I cleaned houses when I was young. Right after college. I had an Art degree that didn’t mean for shit, but it was four years of room and board for free. After that I had to do something, and I didn’t want to go back to Pine Ridge. There ain’t nothing there.
The houses were mostly all right. The spirits would be like they were anyplace else: some good, some bad, and some just bored and looking to stir up trouble. You leave them a splash of Coke and some white-bread baloney sandwich on a napkin, they give you all the talk — who was sleeping around, where the pot was hidden, all that. Mostly what the spirits are is nosy.
But there was this one place, a real bad place, that I remember.
The worst part was, I was out of cigarettes. It was a bad day and we were running behind, and I smoked the last one on the way over.
It was five o’clock, and we still had one house to do, so the lady I was working with, her name was Janice, we figured to rush through it. I asked if we could stop for another pack of before we went in, but she had to get home and eat. She had Celiac’s and had trouble finding anything to eat back then. I felt bad for her, so we just went to this last place to get it over with.
Later on, I found out from the office manager it belonged to a prison guard and his wife and they had a couple of Rottweilers that had scared the office manager half to death. Tried to bite her. She told ’em they couldn’t be home when we cleaned. None of them. I wish she would of said what the place was like before we went in there.
The place was a one-story brown house surrounded by a chain-link fence woven with tin strips and two big bushes spanning the whole front yard except for the front step. Even on the outside, it smelled like wet dog and something else, something bad. A meat smell, old and greasy. The windows were covered with bars on the outside and tinfoil inside. We went in, using a key from the office manager. The door had a rubber seal on the bottom that scraped on the floor. You had to wonder what they were trying to keep out, or keep in. Oh, yeah, and there were about a hundred beware of dog signs in the front yard.
We turned on the lights. Everything was dirty and looked about twenty years too old, like it came from the seventies or somewhere off the reservation. The carpet was brown and torn out in places. It had claw marks down to the wood underneath. The kitchen was gross. A layer of grease over everything. I went to check the toilet and the door was broken. A hole torn right through the wood, with short black dog hair stuck to it.
The way it worked was, you either had the wet or the dry for the day. The wet was the toilets and the kitchen, and anyplace you had to wash the floor. The dry was the rest of the house, and all the vacuuming. You had different kits you had to drag around with you, wet and dry. My partner Janice liked to do wet so I had dry most of the time.
I started at the last room at the end of the hallway. You were supposed to start at the back and leave out the front door, so there wouldn’t be any footprints in the carpets. Like not having footprints in the carpets proved that you’d cleaned the house or something.
I walked into the room and turned on the light. It was the master bedroom with a big king-sized bed and all, too much furniture shoved into too little space, like they got it on sale or from their grandma.
It was a long time ago, and I thought I was a tough little Indian back then.
But as soon as I turned on that light, I knew I wasn’t tough for shit. I wasn’t even as tough as wet dog shit to scrape off your shoe.
The deal was, the room was covered in blood, I mean like it was wet wall paint. The bed was soaked with it. There was a bad mattress under the quilt, too, with a deep holed filled to the brim with blood. The only thing that didn’t have blood on it was the TV screen. They had a big one, a projection screen. You didn’t see a lot of those back then. You could see the streaks where the blood had been wiped off. And if that wasn’t enough, there was some kind of raw skin stuck to the wall over the head of the bed.
“Hey Janice,” I yelled. “Come see this!”
She gave this big sigh from the toilet and started marching out with footsteps like an elephant. She was maybe five foot tall and a hundred and eighty pounds. She used to weigh more, but she’d lost a lot of weight from Celiac’s.
She came in and said, “What you want?”
Janice couldn’t see spirits. She couldn’t see nothing. She was pure deaf and blind as far as spirits were concerned. Although, sometimes she acted like she could smell them.
I pointed at the skin over the bed. To my eyes, it looked like someone had taken the skin off a deformed pig and spread it out on the wall. It was spattered with blood except for a pair of white teeth sticking out from its flat jaw.
“What do you think of that?” I said.
