Being a window washer isn’t easy. It’s tiring to reach and stretch all day, hefting ladders and lugging buckets, but it’s good exercise. And it has other perks: you’re making the town sparkle.
The window washing company sent me to do a seniors’ apartment building, two storeys high. The old folks had been warned that I was coming and were told to shut their blinds if they didn’t want a stranger on a ladder peering in. Only a few shut them. Maybe they forgot or maybe they didn’t care who looked in. Maybe they wanted someone to witness their existence. I suspect some had few friends to “look in” on them.
Those who were home either waved at me—some ladies even sending flirtatious kisses)—or ignored me, eyes fixed on television screens or laptops. Many were out though, and each suite was a stage on which I imagined a life story playing out. The props were comic, sad, intriguing, revealing or puzzling. The stuff folks collect is surprising. Suggestive.
It’s made a sociopsychologist of me.
There were hoarders and simplicity-addicts living here, high-tech folk and old-fashioned. Signs of nostalgia abounded among the unused Christmas presents from grandchildren: the shiny espresso maker never used, the smartphone still in its package while the instruction pamphlet lay crumpled on the floor as if thrown across the room.
“Are you kidding me?” I imagined some old guy saying.
I saw erotic sculptures on shelves, hash pipes on windowsills, leaning towers of tissue boxes, piles of toys (for visiting grandchildren?). I saw TV schedules copied out in large print and official “Don’t Resuscitate in Case of Heart Attack” forms prominently displayed on refrigerator doors. I saw fax machines, printers, un-returned library books and ancient newspapers. There were birds in cages and cats curled up on armchairs (cats weren’t permitted, but I certainly wasn’t going to say anything). There was an old dog wearing a blue jacket with white letters, reading: “I’m a Service Dog, and a Rescue Dog.” What he wasn’t was a guard dog; he didn’t even look up when I began clattering outside the window.
I let the sleeping fellow lie.
Far be it from me to interfere with anyone else’s life choices. After all, I’d gone to jail to defend their right to make them.
The handgun I saw in one suite gave me pause. Was it real or a replica? Either was illegal to display in public. But this was displayed in private.
Except that I saw it, and I’m the public. In this job though, I see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil.
Still… what if the gun was real, and loaded? What if I hear next week that a murder had been committed, and I had said nothing to prevent it? A window washer is a philosopher too, asking important questions. The intimacy of looking into windows, which is to say into lives, turned me into an ethicist.
I wouldn’t call the authorities about guns; cops and I were not friends. So, whatever old guy owned this one was safe from me. (Or old girl? Why not, maybe she defends herself from elderly lechers.)
I had seen plenty of porn magazines through the windows. Not that that necessarily signifies anything about guns and lechery. Not all the porn I saw was the well-thumbed teen-style magazine style, either; the scene visible on one computer screen made me avert my eyes. More psycho-analytical questions: did the owner of this porn leave it there by mistake? Would he be embarrassed when he came home to clean windows and realized it had been seen?
Or had he left it for me specially? A treat, a joke, a challenge?
I saw plenty of binoculars too. Birdwatchers? Maybe; it’s a well known hobby among the elderly. And cooped up here in winter it must be a treat to see a soaring eagle or raven, a chickadee chattering or a hummingbird hovering in the shrubbery. And here too was a telescope. Was it trained on the night sky, or on the neighbours’ windows?
Again, far be it from me to police others’ doings.
What was the motivation of the cops who arrested me during my protest last year? Do they not themselves care about civil liberties? Freedom of speech? They themselves do plenty of speaking – through their union – but I guessed, being police, they believe in a police state. They weren’t always police. Once, they were kids, students, other things… but maybe they were those kids who found rules safe and tough-guy enforcers awesome. My father had been one of those. And what was the motivation of politicians so careless about constitutional rights, and lawyers who didn’t have time for me, my being a Legal Aid Client? Doesn’t pay, Legal Aid. It literally doesn’t, having been cut back for years as has free speech under Identitarian ideologies. Ethnic groups get aid; outliers like me, no.
“Move on,” said the cops at the government buildings. I wouldn’t. So the handcuffs come out.
I was in jail for two days and got myself bailed with a promise to appear for a hearing. Then I got a suspended sentence with a promise to the judge to stay away from government buildings. To be good.
But I still had a criminal record, which is a devil of a thing to have when you’re looking for a job.
That’s why I’m glad that window washing is more interesting than I had expected. I have a window into my fellow citizens’ lives. Looking through a glass I make less dark is like reading novels – or flash-fiction, at least. A stage set and a few props and you can fill in the whole story, the whole biography.
One old woman, bent over a cane and walking stiffly, left her suite as I began her window. She had covered her walls with posters from World War II London. She also had a framed letter from the Queen. No: a birthday card, so she must have been a hundred. Quietly she had decided to remove herself from the gaze of the window washer, just as she had quietly hidden from Hitler’s bombs during the Blitz. I could imagine her as a Bletchley code-breaking woman. She knew where her loyalties lay, but that kind of identity was at a discount these days. It was for her that I protested at government buildings, like the people in the Nazi Germany had not been permitted to do.
