No Answer

Terese wanted to finish her work, lock up and move on to the next job.

She was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang. It was hanging on the wall, and at the exact moment of that first ring, her ear was right next to it. It startled her even over the throaty roar of the machine she was carefully edging along the bottom of the bookshelf. Terese had to stifle an urge to reach up and grab the receiver. Its owner wasn’t home to answer it, so there was no point in even turning the vacuum off. She backed the machine away from the bookshelf. As it passed, one front corner struck a carelessly stacked book on the bottom shelf. With the toe of her shoe, Terese gently nudged the book back into place, balancing herself with the handle of the Hoover.

The phone rang a second time. Terese moved further away from it, swinging her arm rhythmically as she moved methodically across the floor in a well-practiced, efficient pattern. Vacuuming was her favorite part of the cleaning work. It was the very last task in a long list that took her through every room of the house, from bathroom to kitchen, dusting, scouring, polishing and tidying. The vacuuming reprised the entire path, but now everything was done, and this grooming of carpets and subsequent removal of dirt from the home was a finishing touch that satisfied her in a deep way that she only dimly understood.

She heard the phone ring again as she reached the bedroom door. She flipped the switch and allowed the roaring sound to devolve into a faint, slow whirr. A thin tornado of dust briefly rushed through the shaft of sunlight that entered the hallway through the partially curtained window, then slowly drifted back to the floor. Was that the fourth ring she was hearing now or the fifth? Terese pulled the machine aside and entered the room. She walked over to the small wicker armchair in the corner furthest from the door. “Come on, kitty. Time to go hide in the bathroom,” she said, as she tilted the chair forward to reveal the cowering creature hiding underneath. The cat looked up at her familiar face, its tail twitching nervously. “You know the drill, cat,” she told it, but the cat didn’t move. From the other side of the hallway, the phone rang.

Terese bent down and feinted, as though to scoop the cat up. The animal got the message and darted from its erstwhile refuge, heading for the only escape not blocked by this intrusive stranger who periodically appeared to disrupt the familiar smells and object placement in its home. As the phone rang again, Terese closed the bathroom door on the anxious cat and returned to her vacuum cleaner. Shouldn’t there be an answering machine or something? It bothered her. The phone hadn’t been answered, and yet the person calling hadn’t given up.

She switched the Hoover back on and started her rhythmic pattern again. As she worked, she pulled aside the small items - the wicker chair, a fan, a floor lamp; moving them back to a slightly different spot to keep the carpet from compacting permanently under their weight. The ringing phone penetrated the noise of the vacuum cleaner only faintly. She could ignore it and settle back into the trance-like state that the task often induced in her.

Only one room left to do. Terese wanted to get finished with her work, lock up and move on to her next appointment. The phone continued to ring. She felt ill at ease, suddenly, as though there were a stranger in the house. She paused the vacuum cleaner just long enough to switch the plug from the hallway outlet to one in the living room. The phone rang only once in the silence, but she now realized that a second telephone, on the table next to the couch, was adding its voice to the one in the office.

Normally she liked vacuuming the living room best. The carpet here was thick and soft, a pleasing caramel shade that reminded her of dulce de leche. She liked watching the expensive fibers take on the dual-toned sheen of back and forth as the sucking mechanism passed over them. Today, though, that ringing telephone was spooking her. Hurriedly, she moved the Hoover across the spacious area in front of the coffee table. She glanced at the carpet underneath the table itself and thought briefly about skipping it. Instead, she pulled the table to one side almost without stopping her swing of the beast’s handle. A couple of quick swipes and she moved on toward the foyer, not even stopping to move the table back into alignment with the sofa.

By the time she’d unplugged the vacuum, wound its cord around the plastic fingers on each end of the upright frame, opened the bathroom door to free the cat, and gathered up the rest of her cleaning gear, a sheen of sweat had emerged on her face despite the chill of the air conditioner. Terese wondered if she was coming down with something. Her youngest had come home only two days ago with a bug that had kept him moping in bed for a night and a day. She wondered if she should answer the phone. She held her breath for a moment, listening to the next ring. How many times had it rung? She should answer it; it was obviously important to someone, important enough to sit listening to the thing ring for ten minutes or more. What would she say? "This is the cleaning service." She knew the English words, but she also knew she wouldn’t get past them, and her listener likely wouldn’t get past her thick accent in any event.

At that moment, she realized that the ringing had stopped. With a feeling of relief, she stood for a long minute, listening to the silence and gazing at the empty room. She could hear the gurgling sound of the aquarium filter in the dining room, the tick of the antique clock in the foyer, and the muffled, tumbling sound of ice being made inside the freezer in the kitchen.

Terese wheeled her vacuum cleaner out the front door with her right hand and dragged the handcart with the cleaning supplies with her left. She locked the door with the key she’d taken from its hiding place between the brick planter and the frame of the entry shelter. Leaving her supplies outside the door, she picked up the one large and two small plastic-bagged loads of trash and took them out to the big blue trash container in the back alley. Returning, she dropped the key through the mail slot as always, straightened the mat on the freshly swept floor in front of the door, and lifted the vacuum cleaner down the three steps to the walkway. As she was returning for the supply cart, she stopped short. Was that the phone ringing again? Yes. There it was, faintly ringing behind the locked door. She put her ear to the door. It was too late to go in; the key wouldn’t be waiting in the hiding place for her until next week. Meanwhile, the phone rang. Over and over, as she packed her equipment into her car, and over and over, she imagined, as she started the car, put it into gear, and backed out of the driveway.

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