I am surrounded by beautiful women, starting with my wife, and extending all the way down the hall of my apartment building. They are all young mothers, or were when I met them over the past twenty years. Childless myself, I stand in bewildered awe of what it appears to take to raise children. I have fabulous neighbors, and I love them all dearly. It is a secret delight of mine to do them secret favors, anonymous acts of service to lighten the load: to grab a bag of trash I find in the hallway, to return an errant toy found down the hall, or — my favorite — to clean up a mess left behind in the common kitchen before the beleaguered mom comes back to deal with it. I scramble through these errands and dash around the corner, or down the nearest stair, lest I be caught in the act — which would deduct ten points from my score.
I do love to serve my neighbors in this way.
Jake (NOT his name) was a feckless youth who was born and raised in our building. Now in his twenties, he had been off to college and back several times, gone on a mission trip or two, tried his hand at a job or two, but always seemed to drift back in to Mom & Dad’s house. Jake was all right; we liked him well enough, and this would have been no skin off anyone’s nose… if not for the dishes.
Jake was a notorious kitchen-trasher. Jake could use every iron skillet in the communal floor-kitchen to fry one egg, take off with his snack mumbling “I’ll be back for this mess” and predictably never come back. We talked to him about it, repeatedly: politely, privately, individually, in pairs, in large groups, not so politely, and finally, behind his back. We quit cleaning up after him, just so we could stand in the trashed kitchen and complain about him. His dear mother feared to enter the kitchen except alone. She was probably the only one left willing to pick up after him, and then only in the dead of night.
Well, one day I entered the floor kitchen just as one of my favorite neighbor-mommy-ladies was coming out, plates of grilled cheese in her arms and several toddlers in her train. And behind her I saw a collection of scummy skillets still warm on the stove and a few dishes in the sink. With glee I set to work scrubbing away, knowing she’d be back pretty quick to clean it herself. I scrubbed like mad, imagining her surprise and delight upon finding the mess gone, and pretending to myself she would never figure out it was me. (That’s the best part — denying everything when they ask if it was I who did this or that.)
It was a masculine voice. I glanced over my shoulder. Jake stood in the door, confounded. He stammered, “I — you — I was just coming to get that, and… and you… you…. Thank you!”
He blushed and ran away.
I was alone in my burning shame, engulfed in my boundless hypocrisy.
Since that day, when I find a pile of dishes in the sink in the communal floor kitchen, I wash them for the only valid reason there ever truly was, with the only legitimate motive I ever should have had:
Because they are dirty.