In the Maid’s Room

Caleb Crain
Bonnie Natko, Brownstone, via Creative Commons

Once we knew the brownstone was going to be sold, we started to become susceptible to it again. To the fineness of its furnishings, the calm of the rooms. If only I could live here, visitors always made the mistake of thinking. It was a mistake that those of us who worked at the review prided ourselves on not making. The if-only feeling was illusion. The brownstone was Jerome’s house, and every day we had worked in it, he had reminded us of this, in his all-too-human way, yelling for a sharpened blue pencil without bothering to put his demand into so many words, repurposing as a coaster for one of his bottomless glasses of seltzer a manuscript he had filigreed with edits, which it was our responsibility to retrieve, in order to enter the edits onto a PDF and send them to the author, without returning the seltzer glass to the naked surface of the table and thereby mottling the table’s finish. He was at home, and we weren’t. It was a setting he had assembled, piece by piece, over decades: a silk pouf found in the Vendée one summer with the countess, his only lover; a watercolor of a knife standing in a glass of water, bought from Diebenkorn on a visit to the artist’s studio in Berkeley in 1963. It wasn’t like any other workplace. Capitalism alone would never have called forth anything like it, and if capitalism had, would never have let us work in it. But here we were, nonetheless, on an intimate, ongoing basis, a little more than servants, a little less than guests. Our places, we felt, were personal, like those of every other item in the space.

The guests proper were Jerome’s writers, who came to have lunch, when it was time for one of them to be given an assignment, around the mahogany table on the second floor. The illusion was for them. The silver was for them. The gray linens. And maybe the illusion worked. Maybe they were inspired, never having had to try to live the illusion out for more than an hour or two at a time. Which is not to say that Jerome wasn’t fair. Whenever one of us wrote a piece for him, we were given a lunch, too, though we were also in that case the ones to fetch it, from the diner at the end of the block, always a caprese salad sandwich for him—a vegetarian, quietly, since the 1980s—though we were free to order a bacon turkey club for ourselves, if that was what we wanted. For our weaker selves. Pierced by a toothpick. In the blue tile kitchen, under the hanging copper cookware that was never used, we would take the sandwiches out of their foil and place them on the pink transferware, as if by such a ceremony we were capable of fooling ourselves out of knowing. But even the writers knew, at least about the sandwiches. They were from a diner. They weren’t very good.

Like every straight man in the city’s literary scene, he had put on twenty pounds during the pandemic.

One evening, a week or so after Jerome died, I stayed late to read through a proof that I hadn’t been able to focus on during the day. I came across a quote I needed to check, and since the book it was from was by one of Jerome’s writers, I knew the book would be in his library. I walked up to the third floor. When I passed the master bathroom, which was next to the library, the door was open. I heard the crinkle of water. There was Leslie, floating, naked, in the enormous claw-footed porcelain tub. Stirring the water absentmindedly with his hands, by his sides. He had been on staff a long time but had left a few years earlier and was a writer now, though he hadn’t quite found his footing. Someone tried to cancel him but didn’t quite manage to. There was a little archipelago of his crumpled clothes on the floor. I didn’t say anything. He was communing with Jerome, I understood. Trying to find a way to commune with him. His own way. Like every straight man in the city’s literary scene, he had put on twenty pounds during the pandemic, and the knob of his belly was more prominent than that of his sex. His thinning curly hair seemed almost to be dissolving in the water. Only his wayward sideburns remained bristly.

He didn’t react to my presence. His eyes were open but looking straight up. Maybe, with his ears underwater, he didn’t hear me.