She just shrugged at me. “It’s a wolf skin, Carrie. So what? The guy seems like the hunter type.”
“Kind of kinky to have it hanging over the bed. Watching you.”
She snorted. “That some kind of Native American taboo? About wolves watching you during sex?”
“Nah, I just thought it was kinda weird.”
She went back to the toilet and I heard the sink running. She’d do that when she didn’t want to talk to you.
I took out my dustwand and brushed it over the corners of the ceiling. I couldn’t tell whether it was doing any good. All I could see was the blood.
• • •
“What’s the matter with you?” she said.
I told her I needed a cigarette.
She said, “And I need something to eat. So get your ass in gear.”
I tried to hurry, vacuuming the bedrooms while she dusted the living room, but everywhere I went, I felt something watching me. The walls were mostly fake wood, that shiny pressboard stuff you used to find in old trailer houses. The only pictures were some old paint-by-number pictures of trees and deer hanging in the hallway. I didn’t like them. It felt like something was hiding in the white cracks in the paint.
There were two other bedrooms. The second had a sign on the door: KEEP OUT. I didn’t even look inside. The last was kind of a kid’s room, kind of not. There was a twin bed with a faded train quilt, and about ten cardboard boxes stacked on top. Three of the boxes said DOGS and one said JIMMY and the rest weren’t marked, just folded shut. Except for one that was open. I brushed over the top of them with my dust wand but that was it. It felt like a trap. Also they looked like they were leaking blood all over the place.
After I finished dusting everything I went back to vacuum the master bedroom. The toilet stank of window cleaner and floor cleaner and shower cleaner, ten times as much as anybody needed to use, and I knew that Janice’s nose was telling her something was wrong. But I didn’t say nothing. It wasn’t going to get us out of that house any sooner. Instead I started vacuuming that room.
I vacuumed under the bed and the desk and was vacuuming the rest of the floor in these long, straight lines, when I heard something rattle up into the tube.
I turned the vacuum off right away, but it was too late. Whatever it was had already sucked up into the bag.
Janice yelled, “Well, shit!”
It would have been easier if they had the clear-barrel vacuums like you can get now. If I’d been able to see, I woulda got the hell out of the house. As it was, I unzipped the bag cover and pulled out the paper bag without thinking about it.
The bag was stuffed with all kinds of dog hair, short and black and wet-smelling. Right away my hands and arms started to itch. I gritted my teeth and reached in.
Janice came up behind me. “Tell me it wasn’t a wedding ring. Just tell me.”
My fingers felt swollen from the dog hair, I was breaking out so bad. “Go get me the scissors. I’m gonna cut this bag open.”
Janice always kept a pair of scissors in her kit, ones she’d bought herself. They were the heavy kind you used to cut up chicken bones.
Soon as she left, my fingers touched something.
It was dry and flaky and tough, like something you’d throw to a dog to chew on, only it was warm. I flinched back from it, wiped my hand on my pants, and waited for Janice to come back with the scissors.
Janice rattled around in her kit in the living room, then cursed. “I left them out in the damn car!” she shouted. The front door opened with a scrape, then closed again.
I didn’t like being alone in that house. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I started whimpering and shaking. The last thing I wanted to do was see whatever was in that bag, but I couldn’t stand just sitting there, either.
I screwed my eyes shut, stuffed my fingers into the hole, and pushed up on the bottom of the bag with my other hand. The thing was small and withered and hard, and all of a sudden I knew just what it was. I jumped and it got away from me, sliding down into the dust and the dog hair, and I couldn’t feel it anymore, no matter how much I squished around.
I dropped the bag and ran, dragging the vacuum with me. I had to get out.
Janice had thrown everything out of her kit onto the living room carpet looking for those scissors. I started to toss everything back in. It was mostly squirt bottles and dirty, wet rags that’d probably been down the toilet. I didn’t care. I was getting out of there.
Just as I picked up her kit, something grabbed me on the back of my neck. It was strong as hell, and hot, thick wet liquid dripped down the back of my neck.
I whimpered. It was a spirit, a real bad one. I was lucky I didn’t pee myself.
