear, he disappeared. At first, the other women and I were more guarded than normal, but after a week or two we became confiding. Phone numbers were exchanged and a steady currency of homemade baking and steaming casserole dishes flowed through the hallways. We even began to take liberties, expecting our knocks to be answered, expecting our calls to be returned. Shareen began whistling on the stairwells, Doris came home drunk one night and lay in a happy trance on the hallway floor, Vanessa received a different man into her apartment every weekend and screamed into the night. Miriam and Lucy moved in together and painted the walls with murals. Doreen, Junie, and Sasha built a set of bike racks for the basement. Agnes threw a dinner party for Linda, Augusta, and Lulu, after which Linda got severe food poisoning and was driven to the hospital by Denise, and fed soup the next day by Tammy. Jean, Gwendolyn, Padma, Patience, and Renee opened a free store on the waterfront and were written up in the paper. Arleane, Malgosia, Jennifer, Lara, Tara, Candace, and Elisa collaborated on a community art project. And I, I gathered together the women remaining — Anar, Christabel, Naomi, Zoe, Yung Mi, Tracey, Michelle, Peggy, Monica, and Leslie — and we planted a forest of flowers and bushes on the roof of our building. We did not speak about the change, about why the caretaker’s disappearance lifted our moods. We never mentioned him at all. Two months after he disappeared, I was wandering through the cavernous basement of our building, looking for a pail or container in which to carry soil (I had been gardening on the roof), when beside the furnace I noticed a door, like the door into my own apartment. The door was partly open and through it I saw a small apartment like my own and a bed. I pushed open the door and went right up to the bed where the caretaker was lying in the darkness, his chest rocking with laboured breaths. I asked him what was wrong. He sighed, as though resenting my intrusion, but told me. Mould growing in the basement walls had infected his lungs, initiating a slow suffocation, his doctor believed. The caretaker’s eyes were red and watery and the skin beneath his nostrils shone with mucous. Feeling something like pity, I reached forward to wipe at the mucous with my bare fingers. He arched away from me, turning his face to the wall, “Don’t. No don’t!” he snapped, for the first time escaping his dignified manner in an effort to preserve it. His disgust with my action was apparent. What I could not understand was that although he had lain sick and suffering, for days or weeks perhaps, his yellow shirt remained clean. I left him lying with his face turned to the wall. I knew he would allow me no further ministrations, for the one thing he never gave was the chance to give in return. This weighed upon me. In accepting nothing from me on that day, he could not have taken more. That Sunday at the Laundromat, I took up a collection for the caretaker. I passed around a plastic laundry basket. When the basket returned to me, thirty-seven pennies lay in its bottom, as dull and brown as extinguished suns.