The sly wink of the title caught me: Cleaning Women or Cleaning Women? I had intended to tear through the daily mail, but paused to look at this collection. As a horse racing fan, I started with “My Jockey,” the shortest story in the bunch.
Bam. Right into an Emergency Room where jockeys have “wonderful X-rays” because they break bones, tape themselves up and keep riding and “(t)heir skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs.”
The first jockey I met was Muñoz. God. I undress people all the time and it’s no big deal, takes a few seconds. Muñoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec god. Because his clothes were so complicated it was as if I were performing an elaborate ritual.
She soothes him, as one would a horse. “He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.” The end.
The story is a prose poem of thought bombs. Berlin ingeniously shifts tone within just a sentence, and juxtaposes wildly different observations. Just a page long, and five paragraphs, it is tightly wound and agile, appropriate for a tiny muscular athlete.
Who was this remarkable writer?
In his introduction to this collection, her friend Stephen Emerson writes that if her stories have a “secret ingredient, it is suddenness. In the prose itself, shift and surprise produce a liveliness that is the mark of her art.”
Born in Alaska, Lucia Berlin published seventy-six stories in her lifetime, and died on her 68th birthday about a decade ago. She lived and worked on the margins, in Chile, Texas, New Mexico, Oakland and Colorado before she died in Southern California a decade or so ago. She mined the rich vein of her life experiences for her fiction, and her stories appeared in very small magazines and presses like Black Sparrow.
Dogged by alcoholism, and in and out of detox centers, Berlin worked as a high school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant in menial jobs like the ones Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Nicked and Dimed. She wrote all through this time, and eventually became a popular and beloved teacher at the University of Colorado.
The forty-three stories in this collection are distinguished by Lucia Berlin’s compassionate curiosity and prose that crackles and feels alert to life. As Lydia Davis writes in her foreword, these are stories that “make you forget what you were doing, where you are, even who you are.”
In the title story of this collection, Berlin organizes the story along the bus routes, and it registers a full emotional scale. It is funny and wry, with instructions for other cleaning women. “As for cats…never make friends with cats” and never to work in a house with ‘preschoolers’…you get shrieks, dried Cheerios, accidents hardened and walked on in the Snoopy pajama foot.” And with a quirky sharpness, she notes: “Never work for psychiatrists, either. You’ll go crazy. I could tell them a thing for two…Elevator shoes?”
But, then there is this: “Cleaning women do steal.” Aware that the women of the house leave a little change in in rosebud ashtrays around to test the honesty of cleaning ladies, she would add a few pennies or dime. She advises other cleaning ladies to accept all the gifts homeowners thrust upon them. Then just leave them on the bus. Finally, though, there’s this: “All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day.”
In her foreword to A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lydia Davis, widely considered to be one of America’s most imaginative fiction writers, and one who also writes short, short stories, expresses a faith that is resonant: that “the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later.” deserves.” With this collection, perhaps Lucia Berlin’s stories will be read, anthologized and celebrated in a way that they never were when the author was alive. Popular success can be fickle, and there is no trace of bitterness in these stories – only a brilliant mind grappling with the world around her.
A quotation could be pulled out of any of these stories, but here’s one of Lydia Davis’s favorite: "So what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. And now it is death that I don’t understand."
Elizabeth Taylor is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago. A past president of the National Book Critics Circle, she currently serves on its Board of Directors, and has chaired four Pulitzer Prize juries.
Elizabeth is the co-author (with Adam Cohen) of American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @etayloretayor.