The Long Division

Derek Nikitas

Minotaur Books

Last house on a Friday, and Jodie’s body ached for weekend. In the master bath she scrubbed soap scum and toothpaste and coiled hair from the sink basin with cleanser wipes. No water was the rule— chemicals only. No using the client’s toilets, either. Even if she had to pee, Kwik Kleen rules forbade her. Jodie was owed nothing by the world, and the rules applied to her.
In the mirror she caught sight of her ruddy face, the freckles all leaked together. The uniform was a button- down shirt with the fake front of a maid’s apron printed on it. Her hands, inside rubber gloves, she kept moist with lilac-scented lotion. Hair the color of Cheetos, tied back with a plastic clip, although one spiral strand of her bangs came down to irk her face.
Out in the hallway the vacuum cleaner yawned again and again, Inez pushing. Five women in the  house including Jodie, all scattered to dif­ferent rooms. The place was three .oors, seven bedrooms with as many bathrooms. It was a three-hour scrub- and-shine job. Such lonesome hours Jodie spent in these bathrooms, they seemed almost a comfort. In here was a mounted .atscreen TV and a Jacuzzi tub with ten gold jet valves she had to keep the lime and rust away from with her scrubbing.
The people were never home when the Kwik Kleen van pulled up. In their portraits, they were a family of four with rich brown skin. Their decorating taste was for earthy oranges and yellows, for weird stilt-leg carvings of giraffes and bushmen with large heads. Wicker disks on the walls that Jodie didn’t know what they were.
But wondering slowed her work, which was bad because wages  were for hours estimated, not actual. Told herself she could dream about strangers’ bathrooms later, off-clock, over a tumbler of wine on ice and the television mutter and the chug of her radiator. Still, she wondered if they wondered about her when they came home and saw this room readied for them.
When the tiles shined, Jodie tossed the soiled rag into her bucket. She lifted the handle and stood stoop-shouldered, eyeing the bath­room for what she  might’ve overlooked. She followed the plan, top to bottom, clockwise, no water. She sighed at this, the .nish of a . fty-hour workweek, as if it were something.
Back through the master suite with potted palms and a four-poster bed, sunburst carvings on the headboard, matching armoires and night-stands. Her tennis shoes sank into the carpet. Outside a window, wet February blew a drizzle with dead leaves in the mix. By rote she glanced around for any missed tasks. She didn’t care to check, but the tic was .xed after two months on this job. Atop one nightstand, a clay bowl not larger than an ashtray sat with its lid tilted askew. With her free hand in a rubber glove she reached out to straighten the lid.
Inside the bowl was an inch-thick stack of folded money. The lid was propped such that she  couldn’t see the  whole stack, just a corner of the topmost hundred-dollar bill. Jodie inched the lid further off the bowl and the doubled-over money stack began to unfold itself. She touched her thumb to the blooming bills, and they were all hundreds, maybe .fty of them. More than she ever saw in one place, even back when she worked grocery store checkout.
Just outside the room Inez still vacuumed the hallway with her back to the bedroom. The vacuum cleaner’s headlight doused the hallway walls like a search beam. The bed beside Jodie had a tropical-themed duvet cover folded over goosedown pillows, tan corduroy throws fanned out across the fold. The owners of this cash slept  here last night. They dreamed of a redhead maid in blue gloves and wet-kneed jeans and sneakers a size too big. Her .ngers on their money.
She still held the bathroom bucket. She smelled of her own armpits and bleach. If these people dreamed Jodie  here, what did they dream would happen now? Another static weekend, more Monday-to-Friday toil, hours like empty baggies she .lled one after another with expired leftovers? Unfair, how they baited her. Casting off enough money to throw her life wide apart for weeks, maybe months. It all turned un­bearable when she looked inside the bowl. Her spirit was inside there, long-lost but suddenly—
—van’s back passenger side, crammed against another maid’s lumpy ass. Jodie clutched a Hardee’s cup with nothing inside it but melting ice. Pressed her head against the windshield and watched Chick- .l-A and Cartoon Network billboards. Five o’clock Friday on seven lanes pushing northbound from Atlanta. A thousand slow-motion cars and trucks stewed in a river of exhaust. Soundtrack on the radio was some Mexican polka, accordions and horns, ten-man mariachi sing­alongs. The van smelled of chemicals and dust, but Jodie guessed now she’d never have to catch a migraine off the Kwik Kleen bleach fumes again. The stolen cash was stuffed in her left pocket against her thigh.
