His House On Amber Lane
"When I was twelve, I knew a girl named Alice."
Terry Drummel says this as he sprays bleach over a porcelain wall. His gut is protruding from a baby-blue bio-hazard suit, with his face buried beneath an over-sized gas mask.
"She used to go around on her Huffy and sell milk bottles from the basket." He explains. "Only she had this condition...otits...otitis media? I don't know I can't remember how to say it, but she had trouble hearing. It was from her mom, she inherited it, but her father smacked her she when was a baby behind the ear, and that didn't help either-WHACK!"
A hard flat sound rings out as Terry smacks his right hand on the wall.
"And anyway she was deaf as as an old widow, and one day she comes around on her bike ringing the bell with full milk bottles in the basket-"
I stop him right there. I know where this is going. Before he says what happens next the image comes to me of spilled milk all over a dirt road on a summer afternoon, birds chirping, a mangled Huffy underneath a Ford beside a pretty white fence, and a little deaf girl named Alice clinging to life.
"Wait. Let me guess." I cut in. "She was hit by a truck right? Or a car? Some type of accident. Deaf and all, it seems like a logical progression."
"Aw no." Terry replies. His voice sounds high-pitched and soft even through the bio-hazard mask, "What are you sick John? It was this summer day and me and my sister were waiting at the corner for her. See we were walking home from the last day of school and it was hot. Oh Jeepers was it hot, I was drenched through my school clothes and my sister, well she was just getting big in her chest-
"Is there a point to this Terry?"
I push down on the pump three times, and more spray comes out. Terry lifts the hose and sprays it over the wall, it drips all the way down onto the beige of the shower.
"Well yeah I suppose. She never came. Sister and I expected to her to be coming down June Street, bell ringing, braids, smile full of braces, but she didn't. We went home not thinking too much of it, but days passed and soon no one had seen her. She disappeared. 1974. Alice Wilkey went out as usual milk on her bike and was never seen again. Think she was about nine at the time? They never found a trace. No bike. No body. Nothing."
"I thought you said you saw her coming around down the street?"
"Well yeah, that is I think we got things mixed up. I saw her almost everyday coming down the street on her bike...except that last day. But then you were asking what happened to her, and well seems no one really knows."
"Here." he continues, and hands me a yellow scraper. It's kind of rudimentary, reminds me of when I worked painting houses three summers ago and we'd have to get all the old paint off. I start scratching into areas of the wall where the bleach came up short, and then that summer comes back to me. Thirty feet up on a ladder, sun blaring down with the heat reflecting off the white of the house.
"You might need the scrubbing pad too. Terry adds "Let me know."
The scraper gets the surface, the paint starts to chip off, but some of this stuff is stuck on thick and I can see it's getting through the wood.
"So anyway" Terry goes on. "Alice Wilkey. Parents were a wreck. They combed every inch of the town. Nothing. Not even the ribbons from her handle-bars. It was like she just vanished. I remember her parents both moved maybe about a year later? The house is still there though, sometimes I drive through the town, last week I saw some old man in rocking chair on the porch. He was drinking a Pabst and had a Bush/Cheney sign on the lawn. Looked like a nice fella though. Say you a baseball fan?"
"I grew up a Dodgers fan , but that was when I lived in California. Didn't you say her father was abusive? Didn't you say he smacked her?"
"Oh yeah he did, but it was some sort of accident. Don't even think it was them. I have my own theories and trust me it wasn't them."
I put the scraper on the ground, and lift the mask off my face for a minute. Terry's to my right standing inside the shower. He's almost got it looking like new again, that was the easy part he said, the surface was nice and smooth, stuff comes right off like water. I wondered why he didn't break me in with that. Instead I'm stuck on my hands and knees scraping and tiring out my elbow. When I lift off the mask a layer of sweat comes with it, and the lens between me and the world gets clearer. It's June. A record 108 degrees outside and right now I'd give my last god damn dollar for a beer and a ticket out of the house I'm in.
"Terry I need a breather."
He looks over to the small area I'm in, between the toilet and the wall. (There should be a name for that nook. I don't know, back of the shitter?) I've been tucked by there trying to clean for the past hour and now some of the heat is getting to me.
"We need to have to this house done by three," Terry replies, "And there's still more carpet to tear up."
He comes over and gazes at the wall I've been clawing at. "Use the scrubber." he says and picks at some of the smaller areas with his finger-nail, he has a latex glove on but the attempt is there. "That brain-matter turns to cement when it dries. Pain in the rear-end."
I pick up the green scrubber to the side and pour a bit of solvent with some bleach on it. This is slightly easier. The pink color starts to fade and then soon it's completely gone. Fifteen minutes later I've gone through two scrubbers and my elbow feels like what you would equate to tennis elbow.
"Yeah this guy wanted to leave a message." Terry says wiping down the shower. "Some of them are more courteous than others. I once had a fella who wrapped his head in a towel before he he did himself in. I mean, I don't know why exactly. He must have been thinking long-hard thoughts then you know? To get through all the people in his life and then to people like us, or someone who's going to have to clean the mess. Must have been feeling tons of guilt or something..."
