by Jack Glasser
Raspberries. Not the same sugar-based gelatin she would scrape from the top of a cheap cheesecake, but the kind that she had harvested in the open mountain valleys as a young girl. That little girl delicately maneuvered her fingers through the hair-like barbs of the bush’s protection and worked alongside the golden-winged bumble bees that disappeared over the years. The berries were a treat. Something turned into jams and pies and toppings for ice cream in the parlor that burned down around a love-stricken owner. The fire was talked about for years and then forgotten like the bumble bees.
It was a stain the size of a child’s fist. Not likely to be missed, but nothing that would cost them their deposit when the landlord came to inspect the apartment. She dropped them one by one and used the pad of her foot to grind them in. Her way of getting attention, or maybe revenge. She stared at it and was reminded of the embarrassment she felt when she first found traces of blood in her underwear. “That is your ticket into womanhood,” her mother told her. Her body worked the way it was supposed to and now she was fit to bear children when the time came. She never thought of having children before that.
The stain was too deep for at-home carpet products to remove and Marty told her that it would need steam penetration to get down to the fibers. When Marty left he told her to call the cheapest carpet cleaners in town. No need to spend more than what was necessary. She would often tell me how he fretted over the finances when we met at Van’s laundry. Marty had quit working years before and schemes and scams had since paid the bills. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, baby-doll,” he would say to her. She hated when he called her anything other than Roni. I never quite figured out why she talked so openly with me. His latest, and what she admitted was his most clever, scheme was to walk through neighborhoods looking for homes with pets roaming backyards, or such. Marty was quite good a picking homes of people who instantly put up flyers promising cash rewards for their missing pets. The plan worked well and produced a fairly decent living. Roni worked for a newspaper distribution warehouse as a sub for carriers who didn’t show up for work or simply needed a break from the seven-days-a-week monotony. She found the advertisement for the job on the orange plastic bag the newspapers came in. Always in bags, no matter what the weather was like. Sometimes she puzzled over this.
“It isn’t hard work. It’s just every day. People get tired you know. And I once heard that if you don’t sleep at night for long periods of time, you’ll never be able to sleep at night again. I think I also heard that about being in the dark for a long time. The miners up in Leadville talked about not having light in the mines for hours at a time and their vision would constantly be blurred. Maybe even forever. My mother used to say that was whiskey telling tales to young girls, and to stay out of the bars.”
“How old were you,” I asked her.
“Maybe eleven or twelve. But we went there to play pinball and my brother liked the pickled eggs that the bartender kept on a shelf in plain view. There was a faded coffee-colored sign on the jar claiming that a record eighteen eggs was once eaten in a minute, but I never believed it. The bartender was a strange man with four fingers on his left hand and a tattoo of a bare-breasted woman with dragon wings covering his forearm.”
The knock on the door startled her and she walked from the bedroom and looked through the peephole. It was the man from the carpet cleaners. She could see his unshaven jaw, but his face was hidden by a ball cap pulled low enough to make his ears stick out. He knocked again and she opened the door.
“Sorry I’m late. Couldn’t find the place.”
Roni knew he was lying and the smell of stale smoke and marijuana hung on his breath. It was a familiar smell that Marty used to try to cover up with cheap cologne and cinnamon chewing gum.
His pants were rusty and brandished a silvery belt buckle with two smoking pistols crossing each other. A plastic squirt-bottle hung from the hammer loop of his carpenter’s pants. His body odor was not offensive, but she could smell his sweat. She was surprised to see that the green polo shirt with his name embroidered on the right breast was clean and unwrinkled. Most likely because he had just put it on.
She showed him the raspberry stain and he laughed. “You didn’t need me for this. You could’ve got a can of foam from Wal-mart that would’ve taken this out.” The words made her smile and she knew he wondered how the stain got there. It was not something shaped like a spill. An island, strategically placed, with traces of swirls in the middle of a honeyed sea. He removed his hat and stroked his thinning hair. The veins in his forearms bulged and she thought that she saw the pulse within them. He was muscular, but not like movie stars or body builders. She saw this kind of strength in the blue-collar miners from her childhood. She also knew it to be something found in men who spent time in prison. My own husband had the same features. Lean and hard and like coiled chain-link fences. He was sent to a penal institution for assaulting a pregnant woman. Abortion was illegal then and he did not want the responsibility of a father. He beat her midsection, below the ribcage, with a weathered axe handle. She did not die, but he did the job he set out to do.