After lunch I did the bigger apartments. In one I saw an enormous train set laid out complete with mountain tunnel, farms and villages. I polished that window a lot, not wanting to stop surveying this miniature world. I imagined its creator’s parallel life inside it; humans are so talented at double lives when the one they’re living gets boring.
And the flags! Who knew so many people loved flags? I guessed it was a cheap way to adorn walls. Pride flags, maple leaf flags, dozens of national, college and club pennants. It flashed the owner’s allegiance to any passing window washer, or maybe reminded you yourself of where it lay. Or of where you’d been, where you came from. The steadying effect of symbolism, I mused.
Signs of ritual abounded too. Four o’clock was teatime. I climbed my ladder to gaze upon a table set formally for one: good china, cloth napkin, plate of biscuits, flowers in a vase. Next door at the same time an old geezer was opening his first beer of the day, setting it on a dusty end table in front of a wide screen on which a sport was being televised, loudly. A stereotypical wiry, working-class, world-weary die-hard, this guy swore when the wrong team scored.
His tea-drinking neighbour was tall, erect and dignified. I couldn’t see the titles of the books lining her shelves, but I guessed history, classics, Good Fiction. In my imagination she was a retired head mistress or a professor, from a good family with a scholarly father who had supported her ambitions. Scottish, I decided for her. Like me, although I did not come from a family with parents who supported my ambitions.
I had left home at sixteen and hadn’t heard from my parents for years.
Beer-swiller and tea-drinker: on different life paths but both had seen a lot and knew a lot. If you wanted to understand the past century it would be worth recording observations by folks like them. How many had written their memoirs, I wondered? This building was a living museum— the residents had invited the muses into their rooms and lives. The goddesses of music, astronomy, history, theatre, literature lived here. Before I became a jailbird, I was studying Classics at university, at which my father, the last time I saw him, sneered. He took the traditional “when are you going to get a real job” line. He was a businessman. He tried to bribe me to go to a Business School and do something real. I was never entirely clear what his line of business was. He never talked about his commercial empires at home. Whatever it was it let him retire rich, he and my mother travelling all year.
The people living in this retirement home weren’t rich, but were comfortable enough to have private, quiet suites in a place safe and clean. I supposed my parents would leave their money to my sister, or rather her two children. Skip the errant, useless generation, they would think.
Maybe, for all I knew, they were already dead. My sister if she knew would probably not bother to tell me. We didn’t chat. She always had another hopeless relationship to occupy her, usually with an addict like herself.
The sun was dipping now. I was doing the last wing, the one with small ground floor suites. I washed the last few windows in shade. The coolness was welcome— I was tired, although not losing interest in the scenes before me, each displayed behind its glassy portal. As I moved the ladder to the last suite, a one-room “bachelor”, I noticed the dignified tall lady leaving the building and walking along the path toward me. Of course: after tea would come her daily walk.
I climbed the ladder, hoisting my bucket and sponge, and peered into the last room I would view today. In the fading light I couldn’t see much. I saw only my own reflection at first, but then another face rose up, blocking mine on the windowpane, a face startlingly like my own.
It looked wide, white, blurry and fierce. It loomed close, frowning while a hand fumbled for the cord of the blind inside the window. For an instant our eyes met, the face’s and mine. In a flash I recognized him. Him! But… him? Impossible.
My father, here, in a cheap one-room apartment?
Where was my mother then? If she had died my father, like my sister, wouldn’t have told me. We didn’t know each others’ phone numbers or addresses. The face I see is creased with wrinkles, the hair which used to be peppered with grey is pure white, the torso is clad in a grubby T-shirt. We both immediately look away, the peeping-tom window washer and the bent old man.
I was mistaken, I decided. It was an illusion which appeared because I’d been thinking about him. But what my mind resisted my body took in. I felt dizzy, lost my balance and crashed down from the ladder. The dignified tall lady hurried up.
“Don’t move. Are you hurt? Wait until you know whether anything is broken.” She spoke with the precision and authority which, based on the state of her tea table, I would have expected.
“No… I’m fine…” I said shakily.
The window opened. The face looked down then withdrew, the window shut. He had glanced at me there on the ground, shuttered his expression shuttered. Had he recognized me? His face was stony, absent. Was he senile?
Yes, senile. That’s what I took away, that’s what I chose to think as I got up and limped off. As if after all these years I still cared. I dragged the ladder back to the truck, marvelling at the things you see when peering into other people’s windows. Halfway to the truck I stopped dead; a new thought had struck me.
A realization: he hadn’t avoided me for years out of disgust, he hadn’t kept me at bay because of failures of mine, but of his. Rather than thrusting me from him, he had hidden himself from me.
He looked seedy and defeated. He was hiding some sort of catastrophic downfall.
But no, I thought, glancing back at the window now shuttered by blinds, that’s impossible. Regret? Defeat? Embarrassment? Not his style. More likely he’d heard about my jail time, my criminal record. Even if he had recognized me, he would never acknowledge me if he knew about that.
Jailbird or not, there’s no way any son of his would be but a window washer.
About The Author
Flora Jardine writes fiction, nonfiction, dialogue and humorous satire from the west coast of Canada. Recent works have appeared in Masque and Spectacle, The Writing Disorder, Short Humour Magazine, Popshot Quarterly, Island Writer Magazine, Literary Yard, Strands Publishers.
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