Read More: A brief interview with Patrick St. Amand
The woman and man blubbered into each other. Derek sat on the other side of the table. He longed for the bathroom and the opportunity to vomit.
He had almost had them filling out the last piece of paper work. But then they started crying again. If he could ever rid the world of anything, it would be people crying. Or at least crying like this. The man and woman were enveloping each other in their sounds. Gasping for air. She into his neck and he into her hair. She breathed so rapidly that he thought she may hyperventilate. He had seen it before. The husband squeaked when he breathed, and Derek thought there was almost something sensual in the way he cried. But the sounds weren’t what bothered him. It was the way faces contorted when someone cried with such intensity.
When he had taken the job, his boss Larry told him to be compassionate.
“After all, you know, these people are losing their kids and everything. So, like, you know, make sure that you, like, show a bit of care. You know, tender and shit like that. Think you can do that?”
Derek assured him that he could, because he thought that he could, but after the fifth week of seeing people like this, he became irritated. After the seventh week he became angry. After the tenth week, he began vomiting.
And now, here he was, sitting and watching this couple blubber into each other. He looked at his watch and he realized that he would be late–again–to pick up his son.
“Look, uh, Mr. and Mrs…” he checked his cards. “Oh, uh, Porter, Mr. and Mrs. Porter, I appreciate all that you are going through. If you could just fill out that last sheet of paper, I can let you two grieve privately.”
They just cried harder. The snot from the man’s nose now dripped down into the woman’s hair.
The job had been easy. The boy–Derek didn’t even know the kid’s name–contracted bloat sometime during the week, so the family had called Larry’s company. Then, when the kid finally did burst, Derek came over and cleaned up everything that he could. He even managed to salvage some keepsakes from the kid’s room that he figured the parents might want.
When they greeted him at the door, they looked solemn but composed. A good sign of course. But when he presented them with a baseball card, they started crying. And then they continued crying. And it seemed to just escalate. Derek sat helpless as he waited for them to fill out the new card that Larry insisted that they sign.
“Listen,” Larry had said at the last staff meeting, doing his best to appear serious, “we aren’t the only guys in town anymore cleaning up these kids. Facts are, like, more and more kids are getting this bloat shit, and as techs are trying to figure out just what the hell it is, like, we are being busy. But people are moving in. I see ‘em around, and I need to make sure that we stay, like busy.
“So, here.” Larry held up a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “From here on in, every job needs to have, like, this filled out. It is a few questions that I want our clients to answer for us so that we know just how the hell they, like, heard about us and how we did. You know. We need to start, like, making ourselves a bit more accountable here.”
Larry had pulled Derek aside after the staff meeting.
“Listen, like, Derek, we’ve received a few complaints from some of the clients that you haven’t been the most, like, sensitive. You know what I mean?”
Derek didn’t say anything.
“Listen, like, Derek, you are one of the best cleaners we got. You always make sure that things are spic and span. But, please, like, make sure that you are being, like, you know, accommodating to people’s….pain?”
“Also,” Larry looked around, to see if anyone was around to listen or hear him, “we’ve noticed, well, by we I mean some of the managers and me that is, that you’re uh, you’re not looking so great Derek. And your voice. It’s…it’s…like…raspy now…like…hmmm, are you okay? You sick or like something? Something we need to know about?”
Derek shook his head. His stomach lurched.
“Phewf, like, okay then. Keep doing the good job you’re doing, okay? But be sensitive is all.”
Derek nodded again. Larry walked away, and the next job Derek went to, he had tried. But once the woman’s face contorted, he began to feel sick. And when her makeup ran down her face, he began to feel more and more repulsed. And then, when she opened her mouth and phlegm came out, he knew he couldn’t do it.
“Listen, Mr. and Mrs. Porter, I was wondering if you could please fill this form out for me. I am so…so…so…sorry about your loss. If you could please fill this form out, I would greatly appreciate this.”
Finally, after fifteen minutes of crying, the man moved back from his wife and turned to Derek. He looked surprised, and then his eyes narrowed.
“Why are you still here?”
“I need you to fill out this form…sir?”
The man looked at Derek. Mrs. Porter put her hands over her face and shook.
“Why do I need to fill out this form?”
The man looked at Derek for a long time. Then he picked up the form, crumpled it up, and blew his nose into it.
“Get out of my house.”
Derek blinked a few times. He looked down at the form. Snot oozed from it.
“Alright…but sir, I would really appreciate if you could fill out one of those forms. I uh…uh, really appreciate, you know, what you’re going through, so if you could just fill out one of those forms for me…”
Derek stopped. The woman began blubbering again. Mr. Porter glared at Derek, and then his face began to contort, and he turned to his wife and held her. He began sobbing again. Derek picked up the crumpled sheet of paper, looked at his watch, and left.
“You’re always late.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Derek waited at her front porch. He held his stomach. Sebastian stood behind her. Pictures hung in the front hallway. They were of her. And Sebastian. And her new husband, Gary.
“You know, I can complain about this. And then you won’t even get this time. You know that?”
Her arms closed tight around chest. Sebastian’s head hung down and he picked at something on his shirt.
“How’s the kid cleaning business? Still making money on those grieving parents?”
She sighed. “You look like shit, you know that. Like really, you used to be more handsome. You alright?”
“So why should I let Sebastian go with you?”
