With Care Cleaning Service
By Alison Cerri
On Tuesday morning, exactly one year after Marco started turning a profit with his cleaning service, he got a call for his biggest job yet. His client couldn’t give him many—or really any—details up front about the cause of the job, but Marco at least knew he was dealing with blood. He plugged in directions from his home in San Diego to the prison as the warden explained the process of getting into the facility. The machine told him it was two and a half hours away, the half because of the city’s rush-hour traffic. It wouldn’t be fun, of course, but he’d driven greater distances for his job before. That was all part of his attraction. Not many others were in this specific business; none were local.
Marco told the warden he’d be there at quarter to twelve or earlier. The warden thanked him and the phone beeped.
It was more likely he’d get there at quarter to twelve. It was just about nine and Marco still had his pajamas on. He wasn’t going to waste any more time on his breakfast, though: he hated soggy cereal, and that’s just what his Honey Nut Cheerios had become during the call. Marco closed his laptop. He hummed along with the radio to an oldie-but-goodie with a name that eluded him while he took the bowl up to the kitchen sink. The light brown mush piled to the right of the drain as he dumped the bowl’s contents, then circled and swirled away with the current of water from the faucet. Marco then dabbed some dish soap onto his blue sponge and made quick work of the bowl and spoon. He didn’t own a dishwasher—he didn’t need one.
Marco stripped himself of his pajamas—a white t-shirt and blue-and-white striped boxers—and tossed them into the laundry basket in the back of his closet. It had been a while since he’d washed them; it had been a while since he’d done laundry in general. Work was getting busy. Busy enough that some days, he worried he’d have to start turning down jobs. Too much terrible shit happens every day, and someone needs to clean that shit up. But that someone also has to eat, and sleep, and do laundry from time to time like other thirty-one-year-olds. Marco shook his head and put on a fresh pair of boxers, a pair of straight-legged jeans, ankle socks, and his work shirt. He’d designed it himself, then had someone make eight red shirts with the white-lettered phrase centered down his back, his cell phone number following underneath “With Care Cleaning Service.” Before, it had just been three red t-shirts that had to be washed every four days. Now he could get at least a week out of his shirts. This one was his second-to-last shirt, so laundry day would either be that night or the next morning.
Most of his supplies were in his flame red 2008 Dodge Dakota Bighorn, but he figured he’d need some extra cleaning fluids and such, just in case. It never hurt to have backup stock. He struggled with the information the warden gave and withheld; Marco couldn’t decipher whether the lack of detail meant he was trying to be delicate about the source of the job, or if the job itself was really big. It was likely both. Or maybe he didn’t want to spend his time as the warden calling in a cleaning service. Marco decided, in the end, it didn’t matter—he’d been recommended by someone, and now he was entering an establishment, not just homes or bodegas. Major stuff.
He stepped outside into the full May sun and locked the door to his condo behind him. After he placed some extra fluid, powder, and rags in the bed—sometimes he regretted not getting a typical cleaning van, but then reminded himself those vans look like they belong to pervs, no matter how ad-ridden they are—he hopped up into the front seat. Marco reached under the passenger seat for the Tupperware containing his grinder, bowl, papers, and baggie of remaining Gs. Those prison TV shows, he knew, were fiction, but they had to get their inspiration from some facts. He ground up a nug and sprinkled it into a paper he rolled into a joint, no filter. Something for the ride home.
When Marco was too young for actual school, and preschool filled up too few hours in the week—and a little later, early in elementary school when he had days off—his mother would take him on afternoon jobs. She worked for a cleaning service with three other ladies. They would stuff into one of the tía’s minivans and drive out to the nicer parts of Los Angeles. The women weren’t really his “tías,” or his aunts; they insisted he call them that. They called the city LosAn-heles, his tías-but-not-really. His mother would call it that, too, but only when she was with them. When she was with Marco, or anyone else, she fought through her accent.
They would go to the nice homes of the city and clean them. Never the homes of any celebrities, but that didn’t matter much to Marco at his age. These houses were still huge, much bigger than the apartment he and his mother and his aunt (yes, his real aunt) Selena lived in. His mother would tug him along from room to room as she dusted up rich people particles and vacuumed up their crumbs. He saw things he’d never even imagined: big white Apple computers, slick black Microsoft computers, Talkboys, Super Nintendos, cell phones. When his mother went into the children’s rooms, she’d let him play with toys left on the floor as she cleaned their bathrooms. Legos, Barbies, whatever. They only had so much back at the apartment, so he was welcome to anything left out in the open. Then he’d sit in the doorway and watch his mother put everything back where it belonged, then turned on the vacuum and wiped every mark of her son having been in the room clean.