“You know,” his words were slightly slurred, or maybe he had a lisp, “it will cost you the same for a spot clean than it will for me to clean the entire room. Matter of fact, I can do you a special that includes four rooms for twenty-nine bucks more than the cost of just one.”
Roni doubted that he had the authority to make on-the-spot deals, but asked for a more detailed explanation.
“Well, that spot ain’t too big and all I’m going to do is spray it with what’s in this bottle,” he shook the bottle hanging like an outlaw from his side. “Then it’s a waiting game. The chemical sets into the stain, like it did the carpet, and lifts the color to the surface. Then I pull the steam cleaner hose up here, click the trigger and suck that color right up. Total time: about thirty minutes. Thirty minutes for a hundred bucks. On the flip side, I do the four main rooms of the apartment for a hundred and thirty.”
She studied the carpet cleaner for a moment and shook her head. It was not the amount of money that she questioned, but she was apprehensive to agree without Marty’s say. I never got the feeling that Roni was afraid of Marty physically abusing her, but my own experiences with men always left a lingering feeling, a doubt. After a few moments of puzzling over the decision, Roni gave the carpet cleaner the permission he needed. “Four rooms is pretty much the entire apartment, so if you will include the entryway, I’ll do it. Is there some sort of contract to sign, or something like that?” Her question received a blank stare.
“You know, I haven’t been at this too long, but in the short time I have been at it, I ain’t even seen a contract.”
“No paperwork?” she asked.
“Well, I got this credit card machine for official receipts, but I haven’t had much luck with it.”
“I don’t have a credit card. I was going to pay cash.”
Cash. This sparked something in the carpet cleaner and he shook his head slightly in affirmation. He excused himself as politely as possible and went down to the van parked diagonally in the handicapped space near the apartment complex dumpsters.
Roni stared out the window and watched as the carpet cleaner grappled with the expandable hoses, dragging them to full length and maneuvering them to reach to the upper floor of her apartment. He spent some time mixing a foaming solution in a five-gallon bucket then pouring, and spilling a majority of it on the worn asphalt, into the steam machine built into the rear of the van. She wondered if this was what he was supposed to be doing. The look on his face was puzzling to her and she struggled more with frustrations than he seemed to.
The carpet cleaner moved the furniture and she watched. The ease with which he did this caused her to feel sensations that should have been wrong. But why should they feel wrong? She had been deceived by his movements and the way he carried himself. Until she had stood next to him, she had not realized the difference in size. He was taller than he seemed and thin in the waist. Maybe he had been military, but she had never known any military men. She could see the muscles in his upper back tense and strain when he moved the sofa to the dull linoleum floor in the kitchen. “It will have to stay there ‘til the carpet dries,” he said. She did not care, and may not have even heard the comment clearly. She was never clear in her explanation, and I never felt that she wanted to be. Her mind was warped by his build and she inhaled his scent. What was it that grabbed her? Something primal and magnetic.
Steam rose from the carpet as he slowly dredged the floor searching for more than just grime left behind by former tenants. His arms pulled the attachments hard across the floor and condensation formed on the windows. He perspired and she began to feel it on her own body. Was it sweat? She hid in the kitchen and for a moment felt herself. Slick and even sticky. She wondered if she smelled herself in the air and not the sweat of the man working. The machine made noises outside, but these were faint and she heard the carpet cleaner humming.
The last room was the spare bedroom where Marty kept the flyers he pulled from telephone and light posts. The carpet cleaner noticed a stack and asked her what she did. She answered with curt responses, trying not to give too much information.
“This is my husband’s office. This is all of his stuff.”
“What does he do?” the carpet cleaner asked.
She stumbled and a slippery response made her feel like a lawyer was cross-examining her. “He finds lost animals.”
“Wow. Didn’t know you could do that for a living. I should be doing that, and not cleaning carpets. This was the only gig I could pick up when I got out. Not too many opportunities for us.” He looked at her and thought that he startled her. “Sorry if that rubs you the wrong way. I’ll stop talking.”
She shook her head. “No.” She was surprised at how quickly she spoke out. “Why were you in jail?”
