Cleaning Au Naturel
"My dear," George said, coming through the front door and stirring the ties on Harmon's white cotton bathrobe, "you look positively worse than the Little Match Girl."
Harmon's lips tightened into a narrow smile. "By all means," he said, "come in."
George had already passed through Harmon's townhouse entry. With one hand on his salt-and-pepper beard, he ran a long finger across the kitchen counter tile. "Filthy," he said. "You'll be nesting birds in your hair next."
Harmon put a hand to his head. His hair was uncombed, still wet from his shower. "I've had things on my mind."
George led him into the living room and nudged Harmon in to one of the chenille shell chairs beneath the skylights. Then he removed his coat and sat opposite. "I'm your dearest friend," he said. "I miss you. The Guild misses you. But this self-absorption must stop."
Two months earlier Harmon's partner of three years, James, had left Portland to take a partnership-track position in a New York law firm. Harmon balked at accompanying him, claiming community ties, their friendships in the Queens' Guild, his directorship of public relations at a high-tech firm. Twenty-six days later Harmon's position was outsourced and, forty-seven years old, he was unemployed for the first time.
"I'm waiting for the final shoe to drop," Harmon said. "Everything comes in threes."
"Not testicles." George looked at the glass-topped dining table where Harmon had left the newspaper in sections. "Looking for work?"
Harmon stared at his shins, small bare sections of bone-white skin among the wispy black hairs. "There are no available jobs for opera critics or arbiters of taste."
"Have you talked to James?"
George's eyes were kind, soft blue beneath the untamed gray hair and accented by the faint crows' feet. George was aging gracefully, handling his fifties with aplomb and relentless good cheer. But why shouldn't he? He had his art, his inheritance, his loving Beck --
"He sent a postcard," Harmon answered. "He's going to London next month."
"And begged you to go along -- again." George looked at a used tea bag resting in a saucer on a nearby end table.
"I can't spend any money right now," Harmon said. He picked up the saucer, put it in the sink, then returned to his chair.
"Frequent-flyer miles? I'm sure that globe-trotter has tons."
The autumn sun was bright through the skylights. Harmon squinted and turned his face away. "How are the rest of the Guild members?"
"Bereft of your company, they are but shadows of their former selves -- albeit in cashmere."
"I miss them," Harmon said.
"Your own fault." George inspected a cracked dry orange birch leaf he had picked up from the carpet. "But this is not purely a social call, I've come on a mission from the Guild and," he held the leaf toward Harmon, "I'm just in time. While we cannot help you in the relationship department or offer you employment, the Guild can -- in its own inimitable way -- take care of its own."
Harmon felt his face redden. "I don't need any charity."
George stood and picked up his coat. "Then consider it a loan. One that you may -- after you see it -- wish to repay in kind."
Harmon followed George toward the door. "What are you talking about?"
George pushed away Harmon's hair and kissed his forehead. "It's a surprise, my dear."
Losing James and his job within days of one another was a huge wrinkle in the normally-pressed fabric of Harmon Weydon's life. He understood that James's opportunity in New York was too good to pass up -- Harmon remembered the sparkle of candlelight on James's large teeth as he talked about their future -- the Met, Chelsea, tea at the Plaza, other things they would re-experience together. Instead of calling the day he had been laid off and offering to join James in New York Harmon had retreated inside his townhouse, venturing out only to attend to his most basic needs.
Three days after George's cryptic visit Harmon, dressed in old khakis and a clean sweatshirt, was looking at the models in a men's catalog when the doorbell rang. After peering through the viewer he opened the door.
"George sent me."
The man was six-foot, mid-twenties, dark haircut close to the scalp, piercing blue eyes with feathery lashes, almost feminine. But the blue tee shirt under the black leather jacket showed a hard flat chest, tiny puckered nipples. He looked almost like one of the magazine models but his jaw was small, making his looks remarkable but not astounding. He wore faded blue jeans torn at one knee.
Harmon realized that his mouth was open, his lips dry. "I don't understand."
The man gestured with long and slender fingers. He held a card.
