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May 27, 2024

Two Fifty Dollar Bills

By Terry Petersen

Cora rubbed the back of her head as she stepped onto the curb. Ooh, that really hurts! Damn, the stress has got me. She turned around and watched the traffic move at least twenty miles over the speed limit. Stress, right. Now that's something like calling the ocean a tad damp. I'm 67, look 80, and feel 105.

On the lawn of a charming three-story red brick house a colorful sign caught her eye: housekeeper wanted, great pay, inquire within. She hadn't recalled seeing it before. The house didn't appear familiar either. But survival had taken all her focus when she got on and off the bus Monday through Friday -- when she'd had a job. She'd gone back today to try to get it back.

"I'm sorry," her old boss had told her. "The company now requires all employees to have a high school education. Besides, can't you retire and relax? You run around like a dog chasing his own tail."

I wash dishes and take out trash. You don't need no education for that. Besides, I ain't got the time to wait for the paperwork.

"Hey," she said to the sign. "What the heck. If the homeowner tells me to go to hell at least I can just turn around and say howdy to Satan. Eviction's tomorrow. Wonder what I should wear for my first day on the streets."

She walked to the door with her back as straight as possible. A junior high teacher had told her gym class that good posture says confidence. Not much else she did was going to do it.

"Wish I'd brought a purse," she murmured. "Could sure use an ibuprofen. Not sure what hit me, but it sure had an attitude."

Uncertain, she knocked so softly only a hound dog could have heard her, but a short, round woman with hair the color of silver Christmas tinsel answered. "Come in. Come in."

"Saw your sign ..."

"Yes. Yes. And do you mind cleaning a house of this size? I have twelve rooms, and none of them are small."

"Huh? No."

"Do you mind being paid in cash?"

"That's, that's fine." Cora tried not to stare at the woman, at least half a foot shorter than she was. She didn't know what to say. She would have pinched herself to see if she was dreaming if she thought the woman wouldn't notice. However, this lady seemed to catch every breath and eye flutter.

The house looked fantastic! The polished oak floor gleamed. The blue leather furniture appeared to be new and easy to maintain. Sunshine streamed through the windows and found no dust. How much would she need to clean? And any question she asked in protest would show how inadequate she really was.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I don't know your name."


"And yours?" Angela cocked her head to one side.


"Now is $200 a day enough?"

Cora gasped.

"Then follow me. I will show you your room. Then I will remove the sign from the yard."

"That's it? I'm hired?"

"You will clean whatever you see that needs to be done."

"There's gotta be a hitch to this," Cora said, sorry she'd opened her mouth.

"Not a hitch exactly," Angela answered. "But it isn't what you might expect. I will pay you half in advance." She reached into the pocket of her old-fashioned flowered apron and pulled out two fifty dollar bills. "Perhaps you will be able to confront what is in your way as you work here. And by the way, I suspect your headache has lightened."

"How did you know ..?"

"Your forehead was as wrinkled as a bulldog's when you came in. And your eyes were scrunched together so tight you almost had one eyebrow. Easy-to-interpret signs. By the way, I read people extremely well."

"Oh." That made sense. Sort of. Cora scratched the back of her neck, a nervous gesture.

"When can you begin?"

Afraid the money could be taken from her as easily as she had received it, Cora stuffed the fifties into her pocket. She glanced around until she saw a broom propped in a corner.

Angela seemed to notice. "Now that is the kind of attitude I like. We will talk later." She pointed out the door to Cora's room, waved and went outside.

Cora expected her to return with the sign tucked under her arm, but when she peeked outside she didn't see the silver-haired lady or the sign. And she didn't see anything that needed sweeping either.

She sighed. Clean what needs cleaning? Yeah, sure. Angela searched the house. It was sterile enough to perform surgery. Then she opened the door that was supposed to be her room. She gasped. Dust filled the air. She opened a window and then ran to get bug spray. Spider webs filled the corners of the windows. Clothes lay on the floor.

When she picked up one of the t-shirts she recognized it. Her husband's favorite: tie-dyed with IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO HAVE A HAPPY CHILDHOOD printed across the front. The brash colors irritated her. He had worn it the day he left to pick up their daughter from kindergarten. He'd been home sick, but she was gosh-darned sure he was faking it. He'd had an argument with his fix-it shop partner. Cora figured this was Jake's way of getting even. The business hadn't been doing well enough for silly feuds. So she insisted he pick up Millie that afternoon. Then she could finish laundry.

He'd had a heart attack on the way home and crashed into a tree.

And Cora thrived on bitterness. Friends ran away. So did the money.

She grabbed the shirt, uncertain whether she wanted to tear it apart or cry into it. "How can there possibly be two shirts like this one?"

No one answered. Angela had not yet returned. Cora felt the fifties in her pocket. She remembered what the silver-haired woman had said. "We will talk later." Cora considered running, but she had no place to go. "We will talk about what?"

The only thing she knew to do was clean, get rid of garbage, scrub. She held her breath as she opened a closet because she suspected the unpleasant surprises had not ended. Yet. She saw a cardboard box of toys and knew the next horror had arrived -- on top of the stack lay a naked doll with over-combed blond hair. She remembered how she had lectured Millie about taking off her doll's clothes and leaving them scattered all over the house -- hours before she would never see her again. And this doll was an exact clone.

Cora dropped the doll and screamed. Maybe it was better to live on the streets than to talk, to face that day again. She sobbed until she didn't think she had any energy left.

She had not heard Angela re-enter the house and come into the room. "You can let go now," she said.

"Let go of what?"

"You did a spectacular cleaning job," Angela said. "I trust you destroyed the cobwebs of your past and said goodbye to the guilt you created in here."

"I didn't do nothing."

"Well, actually I took your experience and gave it shape in here."

"Who are you and what is going on?" Cora's eyes widened. She wanted to run but stood frozen.

"You don't remember how you got that headache, do you? But don't worry. This memory lapse happens often after a sudden fatal aneurysm."

"I may be dull as a rubber knife, but I know what fatal means," Cora said.

"And you are absolutely right. This may not be as terrible as you think it is. Perhaps you need to know you are forgiven. With absolute certainty. Come. You have visitors. They want to take you home."

The front door swung open and a five-year-old girl ran inside. "Mommy, Mommy, I have been waiting and waiting for you. Daddy is outside. He said to hurry."

Cora looked down at her arms and saw young, untroubled taut skin. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the two fifty dollar bills, and handed them to Angela. "I don't need these anymore."

She ran out to meet her family as Angela placed the same sign in the front yard: housekeeper wanted, great pay, inquire within.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-08-31
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
4 Reader Comments
Mary H
07:06:55 PM
What a sweet story. I just loved it.
08:20:16 PM
Great story!
06:50:39 PM
What a twist at the end! I knew that she was cleaning her past, but the aneurysm totally surprised me. Great job, Terry.nouis lin
10:13:03 PM
Thanks! I appreciate your comments and encouragement.
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