The Cleaning Lady from Western Nebraska

Fiction
Karl Harshbarger


Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC-by)

At 8:35 on the morning of October 11th, 1972, Dr. Richard Pickering, a newly-minted assistant professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, was sipping his coffee in the only halfway decent restaurant near the university. Which is to say, the music in the restaurant wasn’t too loud and the fake plastic-leather seats of the booths along the restaurant’s windows weren’t too ugly.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of restaurant Pickering was used to back in Boston. Those cafes offered racks of newspapers and magazines, seats on different levels which you would choose depending on your mood, plus, of course, a full selection of coffees and teas. At this restaurant near the University of Nebraska if you ordered coffee, that’s what you got, coffee, and there certainly weren’t any racks of newspapers or magazines.

However, on this morning, Pickering noticed that two businessmen-types who had just gotten up from their booth had apparently left a newspaper behind them. So Pickering went up along the booths, took the newspaper and when he got back to his own booth spread the paper out in front of him. Of course, it was the local, Lincoln, paper.

He scanned the headlines. Lots of town news and one story from western Nebraska: “COURT DECIDES AGAINST WOMAN IN EMPLOYMENT CASE,” the headline said.

Well, in a café in Boston he would have been reading The New York Times.

Pickering pushed the newspaper aside and looked at his watch: an hour and a half before he would stand in front of his 70 (more or less, sometimes a lot less) students in his Introduction to American Literature course at 11:00 and hold forth on John Dos Passos.

So: to business.

Pickering reached in his briefcase, pulled out his folder on John Dos Passos, opened it and spread the lecture notes out in front of him.

Yes, John Dos Passos, thought Pickering.

He pictured himself in front of the class. Without question, without any question at all, he imagined himself saying, John Dos Passos was one of the most important American writers of the Twentieth Century. Well, certainly not as an accomplished a writer as, say, Faulkner, nor, for that matter, Hemingway; but, still, one of the most important American writers. Indeed, perhaps more important than Faulkner or Hemingway. Because this is the critical point the class should remember: Dos Passos was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.

Yes, thought Pickering.

He liked that phrase.

“Totally committed to the social struggles of his day.”

He would have to remember that.

He looked at his watch. Now one hour and twenty minutes.

His eyes wandered over to the newspaper he had shoved aside and again he saw the headline which said, “COURT DECIDES AGAINST WOMAN IN EMPLOYMENT CASE.” He pulled the newspaper over to him and read the sub-headline: “Lawyer for Woman Vows to Take Case to Higher Court.”

Really? thought Pickering.

He continued reading. It seemed that there was this woman (the article only identified the woman by her first name, Laura) out in a town called Ashburn in western Nebraska who had had a job as a cleaning woman at a correctional institution for delinquent girls. The woman noticed that some members of the staff were abusing the girls in their charge. The woman reported her observations to her superiors and shortly thereafter she was fired from her job. Her lawyer claimed that she had been fired because she had reported the abuse. The matter went to the local court and the court decided against the woman.

Pickering thought about it. He tried to imagine what it was like out there in western Nebraska. Wasn’t that where the prairie started? Endless grasslands? Very few towns? That kind of thing? Maybe a few cowboys around?

Just at that moment he heard a loud growling coming from outside the windows of the restaurant and looking out saw one of those huge, red farm tractors pulling an even bigger arrangement of plows with both gangs of plows held high in the air.

Good grief, thought Pickering. A farm tractor! In Lincoln! Near the University!

Enough.

Pickering shoved his notes on Dos Passos back into the folder, placed the folder in his briefcase, stood up, at the last moment took the newspaper and inserted it into his briefcase as well, and went up along the line of booths to the counter to pay.

*

At least the campus at the university wasn’t quite as barren as the rest of the city of Lincoln. Parts of it looked a touch European, a gate somewhere giving the appearance of entering a medieval city. On the other hand, the building which housed his office, The Annex, was strictly, utterly utilitarian, built only as a temporary building directly after the war. It had never been torn down and Pickering, as well as a number of other newly-arrived instructors from different disciplines, had been assigned an office there.

Pickering pushed at the glass front door of The Annex and saw the sterile-looking vestibule and the bumps of plastic which served as chairs along the walls.

