by Heather Adams
The summer I met Clayton Wingate I’d been cleaning houses in Savannah for two years, enough time to see all kinds of people. Clayton was fresh out of law school up at Emory, and renting the third floor of the Pearsons’ house over on Gaston Street, a block or two west of Forsyth Park. All the houses on that block look pretty much like the others – narrow and tall, set up high with steps leading to the front doors and made of stucco the color of watered-down iced tea. The front doors, all painted different colors, are about the only thing that makes each house stand out. My favorite house is the one with the bright pink door. That pink sure is bright, especially on a sunny day. The Pearsons’ house had a faded pea green door, scratched up and down and not shiny like the others.
The day I met Clayton, I was supposed to be cleaning the downstairs and second level, the floors where the Pearsons lived. They’d recently added a small kitchen to the third level so they could rent it out, but I hadn’t seen it since they’d finished construction.
My brother Robert dropped me off around back, like he always did. Those service lanes are usually crammed full with parked cars, most of them big, foreign SUVs, parked at angles by each house’s back gate. That day was no different. We pulled up beside a silver Volvo in Robert’s old pick-up.
“Couple of hours?” Robert asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t have to do any wash today. They’re still out of town. Don’t think they’re coming back for another month or so, not ‘til this heat passes anyway.”
“I’m guessing I can be done in about an hour today. Give or take.”
“Alright then.” Robert said as I climbed out. I grabbed my purse and wiped my forehead with a tissue. The heat during the afternoon was almost unbearable. I could feel the sweat running down my back. Still, I’d pulled my hair up in a ponytail, and I could feel a slight breeze on my neck.
Cleaning the Pearsons’ house wasn’t too bad. They’d left a note telling me I could lower the thermostat while I was there, as long as I turned it back up when I left. Their house was one room wide, with the staircase on the left side of the hall as you came in the front door. The shine had worn off the dark wood floors a long time ago, and the light blue carpet runner on the stairs was beginning to come apart at the edges. But their furniture was some of the prettiest in all the houses I cleaned. Mrs. Pearson had all the living room couches and chairs covered in pale linen. I always made sure to get the dust off so the linen would stay clean. I’d never seen anything like it. Most houses had dark colors and those needlepoint flowers everywhere.
After I’d finished cleaning that day, I went outside by the back door to wait for Robert. The back of the house had a wooden deck off the kitchen with stairs leading down to the courtyard. Some courtyards in the historic district have things like fountains with pretty white stones around them and little lights in the trees. The Pearsons’ courtyard really wasn’t much more than a walled-in square made of mossy stones, and I waited up on the deck because I always thought it felt damp down there. That day I saw they had built a new set of stairs going up to the third floor so the tenant would have his own way in and out. You could tell where the new part started because the wood was lighter than the rest.
I was standing there waiting for Robert, swatting away mosquitoes, when I heard a door open and footsteps from up above. Just as I turned toward the stairs, the footsteps sped up and a boy tripped on the next-to-last step and landed right in front of me with a little hop. Clutching my purse against my chest, I took a step back.
“Ha! How’s that for an entrance?” He shook his head. “So excited to meet you, I got ahead of my feet.”
“Now you know I’m not gonna fall for that. You didn’t even know I was here.” I smiled, but I was thinking he seemed awfully eager. He reminded me of a puppy, full of energy and probably tiring to be around after a few minutes.
“That red hair’s hard to miss.” He bounced on his feet as he said it.
I brushed my hand over the top of my head. Most days, I wished my hair wasn’t red like my mama’s was.
He was standing there wearing a full suit, I mean the whole thing – navy blue wool jacket and pants, white button-down shirt, and a blue tie with tiny gold anchors on it. I stared at his shoes, which looked brand-new and were the color of those berries that fall on the sidewalks in the fall, after they’ve dried up in the sun.
“Are you from up north?”
“Yeah, good guess. I’m from up north.” He looked like he was trying not to laugh. “As far north as Florence.”
“You mean the Florence in South Carolina?”
“You got it. Can’t pull one over on you.” He grinned.
“So I’m guessing you know there’s no point in dressing like that down here unless you’re heading to a funeral, at least not coming up on July. Sorry, if you are. Heading to a funeral, I mean.” I looked down through the courtyard to see if I could spot Robert’s truck.
