The Clean Place
In the convenience store a few blocks away from my apartment building, I was wandering up and down the few tidy aisles. I was looking for deals. The clerk up at the front of the store was eyeballing me like I was a wild animal. When I noticed him I ducked behind the end display and pretended like I had found something when really I hadn’t. Crouched there I felt ready but anxious.
Eventually my eyes focused, and I saw these packages of paper towels in front of me. They were individual rolls, but they were two for one. I grabbed a pair and stood back up, trying to make myself noticeable now to show the clerk that I wasn’t wasting the store’s time, to show him that I was being a useful, good customer. I tried not to look at him while I did this, but failed, and found him staring out of the window.
“This is a good deal,” I said at the counter.
“This everything?” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”
Back at the apartment I unwrapped the paper towels and placed them carefully in the closet next to the front door. They would sit there until I needed them. I settled into a corner of the couch and began to think about things with my eyes closed. For a good while I was there, thinking ultimately about foreign places and people, dark corners and artful smells.
By the time my mouth was watering I was in the kitchen, pouring water into a large bowl. I had never made tea before, but I wanted to because I thought that it would be mysterious. In the water I put some sugar. I cut up a lemon and let the slices float in the sugar-water.
I thought, I guess I need tea now. I put the big bowl of good stuff on the counter and put my shoes back on. But when I opened the door there was a man standing there looking back at me.
“You’re here,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“I didn’t realize you were here,” he said.
I stood there with my hand still on the doorknob. I wanted to move to lean on the doorjamb but felt like that would be too much of a gesture.
“I’m sure here,” I said.
“I need to come in to check your smoke alarms,” he said. “So.”
“Oh,” I said. “I can usually do that.”
I didn’t know if this was true.
“Yeah, well,” he said.
“Okay,” I said finally.
The man came in looked around my place for a few minutes. I motioned toward the alarms on the ceiling and in the bedroom, but he didn’t see me. He had to find them on his own.
“Here they are,” he said. “Got ‘em.”
“All right,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve never heard an alarm like that go off.”
“Really?” he said. “It’s pretty common.”
I thought about it.
“No,” I said. “Actually, I have. Of course I have. I don’t know why I lied about that.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Sure, everyone’s had to hear these things.”
“No, you’re right,” I said.
He was right. I’d heard them. I’d heard them sound off like angels coming down from heaven, even if the alarms were only testing us tenants.
He pulled a box out of my closet and put it under the first alarm, the one in the bedroom. I stood next to him and watched. I thought that he should probably have his own stepladder, but figured that he was the professional and that I should stick to what I knew.
“Do you think everyone has their own thing?” I said.
“What do you mean?” he said. “I mean, well, sure, but what do you mean?”
“I mean,” I said. “You know alarms and safety. You know how to prevent things and save people. Do you think everyone has something like that, like in their own way?”
“This is just a job,” he said.
“I have a job, too,” I said.
“I still save people in other ways,” he said.
“I guess I don’t,” I said. “I can’t think of any way that I do.”
“Is that what you meant, then?” he said.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “It must have been.”
I was both happy and sad that he had answered me how he did. I was glad that he was there with me.
He finished looking over the first alarm and started in on the other one near the kitchen. On the box he looked kind of like this wooden figure that I saw in a museum one time when I was a kid. I wanted to tell him that, but never did, instead just admiring him.
He stumbled off of the box when he was done with that last alarm. As he tried to catch himself, he knocked over the large bowl of good tea that I was trying to make. It spilled into the living room, onto the hardwood floors. I gasped without meaning to.
“Sorry,” he said. “Really, sorry.”
“It’s not that big of deal,” I said. “Wait a second.”
“If you had had any furniture there,” he said, “it would’ve been a real problem.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re right.”
I went to the closet next to the front door and stopped for a second. The smell of lemons was drifting throughout the room like a song. Everything smelled real fresh and beautiful then, like my place was the clean place.
“Do you smell that?” I said.
I watched him close his mouth.
“Sure,” he said.
I brought back a roll of paper towels, happy to use them and be of use. I handed him some, but he sent me a look of refusal.
“Help me soak this up,” I said.
“Well,” he said. “I was just here for the alarms. Yeah.”
I didn’t know how to convince him, so I just stood there with the towels.
“Oh, okay,” he said. “I mean, I got time.”
So that was how, on our hands and knees, we soaked up lemon sugar-water from the wood floors.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Lewis,” he said.
I waited for him to ask me mine, but he didn’t.
“Mine’s Nick,” I said.
“Nick,” he said.
“I got a good deal on these paper towels, Lewis,” I said. “Just earlier today I got a hell of a deal.”