“Hey, Richard!”

That was Carter. He looked for all the world like an undergraduate, small and chubby with flaming red hair. Maybe he was an undergraduate. Only he wasn’t. Officially he held the title as “Special Assistant to the Dean of the Law School,” but Pickering knew Carter didn’t have a thing to do with the Law School and was instead used by the University as a point man in its relationships with the local and state politicians. There was even a strong rumor that Carter had been hired because he was related to the current governor of the state.

“So, how the hell are you?”

“I’m not bad,” said Pickering. “Not bad at all.”

“Hey! Glad to hear it Richard. Very, very glad to hear it!”

Coming from anyone else this kind of talk would sound like, well, undergraduate talk. But coming from Carter it somehow seemed more sincere.

“But, Richard, everything’s thumbs up?”

“Well, maybe there are one or two things,” said Pickering.

Carter fixed his eyes on Pickering. He also had this way of giving over his complete attention to you.

“One or two things? Like what, Richard?”

“Well…” said Pickering.

To break this overflow of attention Pickering reached into his briefcase, pulled out the newspaper he had taken from the restaurant and said, “Hey, have you read about this?”

“What, Richard?”

“Really interesting story here.”

Pickering unfolded the newspaper so Carter could see the headlines on the front page.

“This one,” said Pickering pointing to the headline about the woman in western Nebraska.

Carter had a glance.

“Oh, that’s Laura. Laura Cartwright.”

“Yes, Laura, that’s her name.”

“Tim Rice’s her lawyer. Not a bad guy.”

Suddenly Pickering understood that Carter knew a lot more about this story than he did.

“There’s some talk of her appealing to a higher court,” offered Pickering.

“Not a chance,” said Carter.

“Oh?”

“Not a chance in hell.”

“Oh,” said Pickering.

“Tim’s just bluffing.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Pickering.

“Hey!” said Carter grasping Pickering’s hand.

This was his way of bringing the conversation to a close.

“Hey!” said Pickering.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” said Carter disappearing back into his office.

Pickering put the newspaper back in his briefcase and headed up the stairs to the second floor and his office.

*

No students were waiting for him out in the hallway. This was a bit of a relief because now he could have uninterrupted time to go over his lecture notes before his little performance. He closed and locked the door of his office, sat down behind his desk, reached in his briefcase, found the newspaper which he set aside on his desk, pulled out the folder on John Dos Passos and spread the notes in front of him.

John Dos Passos.

Yes, thought Pickering.

That phrase came to him again: “John Dos Passos was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.”

He imagined himself standing in front of all those students—well, perhaps the 50 or so who actually would show up—and started by reminding the students that they were about to undertake to consider one of the giants of Twentieth Century American writers: John Dos Passos. While it certainly had to be admitted that Dos Passos wasn’t on the same level as Faulkner or even Hemingway, in a sense Dos Passos was greater than those two because (and here came that phrase) he was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.

Yes, thought Pickering.

Because he would explain to the students that very few of us—and he certainly included himself in this analysis—were committed to the social struggles of our day. We all, or most of us, at least, do everything we can to avoid the obvious social injustices around us.

You don’t believe me? Really? Well, just let me share a story with you. How many of you know that the newspapers are reporting this morning that a woman in western Nebraska (her name is Laura—I will only use her first name) lost her job as a cleaning lady in a school for delinquent girls. She had been doing what cleaning ladies do, you know, mopping floors, cleaning out toilets, that kind of thing, when she saw staff members abusing girls in their care. Doing things I choose not to describe. She reported this outrage to her superiors.

And what happened? Please! What do you think happened? The strong against the weak! The rich against the poor! This woman was called into her boss’s office and was informed that she was fired.

Suddenly Pickering realized that he had lost himself standing there in front of the class.

Actually, of course, in reality, he would never say most of those things. In fact, hardly any at all.

He looked at his watch. Still half an hour.

So he had some time to spare.

He pulled his typewriter over to the center of the desk, chose a piece of paper with the stationary of the English Department, University of Nebraska at the top, inserted the paper in the roller of the machine and began to type:

Dear Laura,

I am absolutely shocked by the way the institution where you were employed has acted. I simply can’t imagine that the administration of this institution feels that protecting its own image is of more importance than the duty it owes to the girls in its care.

