Clean

by Hall Jameson
Eve had been cleaning rooms at the Sweetgrass Motel for sixteen years. She cleaned to feel clean, and that had been working for her.

Until today.

Today, a guest had left her a scratch lottery ticket as a tip.

She was dusting the television in Room 14—a clunky cathode ray tube with a scuffed brown cabinet—when she found it: a colorful slip, offering the chance to win up to $50,000.

The ticket had an appealing design of eight balloons, orange, red, and yellow, stamped on a bright green background with a sparkling gold border. A silver square of latex stamped in the center of each balloon masked the secret numbers.

Something inside her clicked on, then off—a feeling of excitement, intertwined with dread. Gambling wasn't about winning with Eve. It was about the feeling you got before you scratched, before you lay down the cards, before you pushed the 'Deal' button on the video poker machine. She didn't care about winning. She'd won many times. She'd lost many times more, because you had to keep that feeling coming.

To do that, you had to keep playing.

She looked at the ticket. Get five sevens, and you win the big prize. Piece 'o cake.  

Eve tucked the ticket into the breast pocket of her smock. It felt hot against her chest, so she removed it, hiding it in her cart between the tiny bottles of shampoo, covering it with a stack of washcloths.

Her cart squeaked as she wheeled it towards the ruined Room 15, the victim of a party that went all night. The trashcan overflowed with whisky bottles, pizza boxes, and fast food wrappers. The bedclothes lay in a heap at the foot of the bed, and beer cans were stacked on top of the headboard, forming a high peak that almost reached the ceiling. Cigarette butts were everywhere—in the sink, in the tub, in the bed.  

It's a miracle the Sweetgrass didn't burn down last night, Eve thought, propping her sketchbook in her lap, wetting the tip of her pen with her tongue. Cleaning would take her mind off the ticket, but first, she needed to sketch.    The mess after a party was always wonderful for a painting. It was straightforward and smelly and vibrant.

People left behind what they thought no one would see. They didn't think about the maid. Eve had learned some of her guest's darkest secrets from what they left behind. Disturbing things: clipped hair and an empty bottle of dye in the wastebasket, a torn blouse with a spot of blood, a naked Barbie doll with both eyes carved out and the legs cut off below the knees.

She never sketched the guests themselves, preferring to extract a portrait from the remnants of their stay. Then she would clean the room, wiping away all traces of their fallibilities; making the room perfect for the next person. Cleaning up their messes kept her in check with her own.

This was the process kept her clean.

Her thoughts drifted back to the lottery ticket, and of her old life. No one had suspected a somber Art History professor with tenure as being a compulsive gambler. It was the perfect cover, at least, until she ran out of money, and friends, and family. All of those things had come a distant second to the thrill of placing a bet.

That was sixteen years ago. Today she still had very little money, few friends, and no family that was speaking to her, but she was in a better place, running a simple life as a maid. Her time no longer spent at the casino, but as an artist. This worked for her, until that damn lottery ticket showed up in Room 14. Now she couldn't stop thinking about it.

A door slammed in the neighboring room, Room 16, the guest, who was A Stay, probably heading out to breakfast. That was good. She liked cleaning the rooms in order, if possible. It was good luck.

It took two hours to clean Room 15. Her average time was thirty minutes per room, and that included her sketching time. She tried to disappear into the mess, but the lottery ticket teased the edges of her thoughts. Her keys jingled in the pocket of her smock. Just a quick scratch with her Honda key would reveal the mysterious numbers hidden on each balloon.

One little scratch ticket won't send me into the abyss. I could scratch, and then go home and paint. That would keep me clean. This time would be different. I'm in control of this now. It doesn't control me. The voice of reason insisted. She headed towards her cart.

So intent on reaching the stack of washcloths, she didn't see the man coming toward her. They collided. His coffee hit the ground with a muddy splat; his muffin bounced across the parking lot.

"Crap!"
            
"I am so sorry, Sir! Are you okay?"  
            