I said, “I didn’t mean to, please let me go.”
But it just dug in its claws.
“You bitch, taking master’s property,” it growled at me.
I shook and cried so hard there were boogers running down my face. “It wasn’t my fault. It got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.”
“Thieves always say not my fault.”
It breathed in my ear and rubbed its claws on my neck. Something nudged me on the ass. It wasn’t hard to figure out what it wanted.
You don’t last long on the reservation by putting up with that shit. First they think they got you. And then the claws come out.
I threw my head back and slammed into its snout. Then I swung my elbow into its side. Some people say you can’t hurt a spirit, but that’s not true. I wrapped my arm around its arms and punched a fist into its side again. It yipped like a dog. Then its dark, leathery skin disappeared under my fist and I was left punching air as the door opened.
Janice walked in. Of course she hadn’t seen nothing. “The hell you doing?” she said, putting her hand on one hip. She liked to think she was Roseanne Barr. “Practicing your karate moves?”
“I got bored waiting for you.” I was panting hard. I wiped the back of my neck, trying to get the wetness off, but a long stream of it was already running down my shirt. I walked into the kitchen and ran my hand under the faucet, then I stole a paper towel and ran it along my back, under my uniform. It came away covered in bloody spit. I threw the paper towel away in the garbage can under the sink, then pulled it out and stuck it in my pants pocket instead. The small white garbage bag was empty and I didn’t want to risk leaving anything behind.
The scissors sliced across each other in the living room. Janice was opening up that bag.
“Wait,” I said, “Let me—”
But she ignored me and tore open the bag. “I’m too hungry to wait on your slow ass.”
I rushed out to her. She sat on the floor, cross-legged with the bag in her lap. It was pulled open like a bag of microwave popcorn, full of gray dust and wads of dog hair, and she was rooting around in it.
Her nose wrinkled. “Smells like you vacuumed up dog shit.”
“Don’t move,” I said.
The spirit was right behind her, standing on all fours. Its black leathery skin was made of scars. Its ears were bent forward like chicken wings. Its feet ended in claws, not just dog claws but like the tendons had been cut between its toes. Its tail was nothing but a lump.
Its mouth dripped blood.
It stood on its hind legs again. “Two thieves,” it growled. “Two bitches in the house.”
“What?” Janice said. “I got something on me? What you staring at me for?”
I swallowed a big lump of dry spit. “You got a spider on you.”
Well, that did it. She flung the bag across the room and screamed, slapping her hands across her back and shoulders and rubbing her hair so hard it pulled out of her skinny ponytail. She damn near knocked the spirit over. It stumbled backward into a corkboard hanging on the wall by the door, and a bunch of papers fell down in a big clump. The spirit slipped on them, leaving a bloody footprint.
It dropped back on all fours, clicking its claws on the tile. Then it shook its head, spraying blood.
Janice screamed, “Get it off! Get it off!”
I grabbed her and acted like I was brushing at her hair. “Hold still! Hold still!”
All I could think of was getting out. But that spirit was between us and the front door. I pushed Janice down the hall toward the toilet and flipped on the light. The circulation fan started wheezing. I shoved her towards the shower stall and shut the door. The walls in there were covered with blood, too, but the mirror was clean, and so were the shower and the toilet.
I ripped off a handful of toilet paper, tearing off that stupid little triangle they made us fold at the end. I grabbed Janice’s ponytail and scrubbed her hair with the toilet paper. Then I wadded it up and threw it in the toilet and flushed before Janice could see there was nothing there.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Did you get it? Did you get it? What was it?”
I pretended it wasn’t a big deal. “Just a spider. If you would have held still I could have got it off right away.”
She was just about crying. “But I can’t hold still for spiders. Why did you even tell me? You could have flicked it off and not told me at all.”
“It was going down your shirt.”
She grabbed the edges of the sink and leaned forward. Her shoulders jerked a coupla times. Then she spat into the sink and turned the water on, splashing water around the basin to wash her spit down. She musta been real hungry. There was just nothing to come up.