Harmon took the card in his fingertips. Eric Porter -- Cleaning Au Naturel. He cleared his throat. "Please come in." As Eric passed Harmon detected a cinnamon aroma. An erotic thought came and went.
Eric surveyed the living room, the cathedral ceiling, fireplace, living and dining areas. "Your friend, George," he said, "didn't tell you."
Harmon took Eric's jacket, the weathered lambskin pliant and warm. "He mentioned a surprise."
Eric ran one finger along the painted banister leading upstairs. "George said you needed time to focus on job hunting so for the next month I'll clean your house while you go on interviews, mail resumes, whatever."
"I can't afford a housekeeper right now."
"I'm already paid for." Eric's voice had a youthful quality; he spoke fast, the words clipped.
Harmon felt many things simultaneously -- a curious exhilaration in this handsome young man's presence, embarrassment at his unemployment, anger and gratefulness for George's loving, intrusive gesture. "When do you start?"
Eric smiled, broad flat teeth between large lips. "What about now?"
Harmon looked at his empty cereal bowl and half-drunk cup of tea from breakfast. His face flushed. "I suppose so."
"I'll get my cleaning equipment."
Eric returned with a translucent plastic box of cleaning materials, a feather duster, a heap of white cloths.
Harmon opened the closet door and hung up Eric's coat. When he turned again he saw Eric crouched, removing his socks and placing them beside the tennis shoes. Eric's feet were large, the toes square. Eric rose and pulled his tee shirt from his pants. He lifted it over his torso, revealing a chest with chocolate-chip nipples hiding in a thatch of short dark hairs, recently shaved.
"Unless you object," he said, the knots of his biceps twitching as he folded the shirt, "I work in the nude."
Harmon moved behind the kitchen sink. "George is full of surprises."
Eric removed his jeans, his calves flexing as he stood first on one foot, then the other. He folded the jeans and laid them on the couch. "You don't mind?"
"I take it this is the au naturel portion?"
Eric flashed a smile. "For most of my clients -- yes." His thumbs were inside the elastic of his blindingly white jockey shorts. He pulled them down over his thighs and added them to the neat pile of clothes. Harmon tried not to look at the well-formed penis, circumcised and resting against the hairless testicles.
"The bedrooms are upstairs?" Eric asked. His arms rested at his sides and he looked directly at Harmon, who concentrated on Eric's face.
Harmon nodded. "Should I leave you alone?"
"Some clients do." Eric turned around and reached into his plastic box. Light from the skylights fell across his shaved buttocks. Harmon noted no discernible tan line as Eric faced him again. "Others watch. It's up to you."
Harmon was rehearsing the ways he could begin his discussion with George; each time he formed a partial sentence, however, some motion of Eric's -- a forearm in the air, the twitch of leg, a sway of the dangling penis -- distracted him and broke the sentence mid-thought, even mid-word. Warm blood filled his face, the tips of his fingers, his groin. Meanwhile, Eric kept up a garrulous patter.
"You have a beautiful house. I hope I can afford something like this eventually." Eric was a graduate student in English, "with a writing concentration," he said. He was working on a novel. "Everybody's a writer these days."
Harmon pushed out a smile.
During the next two hours Eric changed the bed linens, cleaned the bathrooms (he wore gloves and a small apron that covered his front but displayed his beautifully smooth buttocks), dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the kitchen. Harmon went into his study and pretended to read a magazine. The now-foreign sounds of another person moving around in the house reminded him of James and broke his concentration. He turned on his computer and stared at various Internet shopping sites, but pushed his keyboard away when he considered that he couldn't buy anything until he found a job.
Twice Eric interrupted him, standing in the doorway, his muscles glazed in light, to ask where something was -- dishwasher soap, the recycle bins -- Harmon focused on his eyes, the off-center jaw, the full lips, and not on the maleness below.
As the vacuum cleaner sounded from one room to another Harmon closed his eyes. He jerked awake when Eric reappeared in the study doorway. He was fully dressed.
"Same time next week?" he asked. "I'll bring my own vacuum."