“Because the court ordered that I am to see him on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Saturday. And, I think, today is Tuesday, I believe, and I think,” he cleared his throat, “that today is the day that I am supposed to see him. So here I am.” He spat a wad of phlegm into her flower garden.
She stared at him for a long time. Then her face slackened and she dropped her arms.
“He hasn’t been doing well in school.”
He looked past her and at the kid. Sebastian looked like him. A healthier version of himself. She leaned in closer. “One of his best friends burst about three weeks ago and the teacher said that it has had a really big impact on him. Maybe you could talk to him about it a bit. I’ve tried, and Gary tried too, but nothing really seems to sink into him, you know?”
Derek nodded and looked back at his son. He still picked away at his t-shirt.
“Anyway, thought you should know. Maybe he will listen to you. God knows he doesn’t listen to us that often.”
Sebastian glared at her.
“Okay. Anything else I need to know?”
“Well, assuming that you are here on time on Saturday, he has a birthday party to go to. I don’t mind taking him, of course, but you know, this Saturday is your day. It’s at his friend Nick’s house. I have the invitation.”
She went back into the house and came back with the invitation.
“The theme is Avengers.”
He read it over.
“What the hell are avengers?”
“He’ll tell you all about them.”
He and Sebastian went out for ice cream–they always did on Tuesdays–and he bought cookie dough and Sebastian bought birthday cake. After that they went to his apartment where he made them tuna melts and they watched TV.
“Dad, why does your apartment smell like that?”
“I don’t know. It’s the same stuff that the custodian at school uses.”
“I use bleach all the time because the family that lived here before had their kid explode on them. And no one cleaned it properly so I have to bleach the walls or else it will smell like a kid that burst.”
Sebastian stared at the television and ate his tuna melt. Derek looked at his son for a long time, and then he continued to eat his tuna melt. When he dropped him back off at his ex’s, Sebastian hugged him goodbye, but didn’t say a word.
“Hey,” Derek shouted after him, “don’t tell your mom about the bleach, okay? She is already mad enough at me, and I don’t really need her getting pissed at me for that, okay?”
Sebastian nodded and walked into the house. When Derek saw him get inside, he started his car and drove along the river. He always did after he dropped off Sebastian. People stood vigil along the river for the dead kids. Parents were always there. Always burning candles.
He vomited into his toilet. The remnants of his tuna melt and some potato chips sat in the bowl. He washed his hands and waited. The soup in the bowl was silent, and then he heard it, the aphorism, emerge from the vomit, in a perfectly clear, crisp voice: Don’t let your past get to you and don’t let your future hold you down. You are fine in this moment.
He jotted down this aphorism–he records this under “Life Advice”–and he flushed the toilet. It was number two hundred eighty-five, and every time he heard a new one, a calm washed over him. He loved reading previous aphorisms. Some were humorous–We use bullshit to grow flowers and bullshit to sell them–and others grateful–—but most were life advice.
He splashed water on his face and he brushed his stained teeth. He cleared his throat a few times and spat. Derek lay in his bed, happy, thinking about the vomit and its words.
Derek and Chuck scrubbed between seats in an auditorium. It had been a school play today, and one of the students on stage had suddenly begun to swell. Before anyone noticed, he burst. The audience–parents, staff, and higher administration–were covered in the insides of the student.
As Larry gave the assignment to Derek and Chuck, Chuck asked, “Anyone get hurt?”
“Nah, nothing serious. I guess a few kids got some bone shards imbedded into their, like, cheeks or something, and maybe some, like, splinters. I guess the hurt is up here, really,” and Larry points at his head and crosses his eyes trying to appear crazy, or what he assumes crazy would look like. Chuck laughs. Derek says nothing.
“You ever have to clean up at a school before?” Chuck asked as Derek begins spraying disinfectant on the seats.
“Yeah, a couple times, normally just the containment chambers though, nothing much like this. You?”
“Yeah,” Chuck said, matter of factly. He sweats, and though he has worked at Larry’s longer than Derek, he seemed uneasy with the work. Chuck looked sick and twitchy. A common symptom for cleaners. Three times a month Larry had them meet with grief counselors to make sure that they weren’t on the verge of killing themselves or anyone else or going through some type of crisis that they couldn’t handle. Derek never used to go until Larry informed him that if he didn’t start to go, this could very well be grounds for termination. Now Derek went and said nothing.
“Once, a while ago,” Chuck said as he put the bloody rags into a hazmat bag, “I had to go into a kindergarten class and there had been twins. I guess this had been when no one really knew much about bloating. Not that they do now anyway. Well, the twins, it’s kinda crazy, they burst within minutes of each other. Everyone was so shocked by the first twin and the class was in such chaos, well, I guess that no one really noticed the other twin starting to bulge, starting to swell, until suddenly, the second twin burst.
“I guess that because of that, they started putting isolation chambers in. Well, maybe not just ‘cause of that, but you know, maybe…” and Chuck paused. He looked for a long time underneath one of the seats. Derek didn’t pay much attention at first, but then he heard Chuck vomiting into a bag. Derek continued to clean. Derek suspected that Chuck would be fired soon after because of his “inability to cope with the pressures of the job” as Larry puts it at staff meetings.
Derek walked over once Chuck finished and handed him a few paper towels.
“Sorry,” Chuck wheezed, “but I just looked under the chair and, well, there’s a finger there, in tact. Never seen one like that before. Fucking disgusting. Sorry.” […]
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.