Traf.c at a crawl meant cops would beat them to the Kwik Kleen of.ce, handcuffs ready for her wrists. Jump out now and run, down the embankment into the scrub where the kudzu melted down the trees like burning candles. But the law could nab you easy, drag you out squirming with twigs in your hair and your shins muddied.
“¿Qué pasa, Roja?” Inez said from the shotgun seat. With her cheek glued to a cell phone, she eyed Jodie in the rearview mirror.
“Nada,” Jodie said.
Inez twisted herself around and said to Jodie, “My boyfriend’s cousin is having a party. You should come.” Inez was nineteen and engaged to this boyfriend named Hector who sprayed paint on walls for work. She was the only other maid who spoke .uent En glish, the only other legal worker.
“I don’t feel too great,” Jodie said.
“Aw, come on. Everybody’s going,” said Inez.
“I don’t know,” Jodie said. Almost every weekend Inez dropped these invitations. Jodie would smirk and mutter until the question went away. It seemed like a joke, the idea of a whitegirl thirty-two years old at a Chicano all-night .esta. Instead, Jodie was planning how she might hop a taxi back down to Buckhead and offer up the loot to those she stole it from, get on her knees and beg mercy. She’d lose her job for sure but maybe skirt jail time.
 Couldn’t .gure how it happened in the .rst place, how this plan to steal .rst stabbed into her head. She  could’ve resisted the urge easy enough. She  could’ve walked off and slumped into this van like usual, gone on as before. The worry chilled her deep. Body tremors made her grip her plastic cup too hard and the lid popped askew. Thought she needed money but what she needed—
—Kwik Kleen storefront shared with a Korean dry cleaner. They parked the van in the sidelot and Jodie slid the door, stumbled out into the cold, fought to keep her breath slow. The rubbery muscle threads in her back  were primed to snap. Overhead droned the fat transport planes in patterns over Dobbins ARB. Across the street, taxis and bus­ses idled at the station, drifters loitered, everyone on watch duty.
Boss shoved through the store’s aluminum side door with a huff so hard it misted in the air. He was Cuban, a refugee going on twenty years, a sweetheart for illegals and the minimum wage he could pay them. He hired natural-born Jodie Larkin at the same rate and prom­ised raises after a .rst-month probational period. Raises never came. Soon enough she  might’ve quit. She  might’ve done a lot of things.
“Where you ladies been at?” Boss said.
“Traf.c,” Inez said. “Always traf. c.”
“I got crap to settle and don’t need to be waiting all night,” Boss said. He eyed each gal in his  house keeping harem like he meant to pick one for the night. Soon as he squinted at Jodie, she dropped her glance into the topmost bucket in the pile she held. The inside was lined with black grit and smelled like fake pine.
The maids lugged supplies into the storeroom, where the busted overhead light forced them to grope around in the dark for the shelves where things went. When they came into the of.ce, Boss rolled his swivel chair from behind his desk and waved a stack of envelopes. Call­ing names: Mariana, Raquel, Inez, Haida. No Jodie Larkin. The others took their paychecks.
“Jodie, stick around a minute, will you?” Boss said. They were all shoulder-to- shoulder in that of.ce cluttered with bulk boxes of clean­ing solutions. The computer keyboard keys and the telephone buttons  were .lmed with the grease that time collected. “I said Jodie,” he told the others, shooing them out.
She wanted to pull the money out of her pocket and toss it in his lap.
“Problems,” Boss said after they were alone. “Issues.”
Jodie slumped down onto a sturdy box of solvents. She  couldn’t take it standing.
He said, “I don’t got your money, Jode. It ain’t  here, I’m sorry to tell you. Sons of bitches at the money place screwed it up. Clerical error, they claim, but they’re a bunch—”
Jodie put her face in her hands.
“Aw, cripes,” he said. “Don’t bawl on me here.”
The bell inside the phone unit clanged, and the shock of it made Jodie cry out. The ligaments in her throat were strained. The other maids  were just outside the door, Inez cackling a laugh about some­thing. Jodie slipped somehow completely out of the world where you could just be alive without anguish. Kept going back to the moment, the nightstand, the bowl, her hand on so much money.