Harmon wiped his eyes, brought Eric back into focus. "Of course. If I'm not home -- ."
"I'll need a key."
Harmon found his extra key. Eric's fingers brushed Harmon's during the exchange.
"Next week, then," Eric said.
The Queens' Guild's gift to Harmon wasn't unusual. Most of the men had been down financially, emotionally, or physically; Guild members did what they could for one another. Their actions were usually oblique. In Harmon's case, his severance package, unemployment compensation, and exceptional stock performance guaranteed that he could weather even a six-month furlough, so the Guild's contribution of Eric's services contained more than a soupçon of irony and Guild humor. Perhaps only George, with his keener powers of discernment, had detected a hairline crack in Harmon's composure, a brick out of place.
Harmon was rising later each day. After scanning the newspaper he would decide whether to take a shower or go back to bed. Each option presented its own rewards. On most mornings after showering he dressed, turned on the computer, checked the Internet for job leads, and then either called or mailed individualized cover letters with copies of his resume. The first few days he spent hours at these tasks; later, however, he found excuses to stop working -- rubbing at a grease spot on the monitor, checking for perspiration odor (if he hadn't showered), opening his empty e-mailbox.
Several days after Eric's first visit Harmon sat at the terminal, staring instead at the marks on the silver carpet left by the vacuum, precise rows gently raked into the fibers. The cursor blinked at the end of a sentence describing his "genuine passion" for public relations; he toggled to the Internet.
Since his double loss, Harmon had spent more time at the computer -- first, writing and rewriting his resume -- then cruising the Internet. Within three days he had tapped out the job opportunities and instead began searching for pornography. He started with tame sites -- beefcake shots of beautiful men staring into the camera, clutching their erections with ersatz longing for whatever you held on the other side of the screen -- then ventured farther, looking for something unusual, perverse, shocking.
This morning Harmon returned to a site that he had first seen the previous week. After keying in his age-verification password Harmon found a site that contained photographs of men urinating on themselves or others. In one picture a man was on his knees, face tilted upward, mouth open. From the side of the frame a penis extended, its arc of urine rising and splashing against the man's cheeks, teeth, and tongue, the stream catching light and glistening, broken diamonds of piss.
The idea of these acts -- and Harmon's distant, silent participation as voyeur -- both disturbed and excited him. He and James had never even discussed these things, nor did Harmon think any of his Guild friends engaged in such dark practices. Harmon had his erection in one hand, his other resting on the computer mouse, when the telephone rang. He toggled to his resume, then picked up the cordless.
It was an opportunity for a job interview for a public relations specialist -- at a drastically reduced salary -- for a local television station.
Harmon held his now flaccid penis, a bead of moisture from the tip dropping on his curled fingers.
"And how did you like our little surprise?"
George ran a finger across the kitchen tiles. "Everything -- except you, my dear -- looks spic and span." George looked across the room at Harmon with a sly grin.
"I appreciate the Guild's gesture," Harmon said. He didn't want to talk about Eric, feared that George would press him with questions that might make him uncomfortable. "I have an interview tomorrow."
"A suitable executive advisory position?"
"Hardly," Harmon said. "It seems that few progressive companies are interested in hiring the services of an old queen, no matter how well qualified."
"You'll get no pity from me," George said. "You're creating enough of that for yourself."
The interview went poorly. A handsome young Latino with bright teeth and a wedding ring as wide as Vermont screened Harmon. As he sat across the bright cubicle and looked at his fingers resting on his knees Harmon tapped into a thread of desperation and fear that he hadn't previously experienced in his twenty-five year career. It was all he could do to answer the young man's questions civilly. He was alternately hot and chilled, his skin wet and sticky.
As much as Harmon hated to admit it, George was right. Some kind of malaise had set in, a minor paralysis. A weakening of will, a slackening of muscle. Just getting out of bed was a chore, and washing and grooming occurred later each day and to less and less apparent purpose.