I was sure glad that he was there. It felt good to hear my name. It felt good to do some real work with another man. Like the sun the two of us were coming down to the ground to make things dry and smooth again. I thought about being outside and being so hot that the earth just cracked under me. It was a fire inside of me, a glorious one.
“Let me get rid of some of these wet towels,” I said, brushing him on the shoulder as I got up to walk away.
I gathered up the ones we had used up and walked into the kitchen to throw them away under the sink. The trash can was full, though, so I walked down the hall to my bedroom to throw them away in the can there. He eyed me as I walked down the hall.
At the moment that I was out of sight in the bedroom, I heard the front door open and then close again. I walked out to find that the man was gone, even though there was still plenty of water left on the living-room floor. I stood there confused and betrayed by the man. I was betrayed in the worst kind of way, I somehow knew, because we were men working. I closed my eyes to calm down for a second. I smelled the air swelling with the lemons of nature and thought no. No way.
I hurried out through the front door without even putting my shoes on again. I looked first left and then right, assumed that he probably went back out through the front door of the building, and decided to take that route as well.
Outside he was gone. For all I knew he was in the middle of the ocean. I sulked for a second under the awning of my building and looked around. I wished that it would rain. I really did. I closed my eyes again and dreamed good, sad dreams. In my mind it would rain soon, and the people would call on me for my paper towels, for my great sense of deals and forethought.
But when I opened my eyes it was still hot and sunny. The sun-me that I had made with the man was still the me that was there. He had left a mark on me, this man who had come to my house to save me from smoke and then to also spill my good tea. I realized that that must have been the best tea that I had ever made.
I started to wander around the sidewalks like cotton from the trees, and eventually what I had felt with the man in my apartment waned. I wondered if people in foreign countries smelled or tasted like flowers.
Then a few blocks up I started feeling dirty again, not like in my clean apartment. And then a few blocks later I saw a man walking toward me and smoking a cigarette. I stopped him.
“Can I have one of your cigarettes?” I asked. “I’m just feeling that way.”
He gave me one without saying much else. Then he kept walking, maybe because I wasn’t wearing any shoes.
The smoke felt good in my lungs, and I imagined that there were pine needles inside of me. I hadn’t smoked in awhile, but I suddenly remembered why people do it. Despite all of it, I felt rugged and natural again, even just for a few seconds.
When the concrete became too hot for my feet I walked to a grassy area that had some benches for people to sit on. The cool grass felt real good then, and I decided to lay myself down on the bench nearby to look up at the sky and think about the clouds.
A little while later I woke up on the bench, still facing the sky. There were fewer clouds now, and I knew that it was time to go home. I sat up on the bench and looked around, rubbing my eyes a little bit to reorient myself. Over by one of these medium-sized trees I saw a loner-dog barking up into the branches of the tree. It would bark and then jump up, putting its two front legs on the trunk of the tree, and then sit back down again, hackles raised and mouth open.
I assumed that there was a squirrel in the tree, but to be sure I went over to scope out the situation.
“Dog,” I said, when I got close enough.
The thing turned around to me and then went back to barking at the top of the tree. I got closer and looked up at the tree myself. I didn’t see anything there. Whatever it was that was irking the dog was hidden real well. Whatever it was, the dog really wanted it, enough so that it was willing to try to climb a tree, even though it was a dog and dogs don’t really climb trees. I thought to myself about what it would take for me to bark up senselessly at an empty-looking tree.
God, I thought, would have to be up in that tree. It would have to be God or something like that.
I started to turn to go back home, but as soon as I got a few feet away, the dog made a screeching noise like a siren would make. Looking back, the dog still was facing the tree, but it didn’t matter then, not after a noise like that.
I ran toward the tree, taking off my socks as I ran. Against the trunk of the tree I threw my body, scraping my hands and feet on the ridges of the giant before me. I mumbled to no one in particular encouragements and certainties that I will never remember. Up into the branches I went. It was hard at first, but I eventually got the hang of it. I never knew I could climb so well.
In the branches I looked around and saw nothing, really. I checked my hands. They were mostly fine, but my feet were bloodied and a little bruised. I looked down at the dog. It was still there, yes.
So I kept on climbing. I climbed like I was afraid and fearless at the same time. I climbed like I had everything and nothing. I climbed until I couldn’t climb any farther. I rustled the branches around and looked down at the dog. For a minute we looked at each other—him expectant and me defiant. Up in that tree, looking down at that dog, I knew for sure that saving probably wasn’t my thing. The cleaning and the alarms maybe weren’t either. I was a climber, a bloody climber of trees.
It was that minute with the dog, I think. For that minute we just looked. And then, like everything ever, he was gone.