“Oh no, nothing like that. I’m supposed to go check out my office today and they said maybe get started on training.” He wiped off his right hand on his pants and held it out for me to shake. “Clayton Wingate. Guess I didn’t properly introduce myself when I flew down the stairs and landed at your feet. You can call me Clay.”
As I shook his hand, I took him in. He looked to be about my age – maybe a little older, but not by much. His brown hair was cut short over a pale forehead and dark green eyes. He was tall and skinny, with big hands. And then there was that suit. I wasn’t sure how he could stand wearing it in the heat. I wondered where Robert was, but I figured he was probably on his way. This Clayton Wingate was still standing there, looking at me and biting his lip.
“I’m Louise. I guess you could call me Lou, some people do. But really I like Louise.”
“You got it, Louise.” He nodded.
While I waited for Robert, Clay filled me in. He’d finished law school in May, spent about a month with his family, and then moved down to Savannah.
“I’m going to be working at the district attorney’s office.” His chest seemed to expand when he said it.
“Aren’t you a little young to be a lawyer? I don’t mean anything by it, just seems like we’re about the same age.” “And I’m nineteen,” I added.
There was that grin again, and his ears seemed to turn red. “I’m twenty-four, but lots of people say I look young for my age.” He shrugged. “Have you always lived here?”
“Born and raised on the south side. I’ve been cleaning houses in the historic district for a couple years now. You know, the people who can afford a house cleaner are over here, Ardsley Park, or on the water.”
“Cleaning houses, huh? Do you like it? I mean, it must be hard work.”
“Sure it is. But then walking around in hundred-degree weather wearing an outfit like that must be hard too.” He started to laugh. That was when I saw Robert’s truck so I started to make my way down to the courtyard. “There’s my ride now.”
“Nice to meet you, Louise.” He lifted his hand in a wave. “Careful on those stairs.”
As I climbed in Robert’s truck, I shook my head. Probably another rich kid, thinking he’s better than everybody else. Still, I liked the way he talked to me – just exactly like he’d talk to one of his friends.
The next time I came over to the Pearsons, nobody was there and the house was mostly quiet. The only sounds were the ticking of the grandfather clock in the living room and those old pipes pinging in the walls. But I could tell the Pearsons were back in town. There was food in the refrigerator, laundry piled up in the small closet off the main hall, and dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. When I went to start on the dishes, I saw a note on the kitchen counter, right there by a plastic bottle of pancake syrup.
“Louise, Back in town for a couple of weeks. Here’s a check for the cleaning up, more since there’s wash to do this time. Tenant upstairs needs some help too. Good guy.” There was a phone number at the bottom of the note, which was sticky and smelled sweet, like syrup.
So I started cleaning for Clay too. He left for work around eight in the morning and asked if I could come over before then. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t trust me to be in his place while he wasn’t there, or if he wanted company. Either way, I told him Robert worked third shift over in Port Wentworth and couldn’t bring me until the afternoon. That was when I did most cleaning jobs in the historic district anyway. I was thankful for the jobs and for the rides in from Robert so it was okay that it was the hottest part of the day.
Clay and I ended up agreeing on two o’clock, every other week. Even though he gave me a key, he showed up most days I was there and said he was taking a late lunch. At first, he was all puffed up about working in the D.A.’s office. Not bragging exactly, but proud, you could tell. My guess was some friend of his father’s had gotten him the job. He didn’t say that, but it was a feeling I had. He talked about all the good he was going to do and how he wasn’t afraid of the threats he might get. I thought he’d seen a few too many movies on TV about mob bosses coming after prosecutors, but I didn’t say so. Being on I-95, Savannah is smack in the middle of what they call cocaine lane so maybe he had a point.
Eventually Clay told me that he had turned down a job at some big firm in Atlanta after graduation. It would’ve paid more, but he wanted to make the world a better place and all that, said it was worth making less money if he could be proud of what he was doing. Most days when I was there and he made it home for lunch, he came in the door smiling. He had started bringing two sandwiches with him, one for each of us.
“Oh, lots to do,” he’d say, putting the sandwiches out on the small table in the kitchen. “Motions to write and I’m heading to court again tomorrow morning. Did I tell you what Judge Hysock said last time?” He’d shake his head laughing and fall into another story.