“No—I didn’t—” Boss said into the phone. “—where? Hold on a sec.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece and nodded at her. He said, “It’ll only be till Monday, Jode. First thing Monday they’ll have it over here. That’s what they said, all right? You need me to front you some­thing for the weekend?”
“Front?” She could hardly hear what he was saying to her.
“Twenty? Forty? Forty’s about all I can spare right now.”
“No, no—I’m okay.”
“You sure? Serious?” He took the phone away from his ear and reached into his breast pocket, peeled out a twenty between his middle and index .ngers. Fluttered it at her. “Take it,” he said. “Pay me back come Monday.”
“I’ll manage,” Jodie lied. She didn’t know how. SWAT team break­ing down her wall, plainclothes detectives knocking calmly at her door, Boss on a rampage. She just couldn’t dare go home with what amounted to six months of wages, two years of Georgia HCV–subsidized rent. Her apartment was cramped and dark, a trap to keep her cornered. It wasn’t anyplace she could trust, but no place was.
Outside Inez leaned against the store’s brick façade. She craned her neck forward to see into a compact mirror she held while she primped her hair. A cigarette dangled from her glossy lips and the smoke was making her squint. When Jodie came out, Inez grabbed her by the elbow and said, “You’re coming with us tonight to this party, Roja. No excuses.”
“My check didn’t come in.”
Inez snapped her compact shut. “Puta madre. You need cash? I can ask Hector.”
Inez’s boyfriend Hector was there across the lot in the driver’s seat of his Toyota Celica GT convertible. Faded red paint and . aking can­vas top, spoiler, No Fear decal on the tinted strip across the top of the windshield. Hector had one arm laid across the open window frame, hand slapping the outside of the door to the Dem Bow beat of the reg­gaeton coming from his radio.
“Let me get the address,” Inez said. “Or, no—you need a  ride any-ways, right?”
“I’m a mess. I smell like bleach.”
“So don’t I, right? You ain’t getting out of this. That cabrón ain’t gonna ruin your weekend with his no- check bullshit. There’s gonna be some badass music, some dancing.”
“I’m in my uniform—”
“Yo, Roja, what else you gonna do on a Friday? You live by yourself, right?”
“And my cat,” Jodie said.
“Pobrecita.” Inez pursed her lips and blew a fake kiss at the sky. Hec­tor honked his horn and Inez rolled her eyes, gave another kiss to the tip of her cig—
—night with strangers, four margaritas poured into the same plastic cup, mostly tequila. She sat on the steps leading down from the back door, sipped her drink and smoked a Kool. More reggaeton pulsed from stereo speakers propped in the open windows behind her. Back­yard of a brick ranch that somebody’s relative of somebody rented. A dozen kids chased a soccer ball, scurried behind men who sat in lawn chairs circled around a .re pit. The men spoke low and burst out laugh­ing, slapped shoulders, stomped their boots in the dust. Faces golden in the .relight—all unfamiliar, all Mexican, like Jodie had somehow . ­nagled an escape across the border and hid herself among the natives.
“¿Qué honda?” said a squat Latino with a black T-shirt too tight across his gut. He leaned on the rail beside her head, put his face inches from hers, and grinned like he’d already stuffed his  whole eve ning in the bag. He gulped from his bottle of Sol, lime wedge .zzling inside. He was maybe twenty years old.
“No español,” Jodie said.
“Qué lástima,” he said, pursing his lips at her. “Calor de mi corazón.”
“Something about your heart?” Jodie guessed.
“Heat,” he said, “yes. Javier ease my name.”
“Everybody’s name starts with—” She hocked phlegm in the back of her throat.
Toothy Javier imitated the sound, like it was some sure. re mating call. He said, “Su cabello es muy bonita.” He brushed his .ngers along a red curl that sprang away from her scalp.
“¿Gracias?” Jodie said, and shrugged.
A couple screaming kids barreled up the steps into the  house, al­most knocked Jodie’s margarita from her hand. The men around the .re muttered and nudged one another while they watched Javier . irt. They ruined her buzz with their leering. They dragged her back down into her tired body and her worry. Even this place  wasn’t—
—heater warmed her chilled skin. In another life years ago, Jodie withstood western New York winters, but Atlanta thinned out her blood. Now at the slightest cold snap she shivered like a stray pup in a sewer pipe.