I’m sure you have received many letters of support—not only mine. But I want to say that if you ever find yourself in eastern Nebraska and especially if you find yourself in Lincoln please look me up at the University. (My office is on the 2nd floor of a building called, The Annex.) Believe me, I will try to help you in any way I can.

Very truly yours,

Richard C. Pickering, Ph.D.

Assistant professor

Pickering pulled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it and signed it just above where he had typed Richard C. Pickering, Ph.D.

He inserted an envelope (again with the stationary of the English Department, University of Nebraska on it) into the typewriter and typed in, “Laura Cartwright.”

Then he realized he didn’t know Laura Cartwright’s address.

Oh, to hell with it. He’d trust to luck. Maybe it would get there and maybe it wouldn’t.

He typed the second line, “Institution for Delinquent Girls,” then the third line, Ashburn, Nebraska.

That should do it, Pickering thought.

Pickering folded the letter, slipped it in the envelope, sealed the envelope and placed a stamp on the envelope.

He would mail the letter at the English Department office on his way to class.

*

Two months later, in fact, on the morning of December 14th, Pickering was sitting at his desk in his office on the second floor of The Annex. Outside a foot of snow covered the entire campus, Christmas lights adorned a huge pine tree in front of the library and to Pickering’s surprise there were even lit Christmas decorations downstairs in the vestibule of The Annex. Most of the students had already taken their finals and left the campus. Even some of the faculty had managed to start their Christmas break.

But not yet Pickering. He was pushing to finish up his grades as the deadline for handing them in was at three o’clock this afternoon. At four o’clock, or thereabouts, he would attend the English Department Christmas party, tonight he was invited to dinner at the home of a full professor in one of the best residential areas of Lincoln and tomorrow morning he would catch a plane to Boston for his Christmas holidays. In Boston he would see his good friends and undoubtedly would also sit in a corner of a nice café enjoying a special cup of coffee.

He had just finished a pile of little, blue essay booklets from his Introduction to American Literature course and was beginning to enter the grades in his grade book when he thought he heard a slight knocking at his office door.

“Yes?” said Pickering.

But nothing.

He had started entering grades again when he again heard the slight knocking again.

“Yes?” he called.

This time when nothing happened, Pickering got up, crossed his office and opened the door.

No student, that was for sure. An older woman, at least 60 or 65, with white hair and wearing an old coat which had seen better days, stood in the hallway. A battered, leather suitcase was at her side.

“Dr. Pickering?” said the lady in a barely audible voice.

“Yes?”

“I’m here.”

Pickering didn’t understand. Why was this woman standing in front of his office door?

“I’m Laura Cartwright,” said the woman.

The woman put her hand into one of the pockets of her coat and pulled out a piece of paper folded over many times. She unfolded the piece of paper and held it out to Pickering.

But even before Pickering took it he knew what it was. His letter. The letter he had sent out to western Nebraska two months ago.

My God! Now this woman was standing in front of his office door.

Pickering pretended to read the letter.

When he was done reading, or, rather, when he was done pretending to read the letter, he said, “Ah, yes…”

“I’m here,” the woman repeated.

“Yes,” said Pickering. “Well, won’t you please come into my office, Mrs. Cartwright?”

He led the way in and once he was behind his desk he indicated a chair.

“Perhaps you could take that one.”

The woman placed her suitcase down next to the chair, sat, folded her hands in her lap and looked at Pickering.

“Ah, yes, so you’re here,” said Pickering.

“Yes,” said the woman.

“And did I understand your name correctly: ‘Cartwright.’”

“Yes, I am Laura Cartwright.”

“Ah, yes,” said Pickering.

The woman continued to look at Pickering.

“And you are from…?”

“Ashburn,” said the woman.

“Ah, yes, Ashburn. And that’s in…?”

“Western Nebraska.”

“Ah, yes,” said Pickering.

“Near Manning.”

“Oh, Manning.”

“Yes,” said the woman.

“Ah, I see. Now, Mrs. Cartwright, may I inquire why you have come to Lincoln? You have relatives here? Perhaps family?”