“Wasn’t jail. It was prison. Jail is for county offenders. Prison is for criminals. Rapists and murderers and thieves. Pedophiles too, but they don’t make it too far. Something about little kid touchers that even murderers can’t stand.” He laughed the laugh of someone thinking back. Perhaps the memory of something that he had done while incarcerated. Her eyes never left him and she asked the question again. He thought her interest was fear, but she knew that it was attraction. “Sorry if I scared you. It wasn’t nothing like that. Cars were my thing.” He left the story there.
She paid him with small bills and he wrote a receipt on credit card paper he pulled aggressively from the machine. She thanked him and followed him out to the van. The carpet cleaner smiled devilishly and passed her a card. The company name was bold in raised lettering. She flipped it over in her palm and read the scratched writing. It was a telephone number and not the number she had called for the appointment. He straightened the van and pulled around. She stood watching and he rolled down the window. “What was the stain from?” he yelled. She smiled and turned. The tires crunched on the loose asphalt and she watched as he braked for the speed bump and thought she saw him check his rear-view mirror. The double-doors of the van had windows, but she wasn’t quite certain.
The phone rang and Marty picked it up. He paced the hallway of the apartment using a tone that Roni was familiar with. Roni knew that the call was for the small, white dog that was locked in their bathroom. She had given the dog a piece of leftover chicken and it had given it diarrhea. There were stains on the carpet in the spare bedroom and hallway, and she had cleaned up the brackish liquid from the linoleum in the bathroom more than once that day. “I told you that dogs are allergic to garlic, babe. Now you’re gonna have to get the carpets cleaned again. What have I told you about money growing on trees?” His tone had shifted from the compassionate tone he used when talking to people looking for their lost animals to a condescending one that she knew equally well, but she was not thinking of anything other than the card the carpet cleaner had given her. How much time had passed? Maybe six months, but she could not be certain. She remembered the raspberries. She remembered her uncertainty of the smell. “Good thing that dog shit in more than one room. Won’t be a waste of money this time. Call tomorrow and have the carpets cleaned again. I’m going to take this dog over to the owners and then take the money to the bank. Can you believe they’re offering a thousand dollar reward for that thing?”
She made the appointment as soon as Marty left that morning. She brought some shirts down to the laundry and we talked about the dark circles forming under her eyes. She told me that she was not sleeping well and that Marty was rarely home when she arrived in the mornings. The change in weather was making it hard for the newspaper to hold on to carriers and the subbing was coming more frequently. She left the shirts to be laundered and had a rush in her step. The carpet cleaner waited.
She brushed her fingers delicately across the raised lettering of the business card and she felt a sudden surge. She loved the feeling he left her with that day. Many nights had passed, and sometimes thoughts of the carpet cleaner aroused within her desires that Marty was unable to fulfill. She envisioned the muscular back and wished that Marty had some semblance of the definition. When she dug her nails into his skin he winced and cried out. He questioned her intent and they had not been intimate since. Roni stared at the hardened, olive-colored feces on the floor in the spare bedroom. She stepped on it with her sandaled foot and ground it deep into the fibers. It crunched softly under the pressure and she caught a faint scent of the dog again. The knock on the door startled Roni and she kicked her sandals toward the closet. Her pulse surged and she tried to calm herself as she walked toward the door. The knob slipped and she smiled at the perspiration in her palm. She had not bothered to look through the peephole and opened the door too excitedly. Her surprise was matched only by her disappointment. Standing in front of her was not the man that left her so many months ago. His appearance was vulgar and his efficiency and all-business approach left her irritated. She asked questions, but the new carpet cleaner admitted that he had not known his predecessor. He could not remember a man fitting the description she provided, but he had not worked for the company very long. Roni felt deceived, cheated. This man offended her with every word he spoke. He offered no cleaning other than the soiled carpet in the two rooms. He was professional and left a business card with nothing on the back. She deposited it in the trash can in the kitchen and went to her bedroom. She opened the nightstand drawer and removed a small leather pouch. She pulled a roll of bills from the single pocket and dropped it on the floor beside the bed. Roni walked out of the apartment without closing the door.
I wait for her in the mornings, but have not seen in her in some time. I hear she moved in with a retired veterinarian who was forced from practice for refusal to perform convenience euthanasia. I laugh when I hear the jingle of the small silver bell hanging over the door and I turn my head to see her. Marty smiles at me and hands his shirt to the man across the counter. “Can you get this out?” He points to a small pink stain near the collar of the shirt.
“Lipstick?” the man across the counter asks with a wry smile.
“Raspberries,” Marty says.