Distant Crimson Dreams
Dontrell delivered the floor soap. Two big plastic containers with pump spouts. The shit I used to mop that building's bathrooms and lobby. Horrible chemical smell. I breathed in that poison nightly. Nostrils raped, brain cells massacred, lungs further tarnished. What the fuck. It was a steady paycheck after years of scrambling for dough. There were worse gigs. I've worked my share.
Dontrell came to inspect the building for our bosses. Two strange Bircher nuts. They made a killing in the cleaning biz. They'd meet with clients wearing buttons that screamed U.S. OUT OF THE U.N. and my fave, JOE MCCARTHY WAS RIGHT. He certainly was, I chided Bill, the friendlier boss. Far far right. Off the rotting charts. He smiled and took it as a compliment. Bill believed that he was a prisoner inside Communist America. The Reds ran everything. Except for his cleaning company. A profitable pocket of resistance.
Dontrell paid the Birchers little mind. Most white people are crazy, he once confided to me. Who cared, so long as the checks cleared. Made sense. Dontrell exhibited a certain ease in everything he did. He was a few years younger than me, but looked much older. His hands betrayed a lifetime of manual labor. His face was weathered, creased. His smile a concession to this reality. He was small but strong. Forearms thick. Stomach flat. He had a few scars on his knuckles. From fighting? Or working? I never asked. Hell, down at this level, working was a form of fighting. Most of the people I worked with had no other option. Cleaning was all they could do. All they would get. Dontrell included.
I pushed the big trash barrel down the empty hallways. Dumped cubicle and office trash along the way. Dusted what cobwebs I could see. After dark, cobwebs are hard to find. Florescent lights help mask them. Not that the white collar drones cared all that much. By 10 the next morning, my efforts from the night before were pretty much erased. They were crowded and corralled like animals, so they acted like animals. Especially the women. Primarily in the bathrooms. Oh, the scatological nightmares I'd seen. Some day, I'll write about them in rich detail. Most men have never been in a women's room after a day's use. Few believed what I told them. Women simply nodded, smiled. They knew.
I wheeled the barrel into the executive wing. Where the big bosses roamed. And all of them played golf. In every office there were maps of courses, putting machines, books about refining your game. There were the requisite posed shots of execs on a golf course, standing together, clubs in hand. The people in them seemed mechanical to me. Sad. And every photo looked the same. Forced smiles and stiff postures. Is that what you had to do to make serious money? Fuck that. Cleaning sucked, but there was a certain freedom to it. Anonymous freedom. Few people noticed you or looked you in the eye. The perfect job for me.
I entered the largest office, turned on the light.
"Hey man! Shut that off."
Dontrell was sitting at the company president's desk. The big brown leather chair nearly engulfed him. He took a swig from a pint of Smirnoff, squinted his eyes.
"You deaf? Shut those damn lights off!"
The office went dark. An outside light coming through the glass exit door illuminated part of it, but not where Dontrell sat. I could hear him sucking on that pint.
"You want a taste?"
"Naw. I'm still working."
"That's why you need a taste."
Apart from a few cubicle drones working the night shift on the other side of the building, the place was empty. I sat in front of the big mahogany desk. Dontrell passed me the pint. I took a deep slug. I hated Smirnoff, but years of serious drinking conditioned me to swallow pretty much anything. Plus, the cheap vodka burned away the glass cleaner taste on my tongue. Gave me a cleaner buzz, too.
"Man, this is the money building. You hear what I say? Money money MONEY in this motherfucker."
My eyes adjusted to the dark. I could almost see Dontrell's crooked smile. It was always there when he talked like this.
"This motherfucker here," Dontrell said, swiveling the chair, "he don't worry 'bout shit, moneywise. I mean, look at this place. You think this asshole needs all this room?"
"Executive perks, brother. Shit we'll never see."
"Yeah." Dontrell swigged more vodka, passed the bottle to me. "We just clean after the cocksuckers. We make it nice so they can make the money."
"As the Good Lord intended."
Dontrell laughed. "Man, you funny sometimes."
"It's all in the wrist."
"Huh? Shit. You wanna get high?"
"No, man. Let's go outside and hit this joint."
"Sure. Why not?"
When it came to smoking other people's weed, I was always careful. You never know what they can tolerate. Dontrell and I stood outside the exit door. He used a pen to keep the door cracked, so we didn't have to go around the building to get back in. His weed was really skunky. He sucked in two deep hits, passed the joint to me. I took a light hit, held it briefly, blew it out. Dontrell took the joint and attacked it again.
"You want more?"
"I'm good." Good and stoned. Dontrell's weed was potent, but not in a trippy way. It was a clean, heightened feeling. Just the boost I needed to finish the night's work.
Dontrell stubbed the joint against the building. We went back inside.
"Shit, man. I gotta finish my deliveries. Then I gotta clean a carpet over at that bank."
A bank. One of the worst places to clean. Banks and law offices. The biggest messes and the loudest complainers.
"That'll take awhile. What time you think you'll finish tonight?"
"Maybe two, if I don't fuck around no more."
"You finish inspecting here?"
Dontrell laughed. "If I don't see a dead body in the toilet, it's all good."
"It's still early."
"You planning to kill one of these motherfuckers?"
"Kill them with forgiveness. I'm a peaceful man."
"One for the road?"
I chased the weed with a nice gulp from Dontrell's pint. He capped the bottle, shook my hand, and left. I could hear his dented van's engine blast through the thick rear exit door. I went to the bathroom to wash up. Stared in the mirror at my sleep-deprived face. How did I get here? That question began fading in my mind. Before long, I was simply a cleaner. My city self more or less vanished.
A few weeks later, Dontrell's baby daughter drowned in the bathtub. I never got the full story. Something about a babysitter fucking up. The Birchers and I went to the funeral. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. Dontrell's wife sobbed over the tiny closed casket. Dontrell sat next to the casket, frozen. I went up to him, hugged him, told him how sorry I was. He stared at me with glazed eyes. Said nothing. I patted his shoulder and went to sit down.
The service was excruciating to witness. I cannot imagine what it was like for Dontrell's family. I thought of my sister who died when she was three. I thought of my children. Everyone was crying or sobbing except for me. I felt like I was in another person's body, living his life. Afterward, I hit a liquor store and bought a pint of Smirnoff. The first and last time I ever did. I drove home, got drunk, cried myself to sleep.
About a month after this, the Birchers fired Dontrell. I couldn't believe it. Despite his chemically-enhanced state, Dontrell was a solid cleaner. One of the company's best. The Birchers told me that Dontrell was out of control at work sites, ignoring their repeated warnings. Maybe he was. Who the fuck wouldn't be?
I ran into Dontrell a couple of years later. He was cleaning a building for another company. The Birchers won that contract, and were putting me in charge, displacing Dontrell once again. I felt awful about this, but said nothing when I saw Dontrell. He was all smiles. He seemed the same, if a little bit removed. I asked how he was doing.
"Fine. Fine. Still cleanin'. Like you."
What else is there?