The sound of the sprayer hitting the wall returns. I place down the scrubber and walk out of the bathroom leaving Terry behind. The living room smells like a bad mix of paint thinner and black vinegar (it's kind of mated into one horrific scent and nothing I say could really describe it for you, but there you go. It's one reason why we wear masks). There's at least a dozen Hustler magazines half-opened, sushi turning, syringes, glucose pricks tossed about like confetti, diapers, feces (animal i'm told), a couch propped up on it's arms; There's a flat-screen TV with it's face busted in, ripped up curtains, gray pine-tree air-fresheners hanging from the ceiling, empty gas jugs, some whiskey bottles, a blood-stain trail leading to the kitchen, and more than a few iodine bottles spilled open. And then I spot coffee cans. There's maggots covering them. I walk through this and I don't stop. I get to the front door and outside, and...the hills are alive with the sound of musssicccc and I'm Julie Andrews for a moment. I put a cigarette in my mouth, suck in the glorious nicotine, and that horrible image fades. Then I laugh for a moment imagining Maria or any of the children coming face to face with I had just been dealing with. Mother, these walls were not meant for brain-cookies. Oh I know Kurt, we'll just have the maid scrub it right off. It'll be gone in a jiffy. Christ, who cleaned this shit in the 1930's? Somehow I feel things would be different then. Less there...less of any this happening. But it did happen. It happened a lot. Far worse things happened actually. And sure as you're born someone cleaned it.
I strip myself of the hazard suit, tuck it into a ball and toss it inside the back of the truck parked outside. It's got Maker's Cleaning Crew in neat red letters leaning to the right side. I sit on the curb, inhaling the cigarette and I'm thinking about high school. I'm thinking about a culinary program I was in a year ago where I burnt the roast mutton so bad they never let me back. I'm thinking about anything but being inside that house. A few minutes later Terry comes walking out, he takes off his mask and for the first time that day I can see his face. He's got these blubbery cheeks and the classic horse-shoe balding pattern, his face is sweating and throws his mask into the back of the truck. Then he reaches for a hat (It's got a Trout majestically flying out of the water) and puts in on his bald head.
He doesn't take off his suit, but he goes ahead and places the hatch-back of the truck down. I snub my cigarette on the asphalt, then stand and position myself on the back of the truck. Terry disappears for a moment into the front seat then returns with a a large brown bag. More flash-backs, (I'm in grade school with Peanut Butter and Jelly and some Dunkaroos.). He takes out two sandwiches and a large bottle of Pepsi.
"Hey so you remember you were talking about Alice," he says as he hands me a sandwich.
I unwrap the tin-foil and look at it. It's yellow with white cream. Egg-salad. immediately I feel everything inside me start to turn.
"Well my theory always was..."
Think of dirt. Think of anything but the maggots in the coffee cans. I swear to god Terry if you say Aliens I'm going knock you out.
"That's she still out there somewhere..."
I'm getting the visions of myself in recess in grade-school. The Peanut-butter rising up. I can remember almost every incident when I've thrown up, the most notable was all over Becky White's hair in fifth grade. Mangled chunks of brown in her blonde hair.-Oh yeah Terry that makes sense, she's living in Mexico as Juanita the exotic dancer. Ran away from home when she was nine and never looked back. Milk run's just weren't cutting it.
"But you know, it's possible. I was watching Current Affair last night and some lady was re-united with her daughter who went missing when she was six. Turns out she was being held captive in some psycho's basement. Oh man what looney she is now. The therapy bill must be through the roof."
Christ Terry just shut it. I'm gripping my stomach now. The egg sandwich is behind me. Out of sight. But he keeps going and going.
"But you know. My brother-in-law is a garbage man. I see him once a year, we both work on Christmas, Oh yeah suicides galore, but we set a date every year and see each other. He's a garbage man and I think it's the foulest job in the world. That or handling food. Don't get me near it. Last time I saw him he said he loved his job, and I said I love mine. Just goes to show you, it takes all kinds."
Terry takes a giant bite from his Egg sandwich and mayonnaise drips onto his thumb. He licks it off and I lose it. For a second I think I might be able to hold it down but then he continues
"You know they usually don't call us into these jobs for six or seven days afterward. Ain't those the breaks? You got a body laying there for six days, sometimes up to ten, animals get into them, they have food sittin about...and oh one time, last week get this, dead dog right next to it's owner. Suicide. Dog died of starvation. Rotted and all."
Think of dirt. Think of the ocean, I read somewhere that helps...nope, someone lied. Someone definitely fucking lied. I hadn't eaten much that morning but what I did scrounge in the few minutes I had before getting to the facility (a cold toaster strudel and some coffee) ended up all over the asphalt in front of me in one of those fantastic motions where everything inside you lifts into your throat and then flies out like a waterfall. There was no second-wave though thank god. It was just one violent spas-outs, but the kicker...Terry still wasn't shutting the hell up. He saw me puke my lungs out, and then started laughing a big-hearty laugh that made his gut go in and his face go pink.
"Everyone pukes on their first day." he says patting me on the back, still chuckling "I'm surprised you lasted so long, honestly. It's not like in those slide-shows they show you before they send you out." He lifts his hat off for a moment and scratches his head. "It's like preparing for war I guess, you can shoot all the targets you want, but when it's real people you're facing everything changes."
Those words came from the same man who described his sister's tits and drying brain matter-I'm still clutching my stomach and leaning forward, the breath in my mouth is like a stale-heat, I can taste the blueberry strudel I had for breakfast and something I had for dinner (hot-dogs and mashed potatoes) from the night before.
"In the beginning, I used to puke a lot." He adds. "Now nothing bothers me."
My stomach is kind of in an after-shock now. I hear these words from Terry and I think about them. The poles of my fingers are massaging my temples like I'm smoothing out clay and the words are humming their sound to me, Now nothing bothers me...Like he's beaten this gig. Are you supposed to beat this gig? You should lay awake at night and nearly piss yourself from the visions (Christ I haven't even thought about sleeping tonight. I'll document how that goes*), you should still get that unsettled panic inside you before you enter a scene, you're going to see a piece of someones life splattered all over a room like a kindergartener let loose with some oil paint, you've got a front-row seat to the gore-fest. Pack your puke-bags and get ready for a show. I look at Terry calm as a cucumber, and I hear those words, and I don't think he's felt any of that in a long time.
