I pull the clipboard off the dash. On the work order, in blue ballpoint, is: One room, no stairs. A 20-minute job I’ll pad to an hour.
I back the van out of the shop and turn up the radio — Dr. Laura is on a commercial break. When she comes back, she takes a call from a man who complains that his 19-year-old son runs around with friends and won’t get a job or go to college. Males have a harder time growing into men than girls have growing into women, Dr. Laura says. She tells a story about what happens to male elephants when older bull elephants are removed from the herd. The young male elephants are hyper-masculinized and violent. Sound familiar? Like our streets, with the young males? In our society today, men have gotten so emasculated by the feminista movement and the …
I find the house, pull into the long driveway, and turn down the radio. A tall, wiry man opens the front door and steps onto the porch. He wears a forest-green University of Oregon cap and a 1997 “Butte to Butte 10k” t-shirt. His head and neck are shiny and smooth, and his forearms are braided with muscle. I wave, grab my clipboard, and climb out.
“Morning,” he says.
“Morning. How are you?”
“Just fine. Lemme show you what we’re dealing with.”
We step into a dark foyer with low ceilings and tile flooring. It opens onto a small living room and a carpeted hallway. He leads me to a bedroom at the end of the hallway, and we pass three other doors, all closed. The carpet is a medium pile, a light beige color that was probably marketed as oatmeal or seashell or prairie.
“So it’s mostly just this,” the man says, leading me around an immaculate queen bed—sheets tucked, duvet smoothed, pillows piled artfully along a walnut headboard. He points to the biggest wine stain I’ve ever seen, shaped roughly like Australia, on the carpet next to the bed. The room is tidy and recently vacuumed.
“We had a bit of an emergency here.”
I look into the man’s face for the first time. There’s a hardness in his eyes.
“Is this blood?”
“It is. Can you clean it?”
I dig into the cuticle of my right thumb with my forefinger. “I’ll do my best, but I can’t guarantee it’ll come out. There’s a good chance there’ll be some staining.”
“I can live with that.”
“So it’s just this room then?”
“Okay.” I look at my clipboard and fight the urge to chew my pen cap. “Our minimum is $50. I’ll work on the stain, I’ll clean all the carpet in the room, and I’ll clean down the hallway to the foyer.”
As we leave the bedroom, he picks up a rickety walnut display table at the end of the hallway and says: “Lemme move this fragile bastard.” He carries it to the living room — high and away from him, like a toddler with a stinky diaper.
I slide the van door open and toss the clipboard onto the floor. I dig hard into the cuticles of both thumbs and stare at my equipment.
The stain needs pre-treating and steam cleaning. I grab the five-liter pump sprayer filled with Velouria, a solution that smells of orange peel, lavender, and ammonia. I prep the steam machine and think about what happened in that room.
Across the street, a man with cropped gray hair and a navy polo shirt tucked into pleated khaki shorts stares at me from his driveway. He has a push broom in his hand but seems uninterested in sweeping. I grab the pump sprayer and head inside.
I soak the stain. The wine-dark carpet softens at the edges, going creamy like black cherry ice cream as the chemicals bubble inside the tight, springy fibers.
I think about Johnny Soto. He lived across the street, and we carpooled to school. One stormy day we stood on the porch, watching the rain fall in sheets, waiting for his mom to get ready. He jumped off the stoop and ran circles around their car in the driveway, so that his thick black hair would be wet when we got to school. I was 13 when he killed himself.
I soak the stain and think about the violence of his death. I had always accepted what he did, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the horror he left behind. A shotgun blast in the dining room. His family folded in on itself. The lawn turned brown and brittle, the paint flaked off the stucco, and his brother’s El Camino sat on blocks, shading Rorschach oil stains.
I work my way out of the room and down the hall, shooting Velouria into small spots along the wear pattern. From the porch, I see the man across the street scooping dark chunks of bark-mulch into the manicured flower bed at the corner of his lawn.