The man stared at her with dim hazel eyes. His dishwater-blond hair was greasy and tousled; clothes rumpled; face unshaven. Cleaned up he would be a rather nice looking fellow, she thought. He wore the smell of rum and cigarettes like an overcoat.
            
"That was my breakfast," he said in a flat voice.
            
"I'll get you another coffee and muffin from the buffet. Are you in Room 16? I was just about to clean that room. I thought you had gone out. I know you're staying with us a few nights."
            
"Yes. I'm in sixteen," he sighed, "and I don't require service while I'm here. I want to be left alone." He turned and unlocked the door to his room, leaving her there, the door falling shut behind him with a soft click. The click seemed somehow disapproving to Eve, the sound your mother made with her tongue when you did something naughty as a child. She stood next to her cart and stared at the door dumbly. She couldn't believe she had crashed into a guest. Usually, she was a master at staying invisible.  
            
The Sweetgrass offered a daily complimentary continental breakfast, which consisted of coffee, sticky pastries, and crumbly muffins. She collected a blueberry muffin, orange juice, and coffee from the lobby and knocked on his door.
            
He pulled open the door looking irritated, and took the tray with a grunt, letting the door fall shut in her face. Eve stared at the scratched brass sixteen bolted above the scarred peephole. A moment later, the door re-opened and she smiled, anticipating a 'thank you', instead, an arm snaked out, and dropped the Do Not Disturb sign over the doorknob.
            
She leaned on her cart, placing a palm on top of the washcloths, trying to muffle the taunting voice of the ticket.
            
To hell with him. Scratch and you'll feel better. Like a superstar! The ticket proclaimed.
            
"Yeah, for five seconds," she said sourly. "Then everything will turn to shit."
          
I could change your life, the ticket argued. People wouldn't treat like shit if you were rich.
            
"I like my life just fine." she spat, yet, despite this declaration, she reached for the ticket. A hand fell on her shoulder, and she squawked.
            
"Excuse me, Miss?" It was the man from Room 16. He wasn't smiling, but his tone was gentle. "I was a jerk earlier, and I'm sorry. Thanks for bringing me breakfast. I'm afraid I haven't been feeling very well lately. That's why I want to be alone. I just wanted to explain that to you, because…ah…well…I don't know why, exactly." He laughed. It came out sounding like a bark. "I don't know what the hell I'm trying to do here…"    
            
"I don't know what I'm doing most of the time, so you're in good company," Eve said, nudging the scratch ticket out of sight.
            
A hint of a smile passed over the man's face, but was gone so quickly, that Eve wasn't sure if she had really seen it.
            
"I have a strange request. I need a little help with something."
            
"Sure. Ask away," Eve said, intrigued by this disheveled, abrupt man, guessing that he needed extra towels, or a recommendation for a dinner place.
            
He studied her for a moment, obviously uncomfortable. "Ah!" He breathed, and shook his head. "I hate this."
            
"Please, just ask," Eve prompted.
            
"Okay, here goes…I was wondering if you could check on me every morning? If you're around. Like I said before, I haven't been feeling all that well, and if I knew someone was going to check on me, I could rest a little more easily. I know it's not your job, but I would see it as a personal favor, and I would be in your debt," he stopped, forehead peppered with perspiration.
            
"Check on you?" The request wasn't what she had expected.
            
"I may be very grouchy and look horrible, but I don't want this to alarm you," he sounded embarrassed. He saw her eyes flick to his messy hair and scratchy beard, and added, "I guess I won't win any beauty contests today, either," he laughed. "And you're already acquainted with my charming side."
            
"Are you sick? I really don't have any experience caring for sick people. Perhaps you should be in a hospital." Eve felt a tinge of panic. "You're not going to do anything to hurt yourself, are you? Please, please tell me you're not going to hurt yourself."
            