Marco only heard his mother speak Spanish during her cleaning work, and when they’d go to what she called the mercado, panadería and carcinería. Never with his father when she had to pass him off every now and then. Marco’s father’s Spanish did not mesh well with his mother’s. His father had tried to explain it over lunch at a taquería when he was thirteen, during one of the last times he saw his father. Marco’s father spoke Castellano, pure Spanish with vosotrosand such, that his family took with them to America during the Guerra Civil. His mother’s was bastardized español, weón, his father added, evolved from white colonizing ancestors, creoles, mestizos, mulattoes, and slaves in her home of Santiago, Chile. Marco had no idea his father had this kind of knowledge of Latin American history, but his father was always surprising. Especially when he announced he was moving up to Seattle with a woman he’d met online.
Sometimes, when Marco went with his mother on her cleaning jobs, the tías-but-not-really would speak to him in Spanish. The only word he’d ever recognize was his own name, though that too was masked by a rolled r. When he’d stare at them and wait for words to which he could more sufficiently respond, they’d click their tongues at one another and call over to his mother: oye, Estela, Spanish Spanish Spanish. His mother would rapid-fire Spanish back at them and grab Marco’s hand. Unless she was already holding it; in that case, she would grip his little hand tighter. Just that much tighter, to hold onto his little palm and her pride.
State Route 8 was one long-ass road. Marco had been on it for over an hour, and its sandy, cracked asphalt did not relent. He had passed through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, then down through an Indian reservation. Now the GPS on his phone showed him he was in spitting distance of the border, not to scale in real life. His fingers tapped on the rim of the steering wheel along with the beat of the admittedly pretentious indie pop song that had popped up on his music streaming app.
Marco thought about the women his mother worked with when he was young, around twenty-five years ago. Their names failed to surface in the waves of his memory. Marco could not remember what happened to them, either. He knew his Aunt Selena had planned on using her new lawyer status to help them with their status in the country. Marco’s mother told him this when he was much, much older, after he gathered the courage to ask her a question that had been on his mind in high school. One that he wanted answered in his early college years: why did she work with those nasty cleaning ladies?
They weren’t nasty, his mother’s accented voice echo in his mind, they just didn’t understand some things. But they knew I was in a tight spot, and Selena knew they were in a tight spot too. In his mind’s eye his mother stood translucent on the hood of his car, spinning the gold band on her finger. It was a habit she adopted soon after she got remarried when Marco was eight.
Marco’s phone chimed. He pressed a button and asked his phone to read him the message. Luke C. said, are you around later tonight, his phone reported in a choppy Australian accent. Another chime: Luke C. said, I can make dinner, winking face emoji, chicken emoji.
Just before he was about to dictate a text back, Marco decided to go back to navigation and bump his music louder. Luke C. and whatever dinner he was going to make could wait. He had work to do.
Or, an abrasive but familiar thought suggested, he could ignore it and stop fucking around on hook-up apps, where his age was set to twenty-six, as though he could erase the years that had passed before he entered his first and last real relationship. Marco turned his attention back to his music and dull drive.
The muted-colored desert scenery threatened to swallow him whole on the open road. Marco’s mind wandered to his mother again. She was still up in LA. His stepfather, Joe, lived in a little ranch with her, along with a fluffy white little thing named Tallulah about twice the size of a New York City rat. The last time Marco had called his mother was two days before, Sunday. She’d answered after three rings; Marco had just stepped out of his condo for a quick walk a few blocks down to the supermarket.
The news for the week was that he’d finished paying off his student loans. She’d yelled her congratulations into the phone, nearly rupturing his ear drums. It took while, she said after he told her to lower her voice a bit, but you’re free, my smart scientist son. She continued to talk and talk, but became less coherent as she went on. Marco listened to her second language turn to marbles in her mouth and slur into a tongue he couldn’t understand. It sounded like some Spanish-English hybrid, though he wouldn’t really know either way. Mom, he’d said three times, trying to at least slow her down. When he said Estela, she stopped. Then asked him a question after a beat of silence. The rest of their conversation lasted a few minutes. He told her he had to go as he grabbed a basket at the front of the store, and that he loved her. She said she sent kisses and to call again soon. Marco bought a frozen Hawaiian pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food. The ice cream was an impulsive purchase, and he had to rush home before it all melted. It had been a long day cleaning up a bloody bathtub, and it had been a long time since Luke C. or any guy had hit him up.
Marco smirked. My smart scientist son. She didn’t know yet—he didn’t want to tell her until the business was in the green. Now that it was, he figured he’d tell her when he came up to visit for Thanksgiving. That two years ago he’d grown so bored of servicing a huge corporation in a lab, working on a variety of chemical products that go into toilet cleaning products, and decided to quit. That is, to start his own business cleaning up after the sorts of things people didn’t like to clean up after: horrible accidents, suicides and such.
