A SMALL MATTER OF SO
by Jessica Anthony
is forty years old and the father of thirteen. His stomach hangs out
of the bottom of t-shirts in a hairy croissant of flesh. His glasses
are so thick you become dizzy when you make eye contact. His hair is
greasy, and one side is longer than the other. This he combs over his
bald scalp to create the illusion of virility. He looks like a man who
would kick his own dog if someone dared him. He looks like a man who
would leave skidmarks on the street in front of his own house.
We're supposed to begin cleaning apartments for the university at four
in morning. Instead, we lay claim on a cot and sleep until seven or
eight, when Button arrives on the job. Actually, I wouldn't call it
sleep. We lie there on the thin old mattresses in a kind of tired half-consciousness,
keeping one ear awake, listening for Button's footsteps, or the door
Button went to Vietnam, but they didn't give him a gun, and he's resented
it ever since. Mickey says he was sent home for stealing someone else's
gun and running out on a dirt road. He started shooting like mad but
it wasn't loaded. When they found him, he was kneeling in the dirt and
making sad little gun noises to himself. He was seventeen.
Now he carries a Ty-D-Boy broomstick with a wooden handle, and hunts
us in our slumber. He moves his 280 pound body as nimbly as gravity
allows, up and down flights of stairs (curse the wall-to-wall!) and
occasionally giving in to the urge to whisper, "I fought the law, and
the law won."
When he finds one of us, he rings the wooden handle on the iron posts
of the cot like a dinner bell. "Get your lazy ass out of bed and go
clean the shitter!" he says.
Often with the sun rising in our bones, we feel just slightly like lambs
laid for slaughter.
Cleaning the Shitter is probably the worst of our punishments. You can
smell one of these things from all the other rooms in the apartments.
The closer you get to the bathroom, the shorter your breath becomes,
until you are there with tight lungs and armed with a glove that reaches
up to your elbow, a plastic brush and an entire canister of our universal
and toxic cleaning agent, Mr. Muscle. You thrust your hand into the
swirling, dark abyss, where, over the past few decades, thousands of
liberal arts asses have plunked down and read Ivanhoe.
Today, Mickey was caught, and got Shitter Duty. He always retaliates
in a charmingly unprovoked, but fruitless way. "Mmm-hmm! How I love
shitters! Thank you, sir! Thank you for this shitter, sir!"
Our quota is to clean a hundred apartments a month. One month and six
people equals whole lot of damn ennui. Today we watched Gary, the albino
who listens to heavy-metal music, break things with his head. Gary is
scrawny and pale, with an enormous, Neanderthal forehead. He lives in
the trailer park. Every day he brings from home a small cooler filled
with cream horns and cherry Kool-Aid. "The two basic food groups," he
says, and gurgles at his own astonishing wit.
Gary has a girlfriend with a tattoo of an ax on her back. Gary has an
uncle who took three bullet in the chest and lived. Once Gary sprayed
Mr. Muscle on his right arm, just to see what it would do. "Look," he
said. "It bubbles."
Six of us are sitting on the couch, and Gary is standing on top of one
of the small, beige living room tables.
"Here," says Mickey, He hands Gary a stack of plywood, one foot deep.
It's obvious that Gary is a professional, because he holds the stuff
out front and stares at it, like he's a antique collector or a levitator.
As if he stares long enough, the object will somehow defy the laws of
geometry. The palms of his hands grip the jagged edges where Mickey
tore it off the wall.
Lawnmowers whirr in the distance.
After four tries, Gary breaks through all the layers to whooping applause.
Then a red circle appears on his forehead. He looks a little bit like
the Japanese flag.
After lunch, I find Gary sitting in a bedroom. He doesn't notice me
when I enter, because he is staring intently on a cue ball he found
underneath the couch.
"I'm gonna break it," he says. Then he starts clocking himself. I watch
for awhile, then go for a nap. We don't see Gary for the rest of the
This morning, Button comes early: six forty-five. He gets Gary. We hear
the scream. Gary's been bragging about his ability to evade Button.
The rest of us have taken the plunge. It was only a matter of time.
We all rub our eyes and go over to check out the action. We expect to
find Gary on his hands and knees, singing Button's army songs and retching
from the stench, like the rest of us, but they are nowhere near the
bathroom. Button is sitting on the couch, his fat fingers tapping his
knees, and Gary stands before him on the living room table, whacking
the eight ball against his bruising cranium. It makes an oddly beautiful
sound, like cracks of a bat, one right after the other.
"If he breaks it," says Button, "he gets out of Shitter Duty."
Gary tries again. And again. The sun rises over the hills.
"Gary?" says Mickey. "There are so many things wrong with you I don't
know where to start."
Then Gary says the craziest thing I've heard anyone say in a long time.
He says, "Then it's only the small matter of so many things."
I hope he breaks it. I really, really do.
and writes in Brooklyn, where she tries not to temp or accept wooden nickels.