I don't go back in the house that day. Terry goes in and recovers a few bottles we left behind, the scraper, and some bleach. I'm still sitting on the hatch-back letting my stomach come back to some sort of settlement, but it's getting there and I think I'm going to be all right.
"We're all done for today." he says, "I think you've gotten wet enough. We've still got tomorrow to get into the carpet. They'll live. Hey you like Jimmy Buffet John?"
I think Terry missed that part in grade school where you're asked to identify the main idea of a sentence and then proceed with transitions. It was hard to get really pissed with him though. You got annoyed when you're sitting there puking and he hardly notices that he's egging it on (I apologize for that pun, I really do) but when you looked at his big-fat face and his hay-dog eyes, and he jumps up asking if you like Jimmy Buffet, all you could think is Terry you fat-ass...give me a hug. Something inside you just instantly forgives him.
"Sure." I reply feeling like I've just told a whopper of a lie.
On the ride back to the facility I keep my eyes closed (I get a vision of an island...somewhere I've never been. Somewhere far away. It helps the head-ache). Come Monday is playing, there's more albums on the floor, some Elton John, lots of loose change, alongside some Wendy's bags, and old mail. On the dash there's a snow-globe with the words Aloha From Hawaii and a dancing woman surrounded by snow. I drown out the music with the single thought of laying down somewhere nice on a beach with that woman in the snow-globe. Her maroon skin against the sun-rise and her hips curving like back-roads to Panama. I think about this the whole car-ride. I also think a bit about Alice Wilkey.
We drive through some side-streets and end up at a small complex which is hidden behind an office building and a windshield repair mechanic. It's not much. A locker-room, two offices, a weight room and showers. Terry owns it and he rents it out for public use to make extra dough. He never tells me how much he charges some of the dead-heads and muscle-freaks to to lift there but he says it's a lot cheaper than any fitness center. Our suits end up in giant steel drums labeled BIO-HAZARD along with syringes and pieces of carpet that were ripped up. We shower off and have to go through this de-sanitizing procedure. It's sort of like the group showers in jail, but actually it reminded me more of in high-school. It was cleaner than either of those and no one gave you a hard time. There were about six of these giant shower-heads going down in a row. Terry sings the the best he can (And honey i didn't know That i'd be missin' you soooooo) I try to drown it out again thinking about Aloha girl, but seeing Terry's fat tits make it more difficult this go around. Afterward I dress quickly and catch Terry going out the front door. He's wearing sweat pants and a puffy leather-jacket with an American flag embroidered over the right-side.
"Say you wanna head to a diner?"
I don't know why I don't want to head home right away, but for a while I have trouble stepping foot in bath-rooms or seeing elevators open. I think at that time I just didn't want to be alone. It's easier for the walls to start closing in when you're by yourself.
Terry looks at his watch for a moment, "How bout a beer?"
"Yeah." I reply immediately liking the idea.. "I could use some forgetting."
We end up at the Townsquare Diner on Highway 15. It's got bar seating, with some lights that need fixing and stools stitched up with electrical tape. There's no TV, no pin-ball machines, no sports banners, and the one or two guys who frequent in there are always there with a purpose—to not see the light of day anytime soon. It's 2:30 P.M on a Tuesday and the regulars are in.
Terry orders a Tuna sandwhich, crab-cakes, and onion rings with a Coors. My stomach is still turning a bit so I only order toast and a ginger-ale for a moment.
"You're not gonna eat anything else?." Terry asks
"I don't think so. I don't think I can."
"I know." he replies, "You got the look we all have after our first day. Like you've seen stuff most people are lucky never to see. And not only that, you've stuck your face in it."
Terry starts digging into his crab-cakes and he's like a trencherman savant. Sometimes switching quickly between them and the onion rings, but then also giving the tuna some attention then harmoniously downing it all with his beer. There's an art to what he does. His hands are like a good pianists.
"My only suggestion kid." He's tipping back his beer in between his words. "Is if you feel like you can't stomach it, find another career cause it doesn't get any prettier from here."
Somehow I think the lights in the bar are getting dimmer after he says this. I don't know, it all looked so dark in there at that point. The woman serving us isn't old and as she walks by I try to read her. Thirty something (could be late twenties), tall, average bust, dark hazel eyes, attractive and datable if her personality is there. I imagine it is. I hope it is. It would be something of a disappointment if there's nothing in the attic but a moth and a paper-clip. You see it a lot with people. You try to start something but you find there's less there than meets the eye. I don't know a thing about her though. She could be in school, maybe studying to become a nurse. It's likely. Then I get a terrible vision. I could be mopping up her, or her children (suppose she has any) or someone she loves in the future. The lights flicker in that moment. Crazier things have happened and I believe we lose a few watts in the moment.
"I think I'll be all right Terry" and then I call the woman over.
"What can I do for you sweetie?"
"Whiskey sour" I don't plan on getting hammered. Truly I don't but it's one of those days you don't have often, and I'd like to forget about it as soon as possible. "And another ginger-ale" I add.
A few moments later she comes back with my order. Terry's about done with his endeavors and on his third beer now. Down the row a man with a puffy vest and a hat with a fish on it is passed out. His thick framed glasses have fallen off and are resting in his drool.
Terry's laughing now, sucking back his Coors and getting into a real hearty chuckle."That's the spirit." he says, "Relax, say you ever been to Disney World?"
"No. I don't have any wife or kids so really I don't have much business being there."
"I love the tea-cups." Terry says. "One time my cousin. Okay now she has a problem and it ain't her fault but she weighs maybe close to 300 pounds?"