He could tell her all kinds of jobs he’d had. All the bodily fluids he’d encountered in fabrics, furniture, cracks, and crevices. The homes he’d been in, from trailers to houses that could be in family sitcoms. He could mention the bodega he pulled an all-nighter for, or the rogue gas station down the street with a bathroom with a scent that threatened to kill him, too.
And maybe, just maybe, by Thanksgiving he’d have a guy that didn’t want to limit their relationship to text messages, either. But that didn’t seem likely. Dating was hard. Relationships in general. It was easier to allow people, and himself, room to float in and out of lives. Rather than decide to leave with nothing but memories that hurt, the way ice can freeze like fire on skin.
Anyway, Marco couldn’t figure out whether his business was his spouse or his child. There wasn’t much room for someone else. So far, he was pretty sure he was okay with that.
The idea for With Care Cleaning Service came to Marco when he was in the shower. He’d nicked himself, or more accurately, cut himself, in an area he only shaved when he knew he was getting laid—though not as bad as it could be. Blood streamed down his thigh. Marco first thought maybe he was having a similar experience to what people with vaginas must go through when they have periods, in constant, dull pain while red spilled constantly from their bodies. No, I’m probably glamorizing it a bit, he thought as he turned the faucet and stepped out of the shower. Blood dripped down his thigh and splattered on the bathmat and linoleum floor.
Marco thought back to an anatomy class he’d taken in college when checking out if the medical route was for him. There are many major arteries in the body; there are many ways to die. He thought about that freshman that had died by suicide his junior year of college, just before the end of the fall semester. Rumor had it that there was blood everywhere in the room. Marco tried to ignore the gossip. But it was so hard with everyone whispering, which piqued his curiosity. By the time everyone returned from winter break, however, it seemed the entire college had forgotten, save for some more on-campus counseling events—or better advertising for events they’d hosted all along.
The cut turned out to be half an inch long, though it seemed much longer and wider based on how much it bled. Between cursing himself out for being a dumbass and asking himself why the fuck he bothered with primping and pampering, he thought about the suicide. Not the kid, but how they cleaned up the scene. Who cleaned it up? The cleaning ladies that had to deal with shit (literally) every day? The campus police, or the police-police? Not likely. Not much investigation was needed. Marco’s thoughts flitted to what would happen if he himself died in his condo. No one would know for a while. He was self-employed, he rarely had people over, and he rarely talked to people outside of work. And if, say, he managed to impale himself with a chef’s knife while trying to cut one of the few fruits he enjoyed, a watermelon, he’d get blood all over the kitchen. The counter, the cabinets, the floor. Blood and iron mixed with sticky, sugary watermelon juice. Then there was that thing about people releasing their bowels just before they die.
So many messes. Marco couldn’t stand to think of them. He couldn’t stand messes. He lived in a frat house his sophomore year, which was wont to throw parties almost every weekend. Marco happily cleaned up after ragers every weekend. It got easier to figure out which products to use on different substances—mostly liquors—with his chemistry classes. Some of his brothers joked that he looked like a Mexican maid down on the floor, scrubbing with rubber gloves on. Don’t worry, we won’t ask for your papers, chicano, the small population of assholes he had to call his brothers would say. Or, why don’t you go out and mow the law for us, Marc-o? They called him Marco instead of Marc, the name he went by all four years at college.
Marco didn’t try to correct his brothers. Even the correction seemed wrong. Marco felt he was hardly anything. When people saw him, they saw a white man with deep brown wavy hair and brown eyes. That could belong to a number of races and ethnicities. When he was prompted on college and job applications if he was Hispanic/Latino, Marco often hesitated. His father was hardly in his life, and his mother—his mother was Chilean, but not him.
All Marco felt he had in common with his mother was his ability to clean and to do it really well. Not enough people know how. So there’d be no way they’d know how to clean up after a death, or a near-death, or something involving messes worse than dirt tracked into the foyer and dust mites in a house full of allergic kids.
He could make a lot of money and be (he hoped) much happier doing things other people did not want to do. Just as his mother had done.
When Marco arrived at the prison, he was struck by how large the entire facility was. He drove around its perimeter, often twisting his head to the right to peek at the facility’s many buildings until his phone told him he’d arrived at the visitors’ center. Marco found a spot in the parking lot in front of the white brick building that extended past the looming chain link fence separating criminals from upstanding citizens. The clock read half past eleven. Marco reached over to his glove compartment and opened it. He retrieved a protein bar from his stash. Residual from when it was hard to afford breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.