James would be ashamed. As much as he was trying to put it out of his mind, Harmon focused more each day on the causes and effects of their breakup, each time finding more blame for himself. While James had sought the transfer to New York, the opportunity for increased income and the excitement of the bigger city, he hadn't done it as an attempt to break away. It might have been selfish, but only that. James had assumed that Harmon would accompany him -- as Harmon had himself, at first. But when James accepted the job offer Harmon suddenly found reasons not to want to leave -- a fondness for their still-new row house, an increased dedication to his employer. James had thought he was joking but, as Harmon's resistance solidified, James's mood darkened. By the time James left Harmon knew the relationship was over, teary as the departure had been. And it was his own fault.
He missed James. Their sex had become less frequent with age but no less passionate. While James usually dominated he could surprise as well with his expectations and demands -- those moments, and the memories of them, fueled Harmon's increasingly frequent masturbation fantasies. Occasionally, now, however, it was Eric -- his pale skin, the darkened beard line, wider, deeper chest, thicker thighs -- that Harmon saw himself conquering, abandoning all safe sex measures in vivid pornographic detail. Or being taken "bareback" on the couch, Eric's face above his, all teeth and deep blue eyes, while Harmon yielded to the force of Eric's youth and strength.
When he returned from the interview Harmon changed from his suit into a pair of sweat pants and sweatshirt and sat in his study, the room darkening in the afternoon. He began clipping his nails, tossing each into the wastebasket. He held the final fingernail, examined its ridged texture, then placed it delicately on the glass-topped end table near his chair, noting its relationship to the other objects -- a paperweight, an empty wine glass. He admired the aesthetics, a still life of near transparency.
The key turned in the lock. Harmon remained at his computer, although he toggled from the pornographic website he had been viewing to a partially-completed response to a job posting.
"I'm upstairs," Harmon said.
He heard Eric moving his cleaning equipment and the vacuum into the hallway, then the rustling of fabric, the tease of a zipper. Harmon toggled back to the site fetchingly called "Hungry Hunks," and imagined Eric's new picture alongside these other men. He loosened the tie on his bathrobe; the sides were barely closed.
"Any job-hunting luck this week?" Eric asked from downstairs.
"Not yet," Harmon said. "The world can do without my skills right now."
Eric's head and naked torso appeared on the stairs, then the well-muscled abdomen, drooping genitals, the thighs, his feet. Eric held his cleaning carryall in one hand, his apron in the other. "I hope I won't be bothering you."
Harmon tried to determine whether this was said ironically. "You are a distraction," he said, "but a welcome one."
Eric put down the cleaning supplies and held the feather duster across his chest, a demure pose that made him look more exposed, more vulnerable. "This is a highly personal service," he said. "The customer is always right."
"Is that really true?" Harmon asked. He could feel his heart beat against his chest, a current of air between his legs. "Do you accommodate all of your customers' requirements?"
"Within reason," Eric said. He moved the feather duster aside, the pose now identical to one Harmon had just seen on the Internet. Eric took a few steps closer, stood just outside the entrance to the study. Harmon's eyes fell directly on Eric's penis. "If you're asking about special services -- "
Harmon's hands fluttered on the keyboard, accidentally bringing up the pornographic website. He pulled the sides of his robe together and hurriedly toggled back to his word processing program. "I wasn't being serious."
Eric's eyes scanned the room. He walked toward the end table, picking up the wastebasket as he crossed near enough that Harmon could catch his scent, clean and breadlike. With a gentle motion of feathers, Eric dusted the loose fingernail into the wastebasket. He looked at Harmon, a flash of blue.
"I didn't think so."
Over the next week Harmon slept more, and left the house only once. He ordered groceries off the Internet and answered the door in dirty sweatpants and a torn undershirt. The deliveryman edged past Harmon with the crisp paper bags and stayed only long enough to get a signature. Harmon attempted some suggestive banter but the deliveryman, a plastic smile on his well-scrubbed face, blinked his vacant green eyes and quickly departed.
In some mental place less frequently visited each day Harmon recognized his own deterioration, knew he was making a series of small incremental choices that took him farther from his previous life. Whether he was sloughing off an old skin in preparation for a newer, more flexible, one or whether he was simply becoming slovenly was a question he chose not to examine.
