She leads the life of a normal, 40-year-old mother of three with a part-time job, a full-time adoring husband and no time to paste in the Green Stamps that collect in a can atop the refrigerator. Normal, that is, except for one thing.

She won't go upstairs.

All the trappings of a happy middle-american homemaker are there -- the flower-print apron, the plastic sofa covers, the crow's-feet, the shopping list on the kitchen table that says:



toilet ppr

8 pts bourbon

Happy, normal, ordinary. Except . . . She won't go upstairs.

"I can't," she will say, the tears beginning to flow. "I just can't go upstairs," she will sob, her hands uncontrollably tapping out the Morse code signal for "helicopters approaching."

Years ago, Elmira Schleft would've gone upstairs without a second thought -- without a first thought, in fact, or even a muscle spasm. It was her job.

Schleft was the maid. The Cleaning Queen. She did floors. She did beds. She even did windows. It nearly killed her.

"All of the time I was doing those awful things," Schleft says now, standing on the kitchen table of her suburban Washington apartment, "there was this voice inside me, screaming, yelling, cursing, singing off key, trying to get me to listen.

"It was saying, 'Why?' It was screaming, 'Why? Why? Why?' I kept saying, 'Why what?' It would answer, 'What why what?' This would go on for hours," Schleft says, the tears now rolling off her high-boned cheeks like ball bearings at a steel convention. "Finally, I had to get an unlisted number."

Suddenly the telephone rings. Schleft seems not to know what to do for a moment, but then, slowly, the here and now appears to become clear to her. She climbs out of the refrigerator.

"Hello?" Her eyes begin to widen in fear as the voice on the telephone announces its purpose. The fear soon gives way to terror, and the terror to blind panic.

"It's for you!" she screams, tossing the receiver to a reporter as she leaps from her seat and runs to her bedroom, wailing.

Her bedroom, like all the rooms in the Schleft apartment, is a mess. Yech.

"It was a vicious circle," she says, pointing to a picture of "The Big House" in McLean, Va., where Schleft spent 12 years of her life as a live-in maid.

In what way? she is asked.

"It was just a vicious circle," she says, impatiently crushing out a cigarette in her palm. "People didn't obey the speed limit, nobody yeilded to anybody's right of way, it was awful. There were accidents all the time. The Big House was on the corner just north of that circle. What a vicious circle that was."

But what about the housecleaning? What about being a maid?

"Housecleaning?" she snaps. The word seems to have instigated a subtle twitch in her left leg. "Of course. I was getting to that," she says through gritted teeth, as the lower portion of her body does a graceful, involuntary polka under the table.

"I realized I didn't have to clean to be a good person," she says. "That's why I wrote the book. I wanted other women like me to know it's all right not to make the bed. I wanted them to know it's okay not to vacuum."

The book, "A Maid Unmade: How I Went AWOL on the War Against Dirt," will take Schleft on a 24-city publicity tour when it's publishes next month. For now, she is content to amble about the house, patting out the smoldering fires her dropped cigarettes cause in the dirty laundry covering the floors.

"I have made my peace with grease," she says, her hair back in place now. "Let the punishment fit the grime."