The Dreadful Mucamas | Lydia Davis | Granta Magazine

The Dreadful Mucamas

Lydia Davis

‘They are very rigid, stubborn women from Bolivia.’

They are very rigid, stubborn women from Bolivia. They resist and sabotage whenever possible.

They came with the apartment. They were bargains because of Adela’s low IQ. She is a scatterbrain.

In the beginning, I said to them: I’m very happy that you can stay, and I am sure that we will get along very well.

This is an example of the problems we are having. It is a typical incident that has just taken place. I needed to cut a piece of thread and could not find my six-inch scissors. I accosted Adela and told her I could not find my scissors. She protested that she had not seen them. I went with her to the kitchen and asked Luisa if she would cut my thread. She asked me why I did not simply bite it off. I said I could not thread my needle if I bit it off. I asked her please to get some scissors and cut it off – now. She told Adela to look for the scissors of la Señora Brodie, and I followed her to the study to see where they were kept. She removed them from a box. At the same time I saw a long, untidy piece of twine attached to the box and asked her why she did not trim off the frayed end while she had the scissors. She shouted that it was impossible. The twine might be needed to tie up the box some time. I admit that I laughed. Then I took the scissors from her and cut it off myself. Adela shrieked. Her mother appeared behind her. I laughed again and now they both shrieked. Then they were quiet.

I have told them: Please, do not make the toast until we ask for breakfast. We do not like very crisp toast the way the English do.

I have told them: Every morning, when I ring the bell, please bring us our mineral water immediately. Afterwards, make the toast and at the same time prepare fresh coffee with milk. We prefer ‘Franja Blanca’ or ‘Cinta Azul’ coffee from Bonafide.

I spoke pleasantly to Luisa when she came with the mineral water before breakfast. But when I reminded her about the toast, she broke into a tirade – how could I think she would ever let the toast get cold or hard? But it is almost always cold and hard.

We have told them: We prefer that you always buy ‘Las Tres Niñas’ or ‘Germa’ milk from Kasdorf.

Adela cannot speak without yelling. I have asked her to speak gently, and to say señora, but she never does. They also speak very loudly to each other in the kitchen.

Often, before I have said three words to her, she yells at me: Sí . . . sí, sí, sí . . . ! and leaves the room. I honestly don’t think I can stand it.

I say to her: Don’t interrupt me! I say: No me interrumpe!

I have asked them: First listen to what I have to say!

The problem is not that Adela does not work hard enough. But she comes to my room with a message from her mother: she tells me the meal I have asked for is impossible, and she shakes her finger back and forth, screaming at the top of her voice.

They are both, mother and daughter, such wilful, brutal women. At times I think they are complete barbarians.

I have told her: If necessary, clean the hall, but do not use the vacuum cleaner more than twice a week.

Last week she refused point-blank to take the vacuum cleaner out of the front hall by the entrance. Just when we were expecting a visit from the Rector of Patagonia!

I have asked her: Please, do not leave the dirt and the cleaning things in the hall.

I have asked her: Please, collect the trash and take it to the incinerator immediately.

They have such a sense of privilege and ownership.

I took my underthings out to them to be washed. Luisa immediately said that it was too hard to wash a girdle by hand. I disagreed, but I did not argue.

When I go to them to enquire about the tasks I have given them, I find they are usually engaged on their own occupations – washing their sweaters or telephoning.

The ironing is never done on time.

Adela refuses to do any work in the mornings but house-cleaning.

I say to them: We are a small family. We do not have any children.

Today I reminded them both that my underthings needed to be washed. They did not respond. Finally I had to wash my slip myself.

I say to them: We have noticed that you have tried to improve, and in particular that you are doing our washing more quickly now.

Today I said I needed her there in the kitchen, but she went to her mother’s room, and came back with her sweater on, and went out anyway. She was buying some lettuce – for them, it turned out, not for us.

At each meal, she makes an effort to escape.

As I was passing through the dining room this morning I tried, as usual, to chat pleasantly with Adela. Before I could say two words, however, she retorted sharply that she could not talk while she was setting the table.

Adela rushes out of the kitchen even when guests are present and shouts: Telephone for you in your room!

Although I have asked her to speak gently, she never does. Today she came rushing in again saying: Telephone, for you! and pointed at me. Later she did the same with our luncheon guest, a professor.

I say to Luisa: I would like to discuss the programme for the days to come. Today I do not need more than a sandwich at noon, and fruit. But el señor would like a nutritious tea.

Tomorrow we would like a rather nourishing tea with hard-boiled eggs and sardines at six, and we will not want any other meal at home.

