A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

by Lucia Berlin


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A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.

Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250094735
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 58,129
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she later held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the 1990s, she took a visiting writer's post at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey. She is the author of the short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Read an Excerpt

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Selected Stories

By Lucia Berlin, Stephen Emerson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Estate of Lucia Berlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71286-0


Angel's Laundromat

A tall old Indian in faded Levi's and a fine Zuni belt. His hair white and long, knotted with raspberry yarn at his neck. The strange thing was that for a year or so we were always at Angel's at the same time. But not at the same times. I mean some days I'd go at seven on a Monday or maybe at six thirty on a Friday evening and he would already be there.

Mrs. Armitage had been different, although she was old too. That was in New York at the San Juan Laundry on Fifteenth Street. Puerto Ricans. Suds overflowing onto the floor. I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays.

She died on a Monday and I never went back to the San Juan. The super found her. I don't know how.

For months, at Angel's, the Indian and I did not speak to each other, but we sat next to each other in connected yellow plastic chairs, like at airports. They skidded in the ripped linoleum and the sound hurt your teeth.

He used to sit there sipping Jim Beam, looking at my hands. Not directly, but into the mirror across from us, above the Speed Queen washers. At first it didn't bother me. An old Indian staring at my hands through the dirty mirror, between yellowing IRONING $1.50 A DUZ and orange Day-Glo serenity prayers. GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE. But then I began to wonder if he had something about hands. It made me nervous, him watching me smoke and blow my nose, leaf through magazines years old. Lady Bird Johnson going down the rapids.

Finally he got me staring at my hands. I saw him almost grin because he caught me staring at my own hands. For the first time our eyes met in the mirror, beneath DON'T OVERLOAD THE MACHINES.

There was panic in my eyes. I looked into my own eyes and back down at my hands. Horrid age spots, two scars. Un-Indian, nervous, lonely hands. I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.

His hands that day (the day I noticed mine) were on each taut blue thigh. Most of the time they shook badly and he just let them shake in his lap, but that day he was holding them still. The effort to keep them from shaking turned his adobe knuckles white.

The only time I had spoken with Mrs. Armitage outside of the laundry was when her toilet had overflowed and was pouring down through the chandelier on my floor of the building. The lights were still burning while the water splashed rainbows through them. She gripped my arm with her cold dying hand and said, "It's a miracle, isn't it?"

His name was Tony. He was a Jicarilla Apache from up north. One day I hadn't seen him but I knew it was his fine hand on my shoulder. He gave me three dimes. I didn't understand, almost said thanks, but then I saw that he was shaky-sick and couldn't work the dryers. Sober, it's hard. You have to turn the arrow with one hand, put the dime in with the other, push down the plunger, then turn the arrow back for the next dime.

He came back later, drunk, just as his clothes were starting to fall limp and dry. He couldn't get the door open, passed out in the yellow chair. My clothes were dry, I was folding.

Angel and I got Tony back onto the floor of the pressing room. Hot. Angel is responsible for all the AA prayers and mottoes. DON'T THINK AND DON'T DRINK. Angel put a cold wet one-sock on Tony's head and knelt beside him.

"Brother, believe me ... I've been there ... right down there in the gutter where you are. I know just how you feel."

Tony didn't open his eyes. Anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool.

Angel's Laundromat is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fourth Street. Shabby shops and junkyards, secondhand stores with army cots, boxes of one-socks, 1940 editions of Good Hygiene. Grain stores and motels for lovers and drunks and old women with hennaed hair who do their laundry at Angel's. Teenage Chicana brides go to Angel's. Towels, pink shortie nighties, bikini underpants that say Thursday. Their husbands wear blue overalls with names in script on the pockets. I like to wait and see the names appear in the mirror vision of the dryers. Tina, Corky, Junior.

Traveling people go to Angel's. Dirty mattresses, rusty high chairs tied to the roofs of dented old Buicks. Leaky oil pans, leaky canvas water bags. Leaky washing machines. The men sit in the cars, shirtless, crush Hamm's cans when they're empty.