Another day, in the middle of the morning, again on my way to the library, I heard children’s laughter. One of Jerome’s favorite writers, Mohsin, was in Jerome’s bed. The coverlet had been turned down, exposing the white of the sheets, and Mohsin was propping himself up sideways, a pillow squashed under one arm. His wife and two little daughters were beside him. He had the good looks of a movie star, not that this ever mattered to Jerome, who had only cared about writing and, to a slightly lesser extent, thinking. The family had taken off their shoes; they weren’t hurting anyone or anything. Mohsin raised a hand to wave a casual hello. I waved back. All of this was going to be lost to us soon. Even if the review survived, the estate manager was going to move us out of the house, which would have to be sold, so that the value could be deposited in an account and shared among the charities that Jerome had chosen as his beneficiaries. He didn’t have any heirs.

A day came when no one seemed to be keeping track of me—but of course no one had ever kept track of us; we had been kept in line only by the sudden, acute need that Jerome had intermittently had of us—and I walked up to the top floor, to the four little studios that had been the maids’ rooms at the turn of the last century, long before Jerome had bought the building. The small plain rooms were still furnished with stiff narrow beds and square chairs with splintering wicker seats, untouched since Jerome took ownership. Maybe au pairs had stayed in them after maids went out of socioeconomic fashion; maybe nobody had. Jerome had never had any use for the floor. I went into one of the rooms. The walls were yellow. The walls of all of them were yellow. I shut the door. There was a panel at the front, connected, I knew, to a similar but larger panel in the kitchen on the main floor. It was the paging system; it had been used to summon the maids, when the building was originally set up. A low insectlike hum was issuing from it. I could hear footsteps inside the hum and voices trailing away. It was still on. After all these years. Like one of those devices that nineteenth-century eccentrics insisted on being buried with in case they turned out to accidentally not be dead. “Do you know where he went?” someone was saying. I think it was my colleague Daphne. It sounded like her. It might have been me that she was talking about. But there had never been any rules about where we were supposed to be at any given time or how consistently we were supposed to be there. At the top right corner of the panel was a loop of wire, thickly painted over, the loop almost closed up by paint job after paint job. I slid a finger inside. When I twisted my finger, a crease appeared in the lobe of paint inside the loop. I yanked.

Never hesitate to take what you love, especially if you’re the kind of person who might not dare to.

It was abruptly and awfully quiet. At the end of the wire, fresh metal glinted where the braided filaments had torn clean. In Jerome’s whole lifetime the system had probably never been turned off.

Once, during a visit, a writer murmured that the house brought to mind the house full of beautiful things in The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James. I understood the visitor to be raising an eyebrow at the evidence that Jerome, an inveterate leftist, had had such relish for material luxury, because in the novel, the heroine, Fleda Vetch, falls for a man and his lovely furniture and doesn’t get either of them. Her greed is punished, is how the novel is usually read, but in my opinion, if Fleda had been more greedy, if she had grappled to herself both the furniture and the man, she might well have brought them into her care—and saved them. Never hesitate to take what you love, especially if you’re the kind of person who might not dare to, the kind of person taught to respect things and their ownership. Because nothing lasts. Of course furniture in a story can’t represent only itself. Surely it was a way for James to talk about what at the time would have been called the love interest’s “person.” His body, his meat. Which decays faster if the right person isn’t ministering to it. We all know that. If it isn’t kept by someone who sets a high value on it. Someone who would steal it again, if she had to. Steal you. I don’t think I’m saying that the confused feelings that we were all starting to have for Jerome’s home, now that he was gone, were sexual. There would have been something fairly horrible about thinking of him that way—like thinking of going to bed with your mother or your father. With someone who was somehow, for you, both at once. But we had, after all, taken care of his person. Fed him. Sharpened his pencils.

In the severed room, I lay down on the narrow bed. I imagined, when I lay down, that I was lying at the bottom of a lifeboat cut loose from its main ship and that all I could see, blinkered by the metal sides of the lifeboat, was the wavering blue, suspended just a little above as far as I could reach with my fingers. I raised one of my arms, like a dog raising one of its paws when it stretches on its back.

Caleb Crain is the author of the critical study American Sympathy and of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow.
Originally published:
October 24, 2022

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