"I'm sorry, I've freaked you out. No, I'm not going to kill myself, and I'm not actually sick, per se. I just need some quiet time to get myself together. I thought if someone was checking in on me, I could get through it, and…maybe I wouldn’t screw it up." He gave a dismissive wave. "It's okay; I shouldn't have asked such a ridiculous thing. For a moment there, something about you seemed very familiar to me…but, we are strangers…of course." He stepped backwards towards his room, shaking his head. "I'll be fine. No worries."
            
"No, wait!  I'll do it," Eve said. "I don't understand it, but I'll do it. It's not a problem. I'm here at nine a.m., so I can check on you."
            
"Really? Great…just knock and come in with your key. I may feel too lousy to come to the door. Please don't be put off if I'm a little…um…out of sorts. I apologize ahead of time for anything cruel I may say, or any mess I may make. Don't take any of my crap, okay? Oh, and my name is Jacob," he looked at her with raised eyebrows.
            
"I'm Eve. There's no need to apologize. I have a tough skin," she paused. "So, I'll see you tomorrow, then? Nine a.m. sharp."
            
"Yes, tomorrow." He disappeared into his room, the door closing with a decisive click.
            
She left work that afternoon, leaving the scratch ticket under the pile of washcloths, her thoughts occupied by her strange new acquaintance, who appeared to be fighting hard against something.
          
Perhaps they did have something in common after all.

***

The next morning, the Do Not Disturb sign still hung on the knob of Room 16. The drapes were drawn. She wondered how Jacob had fared last night.
            
The motel lobby was empty as Eve loaded up a tray with coffee and muffins. There was no answer when she knocked on Jacob's door, so she slid her key into the lock. The room was dark. She heard a groan from the floor on the far side of the bed.
            
"Jacob? Jacob? Are you all right?" She clicked on the light. Jacob was on the floor, shivering in a tangle of sheets.
            
"Turn the damn light off!" He yelled.
            
"Oh my God! Do you need a doctor?"
            
"No doctors! Please! I'm okay." His teeth chattered. "I'm okay, Eve."
            
"I brought you some coffee and food." She put the tray down and knelt next to him, offering him a muffin. Despite his shivering, his body radiated heat. He propped himself up on one elbow, took the muffin, brought it to his nose, paused, and promptly threw up on Eve's shoes.
            
"Oh, Jesus. I'm so sorry!" he cried, curling up on his side. "I don't think I can eat right now."
            
"It's okay. Be right back." She returned to him with a cool washcloth, which she draped across his forehead. Soothed by this, he closed his eyes.
            
"I have an angel named Eve," he murmured. He shuddered. They sat together in silence. When he appeared asleep, she tiptoed to the door.
            
"Eve?" Her hand froze on the knob. "There's a bottle of rum on top of the television. Can you take it with you? You can drink it or dump it out. I don't care. Just get it out of here. Please."  
            
"Sure," she whispered. She could just make out the silhouette of the bottle in the dark.
            
"Thank you," he said in a fading voice. "I'll see you tomorrow."
            
"Yes, you will. I hope you can get some rest. Hang in there, Jacob."  

***

Eve eyed the lottery ticket, dog-eared from her handling, with contempt. She had not scratched. Jacob's vice, the bottle of rum, lay next to it on her cart. Co-conspirators. Partners in crime.
            
It was Wednesday. Nine a.m. She approached Jacob's room armed with bottled water and Saltines. She rapped on the door and entered the room without waiting for an invitation.
            
"Get the fuck out of here," a voice growled. Eve switched on the bedside lamp. The room was a mess. The framed faux-paintings hung askew on the wall. The mattress was pushed off the box spring. The desk chair lay on its side.
            
The light was on in the bathroom, and the door was ajar. Jacob lay in the tub, curled into a fetal position. He had stripped down to his boxers and sweat socks. His hands, in the prayer position, cradled an unopened bottle of rum. An open empty pill bottle was in the sink. An assortment of pills were scattered about the bathroom floor.
            
"Rough night?"
            
"You have no idea, but I'm going to have a fucking drink and make it all better, so get the fuck out of here and leave me alone," he barked.
            
