When Carla started in her full time position at the Draper household, Betty outlined what she would be asked to do. Of course Carla would care for the children and Betty’s aging father, she would cook, and every day she’d have a battery of cleaning tasks.
How and when she cleaned, what her process would be was mostly left up to her. She always started in the kitchen. That was the space she felt the most comfortable in. She swept and then mopped. She ran a rag over all the cabinets and the counter surfaces. She used a metal cleaning fluid on the faucet and the sink, and the dishes were done on a rolling basis.
Carla hadn’t grown up in the kitchen; that was her mama’s territory. She and her sisters were never invited and they were particularly discouraged from entering when both parents were at work – too many sharp objects, too much potential for mess. No, for the Green girls the kitchen was a space of fantasy – always off limits and also the source of the delicious foods their mom concocted. Each meal’s presence was announced ahead by a set of luscious smells wafting out to where the girls played on the back stoop or on the big old couch in the living room.
When their mom died, Carla was sixteen years old. The night after the funeral, she entered the kitchen to take stock of all the casseroles and pies and things their neighbors and friends and relatives had made, but, looking around, she barely knew what to do with them. That was her rough and very sudden introduction to the kitchen, and it was an addition of insult to injury that she, the oldest sibling, had so much more responsibility now under such circumstances. She had resented her mother for that, but later, looking back, she wondered if her mom had known that each of her little girls would soon enough spend all their time in other people kitchens, white people’s kitchens. Maybe she’d wanted to spare them that so early in their lives.
Anyway, that didn’t matter anymore. After those initial bumps, Carla had fallen easily into her mama’s old role and done everything that was modeled for her such that her only feeling in there now was ease.
When Carla moved to clean the Drapers’ living room, there was a feather duster involved, a vacuum cleaner. And of course she used her own two hands to pick up anything the kids had strewn about. Once a week, she used a wood polish on some of the furniture and a silver polish on the appropriate odds and ends.
She might’ve expected that picking up after Sally and her occasional friend would just underline how different their childhoods had been – different race, different class, different generation, and even different region with Carla having grown up in Jackson, a far cry from the suburbs of New York. But as it had turned out, that wasn’t the case at all. It may have been because Carla saw in Sally a whole person, she might have been the only one who did. And she saw in her so many of the same rudimentary dreams and aspirations and anxieties that Carla herself had felt growing up.
She thought of all the ways she had schemed with the oldest of her younger sisters, Janelle, to impress their mom and dad, and she thought how much Sally might benefit from a sister, how glad she was that she’d had them both.
Janelle and Darlene still lived in Mississippi. Carla was the only one who had ventured this far from home even now that they’re dad was gone too.
The pillows and rugs required attention at the end of each month. Carla made sure to bring a big canvas bag she sometimes used for grocery shopping from home so she could haul all the throw pillows and the bed pillow out to the back year and beat them vigorously with the handle of a rake over a large black tarp. Betty said this released the dust and fluffed them up. Carla was incredulous, but she didn’t give it much thought.
The rugs were more difficult, requiring her to move all the furniture off, roll them up, carry them out and hang them on the laundry line where they could be similarly beaten. Unsurprisingly, she preferred the pillows.
Carla liked to think she’d met her husband on a pillow. Really they’d come to know one another through friends, who said they’d be great together. As per her norm, she’d remained reserved when they’d run into each other a few weeks later walking from the movies, but the electricity of attraction that ran between them was impossible to ignore and that night they’d made love in the most passionate fit of heat that twenty-four year old woman had yet to experience.
It wasn’t until afterwards, however, in the conversation that ensued when their bodies were all spent following three rounds of burning rubber, it wasn’t until then that she felt they really met with their heads resting on the throw pillows she’d slept on in those young adult daybed days.
That’s always where her mind was each time she beat the dust out of the Drapers’ fluffy furnishings.
Carla didn’t know what Betty Draper had thought she was getting when she hired her. Sometimes she suspected this rich woman wanted a machine – a silent, efficient machine. She definitely didn’t want a person, a woman, a Black woman; she didn’t want Carla Green. But it was Carla who came every day and it was Carla who cleaned that house spotless from floor to ceiling. And how could she do it in other way than by bringing herself, her whole self, and everything that made her who she was into that house to do the work that needed doing?