At least once a day, we want to eat cooked vegetables. We like salads, but we also like cooked vegetables. Sometimes we could eat both salad and cooked vegetables at the same meal.

We do not have to eat meat at lunchtime, except on special occasions. We are very fond of omelettes, perhaps with cheese or tomato.

Please serve our baked potatoes immediately after taking them from the oven.

We had had nothing but fruit at the end of the meal for two weeks. I asked Luisa for a dessert. She brought me some little crêpes filled with apple sauce. They were nice, though quite cold. Today she gave us fruit again.

I said to her: Luisa, you cannot refer to my instructions as ‘illogical’.

Luisa is emotional and primitive. Her moods change rapidly. She readily feels insulted and can be violent. She has such pride.

Adela is simply wild and rough, a hare-brained savage.

I say to Luisa: Our guest, Señor Flanders, has never visited the park. He would like to spend several hours there. Can you make sandwiches of cold meat for him to take with him? It is his last Sunday here.

For once, she does not protest.

I say: Please, I would like Adela to polish the candlesticks. We are going to have them on the table at night.

When setting the dining table, Adela puts each thing down with a bang.

I ring the bell at the dining table, and a loud crash follows instantly in the kitchen.

I have told them: There should not be these kitchen noises during our cocktail and dinner hour.

Luisa, I say, I want to make sure we understand each other. You cannot play the radio in the kitchen during our dinnertime. There is also a lot of shouting in the kitchen. We are asking for some peace in the house.

But they are hitting each other again and yelling.

If we ask for something during a meal, she comes out of the kitchen and says: There isn’t any.

It is all so very nerve-racking. I often feel worn out after just one attempt to speak to her.

We do not believe they are sincerely trying to please us.

Adela sometimes takes the bell off the dining table and does not put it back. Then, I cannot ring for her during the meal, but have to call loudly from the dining room to the kitchen, or go without what I need, or get the bell myself so that I can ring it. My question is: does she leave the bell off the table on purpose?

I instruct them ahead of time: For the party we will need tomato juice, orange juice and Coca-Cola.

I tell her: Adela, you will be the one in charge of answering the door and taking the coats. You will show the ladies where the toilet is, if they ask you.

I ask Luisa: Do you know how to prepare empañadas in the Bolivian style?

We would like them both to wear uniforms all the time.

I say to Adela: Please, I would like you to pass among the guests frequently with plates of hors d’oeuvres that have been recently prepared.

When the plates no longer look attractive, please take them back out to the kitchen and prepare fresh ones.

I say to her: Please, Adela, I would like there always to be clean glasses on the table, and also ice and soda.

I have told her: Always leave a towel on the rack above the bidet.

I say to her: Are there enough vases? Can you show them to me? I would like to buy some flowers.

I see that Adela has left a long string lying on the floor next to the bed. She has gone away with the waste basket. I don’t know if she is testing me. Does she think I am too meek or ignorant to require her to pick it up? But she has a cold, and she isn’t very bright, and if she really did not notice the string, I don’t want to make too much of it. I finally decide to pick up the string myself.

We suffer from their rude and ruthless vengeance.

A button was missing from my husband’s shirt collar. I took the shirt to Adela. She shook her finger and said no. She said that la Señora Brodie always took everything to the dressmaker to be mended.

Even a button? I asked. Were there no buttons in the house?

She said there were no buttons in the house.

I told Luisa they could go out on Sundays, even before breakfast. She yelled at me that they did not want to go out, and asked me, where would they go?

I said that they were welcome to go out, but that if they did not go out, we would expect them to serve us something, even if it was something simple. She said she would, in the morning, but not in the afternoon. She said that her two older daughters always came to
see her on Sundays.

I spent the morning writing Luisa a long letter, but I decided not to give it to her.

In the letter I told Luisa: I have employed many maids in my life.

I told her that I believe I am a considerate, generous and fair employer.

I told her that when she accepts the realities of the situation, I’m sure everything will go well.

If only they would make a real change in their attitude, we would like to help them. We would pay to have Adela’s teeth repaired, for instance. She is so ashamed of her teeth.

But up to now there has been no real change in their attitude.

We also think they may have relatives living secretly with them behind the kitchen.

I am learning and practising a sentence that I will try on Luisa, though it may sound more hopeful than I feel: Con el correr del tiempo, todo se solucionará.

But they give us such dark, Indian looks!

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Artwork © Natalie Wood

Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis was awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. Her most recent works include a translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary; The Cows, a chapbook; and Our Village, a long poem in the chapbook Two American Scenes. Her newest collection of stories is Can't and Won't.  

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