Javier drove Hector’s Celica with headlights spotlighting southbound I-75, an empty splay of pavement this time of night. He wore only his black T-shirt and jeans, as if to prove he could .ght the cold with nothing but machismo. How Jodie agreed to this ride, she  couldn’t remember. Only that Inez had whispered “watch out for him” and winked, like she was giving her blessing. Whitegirl trophy for the stumpy farm boy from Chihuahua or wherever. She knew what they had all thought, and she let them think, because what did it matter compared to what she knew about herself?
She was in a tequila drowse. Panic worn down after hours on watch, but still throbbing low and constant like the bleep of a forgotten alarm clock in the next apartment over. She watched each exit, afraid a cruiser lurked full of cops itching to take her down and hound her till she cracked. Kool pack in her purse, maybe ten menthols left for her to burn. She took one and scorched its tip with the bright orange spool of the dashboard lighter. The radio played something sweet for once— old Selena, or a J. Lo ballad, or slo-mo Shakira giving her hips a rest.
“This exit,” she told Javier. She was crouched down low in her seat, shoulder strap across her neck. She cracked her window and ashed through the slit, readied herself to lie. She said, “Yo necesito—mas, uh, cigarrillos— from—el estación?—”
“We .nd a gas station for cigarettes?” Javier said.
“Si, si— but . rst—my apartamento.”
“Apartamento,” he mused, like she’d named some .ne wine he was hankering for.
“Aquí,” she said, signaling the turn into her complex. Every parked car, even those familiar, looked like an unmarked with cops inside it. Seemed stupid that they’d post of.cers to catch a petty thief, but Jodie knew jack about the law or how she might avoid its snare, especially full of this much booze. Amazing she didn’t somehow steer Javier off the face of the planet.
She pointed out her unit and he pulled the Celica into the spot that abutted her door. He twisted the key in the ignition and the headlamps tucked back down into the hood. She touched him on the shoulder. He wore his eagerness like a child promised candy for dessert. The cater­pillar mustache above his lip glistened.
“We get inside?” Javier said.
“No, no,” she said. “Please—a momento, okay?”
“Discúlpeme.” He slipped his hand off her thigh and hitched it on his own gaudy silver belt buckle instead. An eagle chewing on a snake, or something like that.
Jodie said, “No, I mean— one momento and—nosotros vamanos to, uh, tu casa?”
Javier leaned back against the driver door and grinned like he maybe later still had a shot at romance. When Jodie pushed open the door her purse dropped onto the pavement, spilled her cigarette pack, tam­pons, loose change. She cursed and crouched and scooped it all up. The booze swirled in her head like a toilet .ush. She wobbled and righted herself against the Celica’s hood, glanced down through the windshield. Poor slob Javier gave her a thumbs-up with both hands, and damned if it didn’t somehow help steady her footing.
She laid one ear against her apartment door and inched the knob to see if it was loose. The sonogram pump of blood in her ear sounded like footsteps. Men waiting in the dark, . exing .ngers inside stiff gloves, thugs hired by the man she stole this dirty drug money from.
Damn it, sti.e your wild mobster thoughts. Just twist the key, push open the door, click the light switch, put your paranoia to rest.
There was nobody inside but Nero, curled on her bed in the corner. He raised his head and watched her over the curve of his back, squinted at the sudden light. Jodie tugged the money wad from her pocket and started laying it out in piles of .ve on her bedspread. All hundreds. Nero stretched himself out with a yawn that upturned his tongue and .ashed his harmless fangs. He eased across the bed to sniff the bill stacks. Purred like he knew the value of this take. Jodie slapped the last bill down. Ten piles. A total of .ve thousand even.
“Don’t purr,” she told Nero. “I just ruined your life, too.”
The bathroom was a walk-in closet with a sagging .oor. She yanked the string for the overhead bulb, popped the shower stall door. No­body there. No hands over her mouth or knives to her neck. She snatched her shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, pill bottles, stacked them in the crook of her arm and then piled them on the bed for Nero to tap his nose at. His hackles  were raised.
Jodie took to her knees bedside, retrieved a vinyl duffel bag she’d bought years ago for a Florida vacation that never happened. She un­zipped the bag and loaded in the toiletries, threw open her dresser drawers, groped handfuls of underwear and socks and stuffed them
 
Excerpted from The Long Division by Derek Nikitas.
Copyright © 2009 by Derek Nikitas.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.