“Good thing you didn’t eat yet,” I said.
“Fuck you,” she said. The fat under her arms shook.
Outside the door I could hear the spirit breathing. I felt bad for it. It hadn’t started out that way. But I guess being in that house for so long, it took in all the badness the way ceiling tiles take in cigarette smoke. First the tiles turn yellow, then brown, and finally black.
Janice reached for the door handle. I could only think of one way to stop her.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “There wasn’t a spider. I just had to get you away from that bag.”
Janice looked at me in the mirror. A streak on the mirror seemed to cover her cheek with blood. “Why?” she growled. “What’s in there?”
I felt it under my fingertips like I was touching it again. Dry and leathery, with hard ridges and a waxy feel in the deep spots.
“An ear,” I said. “A dried, human ear.”
“The fuck you say,” she said. I couldn’t blame her, either.
“I didn’t want you to see it,” I said. “I was hoping I was just wrong.”
Janice kicked the door open. The spirit was right there in front of her, in the hallway, drooling blood onto the carpet in long, spitty ropes. The door slammed in its face, and I thought it would attack her. But she walked right through it and down the hall.
“You’re in for it now,” I told the spirit. “She’ll call the cops on your master.”
“Master kill you,” it growled.
“What?” Janice said.
“Talking to the spirits,” I said.
“Right. Oh, great spirits, keep this fucking Indian from falling apart on me before I get home and get something to eat.”
She bent over, sticking her fat ass in the air, and picked up the bag from the floor. But I could already see where the ear had gone. It had flown out of the bag and landed on the couch.
“Master said to kill all thieves,” the spirit growled. Master was master, that was all, same as a regular dog. It stalked slowly towards Janice. I followed it down the hallway, edging from side to side, trying to see if I could get around it.
The spirit stopped at the end of the hall. I danced back and forth, trying to work up the courage to push past it.
“Good boy,” I said. “Who’s a good boy?”
The hell if its cut-off tail didn’t move once or twice. It stopped growling for a second. Then it started again.
Janice dropped the bag back on the floor, put her hands on her back, and straightened up. “I don’t see anything.”
Her head turned. She was looking at the couch.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “That’s not just some pig’s ear chew toy.”
Then she reached for it.
The spirit leaned back on its hind legs, getting ready to pounce.
I jumped on its back and dug my fingers into its shoulders. I tried getting my arms around its throat, but it was as big as a bear.
The spirit flew forward and jumped onto Janice’s ass. She slammed into the carpet with her arms spread wide out. I couldn’t tell how badly she was hurt, because the spirit kept running across her and straight into the wall, trying and throw me. My head hit the wall, but at least I got one arm around its neck.
“Bad dog!” I shouted. “Down, boy. Down!” I didn’t know what else to say, and I was dizzy from slamming into the wall.
“Not Master! Not Master!” the spirit growled at me.
It bucked and kicked and twisted around and tried to bite me. In about a second it was going to remember it could stand up and pull me off.
I got my other arm around its neck, locked my fist over my other wrist, and jerked backwards like I was going to throw myself off. I didn’t, though. I kept my legs locked around its sides. I wasn’t going anywhere if I could help it.
The spirit choked. It rolled on the ground, knocking the air out of me, then got back on its feet.
“Bad dog!” I yelled again. But it didn’t come out much more than a whisper. “Down! Sit!”
It ran into the wall again. That time I saw stars.
I knew I couldn’t hang on much longer. My arms were burning and I’d be unconscious soon.
So I let go.
I rolled off and into the TV. I grabbed it before it could tip over. I knew that no matter what else happened, I didn’t want to be breaking that TV. As soon as I had it steady, I turned around. The spirit was guarding that couch, leaning back on its hind legs again, ready to jump me. Janice lay on the floor, her back covered with bloody dog footprints and bloody dog drool.
I stood up as straight and as tall as I could. And I thought about my ancestors. I had never seen one, just spirits. But all the same I imagined them lined them up in rows behind me.
“Bad dog,” I said, pointing at it like I was selling hellfire at some church. “You get down right now.”
