Sherman Alexie imagines his way into the life of a motel maid.
In "Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest," Alexie imagines his way into the life of a motel maid. LEE TOWNDROW
"I'm not one of those artist-writers who thinks they have any real power," Sherman Alexie told The Stranger in an interview a few months ago. He had just finished writing a memoir the night before that interview, and he has contributed essays and poetry and fiction to The Stranger for years. "But what we can do with art is become spiritual boosters. I think we can be spiritually nourishing even if we have no political power."

That's how his new short story in The New Yorker comes across—as a spiritual boost. And not just because the main character happens to be spiritual. It's a quiet, vivid look at the life of a motel maid, the kind of life you may never have considered. For $600 every two weeks, she encounters and cleans up the messes of lots of other lives. And that's not even counting the varieties of life she sees among her coworkers:

In the beginning, there was Marie, Agnes, Rosa, and the other Rosa. Agnes was a drunk. She got fired for stealing from the guests. Rosa No. 1 married her high-school sweetheart and moved away; Rosa No. 2 was undocumented and quit after she heard rumors about an immigration sweep of local businesses. The sweep didn’t happen. Not that time.

Then there was Olga, who’d come from Russia to marry an American. He’d claimed to be a millionaire, but it turned out he’d had only enough money to pay for Olga’s visa and her plane tickets. She’d married him anyway, because she believed that American lies were a little better than Russian lies...

Then there was Evie, who worked hard, was Marie’s friend for many years, and vanished over the horizon.

There was a black woman and a white woman, their names lost to time, who started on the same day and both quit immediately after walking into a room and finding a dead bull snake sliced into thick pieces and arranged in weird patterns on the carpet.

Other fellow maids include Muslim women who wear head scarves while they work, as well as "an Italian woman who had to be taught how to use a vacuum," and "women who cried often but would never explain their tears." There is also sex and nudity and someone taking a dump on the sidewalk, and yet overall, the story feels honorable in its quietness, not sensationalized.

If I am a spiritual person, it has something to do with literature, specifically literature like this. Moment by moment, detail by detail, it feels lived, observed, crafted to open up the reader to the world, to lift you out of your own problems and remind you of the the varieties of human experience and the grace of art. My all-time favorite story of Alexie's in The New Yorker, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," does that, too.