While Clay talked, I mostly just listened. I could’ve told him which people in town paid me on time and which ones had ants crawling all over their dining room table. But most of the time I don’t think it’s right to tell other people’s private business.
After a few months, that Clay was almost like a different person. It was like the air had been let out of him. He didn’t smile like he used to, and his shoulders sagged like I don’t know what was on them. While we ate lunch, he told me how the office didn’t have the money to hire more investigators. Being the youngest lawyer in the office meant he was left without one. It didn’t matter much when he was doing stuff like traffic court, but he had bigger aims than that.
“It’s not that I’m ungrateful. It’s a good job.” He started to fold up the paper bag the sandwiches had come in.
I nodded. “I know. But there’s more out there that you could be doing.”
“Exactly. Every day the same old stuff. And Tal keeps holding these press conferences talking about all that’s going on here, drugs and prostitution, all kinds of things. He says the office is working on all that. But I’m still so new, it’s like I’m not even part of the team yet.”
Tal was the district attorney. He’d started campaigning for a second term, had his signs up all over town and never missed a chance to get his picture in the paper. A few of the people I cleaned for were having dinners for him, and for that young guy from Macon who was running for mayor. They had me come in more often if they were getting ready for one of those dinners. I didn’t mind the extra work though.
“And without an investigator assigned to me, there’s only so much I can do, you know?” Clay sighed.
“Yeah, I know. Still, I’m guessing you’ll catch their attention soon enough.” I looked away when our eyes met.
“Sorry, I seem to be complaining a lot lately. Here, I’ll clean up these glasses. You haven’t updated me on your mom. Her allergies any better?” He took the glasses to the sink and started washing them with the yellow dish cloth that he kept on the kitchen counter.
Things went on like that for a while. Clay was getting more and more depressed about his job. They were even talking about letting some lawyers go. It was all about money. It made me mad to think that somebody as smart as he was, who got up in the morning wanting to do more than he’d done the day before, might not make it because the money wasn’t there. Even though his parents could help, he wanted to support himself. That made sense to me. He was old enough to do his own thing and be responsible for himself. We both were.
Clay had been with the D.A.’s office going on seven months when things turned around. He was all worked up about getting fired, but then he ended up with the perfect case. He made sure his job was safe and caught a bad guy, just like he wanted – managed to get his boss all the attention he wanted too.
People said the Minola case was the biggest scandal Chatham County had seen in years. Dr. Minola was the new pediatrician in town and he sure did look like some kind of a movie star. He seemed nice enough when you met him too, and you felt like you’d known him for years, even though he hadn’t been in Savannah long. His office was on the first floor of a big townhouse made of gray stucco with white trim – not a smudge of dirt anywhere on it – and a polished brass doorbell in the shape of a pineapple. That house was twice as wide as some others and right on Chippewa Square. There were big oak trees all around the square and palm trees on each side of his front steps. Inside, the wood floors were all shiny and the color of honey, except for in the entryway, where there was black and white marble cut into diamond shapes. Dr. Minola, who wasn’t married, lived upstairs by himself. It turns out he was doing awful things with some of his patients – those poor, innocent children – while their parents waited in the reception area, flipping through old magazines. The newspapers and TV stations were saying that he’d started keeping pictures in his bedroom of some of the children.
The district attorney, in his second term by then, held a press conference just about every day for two weeks talking about the case. And Clay was right there beside him. The weather was cooler so his suit didn’t look out of place. Eventually, he would end up buying a new suit to wear for our wedding, but of course it was navy blue like the rest.
Dr. Minola went to jail and the bank ending up taking the house. The rumor around town was that he didn’t even hide the pictures that got him caught. They were out where anyone who was in his bedroom could’ve seen them. I guess he thought it was safe since the only person coming in there was his cleaning lady.
Heather Adams lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has published nonfiction essays in The State and P31, poetry in Eskimo Pie, and flash and short fiction in Foliate Oak, The Rusty Nail and Daily Love. Her short story “Dream House” won first place in the Center for Writing Excellence October Fiction in Five Contest, “The Dean’s Speech” won third place in the 2011 North Carolina State Bar Fiction Contest, and “The Yes Pile” was named as an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Fountainhead Bookstore Short Story Contest. Follow her on Twitter @Heatherbelladam.