It jumped for my throat.
I punched the spirit’s nose with my forearm. Its jaw clicked shut and butted into my chest. It missed my throat but the weight carried us backwards into the TV.
The TV slid off its stand and I landed with my head against the wall. Luckily I didn’t break the TV or my butt would have been cut to shreds. The spirit took its jaw out of my armpit and snapped at my face. Its breath smelled like stale cigarettes or the smell in the fall when it rains and all the earthworms come out on the sidewalks to die.
It lunged for my throat again but I got an arm up in its jaw, back behind its teeth. It clamped down but I pushed back with my arm and it started gagging. There was blood everywhere, all over my shirt, coming from the spirit’s mouth, coming from my arm.
With my free hand I grabbed the spirit’s ear. It didn’t just look like a dried-out chicken wing, it felt like one. Some kind of infection make the skin sticky and waxy. I gagged but I held on as hard as I could and twisted.
I felt bad even as I was doing it. The spirit was just doing what its master told it. It howled around a mouthful of my arm and tried to let go, but I wouldn’t let it.
Any second it would start shaking its head and snap my arm if I didn’t back off, so I pushed on its jaw again. It was killing me to make myself push down harder on those teeth digging into my arm, but I did it.
As I pushed I could see the skin inside its mouth, wet and pink with black speckles. Its teeth were all red with blood. Its eyes were so wide you could see the whites around the these gold-gray eyes. They looked sad and scared, now that I was looking at them up close. It gagged around my arm and tried to get away.
I pushed the spirit’s mouth until it had all four feet on the floor. Then I twisted its ear even harder, and it howled. I jerked my arm free. Then I grabbed the vacuum cleaner. My hand was by then, and I almost dropped it. I’m pretty sure if I would have, I’da been dead now.
But I didn’t. I slammed the base across the back of its neck. The spirit sank down on its forepaws, whimpering like a puppy.
“Bad dog!” I shouted. I wiped my hand on my pants and slammed the spirit across the neck again. “Bad dog! Get down!”
What was left of its ears flattened down, and it crouched low, wrinkling up its scarred leathery face.
“Don’t hurt, Master. Don’t hurt.”
I lowered the vacuum. The spirit stayed low. Its nub of a tail started wagging, and I had to look away. I looked at the TV instead. It was too heavy for me to lift by myself, but at least it wasn’t broken. There was blood everywhere, and not just spirit blood. My arm was ripped open.
From the floor, Janice said, “Fuck,” then slowly started to get up.
The ear was still on the couch.
• • •
“The fuck happened in there?” she said.
“Bad spirits,” I said. “You didn’t see anything, did you?”
“Just that ear.”
“That was real.”
“We gotta call the cops,” she said. “And they ain’t going to believe any of your Indian bullshit. So you just keep your mouth shut. The story is, they had a dog hiding in the bedroom. It attacked you and I chased it off. Neither one of us knows what happened to it.”
“Okay,” I said.
“They got a dried ear in their house. Who’s going to believe that they didn’t have another dog?”
We stopped to get rid of some pot she had in her glove box, in case the truck was searched. And then we went back to the house.
Janice called the police. She said she was the one who had vacuumed up that ear. She wasn’t taking credit, it was just better if the old white woman found it, not me. Less for the cops to argue with.
Then she called the office manager. We didn’t know if we would get fired or what. I started to worry that the owners would come back, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Luckily the next time someone pulled up in front of the house, it was the cops, not just one or two, either. I think they sent every cop in town to check it out.
Janice got an award and a bonus. I got nothing. Except Janice gave me part of the money later on. Not quite half but enough for a three-hundred-dollar beater and a tank of gas.
I didn’t buy a car. I thought about it. I bought a couple of dogs from the pound instead, two Rottweilers that showed up one day with their ears all scarred up. In the end I couldn’t do much for them. They never trusted nobody but each other, dog or human. But I kept them until they finally both let their last breaths go and went to sleep.
Sometimes I leave them cut-up hot dogs on a napkin and a splash of Coke, just like they used to like.