What makes a tough job and a tough person. When I hear that, I mostly think of coal miners and steel workers, male dominated industries that are dirty, dangerous, and punishing. It’s hard for me to think of tougher jobs than those. But they’re not alone in their difficulty and grime, the only difference is that they are, perhaps, even more forgotten and taken for granted.
Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest is a wonderful short story by Sherman Alexie about the life and career of a motel maid, who, to me, is the very definition of tough.
The maid erases what we leave behind so that others won’t find it, or even know if it; out of presence, out of mind. We may be aware of it, a lurking sense in laying dormant in our subconscious, but it is ever present in the mind, nose and eyes of the motel maid. It’s the primary reason they are there, after all.
Seven people had died at the motel. Four from heart attacks, two from overdoses, and one when a woman drunkenly fell over the second-floor railing and landed head first on somebody else’s minivan.
There had been ten or twelve or fifteen or twenty-three college students who’d worked there over the years. Most of them lasted only a few weeks. Some lasted a few months, and then quit the job and school at the same time, and walked away into sad lives. But two girls, Karen and Christine, kept working while they earned their bachelor’s degrees—Karen in 1991 and Christine in 2000—and then moved on to better jobs in better cities. Marie had attended both of their graduation ceremonies. She never saw Karen again, but she’d bumped into Christine—home for Christmas with her parents—in the local mall one day, and they’d had a long visit over coffee. Christine had married a man, divorced him, and then married a woman named Ariel.
The motel maid will not be remembered or thought of by many of the guests that stay there, especially once she leaves. Even the people she worked with, for short and long periods of time, faded behind like the stains and remains from guests. But do not think she is not tough, and do not think she does not lead a valuable life. I am in awe of the toughness, the grit, the stamina and the poise of the motel maid.