Fiction: The Cleaner

November 23, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

Pim Geerts photo

 

By

R.L.M. Cooper

 

 

 

October

 

Frank always hated rainy days. He hated them when he was working and he hated them when he was ill. Like today. Today was gray and wet. The leaves, falling steadily from the big oak out front, randomly blew against the rain-splattered window beside his bed and stuck there momentarily before gradually sliding down onto the sill where they gathered into a brownish, wet pile and ultimately fell to the ground beneath the rhododendron bush.

He was sweating yet he felt unusually cold. He pulled the quilt and blankets closer around him as he coughed. Deep, rattling sounds. Breathing was difficult. Maybe he should have gone to the hospital. He had considered it several times, but he knew he wasn’t well enough to drive, and to be honest, he wasn’t sure he was up to it. No point being a danger to others as well as himself. He could have called an ambulance, of course, but he hadn’t wanted to. The thought of all those people in close quarters, talking, coughing, moaning, the harsh lights, and the hyperactivity made him apprehensive and nervous. No. He would be all right here at home in his own bed. He just wanted to close his eyes for a while and sleep. Once he was over this cold he would be back to work in no time. It was just a cold. That was all. He’d had colds before. He would be all right. He’d be back to work tomorrow, or the next day for sure.

His job was really all he had. Without child or relatives of his own still living, Frank passed his evenings mostly reading. Library books were piled beside his chair in the living room and beside his bed as well. He never cared for television, finding it far too hyperactive, so when he wasn’t reading, he was out walking. He would walk his own neighborhood and then the next and the next. He never bothered to keep track of the distance but he figured it would have added up to a lot of miles if he had done. On many fair evenings he could be seen, if anyone had noticed, simply walking along the sidewalks and sometimes offering a walnut or peanut to the busy squirrels and crows that constantly poked through the grass and flowers for whatever tidbits they could find.

Though he was not a believer, Frank would sometimes stop by a church that was not too far from his neighborhood. He found something soothing in the smell and feel of the polished pews and the light that diffused through the stained glass. He liked the quiet there when it was mostly empty. But he never stayed. He found church members too inquisitive. They asked questions he was not ready to answer, and if you attended this, they wanted you to attend that. They never seemed satisfied to just leave a person in peace.

During the holidays, Frank could be seen strolling solitarily up streets and down avenues, peering from a distance, into the lives of others who had invited such viewing with open curtains and raised shades, their bright lights and Christmas decorations, happy friends and relatives hugging and toasting the season, all on open display. The isolation, the yearning to be a part of something, was felt keenly. He would not deny it. Yet he was resigned to his small life and tried hard to count those blessings he did possess. He did not, as many other returning soldiers had done, live under a bridge or on the streets. And he was not hungry. His small home provided warmth and a certain amount of security and privacy. The yard surrounding it gave him pleasure in the tending of the roses and rhododendrons.

Once, long ago, there had been a girl. Her name was Mary and she was the prettiest thing Frank had ever seen. When he closed his eyes he could still see her young, freckled face and dark eyelashes. Elizabeth Taylor eyelashes. She never knew he existed, of course, for he never had the courage to speak to her or make his feelings known. He felt himself homely and not a person someone like Mary would even see, except perhaps casually in passing. And, in truth, he had little to offer even in his youth. She ultimately married a good-looking boy who worked in his daddy’s law firm. Frank saw her once in a while around town herding her three freckle-faced children to this appointment or that event, but he kept his distance and never spoke to her. After all, she didn’t know him and may have thought him a predator, though that could not have been further from the truth. Frank had a big and sympathetic heart and was satisfied watching from afar, believing she was happy.

After Mary had married, he joined the army. He was never exactly sure why. Perhaps he had been looking for himself. He didn’t really know. A good part of his enlistment was spent in the Middle East where he made two good friends: a lanky young man with a pronounced Southern accent from Georgia, named Benson Whiteside III, and a Native American from Arizona whose name translated to Tall Pine. Benny, Pi, and Frankie. The three of them were an unlikely trio, yet they were close as only young men can be when facing an enemy not of their own choosing, for reasons they did not understand, and in a land far from anything familiar. Benny and Pi were the only real friends Frank ever had.

Sometimes Frank would think how ordinary his own name was. Plain. Like himself. Benny and Pi had names that needed shortening in order to form a diminutive, but his own was so common that it required lengthening for the more familiar Frankie.  He mentioned it one day to the others and they all had a good laugh. Pi had thrown his arm around Frank’s shoulders and the three of them headed off singing, at the top of their lungs, the Australian song, “Waltzing Matilda.”  Two months later their vehicle hit an IED buried in the dirt road they were traveling one afternoon on their way back to camp. Frank was in the hospital more than a week before he learned his friends were gone. He listened as his C.O. told him what had happened. He listened, hearing at first and then, with each subsequent word, the officer’s voice faded until he only saw the man’s lips moving. He never really got over the loss and ultimately withdrew into himself, the only safe place he had ever known.