"Wrong answer." Eve snatched the bottle of rum from him.  
            
"No!" He snarled. He tried to get up, but his legs wouldn't support him. He slipped back into the tub and began to sob—a broken person. "No," he whined, as Eve dumped the rum into the sink.
            
"Yes," she said firmly, but she felt like crying too. Next, she swept up the pills and tossed them into the toilet.
            
"I have a prescription for those," he mumbled.
            
"Great. Who is your doctor? I'll call and confirm that. Better yet, I'll invite your doc here."
            
"Bitch." He said, without conviction.
            
"Did you take any of those pills, Jacob? Because I get what you’re trying to accomplish here, but if you took any of those pills, that kind of defeats the purpose, yes?"
            
"No, I didn't take any of the goddamn pills. I got faint and knocked the damn bottle over. I needed to lie down for a sec, so I got in the tub. Then you came in and ruined the fucking party."
            
"Not true," Eve said. "I brought you some party favors, see? Water and Saltines. It doesn't get any better than that."
            
Jacob groaned. "Fuck your water and Saltines. I'm sick. I need a drink. I need my pills. I know I told you to check on me, but I don't need your help anymore, so you can leave. Go. Please."  
            
"Nope. I'm staying put." Eve held a bottle of water up to his lips. He swatted it away, but she pushed it back. "Drink," she ordered. "Small sips." He glared at her, but took a sip.
          
"You didn't puke on me this time, that's progress."
            
"Can I have a cigarette?"
            
"Sure. I'll have one too."
            
"You smoke?
            
"I do. It's my only vice."
            
"It's a bad one.
            
"There are worse, like my other ones, for example."
            
"You just said smoking was your only vice."
            
"Yeah, that's because lying is my other one. That, and gambling."
            
"Wow. You're a mess." He ran a hand through his greasy hair and laughed. It was a genuine sound. "So, you gamble, huh? Seriously?"
            
"Yeah, I seriously gamble. Well, I used to. I have placed a bet in sixteen years, but I got a lottery ticket a couple of day ago, and I can't stop thinking about it. I feel like I'm being tested. I've gone sixteen years, surely one little scratch won't kill me."
            
"Don't do it, Eve. I'll be really pissed at you, if you fall off the wagon when I'm reaching for you to pull me onboard. Really pissed. Royally pissed.
            
They smoked in silence, Eve sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, Jacob reclining cock-eyed in the tub, knees crooked over the edge. She studied the walls and stained ceiling, realizing what a shithole her motel was. Jacob watched her with bloodshot eyes.
            
"I have to go. I've got a lot of messes to clean up today. Are you going to be alright?" Eve paused. "Are there any more bottles of booze? Any more pills? Illegal fireworks?"
            
"No, you killed of the last of my backups."
            
"Try to drink some more water. You need some help getting out of the tub?"
            
"No. I think I'll stay right here, thanks. The room starts to shimmy when I move."
            
Eve did a quick sketch of Jacob's room, before she gathered the dirty towels, pushed the mattress back onto the box spring, and made the bed. Leaving her sketchbook on the bed, she went to her cart to retrieve clean towels. When she returned, Jacob sat on the bed. "You didn't have to clean up." He said. He had her sketchbook open on his lap. "Wow! These drawings are amazing. You drew a picture of my mess. Interesting!"
            
"Those are private," she took the sketchbook. "You had no right to look in there!"  
            
"I knew there was something about you that was…creative…I love art too. You're very talented. Do you show your sketches?"  
            
"No. I make paintings based on my sketches, and I don't share them with anyone. They are personal."
            
"Personal to you and me, both. You painted my boxer shorts hanging from the lamp, and my puke-stained towels. A rather cruel portrait, I'd say, but spot on."
            
"I'm not trying to be cruel. I just sketch what I see. It keeps things real. Other people's messes keep me clean," she mumbled. He stared at her. She couldn't tell if he was angry, sad, or disturbed by this. "You weren't supposed to see the sketch," she added in a tone that was apologetic.
            