Here we go. Can you tell how this one will end up? Puking. Yeah definitely. What other way can it go? Pissing perhaps. Yeah maybe his cousin pissed and shit herself all over the tea-cups at Disney World. Something tells me I'm wrong through. I was wrong about Alice and as I down the whiskey I start to think I'm wrong about a lot of things.
"She's got a glandular problem. But anyway she gets on line for the tea-cups and gets all the way to the front. About an hour in line in a hundred degree weather in June, and we're all sweating like Donkeys. Really pouring, and stinking a bit."
And here it comes. Here's Terry in his element. He's sweating now.
"And they won't let her on! They say she wont fit and she weighs too much. So then she starts crying and we take her back to the hotel, only she locks herself in the bathroom...and won't come out."
In that instant the jovial man is disappears. Terry has a look like he went too far. Like he didn't mean to tell this story. Like something within him just re-surfaced and been placed in the spot-light. They call it vulnerability I think. He's wearing all over his large white face. I don't pursue anything. I just finish my drink and try to let him settle it in his own mind.
"...Only she locked herself in the bathroom, and won't come out. And she's crying."
It's at that moment I realize there's something deeper in Terry. It's not an obvious marker, but feelings like that never really are. You get them in glimpses. It's like looking back at a good movie. Sometimes you miss the little stuff that makes it what it is, and even if you do remember those intangibles there not something you can't put in words. I sort of hope he'll drop all this because frankly I'm getting slightly blitzed and I'm not looking forward to the talky feeley time that happens oh so often with drunkards.
"We got her out eventually. But she wasn't the same after that."
I don't ask about what happened in that bathroom. Terry is slowly returning. I hope he doesn't cry. I don't think he will, but looking at that man I was never quite sure what to expect. He places his beer down and looks at me. "Where did you go to school?"
"JFK High. I dropped out Sophomore year."
Then he smiles and his laugh returns, the same laugh that came out when I puked, and the same laugh he had when I ordered my whiskey.
"I got caught smoking reefer one time. The school flipped out and told me I could either enter a rehab program or I wouldn't be allowed back in school. I chose the latter. Two years later I'm here with you."
"So that's where you came from huh? This business ain't so bad bud. Most guys who enter are just gore-freaks. Funny thing is those gore-freaks, the ones who get off on and blood and guts and stuff, well most of them end up pissing themselves at the first sight of real actual blood. It's not like in the movies. They see it for the first time, and then it's real. Then it hits them and they can't do it. You though. You seem like you'll be okay.
Terry does one of his big laughs and keeps going. "Me? I love this job. It's gotta get done, and it don't bother me none. You see people...when people have something like this in their life, they never think about who'll clean it up. A lot of people move if they can. Just up and clean their hands of the whole matter. But when I come in, I do some comforting I think."
I expect Terry to go off onto another subject, maybe blast-off into something really unexpected like physics or horse-racing, but he doesn't. He just stays quiet this time, and slowly sips his beer. I look at my watch and through the alcohol and darkness I can barely read the numbers. It doesn't matter a lot anyway. I'm where I need to be at that moment, in a dive bar with a bar-fly in the corner and what I consider to be a friend sitting next to me. I think Terry had these thoughts that were bigger than him, almost too complex for him to articulate. You could see it on his face when one of those thoughts got going and often he just ended up rambling trying to get it all out. I think most of the times he got his message across though.
"So they really never found any clue about Alice Wilkey huh?"
"Nothing." Terry replies. "They searched every square inch of that town and it was the strangest thing."
"Well I mean, it's been how long? Thirty years? They have to know she's dead by now."
Terry kind of looks at me real dead-eyed, like he got one of those thoughts again, only this time he's cornered it.
" They don't." he says, "They have no answer. Nothing. With suicides and murders there's at least something. I think about Alice sometimes when I'm cleaning. I ripped up a bloody carpet last week, and I was thinkin to myself, jeeze this poor bastard got it good. Theres gun powder residue and gunky tissue matter. Stuff all over the walls. I'm holding this guy in my hands tossing him in a bio-hazard tub and sayonara Charlie you're all done. But maybe it was like...he is done. He's all finished and they can write the book on him. You could analyze him and stuff why he was killed. But Alice. She ain't done. She's never done. Not a trace. Not one clue. Just vanished from Littleton, New Hampshire while riding her bike in broad-daylight. How long could someone live with that? Her parents still think she's alive somewhere. They know it's not true, no way nah-ah,...but there's that shred of doubt. Maybe, just maybe she's out there somewhere. They have that tiny thread of hope that they probably don't even mention to each other cause it's buried so deep. Cause they're afraid to dig it up. That's worse than knowing she was murdered I think. That's a book with no ending..."
I don't reply. I just keep quiet the rest of the evening. It gets darker in the bar. I down a second whiskey. Terry's words cling to me. I work closely with him over the next seven years. I never think him a simple man again.
Twelve years later John Creston is sitting on a bench-swing on his front porch. In the yard across from him four children are playing a make-shift game of Blind Man's Bluff. One of them, a mop-top with blonde hair, has climbed his way all the way to the top of a pine-tree. John can see him, but the child disappears as he climbs higher and past the view from the porch. There's a girl at the base of the tree hiding in the branches, she has braids with oshkosh corduroys on and is prancing like she can't hold it in anymore. John can't locate the third child but he had spotted him before making his way around the edge of the property, he was older than the other two, taller with dark skin and glasses. The last kid has his back to John. He's standing in the driveway, his face against the garage counting back from thirty. 27, 26...25. He's still got some time left. There's a fifth kid, but he's outside the group, he's been circling the block, riding a bike with training wheels and an empty basket up and down the side-walk. John takes a sip from his beer. It's the last day of summer and some of the heat is sticking around, even as it gets around 7ish and the sky starts to darken.