I wheel the steam cleaner inside and flip the switch. The machine wails. I pull slowly across the stain, shooting hot water into the pile with each long stroke, sucking blood and water and dust and chemicals into the dirty water reservoir. I need to suck up as much as possible before scrubbing. Shoot the water, loosen the blood from the tightly wound fibers, and suck up the mixture.
I go over the stain twice, then wheel the machine back to the foyer, heavy and sloshing now with water, dirt, chemicals, and blood. I pull and twist it over the threshold and push it down to the end of the driveway. I disconnect its hoses, wind them around my arm, and hang them in the van.
I wheel the machine up the gutter to an iron storm drain embossed with a fish and “NO DUMPING DRAINS TO RIVER.” I loosen the drain plug and the mixture spills through my fingers before I can get them out of the way. It pools in a deep divot at the edge of the drain, milky and watery and pink like strawberry horchata. I tip the machine forward, spill the silty remnants, and replace the plug. I watch, a little queasy, until all the horchata is swallowed.
The man across the street stares at me. I look away and wheel the machine back to the van.
I grab a hand-held scrub brush, the floor buffer, and two bonnet pads and head back in. I go to work on the edges of the stain — the border between light and dark, the threshold marking before and after. On my hands and knees, I scrub from the edges to the center. The color is now closer to oatmeal, seashell, or prairie but darker, damp, and tenebrous.
Starting in the far corner of the bedroom, I scrub the wet carpet with the floor buffer and a loopy white bonnet pad that cleans and dries. When I get to the blood stain I put my left foot on top of the buffer, applying extra pressure to the soaked and scrubbed fibers. I go over the stain, stop the buffer, flip the pad over, and do it again.
I take the dirty pad out to the van — carrying it away from me with two fingers and a thumb, holding my breath — and chuck it in the back, the bleach-white bonnet now blush pink. I put on a new pad and clean my way out of the room and down the hall. I grab my rake — a broom with stiff, short bristles that I use to finish the job, creating a triangular pattern in the pile.
I clean up the van, grab my clipboard, and lean into the living room.
“Yeah,” he says from the kitchen. “You all done, buddy?”
“Let’s go take a look,” he says. I normally don’t step on the carpet after I’ve cleaned my way out, but I follow him down the hall. I don’t know why. I dig into my cuticle with my right forefinger. I’ve deformed my thumbnail — it’s wavy like sand dunes — but I can’t stop myself.
“Huh, I don’t see jackshit,” he says. “This looks great.”
I stand near the foot of the bed and stare at the raked carpet.
It looks clean, but I sense the blurry edges of a faint, spongy shadow. The stain will dry slightly darker than the rest of the carpet. It will hold something back. It will be the first part of the room to attract dirt. The shadow will grow and darken and eventually we will get a call and we will be back out here when the edges get sharp and the shaded area feels different, wrong — like an awkward question, like a throbbing scab, like a door slamming in the middle of the night.
I stand in the foyer as the man cuts a check. As I back out of the driveway, I see the man across the street in my side mirror. He stands next to his flower bed holding a small spade in his right hand. He shakes his head as I drive away. I leave the radio low, then switch it off.
Brian McNely is associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. His work has appeared in Porridge Magazine, Passengers Journal, and Off Assignment, and in academic journals such as Philosophy & Rhetoric.
Do You Know Where You Come From?
Gerburg Garmann, a native of Germany, is a former professor of Global Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Indianapolis, USA and is now fully concentrating on the arts. Her scholarly publications appear in English, German, and French in international journals. Her artwork and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies around the world. “Painting is yet another foreign language for me and allows for aesthetic expression in form of color, shape, thought, and passion. It is a language, which can be shared by many, verbally and non-verbally. Because paintings (just as other forms of art) provide symbolic as well as real meeting grounds of the spiritual and our day-to-day experiences, they solicit our reaction no matter whether our engagement with the actual piece of art ends up in affection or dislike, in affirmation or disapproval. In the end, all artwork manifests a story, or at least a small sliver of a de-centered plot.”