I Won't Clean the Tub | Issue 3
by Kathryn Mockler
This month I share a nonfiction piece I wrote for Geist Magazine in 2018 and that I recently adapted into a short screenplay.
It’s based on my experience working in housekeeping at a hotel.
I Won’t Clean the Tub
He said he just wanted towels. There was no reason to be afraid.
I worked as a chambermaid in a small hotel in Montreal the summer I graduated from Concordia University. It was a four-storey grey building near Mount Royal. Maids were instructed to knock on all doors before we entered and not to clean a room if a guest was still in it. Doors were always to be left open. I remember being told these rules when I first started, but I was more concerned about learning how to correctly make a bed. My boss was a harsh woman with straight hair tied back in a bun. She was tall and thin and had excellent posture and looked more like a ballet teacher than a hotel operator. She wore green dresses and a strong-smelling perfume that lingered in the hotel rooms and hallways long after she had checked on my work. She was very strict, very unfriendly and very concerned about my hospital corners, which I always failed to get right. “Why can’t you learn to do this properly?” she would say as she demonstrated for me for the tenth time how to make a bed.
Working at this hotel is where I discovered the custom of leaving tips for chambermaids. Once I got a twenty-dollar bill. I was afraid it was too much money, so I took it to my boss.
“What should I do with it? Should I keep it?” I asked.
“Why shouldn’t you keep it?” she said. “They left it for you. Of course you should keep it.”
Despite complaining about my bed-making ability and that I worked too slowly, my boss left me alone most of the time. Sometimes I would do my whole shift and not see her once. I was the only maid Monday to Wednesday, and she worked the front desk answering phones and greeting the hotel guests. The hotel was empty during the day on weekdays. The best rooms to clean were on the third and fourth floors. These rooms were the brightest and biggest and had blue and green and yellow floral curtains and bedspreads. Each had a small desk for letter writing supplied with hotel stationery and pens. The biggest room had a loveseat that I liked to sit in. Often these rooms had families staying in them. I always felt envious of the families on their vacations, their tourist pamphlets spread out on the bed or on the dresser. I looked through the pamphlets even though I wasn’t supposed to. I wanted to be these people travelling to the art galleries in old Montreal, stopping for lunch, having café au lait on a patio. I did not want to be me, who was not only not travelling but also scrubbing pubic hair off their toilet so it would be clean for them when they returned from sightseeing.
The worst rooms to clean were in the basement. These were single-occupancy rooms where mostly older men stayed for long-term accommodations. The basement smelled musty and was dark. The windows were small, the rooms no bigger than closets. The men that stayed in here never tipped and always left the rooms filthy.
I got to the basement on a particularly quiet afternoon well after three o’clock. I knew I was behind schedule, but also knew there was only one room to clean. I quickly grabbed the metal doorknob and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again and said, “Maid service,” but heard nothing, so I pulled out my key and opened the door. The room was dark and the curtains were shut. A man around forty was sleeping on the single bed near the door. I apologized and retreated into the hall, but he said, “It’s all right. Just clean while I’m in here. I want the garbage taken out and new towels. You don’t need to vacuum.”
I paused for a moment. “I’m not supposed to clean while guests are in their rooms,” I said.
“It’s fine. I don’t mind,” he said.
I left the door open and brought my cleaning supplies into the bathroom with my head down.
The room smelled of urine. The toilet looked like it hadn’t been flushed in days. I turned away from it almost gagging and stood in front of the mirror. I was about to clean it when I heard the door of the hotel room click shut.
Suddenly the purpose of the open door rule dawned on me. I tensed and felt prickles of electricity in every pore. Anything could happen down here. The tiny window in the room was triple-paned and sealed shut. No one ever came into the basement unless it was to clean a room. If I screamed, no one would hear me.
I was too frightened to step back into the room but said from the bathroom in a shaky voice, “I’m supposed to leave the door open.”
“Oh, I don’t need it open. I’m just going to be sleeping,” he said.
“My boss wants us to.”
He didn’t answer.
I couldn’t move for a moment. I had to figure out what to do. If I ran out of the room, there was a chance I could unnecessarily escalate the situation. He said he just wanted me to tidy the bathroom. He said he just wanted towels. There really was no reason to be afraid, I tried to tell myself.
I wiped the mirror quickly, my hands shaking. My throat was so dry I could hardly swallow. I said to myself over and over—I won’t clean the tub. I won’t clean the tub. I won’t clean the tub. As if declaring I wouldn’t clean the tub would somehow protect me in this situation.
It was when I bent down to empty the garbage that I saw them. Ten or more used condoms strewn haphazardly around the bathroom floor. And in the garbage bin, a stack of Penthouse magazines, which were wet.
Fear has no time for disgust in moments such as these, so I quickly emptied the bin into my garbage bag and picked up the condoms with a paper towel and threw them in too. I gave the sink a wipe, grabbed the dirty towels, and stepped back into the small, stale, dark hotel room where the man was face-down snoring.
Holding my breath, I walked across the room to the door, frightened he might grab me on the way, but he didn’t. I silently berated myself for being so stupid as I turned the handle on the door. In one second it would be over, and I would never set foot in a room with a guest in it again. Never ever, ever again.
Just as I was about to make my escape with my cart down the hall to the elevator and back up to the reception desk, with its fake rubber tree plant and my boss waiting to admonish me with a scowl, the man said, as if he had never been asleep, “Did you put the fresh towels in the bathroom, love?”
I hadn’t. I forgot.
“Not yet,” I said, trying not to sound afraid.
“Could you please?” he asked.
I gathered some towels for him slowly and debated whether I would go back into the room when I heard the basement door creak open.
It was my boss. She was walking toward me. She was furious. I smelled a strong waft of her perfume as she stood before me.
“You haven’t finished yet?” she said. “Why are you so slow? You are slower than any of the other girls.” Peering into the room, she saw the man on his bed and frowned.
“He wanted some fresh towels,” I said in a way that almost sounded like I was defending him.
“Sir, she cannot clean the room if you are in there.” My boss took the towels out of my hands and put them at the end of his bed. “If you’d like your room cleaned properly, you must leave before two-thirty.”
The man ignored her and turned over on his side with his back to us.
She shut his door loudly and then looked at her watch. “It is half past three. You should be finished by three. I cannot pay you if you take longer than anyone else to do this job. Today I’ll pay you until three-thirty. Tomorrow I will not. You must learn to work faster. And you must learn to follow the rules.”
I started to cry. “Why are you crying?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said, wiping my eyes. But I did know. I was crying because I was relieved.
“I Won’t Clean the Tub” originally published in Geist Magazine, Issue 109, Fall 2018
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis and Send My Love to Anyone, a newsletter on all things writing. She is the editor of the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.
Issue #3 of Send My Love to Anyone
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