As this is happening, the girl with the braids pulls her corduroys down to her ankles and starts to pee, the kid on the bike comes around the corner and stands on the pedals to try and get some momentum before speeding off, the kid counting reaches 21...20, somewhere up above the mop-top is shouts I'm the king of the world!-Way to give away your spot dum-dum the girl peeing replies, and the older kid comes around the house, peeking his head over the porch to catch what's transpiring— As this is occurring, John's attention is diverted when a blue Civic slows and then turns into the gravel of his drive-way. The person inside fumbles with seat-belt for a moment, then reaches over the passenger side for a pile of papers. There's a glow-in-the-dark Jesus hanging from his rear-view mirror and a Southern New Hampshire University parking sticker on the bottom right of his windshield. He steps out of the car trying to carry his papers, an I-pad, and a Green-Bay Packers thermos full of coffee. He juggles all three safely but then the car door is still open and he pushes it back with the side of his hip with force and it slams shut.
He steps, steps, steps, sees John Creston then starts breathing in his head. 3, 2, 1 Ocean meadow, Ocean meadow...his right hand starts fidgeting, as his thumb and forefingers are gripping the thermos and bracing the I-pad while the papers under his shoulder begin to slip slightly. He's a college kid, with his hair trimmed neatly around the ears (every two weeks he makes the drive back home to Morris-town, New Jersey to get it cut from his life-long barber, a fossil named Ernie), light baby fuzz coming through on his chin and designer glasses custom fit to rest safely on the bridge of his nose. Only now, he needs to push his frames up, they're moving down...(One of the nose cushions went loose two hours ago), his eyes can see them fall below his vision then down as his right arm tries to move up and the papers hit the ground.
Ah shit, then a long sigh, Where are we today Arthur?
John had placed his beer down mid-way through Arthur stumbling out of the car, he watched him nervously dropping his papers, then stood up and walked toward him. At the bottom of the porch steps one of the documents catches John's eye. It's of a blood-splattered wall with lines and measurements. 10'-14' apart in 30 degrees angles.
"Where did you get this from?" John asks studying the paper some more.
Arthur pushes his glasses up. His hands are free now, and he does the motion of the stereo-typical geek, pressing his middle finger up against the bridge of his frames.
"Google. I just searched it."
Of course. And John feels a bit like he's aged himself with the question. He hands Arthur the paper and it gets tucked back within the folder.
"So you're Arthur Duncan. The one who wants the interview."
"I kind of need it to be honest."
There's a brief flash-back in Arthur's mind to the phone conversation they had as he called John for the interview. Yes sir...I'm working on the paper...yes the interview is an assignment for psychology and the paper...No, I've never been to a crime scene or listened to Jimmy Buffet...Maybe we can get together Tuesday? Then he thinks of what made him make that call. His first semester in college he got a C- in Asian Literature Studies. His final paper on Japanese comfort women was written like instructions to a stereo remote, First, comfort women 1932...second...third...fourth...lastly...; The kind of tried and true five paragraph, good opening/closing formula they preach in grade school and then lingers. Arthur argued that there wasn't one grammar error and hadn't a clue what his professor Mao Yang meant when she told him comfort women were not numbers.
"If I get a C in any of my classes my parents won't let me live on campus anymore."
"Well come on up, have a beer and we'll work this out."
On the porch John takes a seat in a large wicker chair, sinking to the back then propping his right leg onto his left knee. Arthur sit in a large wooden chair with arm rests that are flat and look like rowing oars. His right leg is shaking up and down on the front of his foot. In between them is a large blue cooler filled with ice and Coors lite. Across the street the children have gone inside for the night, except the oldest one who's dribbling a basketball under the garage light. There's a bicycle that's been left on the front lawn. John leans to his left, lifts the cooler lid and dips his hand into a pool of ice.
"You want a beer Art?"
"No sir. I'm not one to drink a drive at all."
John flips the ring on his beer and it punches open. He takes a large gulp then places it down. "You know you really didn't need to bring over any photos. I've been cleaning crime scenes a long time. I've seen it all. What's your major anyway?"
"I'm studying to be a criminal psychologist. With a minor in journalism. I brought the photos and a few police reports because I thought they were interesting. I want to know why people do this."
Most of them are just gore-freaks. They get off on blood and guts...
"There usually isn't a good reason." John says looking off into the night. The yard across the street is hard to make out now. The only light is the one above the front door and the garage. "With murders it's usually the wife over-cooked the steak or something. Gang bangers after their money. Suicides are harder to take. You sure you really want to get into this? "
Arthur has his I-pad in his hand , he's getting to his Microsoft word app and a list of questions he's prepared. 1-10. The whole time he's looking down focused on the screen, flipping right, hitting the special icon. Completely immersed in the tiny screen. John takes another sip from his Coors.
"It's okay, I can handle it. I've seen every Saw movie. Okay, so the first thing I should ask you is what made you decide to start cleaning crime scenes?"
"I was coerced into it. You sure you want to hear all this? "
"Let's just just ditch the Q/A interview style then and just have a conversation and you can take from it what you will. Did you bring a tape recorder or anything?."
"No, but my I-pad has a recording app."
Arthur cues the app and sets it down in the middle of them on a table.
"I'll start by telling you this...In the beginning I used to get a a lot of nightmares. In the beginning I puked a lot. Now...well now nothing bothers me."
Arthur thinks for a moment, he's looking at his question trying to find something to follow that up. Before he can John continues, "I still have trouble understanding why people do some of these things. Especially the murders, not that suicides make any more sense but let's be clear taking someone else out is a different ball-game. You know what they say, suicides speak a special language...But after doing this so long...well, I forget I'm cleaning brains and blood-stains. It might as well be grapes and orange-juice at this point. Say you sure you don't want anything to drink at all? I've got some left-over sandwiches from a bowling meet-up in the fridge if you're hungry."
