Here’s a little piece about a feisty little lady.
By: S. Scott Bullock
Willa Himmel stood at the opening of the pedestrian overpass with the same trepidation she felt every time she was forced to traverse it. She hated this damn bridge and she hated the fact that she had to use it every time she wanted to cross the damn freeway to get to her bus stop. The thing was really long and very narrow. It crossed, thirty feet above, eight lanes of traffic and a meridian. It was covered with a chain link canopy but Willa was still terrified of falling off the thing onto the ridiculously busy 101 freeway and getting gang-banged by car after car after truck after truck after van after van after motorcycle after motorcycle, reducing her 92 year old body to a complex colored stain on the west-bound fast lane. But she had to cross it. She was a working girl. She had work to do.
The San Fernando Valley in August is somewhat akin to the surface of the sun. The temperatures routinely climb into the high 90’s and often push, passive-aggressively, into the 100’s. The heat is mummy-dust dry and devoid of kindness. It will tear the air from your lungs when you pass into it from an air-conditioned building and leave you gasping in the parking lot while searching for your car. And this particular August the heat was a major news maker. It was only 7:00am, and the digital sign above the Bank Of America building on Ventura boulevard was already reading “97 degrees”.
Willa stood at the opening of the pedestrian overpass in 97 degree heat, wearing her pill box hat and tweed overcoat, not feeling the heat, instead feeling only the terror of her imminent crossing. She was five years younger than the current temperature but because of her status in the ‘Old Farts Of America’ club she was immune to the heat. No matter the ambient temperature, old people are always cold, and Willa was no exception.
“Get your ass across there, girl.” She said to herself aloud. “Get your sorry, scaredy-cat ass across there now.” Her voice was old. It was husky and laid raw from the millions of words she had spoken in her 92 years. It still had a hint of the German accent her first 10 years of life in the old country had impressed upon it, but it still had power, even though it was old.
“Now.” She said. “Go!”
Willa took her first step (the journey of a thousand miles she thought) and clutched her over-sized carpet-bag purse to her side. She walked, not looking down at the freeway, until she reached the half way point. There she forced herself to stop and turn toward the oncoming traffic. Hundreds of cars speed beneath her at 75 miles an hour or more. She took hold of the chain link with her gnarled, arthritic fingers, her tissue-paper skin tearing in tiny spots on the hardened metal.
“I am stronger than you.” She said aloud. “I am stronger than you will ever be.” She turned and let go of the fence. She began to walk again and that’s when the exhaust from all the internal combustion engines flying along below, hit her full force. Breathing it was like sucking oxygen through a gas pump hose. She began to swoon and once again grabbed hold of the chain link. Fresh pain from a combination of her arthritis and the sharp nubs of the fencing bit into her hand.
“I won’t do this.” She said to the polluted air swirling around her. “Wilhelmina Himmel you will not pass out and die on this God-Forsaken bridge.”
She pulled in two lungfuls of exhaust laden air and held her breath. She stared at the distant bridge exit and set off.
‘Why the hell am I STILL doing this?’ She thought. ‘Why the HELL am I still working?’
‘Because you can’t stop. You can never stop until you die, and IF you stop you WILL die’ Her inner-voice answered.
Willa’s inner-voice was as strong, perhaps even stronger, than her outer one. She had more conversations with herself in her 90 plus years than she ever had with any other people in her life. Those ‘inner conversations’ began when she was just a little girl, living in a tiny village in West Germany. Willa was an only child and her village was devoid of kids her age. For whatever cruel reason, providence had placed her in a village with the only other children at least 8 years older than her and placed her in a home with no siblings. Willa had truly been alone her first 10 years in Germany and she had manufactured in herself a friend, a confidant and an adviser. And that adviser was just about screaming at her now.
‘Just GET across!’ It shouted. ‘Just get over this damn bridge and do your job.’
“I will.” She said aloud to her self-friend. “Stop shouting.” Willa sucked in another fume filled breath and stepped up her pace. ‘A damn cleaning woman.’ she thought. ‘A damn cleaning woman and you’re 92 damn years old.’
But Willa had not always been 92 years old. At one time in the long-distant past she had been 18. Looking like a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, she had been a gorgeous, 18 year old, unemployed German immigrant looking for work in her new home country. And she had found it fast. Or rather it had found her.
Willa met her first true love, Vincenzo Sicario, in the summer of 1941. And that summer became her very own personal “Summer Of Love”. World War II would begin for the U.S. in December of that year and would rage for another four years, but that had little to no effect on Willa and her ‘Vinnie’. A German girl and an Italian young man had nothing to fear in America then. After Pearl Harbor, only Japanese Americans were targeted. Even though all three countries were actively at war with the U.S., only the Japanese were forced into internment camps, their lives all but destroyed by that tyranny. But German Willa and Italian Vinnie were free to roam around New York, unencumbered. Free to discover the city, themselves and the depth of their love.