Harmon had only one more week of Eric's services. He considered keeping him under a theory that he really would be free to pursue work opportunities, but one of the few realities that intruded was that his job search efforts were weakening. Several days elapsed where he did nothing but surf porn websites and read a stack of gay mystery novels that James had left behind.
He had been letting images of Eric's lithe, naked body replace more obtrusive thoughts -- cover letters, telephone messages, the tangle of daily obligations for food, clean clothing, basic hygiene. He made a half-hearted attempt to do the laundry but lost interest after one load and now dirty clothes lay strewn in vague piles in the utility area. Eric would have to step over them when he came through the front entrance.
As Eric's final visit approached, Harmon began a careful process of seeding his house with little items that Eric could pick up or move as part of his routine. A wood blind tipped out of alignment. A spot of orange juice dried on the white tile of the kitchen counter. A male nude magazine open on top of the commode. An open bottle of lubricant on the master bathroom sink. A porn tape askew on top of the television in the study. Undershorts with dried semen stains tossed near the clothes hamper. All, like Harmon, waiting for Eric to tend to.
"My dear, what are you doing now? Preparing wardrobe tips for the homeless?"
Harmon reluctantly let George through the narrow crack in the front door. Harmon noticed a faint trace of his own body odor as George stepped over the piles of clothes into the kitchen.
"I haven't been feeling well," Harmon said. It was late morning and he was wearing yesterday's boxer shorts under his robe. He closed the robe and held one hand inside the folds.
"You are a fashion nightmare." Harmon watched George's eyes scan the interior. "I was hoping," George continued, "to take a gander at this Greek god housekeeper." George straightened the errant wood blind. Harmon did a quick scan; he hadn't seeded any other chores for Eric in this room. "He seems to do a more than adequate job in the housekeeping department. If only you would let him take equal care of you. What are his bedroom skills like -- I mean, does he use military corners?"
Harmon offered a weak smile. "You are a dirty old man."
"In mind, yes," George said. "Not in body."
Harmon turned away. "In any case," he said, knowing that Eric might be along at any time, "he won't be here until this afternoon."
"I see. And were you planning on meeting him in such outrageous dishabille? Hoping that he would storm your citadel? That's so Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone of you."
"I love you in spite of your crudeness," Harmon said.
"And I you, in spite of your obvious decline." George stepped closer. "My dear, I didn't come here today to spar with you but to offer a personal invitation to tonight's Guild dinner, since you didn't answer any of the e-mails or voice-mails. Our Columbus Day buffet just wouldn't be the same without your lauded panzanella."
"I'm not sure I'm up to it," Harmon said.
George picked a dried food particle from the lapel of Harmon's robe and started walking toward the entryway. Harmon followed behind and opened the front door.
"If you don't come voluntarily," George said, pushing his eyebrows together, "don't be surprised if you become the victim of a Guild intervention." He brushed aside Harmon's hair and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "My dear," he said, his voice low, "we are worried." George stepped onto the walkway. "Call James," he added. "Don't be too proud to admit that you made a horrible mistake."
Harmon closed the door behind George, heard the muffled sounds as he drove away.
Eric arrived a few minutes later. Harmon opened the door as Eric was about to put his key in the lock. "Harmon."
Harmon felt Eric's eyes scrutinize him. One hand was on the door, the other on the loose knot of his robe tie. He let his hands fall to his sides, the robe nearly opening before him.
Eric went into the kitchen and put his cleaning supplies on the floor. When he rose to his full height Harmon noticed his clothing -- a long-sleeved flannel shirt tucked into a pair of baggy jeans, a less provocative outfit than he had worn previously. His feet were clad in scuffed sneakers.
"Today is your last day," Harmon said.
"Unless you wish to continue with my services," Eric said, his voice clouded, congested. Eric removed a handkerchief from his the chest pocket of his shirt and wiped his nose, then folded the handkerchief and returned it to the pocket.
"I wish I could," Harmon said. He pointed to a stack of newspapers on the dining table. "But my prospects aren't that promising right now."
