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A Variation in Temperature
by Al Bray
Across the dry wooden porch quick footsteps clattered and John Morris rehearsed the woman's name—Marie—and the greeting he'd prepared—Hello, I'm John.
The bell rang and John moved into the mud room, running a hand through his sparse hair. But it was a back that faced him through the lattice-work of the mud-room door; a back with a drape of dry hair hanging tense over narrow shoulders. If she'd heard his steps across the floor tiles, the woman gave no sign and only pivoted around when he opened the door. Bluish-gray smoke eddied around her head and she threw something into the bushes at the side of the house.
It was out—the cigarette, she said, making her red-rimmed eyes wide. I'm Marie. She shrugged, as if to say—I'm the only Marie you're gonna get. I'll look around, tell you what I think, she continued, brushing past him, leaving his hand outstretched and empty.
At that moment, John's dog Molly, roused from her slumber, sped down the stairs, her unclipped nails scrambling and scratching against the wood—a sound of longed-for rain. She barreled into the mud room and John shoved her back with his knee.
Does he bite? Marie asked.
She, John said. She's very friendly. He offered Molly his hand but the dog nosed him away and whined, impatient to sniff the stranger. She'll sense if you like her.
Maybe you can keep it chained up.
No, he said, his voice cracking higher, no. He cleared his throat and smiled. So, it's nice to finally meet. I feel as if I already know you from our phone tag.
It seemed a reasonable thing to say, he'd said it to others and received a grin for his trouble. To date, he and Marie had only communicated in recorded statements, filled with unanswered questions and gaps. He'd felt absurd leaving the second message. Helloanyone there? It's Mr. Morris—John—please call me John. I hadn't heard back, I thought I'd call again, I guess you're not there. Well. Please call me.
In her response, a different kind of silence hung between downward inflections—Marie—Duffy, yeah, I can be there Tuesday. Bye.
The flesh and blood Marie snapped her head up several degrees and glared at him as if he'd blurted out a reference to some greater intimacy they'd shared, one she wished to forget. What I mean is—the phone messages—we've never actually spoken before, he said. Phone tag, it's just an expression.
She looked away, still frowning, but he had the impression she was very aware of him, more aware than the average person would be. She must be struggling to place him, to render him sensible. You're John Morris, she said. Maybe she wasn't used to friendliness.
I am. And you're Marie Duffy.
Who's been doing your cleaning? This floor's filthy.
Well, the dog, he said, spreading his hands apart, and—
The dog, she said. She clucked her tongue and squinted at him through a fringe of hair which had fallen across her face. You live alone—you said that on your message. Men don't know how to clean.
Was that true? It did seem that women had a confidence about housecleaning, an élan which many men lacked. Women had access to a particular knowledge base as well, drawing on it to, say, know that soda would lift a stain, or that vinegar could be used to clean mirrors—these were not things men were taught. His daughter's house was immaculate—had she at one time received special instruction from his wife? In the past few months, he'd tried to figure things out, but had finally admitted failure. At least he'd done something about it. Three days before, as he'd turned from paying for the newspaper at the General Store, a flier on the bulletin board caught his eye and he paused, suspended between going and staying. HouseCleaning-ReasonableRates. The letters were run together, all at the same slant, as if the writer had labored to place them between lines carefully drawn with a child's plastic ruler. Along the bottom edge, a fringe of torn strips had a phone number written across them, like streamers at a used car lot. Looking up, he saw a number of other advertisements for housecleaning, machine-printed on pastel paper with images of mops and brushes and suds. References, experienced—they boasted. Their strips were in demand, their bottom edges made gap-toothed grins. He'd torn off one of the handwritten ones and put it in his pocket.
Mind if I smoke? Marie asked, squinting even harder. No, you do—it's okay, she said, unwrapping a stick of gum and jamming it in her mouth before he could respond. Come on, show me the house. She pushed Molly away with her knee and headed for the kitchen, speaking in a nasal monotone. Will you be here when I clean? Because I don't like to do single men's houses if they're around. The gum smacked. You don't mind cleanser smell, do you? Because it's pretty hard to clean without it. And I don't do windows, were you going to ask me?