But it's Indians who go to Angel's mostly. Pueblo Indians from San Felipe and Laguna and Sandia. Tony was the only Apache I ever met, at the laundry or anywhere else. I like to sort of cross my eyes and watch the dryers full of Indian clothes blurring the brilliant swirling purples and oranges and reds and pinks.

I go to Angel's. I'm not sure why, it's not just the Indians. It's across town from me. Only a block away is the Campus, air-conditioned, soft rock on the Muzak. New Yorker, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. Wives of graduate assistants go there and buy their kids Zero bars and Cokes. The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel's with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME.

I could see it wasn't turning deep purple but a darker muddy green, but I wanted to come back anyway. I liked the Indians and their laundry. The broken Coke machine and the flooded floor reminded me of New York. Puerto Ricans mopping, mopping. Their pay phone was always out of order, like Angel's. Would I have gone to find Mrs. Armitage's body on a Thursday?

"I am chief of my tribe," the Indian said. He had just been sitting there, sipping port, looking at my hands.

He told me that his wife worked cleaning houses. They had had four sons. The youngest one had committed suicide, the oldest had died in Vietnam. The other two were school bus drivers.

"You know why I like you?" he asked.

"No, why?"

"Because you are a redskin." He pointed to my face in the mirror. I do have red skin, and no, I never had seen a red-skinned Indian.

He liked my name, pronounced it in Italian. Lu-chee-a. He had been in Italy in World War II. Sure enough there was a dog tag with his beautiful silver and turquoise necklaces. It had a big dent in it. "A bullet?" No, he used to chew it when he got scared or horny.

Once he suggested that we go lie down in his camper and rest together.

"Eskimos say laugh together." I pointed to the lime-green Day-Glo sign, NEVER LEAVE THE MACHINES UNATTENDED. We both giggled, laughing together on our connected plastic chairs. Then we sat, quiet. No sound but the sloshy water, rhythmic as ocean waves. His Buddha hand held mine.

A train passed. He nudged me: "Great big iron horse!" and we started giggling all over again.

I have a lot of unfounded generalizations about people, like all blacks are bound to like Charlie Parker. Germans are horrible, all Indians have a weird sense of humor like my mother's. One favorite of hers is when this guy is bending down tying his shoe and another comes along and beats him up and says, "You're always tying your shoe!" The other one is when a waiter is serving and he spills beans in somebody's lap and says, "Oh, oh, I spilled the beans." Tony used to repeat these to me on slow days at the laundry.

Once he was very drunk, mean drunk, got into a fight with some Okies in the parking lot. They busted his Jim Beam bottle. Angel said he'd buy him a half-pint if he would listen to him in the pressing room. I moved my clothes from the washer to the dryer while Angel talked to Tony about One Day at a Time.

When Tony came out he shoved his dimes into my hand. I put his clothes into a dryer while he struggled with the Jim Beam bottle cap. Before I could sit down he hollered at me.

"I am a chief! I am a chief of the Apache tribe! Shit!"

"Shit yourself, Chief." He was just sitting there, drinking, looking at my hands in the mirror.

"How come you do the Apache laundry?"

I don't know why I said that. It was a horrible thing to say. Maybe I thought he would laugh. He did, anyway.

"What tribe are you, redskin?" he said, watching my hands take out a cigarette. "You know my first cigarette was lit by a prince? Do you believe that?"

"Sure I believe it. Want a light?" He lit my cigarette and we smiled at each other. We were very close and then he passed out and I was alone in the mirror.

There was a young girl, not in the mirror but sitting by the window. Her hair curled in the mist, wispy Botticelli. I read all the signs. GOD GIVE ME THE COURAGE. NEW CRIB NEVER USED — BABY DIED.

The girl put her clothes into a turquoise basket and she left. I moved my clothes to the table, checked Tony's, and put in another dime. I was alone in Angel's with Tony. I looked at my hands and eyes in the mirror. Pretty blue eyes.

Once I was on a yacht off Viña del Mar. I borrowed my first cigarette and asked Prince Aly Khan for a light. "Enchanté," he said. He didn't have a match, actually.

I folded my laundry, and when Angel came back I went home.