“No.”

“Friends?”

“No.”

“No friends? No family?”

“No.”

Suddenly Pickering understood. This woman, this complete stranger, this Mrs. Cartwright, had traveled to Lincoln from western Nebraska (probably by bus) entirely because he, Pickering, had sent her a letter in which he had promised to be of some help to her.

Which was hardly fair. Considering. Because he had so many things to do. First, he had to get his grades in no later than three o’clock today. That was a requirement set by the university. He hadn’t set it. And he had to pack for tomorrow’s trip to Boston. Not to mention the English Department Christmas party at four o’clock followed by the invitation to dinner. What was he supposed to do? Take this woman with him?

Pickering looked across the desk at Mrs. Cartwright. She sat there with her hands folded in her lap looking back at him.

“Now, Mrs. Cartwright, I have to tell you that you have caught me at an especially busy time.”

The expression on her face didn’t change.

So he continued.

“Yes, you see, I’m quite busy now. I mean, it’s the end of the semester and I have many things to do.

Pickering didn’t quite know how it happened. One moment Mrs. Cartwright was looking at him and the next moment she was crying. Although the expression on her face hadn’t changed. But he saw the tears starting down her cheeks.

“Although, yes, well, Mrs. Cartwright…”

Suddenly Pickering saw a way out.

He reached for his phone and dialed the undergraduate-looking guy, Carter, the one with the flaming red hair and the connections to the governor’s office. Maybe Carter could handle this.

The phone rang one time, two times, three times, four times, five times, and then, thank God, Pickering heard Carter’s voice.

“Helloooo!” said Carter in his cheery voice.

“Carter. This is Richard. Upstairs.”

“Richard! And how the hell are you? What’s up?”

Pickering explained that, as a matter of fact, he had a guest in his office, a woman, whom he was sure Carter would want to meet. Could he bring his guest down now? More or less immediately?

“Hey, of course, Richard. You know I’ve always got time for you.”

A few more pleasantries before Pickering hung up.

He looked over at Mrs. Cartwright who was looking back at him. Traces of tears were still on her cheeks.

“We’re in luck, Mrs. Cartwright. Things may be turning out okay. Quite okay. You see, fortunately I have this friend. He is very well-connected. Even perhaps at the governor’s office.”

*

Carter was waiting at the door of his office and as soon as he saw Pickering and Mrs. Cartwright coming down the stairs, shouted up, “Richard, hey, nice to see you.”

“Hey,” called Pickering back,.

Carter turned to Mrs. Cartwright.

“And, pray tell, who is this, our illustrious guest?”

“May I introduce Mrs. Laura Cartwright,” said Pickering, and he quickly went into a brief history of Mrs. Cartwright’s reporting child abuse to her superiors at an institution for delinquent girls in western Nebraska.

“Ah, yes!” replied Carter. “Mrs. Cartwright: Honored! Very brave of you, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Carter made a little half-bow.

“Please!” said Carter. “Won’t the two of you come into my office?”

Pickering saw his chance.

“So, Carter, if you don’t mind I’ve really got to get on with things. You know, the end of the semester.”

“What?” said Carter.

Pickering turned to the woman.

“Mrs. Cartwright, I’ve got to be going now, but I’ll be leaving you in the very best of hands. I think Mr.—” Pickering paused because he realized he didn’t know Carter’s last name. But he continued, “Mr. Carter here will take care of you, set you up, that kind of thing. Right, Carter?”

“Richard—?” said Carter.

“I knew you would. I absolutely knew you would,” said Pickering and with that he turned and started up the stairs.

At his office he locked his office door. Why? Just for beginners, so he could finish his grades in time for the three o’clock deadline (a deadline which had been set by the university, certainly not by himself) and at four o’clock he was obligated to attend the English Department Christmas party and not to forget the invitation to dinner at 7:00 at a full professor’s house. And tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, he would fly to Boston and in Boston he would surely visit with the friends and also finally sit in some nice corner of some nice café finally having an excellent cup of coffee and reading The New York Times, the real news, the important news, the news that actually made a difference.

pencilKarl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. E-mail: yeskarl[at]gmx.net

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