From the author: An old cleaning lady gets on the elevator, but she might not be cleaning just the ordinary dirt and grime.
It’s late when I push my cleaning cart into the elevator in the basement. Most of the office workers have left the building already, but my shift is only starting. The cart is heavy, loaded with supplies – scrubbers and rags, sprays and polish, broom and mop.
On the main floor, Belinda gets on the elevator with me. She shouldn’t be here this late. She works an entry-level, 9-to-5 job in the desert of the open office floor, somewhere in that dreary maze of desks and screens.
“Good evening, Fräulein Maria,” she says, clutching a folder to her chest as if it were a shield.
Belinda looks like such a nice girl, all cashmere, curls, and curves, but I can smell the sin on her, beneath that expensive perfume she wears (more expensive than she could possibly afford). It’s always in her hair and skin, that stink of vanity and lust. She tries, but she can’t ever scrub that stench away.
“Working late?” I ask, peering at her through my thick glasses.
Belinda’s laughter flutters like a frightened bird.
“Yes, Mr. Latham needs me for some overtime.” She glances at me, then away. “You know how he is.”
“Yes,” I say. “I know how he is.”
My Mama would have had harsh words for Belinda. She was tough on dirt and sinners, my Mama. I try to do god’s work like she did, keeping the world clean of sin and grime, but I won’t ever be as tough as she was.
On the third floor, a man gets on the elevator. Unlike Belinda, he doesn’t really see me. Not everyone does. Old women are invisible to many people.
I smell the sin on him too, beneath the whiskey, breath-mints, and aftershave. The reek of sloth and envy is almost more than I can stand, and it’s a relief when he steps off on the fifth floor.
Sin is the grime that covers up the glory of god’s creation, and we must do our best to rid the world of it. That’s what Mama used to say. She knew a lot about god and sin, even though she never went to church.
“Evening, Fräulein Maria.”
It’s Hammond, the bicycle courier – slim and tanned, clad in lycra. Hammond is a rare one. No smell of sin on them at all. Instead, they smell of air-dried laundry, lemon, and dogs. They are as close to an angel as I’ve ever met.
I nod and even allow myself a quick smile in their direction when they step off the elevator.
Most people here call me Fräulein Maria. One night, someone heard me singing while I mopped, and asked me if the song I sang was in German. I only smiled, and they took that for a yes. Fräulein Maria has stuck since then. It’s as good a name as any. Better than some other names I’ve known.
There is only me and Belinda in the elevator now. Her hands shake when we get off on the top floor, still holding on to that folder, the smell of her sweat mingling with the scent of sin and perfume.
I know why she cries, of course. I know the things she’s done for money. I know she wraps herself in fancy scents and clothes and flawless makeup to make people see her as she wants to be seen, but I know what she really is. I know her sin, how deep it goes. And every sinner should be cleansed. But, Mama forgive me, I can’t help it, I still reach out and pat Belinda’s arm as if I’m here to comfort, not to clean the world as best I can.
Mama always said it was our purpose to do god’s work even if god has turned away from us, even if we cannot step into a church without our skin blistering, even if we cannot pray without burning our tongues on every syllable.
Mama’s last words were the Lord’s Prayer, and she revelled in it, even as it burned her from the inside out.
“You should go home,” I tell Belinda.
“I can’t. Mr Latham…”
“Go home,” I say again, and this time I use my voice the way Mama taught me. To convince. To compel.
Belinda looks bewildered. Then, relief and fear ripple across her face.
“Thank you, Fräulein Maria.”
When she’s gone, I open the door to Mr. Latham’s office.
He is at his desk, lights turned low, sitting there in his expensive suit with his shirt already unbuttoned in anticipation.
Oh, Mama… If you could see him, if you could smell him, you’d be so pleased with me, even if I’m softer on some sinners than you ever would have been. This building, this city, this world is overflowing with sinners, but some are surely worse than others. Belinda is a sinner, yes, but this man reeks of greed and gluttony, of wrath and lust and pride, a vile stink that seeps through the whole building, staining everyone and everything.
He looks up and sees me.
I don’t think Mr. Latham has ever really noticed me before, but in this moment of reckoning, I let him see me as I really am. With a shrug, I shed my cloaks of invisibility: old, woman, cleaner, human. I shed them all as I straighten my back, flex my limbs and fingers, as I remove my glasses, as I bare my fangs.
The world needs cleansing from dirt and sin, that’s what Mama spent her life teaching me, and we must use the powers we were given to serve that higher purpose. God, in their infinite wisdom, made us the way we are, and though society might call us monsters, blood-drinkers, demons, we can still serve the creator if we choose.
Mr. Latham screams and soils himself, but I’ll clean up before I go.
This story originally appeared in R.B. Wood's Word Count Podcast.