The color in Arthur's face shrinks following this. He pushes up his glasses again, his expression is docile and quiet.
"I know what you're gonna ask me next. What's the worst thing I've ever seen? Well I'll tell you so we can get it over with. Hey you're gonna want a beer after this."
John does a big-gutted laugh. He's gotten round and soft from too much sitting and drinking over the years.
"In 2007 I had to clean the Ron-Don Motel over on Church Street. The papers never covered it. They were busy with The Iraq war then. Well anyway, this young couple early twenties are just heading back from the movies when they got car-jacked on route 46 heading towards the Wayne area by three out of towners. One was an ex-marine the other two worked odd-jobs around town mainly. Small timers. Well they took this couple back to the motel. And well it turns out this ex-marine was a heroine fiend. And well I don't know exactly what happened in that room over the next three days, but I know they ended up with three bodies. The marine had over-dosed and then choked on own vomit. We had to fumigate for a full seven days to get the smell out. Needed new doors, new windows, bathroom had to be redone, new insulation, support beams. We found teeth in the ceiling. Hair in the walls three rooms over. There was brain matter in the insulation. Three other guys and I cleaned it every day for a full three weeks and every night I went home, I laid down and slept like a baby. We did what the best you possibly could do, but..." John stares at Arthur blankly, "But do you know the residue a heroin junkie that's had four days under hot lights leaves behind?"
Arthur doesn't. He has no reply. He keeps the same expression he had before—quiet. John finishes the last of his beer, then stands and tosses over the side of the porch into a giant blue recycling bin.
"So you're probably wondering how I got started with this then? Well it was in 2005 I believe. With this big fat guy named Terry-
The words are cut off by a loud ringing coming from inside the house. The front door is open and only the screen-door is blocking the entrance.
"Sorry, I'll be right back."
John gets up and walks inside the house to answer the phone. He opens the screen door and it slams behind him. Through the mesh screen Arthur can see John's kitchen and over-hear half of the conversation. It's just a lot of "Okays" and "Yeahs". There's a long pause. The hum of a ceiling fan on low is hanging in the background. "All right, I'll be there shortly." Then John adds a "Sure thing" at the end but it's really only a signal that the conversation is ending.
He walks back out through the screen door with a LA Dodgers sweat-shirt on that has bleach stains breaking up the blue.
"Sorry Art, but that was my boss. Some kind of emergency. I'm not sure exactly what happened but they need someone to clean up a pretty big mess and now. I'm really sorry but could we maybe do this over the phone some time?"
"Yeah. I think so."
John never gets the phone call. Arthur Duncan puts the unopened beer down, lifts his folder, his I-pad and his coffee mug then makes his way way down the porch steps, gets into his car and drives away into the darkness.
It's three miles West to Day And Night Cleaning service where John is set to check-in, suit up and if he can, without being hassled by anyone else hanging around, grab a cup of coffee from the vending machine. On the kitchen counter he grabs a weight watchers duffel bag and stuffs it with some clothes that are in the dryer, then he grabs a toothbrush and some Rolaids from the bathroom (just in case, he hasn't vomited at a scene in a long time, but always prepared for the worst), laces up his steel-toe work boots-and oh jeeze almost forgot as he goes to lock the front door, the novel...there's a John Grisham novel on the kitchen counter he's been getting into. The front door is re-opened and he reaches for the book the dim light over the sink. Then he steps outside, gets into his pick-up and heads down a short highway heading West.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is playing on the radio as he shifts between stations. John turns the knob all the way right with one motion, lights a cigarette and presses the gas pedal down a little farther than he usually does. We'll have ourselves a ball...and the hashing three chord progression stops for a brief second as the snare drum hits, right before gets the chorus gets in...and John taps the gas pedal a bit and presses it down farther. It's a mantra he holds onto, even after he gets going down the highway and Brian Johnson begins to fade out, he thinks of it because he's in the business, at least half of it, he's the guy who cleans up the dirty deeds, and that's half the battle. Some guys kill, some guys clean. The final chords hit and a commercial for Ray's Used car inventory in Weehawken comes on. There's a way to follow that John thinks and he turns the dial back left and then off. The radio never comes back on. John wants to ride out on that song, and as he flicks his cigarette butt out the window and watches it disappear into the darkness he can't help but wonder what part of who's deeds he'll be mopping up tonight.
It's near 9 P.M i'm about to be knee-deep in human excrement...who's idea was this?6 grand on the table though...6 grand. It's funny how the money makes everything seem a little better...
There's someone John has never seen before standing outside the building as he pulls into the lot. Under a light above the front door, a young woman is smoking a cigarette, patting the butt with small sugary hands and exhaling clouds of white outside her circle of the fluorescent bulb. She's got jet black hair that barely reaches her shoulders and is already dressed in a crinkly white jump-suit.
John pushes into park, unhooks his seat-belt and checks himself briefly in the rear-view mirror. Moments later he's walking through the poorly lit parking lot and into speaking distance. As he gets close enough the woman speaks up first.
"Correct. Are you new here?"
"To here yes. To crime scenes, not by a stretch. I'm Samantha Warren."
She stretches out her hand and John feels her palm and shakes it. It's small, built like a paper crane. He could crush it in his grip, but he would be undoing a delicate art.
"You can call me Sammy." She continues, "but don't ever call me Sam. I'm not fond of it."
"Fair enough. What's this all about anyway? I've never been called to clean a scene at night."