I can't remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.


Dr. H. A. Moynihan

I hated St. Joseph's. Terrified by the nuns, I struck Sister Cecilia one hot Texas day and was expelled. As punishment, I had to work every day of summer vacation in Grandpa's dental office. I knew the real reason was they didn't want me to play with the neighborhood children. Mexicans and Syrians. No Negroes, but that was only a matter of time, my mother said.

I'm sure they also wanted to spare me Mamie's dying, her moaning, her friends' praying, the stench and the flies. At night, with the help of morphine, she would doze off and my mother and Grandpa would each drink alone in their separate rooms. I could hear the separate gurgles of bourbon from the porch where I slept.

Grandpa barely spoke to me all summer. I sterilized and laid out his instruments, tied towels around the patients' necks, held the Stom Aseptine mouthwash cup and told them to spit. When there weren't any patients, he went into his workshop to make teeth or into his office to paste. I wasn't allowed in either room. He pasted Ernie Pyle and FDR; had different scrapbooks for the Japanese and German wars. He had scrapbooks for Crime and Texas and Freak Accidents: Man gets mad and throws a watermelon out of a second-story window. It hits his wife on the head and kills her, bounces off, hits the baby in the buggy, kills it too, and doesn't even break.

Everybody hated Grandpa but Mamie, and me, I guess. Every night he got drunk and mean. He was cruel and bigoted and proud. He had shot my uncle John's eye out during a quarrel and had shamed and humiliated my mother all her life. She wouldn't speak to him, wouldn't even get near him because he was so filthy, slopping food and spitting, leaving wet cigarettes everywhere. Plaster from teeth molds covered him with white specks, like he was a painter or a statue.

He was the best dentist in West Texas, maybe in all of Texas. Many people said so, and I believed it. It wasn't true that his patients were all old winos or Mamie's friends, my mother said that. Distinguished men came even from Dallas or Houston because he made such wonderful false teeth. His false teeth never slipped or whistled, and they looked completely real. He had invented a secret formula to color them right, sometimes even made them chipped or yellowed, with fillings and caps on them.

He wouldn't let anyone in his workshop — just the firemen, that once. It hadn't been cleaned in forty years. I went in when he went to the bathroom. The windows were caked black with dirt and plaster and wax. The only light came from two flickering blue Bunsen burners. Huge sacks of plaster stacked against the walls, sifted over onto a floor lumpy with chunks of broken tooth molds, and jars of various single teeth. Thick pink and white globs of wax hung on the walls, trailing cobwebs. Shelves were crammed with rusty tools and rows of dentures, grinning, or upside down, frowning, like theater masks. He chanted while he worked, his half-smoked cigarettes often igniting gobs of wax or candy bar wrappers. He threw coffee on the fires, staining the plaster-soft floor a deep cave brown.

The workshop opened into a small office with a rolltop desk where he pasted in scrapbooks and wrote checks. After he signed his name, he always flicked the pen, splashing black across his signature, sometimes obliterating the amount so that the bank would have to call to verify it.

There was no door between the room where he worked on patients and the waiting room. While he worked, he would turn around to talk to people in the waiting room, waving his drill. The extraction patients would recover on a chaise longue; the rest sat on windowsills or radiators. Sometimes someone sat in the phone booth, a big wooden booth with a pay phone, a fan, and a sign, "I never met a man I didn't like."

There weren't any magazines. If someone brought one and left it there, Grandpa would throw it away. He just did this to be contrary, my mother said. He said it was because it drove him crazy, people sitting there turning the pages.

When his patients weren't sitting, they wandered around the room fooling with things on the two safes. Buddhas, skulls with false teeth wired to open and close, snakes that bit you if you pulled their tails, domes you turned over and it snowed. On the ceiling was a sign, WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING UP HERE FOR? The safes contained gold and silver for fillings, stacks of money, and bottles of Jack Daniel's.

On all the windows, facing the main street of El Paso, were large gold letters that read, "Dr. H. A. Moynihan. I Don't Work for Negroes." The signs were reflected in the mirrors that hung on the remaining three walls. The slogan was written on the door to the hall. I never sat facing the door because I was afraid Negroes would come and look in over the sign. I never saw a Negro in the Caples Building though, except for Jim, the elevator man.