Vinnie, at 20 years old, had been determined 4F by the local draft board because of a bad limp. He had broken his leg, not once, but three different times as a kid and the bones mended so badly that he walked with a pronounced gimp. He had also suffered two broken arms as a little boy which caused him to switch his dominant hand and utilize his left more than his right. This caused a slight mis-coordination to his hand movements. Nothing severe, but noticeable if one looked closely. Willa never questioned him as to how his young bones were broken so many times, but suspected it had to do with a drunken, abusive father and a long set of hardwood basement stairs. None of this was confirmed nor denied and none of it seemed to challenge Vinnie’s love for his father. And none of it diminished Willa’s passion for her somewhat physically challenged amour either. To Willa, Vincenzo Sicario was perfection personified and she adored him with a passion that she never had believed possible. And Vinnie’s love for his father and his father’s business is what gifted Willa with a profession that lasted 74 years. A profession she was STILL employed in.
Vinnie’s dad, Giancarlo Sicario, was in charge of a family owned cleaning business and was always looking for new cleaners. When Vinnie suggested Willa as a possible candidate, Gio, as he was called, initially balked.
“A German teenager girl?” He had said through this thick Italian accent. “What kind of a cleaner could she be?”
“A great one, papa.” Vinnie had replied. “She is smart and fast and beautiful.”
“Beautiful, she is.” Gio had said grinning.
So, with a little more convincing from Vinnie, Gio hired Willa. Gio trained her personally in all things cleaning.
“It’s not a pretty job.” Gio had said to her. “Cleaning up other people’s messes is not a pretty thing. But you gonna do it. And you gonna do it the best ever anyone ever did it.” He had smiled at her then and Willa saw where her Vinnie had gotten his smile from.
Gio, in a matter of a few short weeks, had created one of the best cleaning women that New York had ever seen. She became part of the family business. An integral part. And after a short time, the other family members even forgot that she wasn’t Italian. She was Willa, the cleaner. Part of the family. La Famiglia.
In 1943, when Willa was 20, Vinnie proposed marriage. Willa accepted without a moments hesitation. Her joy was unbounded. She had a great job. A loving Italian family. And now, she was to have a husband. They set the date for Saturday, June 12th and on Friday, June 11th Vinnie was killed while crossing the street on his way to the Italian deli. The driver of the car never stopped but instead sped away, fleeing the scene and the consequences. Vinnie died, broken and bleeding in the street, and still clutching a list of the groceries he was to pick up for dinner.
Willa woke from her reverie and found herself still on the damn bridge. How many more feet did she have to go? Twenty feet? Thirty? She sucked in another polluted breath and forged on. The deeply inhaled exhaust had now given her a full-on migraine. Her head pounded with it and she once again, for the four hundredth time that morning, cursed the overpass bridge. Her mind drifted between images of her laying dead on the freeway and Vinnie laying dead in the middle of Canal Street in front of Tomaggio’s Italian Deli. A tear welled and fell from her eye. ‘Seventy-two years’ she thought, ‘Seventy-two years and it still hurts so much.’
Willa never married. And after Vinnie, she rarely even dated. She was always too busy with work or with the family. When Gio told her that some of the extended family was moving west and taking some of the family business to California, including a cleaning service, Willa jumped at the chance to go.
“They’re going to need cleaning women out west too, right Gio?” She had said. “Maybe I could run it? Maybe I could even train new cleaners?”
Gio had thought long and hard on the idea and eventually conceded that Willa’s idea was a good one. The business needed a strong starter and Willa was the best they had. So with Gio’s blessing, Willa was off to Los Angeles. Her life’s journey taking her right up to this moment, walking on a pedestrian overpass above the Ventura freeway, headed to yet another cleaning job.
“You’re honoring Vinnie and Gio and the family by continuing” She spoke aloud to herself. “You may be ninety-two, but you are still strong, you are still smart and you can still clean up other people’s messes better the best of them!” She lifted her hand and rubbed at her throbbing temple and then with a small gasp, realized that she had come to the end of the overpass. She stepped with joy onto the platform that led down to Ventura boulevard, and held tight to the railing as she descended the steps no longer feeling her headache.
Willa pulled out the piece of paper that held the address of her next job. She always used paper. Always had, always would. She was NOT going to become one of those phone-zombies, addicted to technology and never raising a glance above their chest-level hands. Nope. Paper and pencil served her well and would continue to do so till she died.