"It's bizarre but it's also not my job to ask questions. I kind of shut up when they said 6 grand. I think I'd be here at 3 A.M on Christmas for that kind of money."
"It must be a big mess. I mean this might take us a while."
"Actually." Sammy says, "The run-down I got was that it was only one room. A bathroom. And only one guy who lived alone. If you're good, I mean I know I am, we can have this done in four hours. Do you want to see photos they emailed over? It really doesn't look like a large mess. Just kind of makes the whole matter more strange I suppose. They couldn't say a whole lot about it."
"Yeah. But like you said, it's not our job to ask questions. Where is at anyway?"
Sam tosses her cigarette to the ground and begins tying her hair up into a pony-tail. "Some place in Dumont. 64 Amber Lane. About a half hour away."
John opens the front door to the complex and begins to head inside, "Well I need a coffee if we're going to be up all night."
"Listen I'm not going to give you the cliché talk about the sooner we get this done the sooner we get paid, but John the sooner we do this the sooner we get paid, so grab the coffee and meet me in the truck. I want to get this over with."
"Wait a minute." he says, "We'll get this done but I have a very important question to ask you...Who's driving?"
"All right All right."
Sam puts her fist in her palm and then John does the same.
Rock Paper Scissor
John goes with rock. He always goes with rock. He's trusted rock since the second grade when it won him first player in Street Fighter. It's almost never let him down. He even likes it as a metaphor. Strong. Reliable. Unbreakable. Scissors are shady people, they always hide in the middle and cut you when you're weak...like paper...paper. Sammy is sticking her hand out flat and she covers John's fist with her under-sized palm. Paper also has this way of enduring. You can rough it up, but it's hard to break.
"Done. Now let's go."
She says this like she knew she would win. Like she predicted what John would choose without doubt.
"Fine. I wanted to read my book anyway."
"Who the hell reads anymore? You better not get car-sick and puke all over my interior."
"Let me just get my coffee and I'll meet you in the car."
Inside the facility, to the right of the rest-rooms there's a vending machine older than time that has MILK in faded letters at the top. John places fifty cents inside this aging artifact—then the machine drops down a Styrofoam cup and painfully begins pissing out black water with a noise that makes it sound like it's in heat. Easy girl...just let it out. It stops briefly. John smacks the side, and it's temperament eases. Just need some lovin. It lets out all it's got, stops for a second, moans then sputters gives out a final expulsion of steam...and relief-sitting in the belly of the machine is what John considers to be the best damn cup of coffee in New Hampshire. He doesn't mess with perfection. He keeps it black. Moments later he hops into the passenger seat of the truck, holding his coffee and slams the door. Sammy takes the wheel and to John she looks over-matched. He looks down. Yep her feet can touch the gas pedal, barely, hopefully they can reach the brake too. Maybe she's using her big-toe.
"You sure you don't need a booster Sammy Wammy?"
She shoots him the stare. It's the stare you get when you've said something irredeemable. In that second you know it but as the words form on your tongue form and then come out (there isn't much thought involved with these remarks, they're usually just said) you know you're going to need to keep your mouth shut the rest of the evening just to be on the safe side. Sam has this look right now. John keeps his eyes forward like a good boy and doesn't say a word. Then Sam breaks a smile.
"Relax" she says, "I'm only messing with you. Everyone gets one slip, but..."
And then the smiles gone and she's locking in on him again, "You call me that again and you won't ever have children. I promise."
"Can I ask why?"
"I'll only explain this once. Briefly. When I was in sixth grade the barber cut my hair short. Like shaved short. I spent the rest of junior high being called Sam the man. Okay?"
"Gotcha." John replies as he takes a sip of coffee, places it down, pulls out his book, turns on the book-light and fades out.
The truck starts and the headlights light the black night in front of them. They head out of the facility and down Dresden Ave towards Dumont.
Ten minutes later. After another cigarette and another endless back-road into darkness, Sammy breaks the silence. "Hey you want some music to drown out that reading?"
Where's the lawyer from again? Why did the wife audit that bank account? John perks up and
replies indifferently, "Yeah...sure."
"Hey you like Creedence? I don't think music exists past 1977."
The 90's John thinks. Sonic Youth. Perfection. But he's not looking for a debate, and he settles in as Bad Moon Rising cuts in. Every so often he looks up to catch a glance at Sam. She's singing along but not shy about it either. I see trouble along the way...The music's loud but he can hear her voice through it. It doesn't sound like when she speaks. It's nicer. Opera-esque almost but deep like a soprano and with that that hint of fault that somehow makes it even better...raw, elemental. Don't go round tonight...Her pony-tails bobbing up and down like a gymnast would when she's doing somersaults, only Sammy just singing. She kind of flips it and it touches her face then she pushes it back unphased.
12 more minutes pass before another word is spoken. It's Sam. She reaches down to grab for a pack of gum. She's watching the road as she blindly moves her hand through the center console. Papers, CD, flash-light, lip-stick (why is this in here she wonders), then buried under all of that feels what she believes is a pack of Juicy-Fruit. "Hey you want a piece?"
John looks up from his book. The roads getting too shaky now and his book-light is running out of battery. He shuts the book and places it in his bag.
"I'm all right. We've gotta be almost there"
"Yeah less than five minutes." Sam is looking at her I-phone with the GPS as she unwraps the gum and places the stick in her mouth.
An indignation comes to John as they get closer to Amber Lane. He wouldn't consider it anything more than nerves, but he can't remember the last time he was apprehensive toward anything. He was almost asleep in his novel heading to the scene, something about the way the lawyer lured him in made it east to get lost in things. It was like this with most scenes. Grapes and orange juice...nothing more than what a janitor does when he cleans shit-stains and bloody urinals. Only now something on Amber Lane punched into his body. He unwraps a cigarette, lights and begins inhaling. For the first time since he began working on crime scenes he feels fear.