When people called for appointments, Grandpa had me tell them he was no longer taking patients, so as summer went on, there was less and less to do. Finally, just before Mamie died, there were no patients at all. Grandpa just stayed locked in his workshop or office. I used to go up on the roof sometimes. You could see Juárez and all of downtown El Paso from there. I would pick out one person in the crowd and follow him with my eyes until he disappeared. But mostly I just sat inside on the radiator, looking down at Yandell Drive. I spent hours decoding letters from Captain Marvel Pen Pals, although that was really boring; the code was just A for Z, B for Y, etc.

Nights were long and hot. Mamie's friends stayed even when she slept, reading from the Bible, singing sometimes. Grandpa went out, to the Elks, or to Juárez. The 8-5 cabdriver helped him up the stairs. My mother went out to play bridge, she said, but she came home drunk, too. The Mexican kids played outside until very late. I watched the girls from the porch. They played jacks, squatting on the concrete under the streetlight. I ached to play with them. The sound of the jacks was magical to me, the toss of the jacks like brushes on a drum or like rain, when a gust of wind shimmers it against the windowpane.

One morning when it was still dark, Grandpa woke me up. It was Sunday. I dressed while he called the cab. To call a cab he asked the operator for 8-5 and when they answered, he said, "How about a little transportation?" He didn't answer when the cabdriver asked why we were going to the office on Sunday. It was dark and scary in the lobby. Cockroaches clattered across the tiles and magazines grinned at us behind bars of grating. He drove the elevator, maniacally crashing up and then down and up again until we finally stopped above the fifth floor and jumped down. It was very quiet after we stopped. All you heard were church bells and the Juárez trolley.

At first I was too frightened to follow him into the workshop, but he pulled me in. It was dark, like in a movie theater. He lit the gasping Bunsen burners. I still couldn't see, couldn't see what he wanted me to. He took a set of false teeth down from a shelf and moved them close to the flame on the marble block. I shook my head.

"Keep lookin' at them." Grandpa opened his mouth wide and I looked back and forth between his own teeth and the false ones.

"They're yours!" I said.

The false teeth were a perfect replica of the teeth in Grandpa's mouth, even the gums were an ugly, sick pale pink. The teeth were filled and cracked, some were chipped or worn away. He had changed only one tooth, one in front that he had put a gold cap on. That's what made it a work of art, he said.

"How did you get all those colors?"

"Pretty dang good, eh? Well ... is it my masterpiece?"

"Yes." I shook his hand. I was very happy to be there.

"How do you fit them?" I asked. "Will they fit?"


Excerpted from A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Stephen Emerson. Copyright © 2015 Estate of Lucia Berlin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword: “The Story Is the Thing” by Lydia Davis vii
Introduction by Stephen Emerson xix

Angel’s Laundromat / 3
Dr. H. A. Moynihan / 9
Stars and Saints / 17
A Manual for Cleaning Women / 26
My Jockey / 39
El Tim / 41
Point of View / 51
Her First Detox / 56
Phantom Pain / 61
Tiger Bites / 69
Emergency Room Notebook, 1977 / 88
Temps Perdu / 98
Carpe Diem / 106
Toda Luna, Todo Año / 110
Good and Bad / 125
Melina / 137
Friends / 145
Unmanageable / 151
Electric Car, El Paso / 155
Sex Appeal / 159
Teenage Punk / 164
Step / 167
Strays / 170
Grief / 179
Bluebonnets / 194
La Vie en Rose / 203
Macadam / 210
Dear Conchi / 211
Fool to Cry / 221
Mourning / 236
Panteón de Dolores / 242
So Long / 252
A Love Affair / 261
Let Me See You Smile / 272
Mama / 303
Carmen / 310
Silence / 320
Mijito / 333
502 / 356
Here It Is Saturday / 363
B.F. and Me / 376
Wait a Minute / 380
Homing / 388
A Note on Lucia Berlin / 401

Acknowledgments / 405

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