"I disagree. I think I was supposed to see it. In fact, I think the fact that I saw it, means something important to both of us."
            
"I don't know about that…"
            
"I'm sure of it. Can I have that drawing? The one of my trashed room? My portrait?"
            
"What? Why?"
            
"Please, Eve. It will help me. Can you hang it across from the bed?"
            
She sighed. "I suppose..." She tucked the sketch into the mirror opposite the bed, and stared at it for a moment.
            
"That's perfect. Thanks. I'd love to see your paintings. I hope I see you tomorrow…"
            
"Of course you will. Nine a.m. sharp." She took one last look at her sketch, before the door fell shut behind her with a reassuring click.        

***
            
When she poked her head in the room the next morning, Jacob was exactly where she had left him, in bed, studying her sketch on the opposite wall. He now wore dark, horn-rimmed glasses. His hair was a mess, and he had a week's growth of beard, but he wore a clean t-shirt and jeans.
            
"Good morning." He offered her a tired smile.
            
"You look better today. Did you sleep?"
            
"Yeah. Did you bring more of your work?"  
            
"I brought you breakfast."
            
"Great! I actually have an appetite this morning. We can look at your art while I eat."
            
"I didn't say that I brought my art."
            
"But you did, right?"
            
"Yeah…” She scowled at him, and he laughed. There were five paintings in the back seat of her Honda.
            
"Cool. Let's see what you got."
            
Eve lined the five canvases along the baseboards. Jacob silently studied each one. He looked serious. A laugh would have been horrible, a patronizing comment expected, but this was surprising. His somber attitude was unsettling. Borderline terrifying.
            
She dashed from the room and leaned against her cart. The lottery ticket was in one hand—how did it get there?—her keys in the other. She was going to scratch. Her secret was out. Her lifeline was gone. There was a soft sound behind her. Jacob stood there, one hand extended towards her. He meant for her to take his hand, but instead she handed him the lottery ticket. He took it with raised eyebrows, but didn't say anything. Keeping his eyes on hers, he ripped it up.
            
"Now we're even. You dumped out my booze, remember." He took her hand. "Now, come back inside."
            
They stood together in front of her paintings.
            
"I've never seen anything like these. The compositions are lively and articulate. The palette is purposeful and engaging. I experience something different each time I look at the paintings anew. Are there more of these?"
            
"Dozens," Eve said shyly. "I've been painting the rooms for a long time."  
            
"I want to see them. I need to see them. Others need to see them."          

***
            
Eve rarely ventured out to this part of the city—the shiny part. She smoothed her black cocktail dress nervously and peered in through the broad glass doors of the gallery. She recognized the colors and compositions on the walls. They were her colors. Her compositions, borrowed from guests, of course.
            
Jacob spotted her from inside and marched up to the door smiling, taking both her hands. He was clean-shaven, hair tousled, but now stylishly so; his hazel eyes were sharp and bright. He wore a white shirt with charcoal trousers.

"You made it. I was worried you wouldn't come." He handed her a sparkling water and they bumped their glasses together. She held her glass up to the light, marveling at the shimmering liquid.
            
They walked the length of the gallery, navigating through the crowd. Seeing her paintings on the white walls left her breathless.
            
They paused in front of a painting called "Room 15" and she laughed at the beer-can pyramid, but it wasn't her favorite. Not even close. Her favorite painting was at the very end of the gallery. It was bigger than the others and covered much of the far wall. When they reached it, Jacob squeezed her hand.
            
The composition was simple. It showed a motel room. The bed made, the faux-paintings hung straight, the furniture was nicely polished, and the floor vacuumed. Everything was in its place.
            
The room was clean.
            
She smiled and ran her finger over the title stamped on the placard next to the piece.
            
Jacob's Room, it read.
Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Helena, Montana. When she's not writing, Hall enjoys hiking, photographing grain elevators, and cat wrangling.

© 2011, Hall Jameson