The address was a house ‘South Of The Boulevard’. That was San Fernando Valley speak for ‘upper class’ neighborhood. She hopped on the #8 bus heading west and got off six stops later on Canoga Avenue. It would only be a three block walk up to the house and even though the temperature had climbed to 102, Willa still didn’t feel the heat. Her headache was forgotten and her step was lively as she anticipated another job well done in a career of jobs well done. The satisfaction that her work brought her had never waned in all the years she had been doing it and cleaning up other people’s messes was not a lowly contemptible job, but a high calling for Willa.
She walked up the last cul-du-sac and found the address. It was the second house on the right. A huge gray beast of a thing. Two stories of nondescript, late 20th Century boredom. She approached the front door and saw, off to her left, a rope swing tied to an old growth oak. The woman who hired her for this job said nothing of children, and if she found that a child or children lived there she would turn on her heels and leave. She didn’t clean up with children about. She walked to the door and rang the bell. She smelled a strong odor of chlorine and figured that there was probably an obscenely large sized swimming pool in the back yard.
The door creaked open and a balding man of about 50 stuck his head out the partially opened door.
“You better not be selling something or asking if I’ve found Jesus.” He said.
“I’m here to clean.” Willa said. “Are you Mr. Walker? Mr. Brendan Walker?”
“Yeah. Who are you?”
“I’m your cleaning lady. Willa.”
“You got the wrong house.” He said closing the door.
“Annabelle hired me.” Willa said to the business side of the closing door.
The door stopped closing, opened a bit and Mr. Walker stuck his head back out the opening.
“Annabelle?” he asked.
“She hired me to clean for the month that she’s away.” Willa said. “Once a week, four times total.”
“I don’t need you.” He said and began to close the door again.
“You’ll lose your deposit, Mr. Walker.” Willa said.
The door opened a little again.
“What deposit?” He asked.
“The two hundred dollars your wife gave me as a deposit for the four hundred it will cost for four visits.”
“Jesus ever loving Christ.” He said and opened the door. “Can I talk you into giving me the deposit back? I’ll give you fifty bucks.”
“I’ll be going now.” Willa said turning away.
“No. Wait. Come in. Do your thing. Just don’t bother me, okay?”
“I was hired to clean, Mr. Walker, not to bother.” Willa said coming into the foyer.
“What are you, like a hundred and five? How the hell are you going to clean this big house?”
“I was ninety-two last May, Mr. Walker and I’ve been cleaning up other people’s messes for seventy-four of those ninety-two years. Your house will not pose any unique problem.”
“Whatever.” He said. “The kitchen is through the dining room there. You should probably start in there. I tried to make French toast for myself this morning and it didn’t end well. I’ll be watching the game so don’t bug me.”
“I don’t bug, Mr. Walker. I clean.” Willa said as she moved toward the dining room.
Brendan Walker sat down hard on his lazy boy recliner and pulled the lever that raised the footrest. He took the remote from the side table and powered on the Sanyo big screen TV.
“Do you bring beers to people too?” He shouted toward the dining room.
“NO!” Willa shouted back, placing her over-sized carpet-bag on the dining room table. “I only clean. I only clean up other people’s messes.”
“Great.” He muttered to himself and found the ESPN channel showing his baseball game. The announcer was going on about some pre-game, uniform nonsense and Walker soon fell into the sport induced coma so familiar to the American wives of sports obsessed American husbands.
Willa opened her bag and removed her favorite and most effective cleaning tool. She quietly walked back towards the living room and stealthily crept up behind the Lazy Boy recliner. She put the barrel of the silenced Luger one inch from the back of Walker’s head and pulled the trigger twice. Walker slump forward and died. Willa rubbed her arthritic trigger finger and chuckled. She always found the sound of a silenced shot funny. Probably because of the spy movies on TV and the big screen. The ‘pechew pechew’ of a silenced shot in the movies was so phony and stupid. The real silenced gunshot sounded more like a fire cracker wrapped in a pillow. A quieted bang. But none of that really mattered now. Now she just needed to wipe up her prints and leave. Mrs. Annabelle Walker was now free to go about her business, unencumbered by her controlling, abusive and potentially blackmailing husband. She was free now. For twenty-five thousand dollars Willa had seen to that. Willa had cleaned up Annabelle’s mess for her.
Tomorrow was to bring yet another cleaning job. And Willa was so tired. But, as Gio had always said to her, ‘there is no rest for the wicked’. So tomorrow it was off to San Diego to take care of Paul Deamotta. At least the family would supply a limo to get her there. No more of this damn bus riding.
But in the end, none of this really mattered at all. Thoughts of Vinnie, Gio, work. NONE of it mattered as much as this fact. This fact. The fact that in order to get home, she was going to have to cross that damn bridge again. She was going to have to cross that damn bridge over the Ventura freeway.