After coming home, Frank had attempted, unsuccessfully, several jobs before applying with Bayberry Cleaning. Those jobs had required more contact with people than he was equipped to handle, but when he landed the job with Bayberry, he felt he had, at last, found his place in the world. A lonely occupation, it was exactly what he needed. When management offered him a partner to share the workload he had politely refused because he was simply not ready for close human contact. There were times he regretted that decision and he often yearned for a real friend again like Benny or Pi. But over the years he gleaned rewards from the occupation itself and settled in to what ultimately became the rather ordinary flow of his life.

Frank was what is known as a cleaner. His job, after the courts finished with theirs and everything of any value had been removed from the homes of the unclaimed deceased, was to go in, remove all that remained, and clean the house of any evidence of its former occupant. Mostly it consisted of sweeping out and piling up bits of this and pieces of that at the curb where it would be unceremoniously hauled away by the next round of garbage pick-up and ultimately dumped among the used coffee grounds, rotting orange peels, and plate-scrapings from the dinners of every household in town. The unwanted remainder of a life, gathered up and stuffed into big, black bags and tied off with industrial strength twist-ties. The unclaimed deceased. An ignoble end. Left for garbage.

He worked the job faithfully for more than thirty-seven years, gathering, sweeping, scrubbing, often disinfecting. During those years he gradually developed a deep regard for the “unclaimed deceased” whose small, valueless treasures he was expected to toss into the dust bin of history while the world moved on without them–as though they had never existed. It was a rare day, however, when Frank did not find something in the humble remains he felt was worth keeping. He saw, in the small discarded knick-knacks and photographs tucked into old albums cast aside by the county’s initial inspection crew seeking only items of monetary value to partially relieve the financial burden on the tax-payers, the faces of human beings who had meant something to the person who had kept them. A smiling young girl. A child playing with a puppy. A shirtless man in a beat up old hat holding up a tiny fish at the end of a fishing pole, happily playing the role of hero at his tremendous catch. These people were real and Frank came to believe they documented–and validated–the lives of those who had cherished them. They should not be swept into the gutter on the side of the street and forgotten. The people who had lived in the homes he cleaned should not be so easily discarded. No presence at a plain, hasty burial. No tear shed. No. Frank decided this should not happen. Someone should remember. Someone should care.

And so he kept the albums and the odd knick-knack he was sure had meant something to its former owner. He gave names to those faces that had never been labeled–perhaps because they had been so familiar to those who kept them that no labels were ever needed. Sometimes he spoke to them, assuring them they would not be forgotten. Sometimes he told them about his day. But mostly he just looked at them as though they were his own friends and neighbors.

He lay there now looking up at a particular group of pictures he had placed on the wall opposite his bed. These were pictures of a young woman he long ago decided to call Mary. He liked the name and the face smiling in the photograph reminded him of the Mary he had once loved from afar. He knew the Mary in the photograph had been loved, no matter her actual story, because he, in his own way, loved her.

He coughed again. Rasping. Deep.

The rain fell harder now, beating against the window pane in waves, and the sky darkened with heavy, black clouds. Mary smiled down at him from his bedroom wall as Frank breathed his last on this dreary October day.

His body was found sixteen days later when his employer, at last, became impatient with his absence, and when neighbors began to complain of unpleasant smells coming from the house.

 

 

March

 

It took the courts weeks flowing into months to track down any assets and relatives Frank may have had, and, after exhausting all avenues and finding neither, all that remained was the final cleaning of the little gray house before it was put on the market to be sold.

His body had long since been interred unceremoniously by the state. There were none present to mourn.

At ten o’clock on this chilly morning, a white van pulled up in front of the house. The lettering on the side spelled out “Cleaner Than Clean.” It was that company’s turn in the county’s on-call rotation. Two men in blue uniforms got out, opened the double-doors on the back, and gathered up supplies. Their names were sewn onto the front of their coveralls in white letters: Bob and Marcus.

“Shouldn’t take too long here,” Marcus said as he grabbed the handle on the tray of cleaning supplies while Bob collected the brooms and bags. “Looks to be a pretty small house.”

“Yeah,” Bob answered. “Probably not.”

They made their way up the steps and unlocked the front door with the key they had been given, and stepped inside.

Marcus entered first and, just inside the door, he stopped dead, causing Bob to nearly run him over.

“What the he–” Bob stopped and stared.

The walls of the room were covered from floor to ceiling with photographs of smiling, happy people. Every wall. Every room. Thirty-seven years of other people’s memories Frank had refused to let die.

“This may take longer than we thought.” Bob began removing the pictures and cramming them into a big black plastic garbage bag.

“I’ll take the bedroom,” Marcus told him.

It took the two men four and a half hours before they finally packed up their supplies and got back into their van. Four and a half hours to fill three huge, black garbage bags with all that was left of Frank’s life and the memories of those he had refused to let die.

“I wonder why no one claimed his body.” Marcus looked over at Bob as he started up the van. “He must have had hundreds of friends. I never saw the like of photos in my life. Ever.”

“Dunno,” Bob said. “I’m hungry. Wanna stop for a burger?”

As they pulled out of the narrow, unpaved driveway, one of the black bags at the curb slowly fell over onto its side. Several photos slipped out onto the street.

It began to rain.

 

 

 

 

 

R.L.M. Cooper

R.L.M. Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her short stories have appeared in several online magazines in addition to Tuck, including Ariel Chart, Literally Stories, and The Scarlet Leaf Review. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and precocious Tonkinese cat.

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