Eric opened the dishwasher. Harmon immediately detected the aroma of decaying food. Eric found the dishwasher soap under the sink, filled the door, closed it and started the cycle. Harmon moved away a few feet.
"If you don't mind," Eric said, sniffling twice, "I'll stay dressed today. I have a cold."
"Should I turn up the heat?"
Eric had turned his back and was wiping down the kitchen counter with a wet cloth, going over the sticky orange juice stain until it disappeared. "I'm fine," he said without turning around.
Harmon's careful plans melted in front of him. "I'll be in the study."
He went upstairs and immediately picked up the underwear, put the lubricant away, stashed the video in a drawer. He put away the porn magazine and straightened the other magazines on the commode. He turned on his computer and was looking for job opportunities when Eric came upstairs with his cleaning supplies.
"I'll leave you alone," Harmon said.
He went and sat in the living room, a news magazine open on his lap. He drank the rest of the pot of coffee he had made at breakfast, bitter now but still hot. He heard Eric moving around above, then coming down the stairs, leaving the house, and returning with his vacuum. The whoosh of air filled the upstairs, then moved down as Eric vacuumed the staircase with a hand-held attachment, the outline of his body only suggested under the bulky shirt and loose jeans.
"I'm almost done," Eric said after he had finished vacuuming.
Harmon stood up, watched his hands like foreign objects flutter in front of him. His robe fell open. His boxer shorts had slipped below his waist; the open fly gapped outward. Before Harmon realized what had happened Eric looked away.
If other opportunities were not going to present themselves, perhaps some other connection, however trivial, might remain. "May I have your card?" Harmon asked. "In case I change my mind. I've misplaced your other one."
Eric opened his billfold and laid a card on the counter, then held out his hand. "Goodbye, Mr. Weydon." Harmon's shoulders dropped, deflated balloons. He shook Eric's hand, his own arm leaden and foreign. "Tell George thanks for the work."
Harmon stared at the closed door after Eric left, pressing the ghost image of Eric's body onto the white paint, then went upstairs and sat at the computer. He made several copies of his resume and responded to an Internet job posting. While he was doing so he received a call from the young Latino who interviewed him weeks earlier, politely informing him that a more qualified applicant had been selected for the job.
He hung up the telephone, then toggled to several porn sites. Besides revisiting his favorite sites he found several new ones including a disturbing image of a faceless man drawing an open straight-edge razor across his bare chest, a crimson slash of blood dripping down onto his erect penis. Harmon imagined the man having Eric's face. After becoming aroused, he threw off his robe, left the boxer shorts at his feet and went into the bathroom. He turned the tub faucet as hot as it would go and added several handfuls of foaming bath salts that James had given him at Christmas. The memory of the long sexual encounter that had followed their bath together played in Harmon's mind as he climbed into the tub, the water now an inch deep and prickling his skin. Mounds of bubbles formed under the spigot.
Images from the porn sites flashed behind his closed eyes as the hot water pricked his bare skin. Harmon lay on his back, his knees bent, his neck pressed against the back of the tub. His penis rested against his abdomen, pointing at his navel.
Harmon needed to urinate, and looked at the open toilet lid a few feet away, the stack of magazines lying across the top of the commode. He closed his eyes again.
He would not call James. Too much had happened, and James deserved a life with someone new whose career trajectory was in a sharp upward thrust like his own. Harmon's had plateaued, perhaps was already sinking. George was wrong -- the failure to call James wasn't about wounded pride but the belated recognition of the inevitability of loss, the inexorable machinery signifying Harmon's now-diminished opportunities, the reality of his lesser lights. He was underqualified to perform a job he had done for fifteen years, was an unsuitable consort for up-and-coming James.
Harmon relaxed his neck muscles, flexed his calves. The need to urinate now pushed other thoughts away and Harmon released control of his bladder, urine splashing against his belly, chest, and nipples until his bladder was empty, dripping over the sides of his chest into the rising bathwater, and popping soap bubbles against his warm, wet skin. The water level was now up to his neck.
Harmon turned off the tap with his toe and remained motionless until the warmth had dissipated.