Sammy makes a right down Sunny Ave and then three more blocks turns left. The musics off now. Outside the only hint of light is from the trucks head-lights which aren't stretching far and a few houses which keep their lights on all night. They turn down Amber Lane and none of the houses have their lights on. It's 9:24 as they approach 64 Amber Lane. It's a small house with an uncut lawn, and a broken Jesus manger next to a small tree. There's a light on inside.
"This is it." Sam says, "They left some of the lights on for us."
"All right let's just do this."
They each get out of the truck and John goes around to the hatch-back. He digs around until he finds a bag with suits in them. New skins. He unpacks it, ruffles it out in the breeze and then dips into it. Sammy zips up the back for him, and then they each place on foot-gear, more or less crinkly garbage bags. "All right let's go take a look around inside first. Let's see what we're dealing with."
I didn't want to end up a stranger, who had no feeling towards anyone or anything...
John starts stretching the fingers of his right hand onto his palm, running them across the skin and there's sweat building. His lower lip tucks underneath his top row of teeth and he bites down.
Sammy doesn't notice, she's got a song stuck in her head, she's chewing her gum ready to spray down and move out. Mop the blood, remove some tiles, bleach, scrub, make it look like diamonds...and then we get paid...
They both walk up the path-way to the front door. It's dark in all directions, as Sammy turns the knob and lets the door open. They step into the living room, and look around. There's a large beige couch to the right with a Thomas Kinkade landscape above it. There's a flat screen TV on the left, DVD's hugging the inside wall, Weird NJ and Rolling Stone magazines on a round coffee table. There's a small stack of folded shirts sitting on the couch, and a house plant gazing up on the side-table.
"It happened in the bathroom." Sammy says, "Should be down the hallway."
The hallway veers to the left. Beside the living room is the kitchen. The two are connected with no wall in between. The only separation is a wide arch-way. John walks through this arch-way and takes a look around.
"They told me he never left the basement. That I'm sure is a mess. We don't have time to look at everything so let's just get in the bathroom and see how bad it is. Come on John I want to get paid."
The linoleum in the kitchen look freshly cleaned, and it smells like fake lemons. The only sound is from a novelty clock shaped like a cat with it's tail going back and forth with the seconds. Left...right...thup...thap...thup...thap...John gets to the table and he look at a piece of mail from First-Rate Mortgage Co.
64 AMBER LANE,
SUN CITY, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Then the panic strikes. Sweat is coming down his face and he's breathing faster. John hurries out of the kitchen and past Sam who's got her hands up. He opens the first door on his right-
A small bed-room. a dresser with a TV. An Elvis poster. He slams it shut and tries the next one.
A closet. An umbrella. Two jackets. Parcheesi on the top shelf.
He opens the third door on the right-side down the hall and flicks the lights.-
All he can see when he does is variants of red. The toilet is bright pink and drying into a rust color. The shower curtain is balled up on the floor in a plastic knot, mangled with wood fragments and glass shards like a crimson briar-patch. There's a giant whole above the sink where the mirror should be, with glass mixing in the color-A black void 7 inches wide. The pink stuff-the brain matter-It's dotted against the wall like cement from a spray-can. You could see the outline of Terry Drummel amongst this. He was there on the toilet thinking long hard thoughts, maybe about fishing down at Lake George, maybe about drinking his last beer, maybe about the Dodgers and Phillies- but more likely he was having those thoughts that he couldn't get out, the ones he didn't know how to word... about his cousin, about Alice, about his loneliness. He knew the kind of people who would clean the mess. He knew they would not mind.
John quickly turns around and back down the hallway. He could feel everything inside him beginning to swell and then turn. Think of dirt...think of the ocean. Sammy is still standing by the kitchen, now she's noticing John looking like a vampire with a hang-over but more frightened. When asked about it at a later date she commented by saying "I didn't understand at the time. Some men turn to wimps easy. For lack of a better description, he looked like he'd seen a ghost." And in a way he had, what was left of a ghost. The residue they leave behind. John ran past Sammy and made his way out in the front yard. Under the light of the moon, for the first time since he first cleaned a crime scene he vomited all over the cold hard grass.
Sam could see him bent over and hear the awful sounds he was making from the door-way. The only thing she could do was walk outside put her hand on his back and say, "I think we're done here."
I married Samantha Warren the following Spring. We have two children together. Zoe and Clarke. Four and six respectively. We live in Maine in an above average home. I quit cleaning crime scenes and work at a hospital now, the graveyard shift but I'm adjusting. Sammy still cleans. Her sense of humor get's her through it-You say maggots? I say money. Right now though, I'm in the up-stairs study. This is happening as I write it. A strange osmosis where my mind transfixes words to paper. I have crafting tweezers, boat pieces and a .22 caliber pistol on my desk. For the past week I've been piecing together a ship inside an old milk bottle. I completed the hull and the main deck yesterday so I believe the more difficult maneuvering is over. Today is Tuesday, and I've been working on the sails. I pinch the foremast in the grip and place it inside the bottle and into it's rightful place. The main sail with the main mast will be the more difficult task, but my hand has learned patience over the years. The hardest part is over I've decided. I can't help but think this is like how a mind is built. The main top-sail is like this strange corpus colossum and I'm like God piecing it all together. Do you think god builds his skulls before his brains? And then hooks them like a backwards mummy? Just for a challenge? Just for fun's sake? When I'm done this ship is on it's own. It's free...But If I smash this milk bottle against the wall before the ship is finished...well then it's mine forever. My deconstructed beauty. But I where will this ship sail to? I think if god is watching, he has the same question.