When I'm tempted to grumble because I have to do all the housecleaning here, I remember what it was like to have help. Sometimes it wasn't so bad. Except in Rome, when Pepito was our housecleaner. I actually never hired him. I hired his wife, Helene, as she was recommended by someone at the embassy. But she did a bait and switch. Said she’d take the job, and that if she couldn’t make it, her husband might fill in occasionally. But Pepito showed up the second week, after which I never again saw Helene.
Pepito explained that he was working for us because Helene could not do our cleaning job. She was too frightened of our elderly Labrador and wire-haired Dachshund. “But don’t worry, ma’am. I work hard.”
Other embassy families had hired Pepito before, and we needed the help. I was teaching a full load of courses at American University of Rome, and our apartment was enormous, with plate glass windows and marble floors, which required special cleaning. Pepito understood all this. He was also good at beating carpets, and heavy lifting. He was a whiz at cleaning bathrooms. And he was honest.
But if you were home on one of his afternoons, you had to count on lots of interaction. He’d appear in the room with a vacuum cleaner just as I sat down at my desk. “Afternoon ma’am.” Then after vacuuming, he’d systematically remove every piece of china from the cabinet in order to polish it, chatting to me all the while.
He spoke of a former ambassador from another country that he was working for. He chatted about the Philippines. He talked about the dogs. He and Helene used to keep dogs, but sadly they were stolen for their meat. “Yes,” he said, “This is very common in our place.” Sometimes he talked about black magic and the spells that had been cast over him. These spells had been responsible for his health troubles the previous year.
“The quack doctor. He comes from our place,” he said, meaning the Philippines. “He can call mosquitoes. All my body have inflame.”
He paused, leaning against the table with his duster in hand. “They put a spell in soft drinks, so your stomach will grow like this.”
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“Disciples of the devil. They study how to become a witch. According to the quack doctor there is a school in our place and they can learn how to become a witch there. Yes ma’am. My only armor is my body. Every day the rosary.”
“Hmm…” I turned back to my work.
Pepito lingered. He chuckled awkwardly. “They make your egg so big,” he said. “Your egg get big, like that. My quack doctor gave me something to avoid that.”
“Pepito, I’m glad you were able to undo this horrible spell, but I really must get back to my grading.”
“Yes ma’am. They make your saliva a pungent odor and your eyes you cannot open.”
“What! What are you talking about?”
“Yes. It is real, ma’am. They do it so something is moving in my body. My superficial skin.”
“Wait. What exactly is a superficial skin?”
“Is how they enter. Always on your feet, they enter.”
“They enter through your feet?”
“Yes,” he said. “In my superficial skin.”
For four years, Pepito mopped our floors and vacuumed the rugs, cleaned the windows, the marble floors and the bathrooms, and polished the furniture in our apartment. I paid him well and he was reliable. “Only why is Pepito so annoying?” Elliot asked.
When Elliot came home from school, Pepito greeted him loudly, exactly the same way every time. “Hello!” he cried. “Hello, handsome boy ~ha ha ha!” Sometimes he showed up very late and flustered, having been detained for a special function at the foreign ambassador’s residence. This meant he was still cleaning at ours when Ben came home from the embassy. He always stayed the allotted length of time and this was all the better if he got to talk to Ben, especially when Ben turned on the television. That was his cue to come in and polish the furniture, making comments on the news broadcast, and asking Ben’s opinion on current affairs.
“Why do you keep him?” Rozzie asked when she visited between her college semesters.
I did consider replacing Pepito. But it seemed unkind to fire someone simply for being annoying, especially since he needed the work.
When it was time for us to leave Rome, Pepito presented me with a severance calculation, neatly tallied up. It was the work of a genius. It had been done by his wife, Helene.
“What!” I cried, in horror.
“Yes,” he said. “This is legal, according to Italian Labor law.”
“But you worked two afternoons a week,” I cried. “And I’m not your sponsor…”
“… or even your primary employer! The foreign ambassador is your sponsor. So why do you expect a severance package from me?”
“Ma’am, this is legal,” he said. “Helene did all the calculation.”
I looked at the neat rows of numbers – every holiday in the last four years accounted for; he expected payment for them all. “Why didn’t you tell me as we went along?” I asked. “If you expected to be paid for holidays, we could have discussed it before you began, and I would have paid as I went.”
“Ma’am,” he explained. “This is how we do the calculation.” He was also charging us for his transportation to and from the apartment, for four years in a row, in addition to a month’s extra wages while he looked for new work. Wow, I thought. If only my university teaching paid this generously; I should be so lucky.
“Does everybody pay you like this when you leave their employ?”
“Yes ma’am. Everybody,” Pepito said. “They are good people.”
I checked with the embassy colleague who had originally recommended Helene. She acknowledged that it didn’t seem fair. But Pepito was right; all this was legal according to Italian labor laws, even for part time employees.
Pepito’s severance pay worked out to well over two thousand euros. I handed it over in cash, as he requested and then he counted it out. “Wait, Ma’am! This is short,” he cried.
“It certainly isn’t!” Then he watched carefully as I counted it out once again.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “It is correct.” He seemed downcast when we said our goodbyes. But I was determined to keep my temper. Maybe I was just cowardly. Or maybe I had put up with his quirks so long, that it seemed silly to end badly. “Goodbye, Pepito. And good luck to you,” I said.
For once in his life, Pepito was speechless. He left without a word. But my superficial skin was absolutely crawling as I shut the door.