Unlike the time that dragged at home when he had the entire day entirely to himself, the fifteen minutes he took for lunch passed like a time-lapse. A bird landed on the car next to him. It squawked a few notes and flew away. The few clouds in the vast, matte sky above passed over the sun a few times. It was like the stage lights of his corner of the world were flicking on and off, signaling the end of intermission. The timer on Marco’s phone went off with a couple of minutes to spare before his promised arrival; after wiping his hands of protein bar crumbs and shutting off his phone, he opened his door and slid over to the back of his truck, where he retrieved his supply bag.
“They called you for a reason, didn’t they,” Marco reminded himself under his breath as he approached the building. “They called youbecause you’ll get the job done.”
Marco pushed in the door to the center. The room did not provide much space for reception. Two officers stood in the back of the room, posted between a man behind thick glass, his buzzed head bowed down to paperwork, or perhaps a cell phone. The officer on the left was a tall and thick woman with her brown hair gathered into a severe bun atop her head. The other officer was a man, short but also thick. There was a separate waiting area to his left, with a few empty folding chairs. Marco glanced at the two khaki-clad officers and decided to head to the chairs to catch his breath before having to deal with intimidating people.
“Mr. Pena?” The woman cut through the radio silence in the room. “You can come over here. We’ll take you back.” Her voice crunched off her tongue, like tires rolling over gravel. Marco gave no indication he understood her except to walk towards her. Once he was within a few feet of them, as if on cue, the other officer opened the door hiding behind the woman. She took the lead into a long corridor; Marco followed on her heels, and the stout man came in behind.
“All right, before you can get to work, we’ve got to do some procedural BS first,” the tall officer said as she gestured towards the next room. “Oh, forgot to mention, I’m Correctional Officer Swan, and I’ll mostly be taking care of this stuff. Officer Berryman will be supervising you during the job.”
“Supervising?” Marco asked before he could stop himself. He looked around the room, even smaller than the first. A folding table, like the one his friends found at a garage sale and used as a pong table at their apartment senior year, was pushed up against the wall opposite him with a bunch of equipment, including a desktop computer and a mess of cables on top. There were two folding chairs beside it. Next to that set-up was a tripod with a digital camera on top in front of a blank canvas.
“Well, not really,” Berryman said. Where Officer Swan was all muscle—and Marco thus thought of her as Officer Swan—Berryman was pudgy. Still not someone Marco would imagine messing with. “I’ll be making sure you have no distractions.”
Marco gave the officers his full name, spelled out, date of birth, and place of residence, also spelled out. He gave his business’s full name and its address, which was a separate PO box from his personal one. Marco handed over his driver’s license and his passport, which he’d been notified he could bring as another form of ID. Had Officer Swan decided to flip through his passport, she would not have found it very interesting.
“All right, now let’s get your picture done and badge all printed out,” she said after typing everything out. “Then you’ll be done with me, but Officer Berryman will further brief you on your job as he takes you back to the bathroom.”
The bathroom. Likely some sort of altercation. Or perhaps an accident. Probably the former, though Marco did not like to make assumptions. Anyway, either could happen anywhere in the prison.
Officer Swan set Marco in front of the canvas and centered him by waving with her hands. Then she held her palm to him. “All right, one, two,” she said, and then pressed the button. The camera flashed. Marco wondered if new prisoners got much more of a warning.
A machine on the table whirred for two minutes straight. The second it stopped, Officer Swan reached over and grabbed its freshly printed product. She stood up; Marco stepped over to her to receive a square sticker with his name and black-and-white face on it, along with a bunch of numbers and phrases that must’ve been the prison’s lingo for “not a convict, just a contracted janitor.” He peeled back the paper and stuck his face on his left pec. His shirt now read WITH C CLEANING SERVICE.
“Well, my job here is done,” Officer Swan said. “Time to watch ‘em eat lunch. See you later, Berryman.” She walked out the door, which slammed shut behind her. Marco flinched.
“You good, man?” Berryman asked. He smiled at Marco. His teeth glittered with adult braces.
“Yeah, yeah,” Marco replied. He was.
“All right. Before we can get back there, I’ve just gotta take a peep at your bag o’ tricks there, and then a quick cavity check. Not that I think you’re carrying anything,” Berryman laughed.
‘Cause I’m white, right, Marco thought. It came the way pain follows a sucker punch to the gut. He watched Berryman crouch down and search through his canvas bag with his cleaning supplies.
Both the officer’s knees cracked as he stood up. “Quick pat-down first, just gotta grab the gloves.” Berryman crossed the room and reached behind the printer. He came back with two blue gloves. “If you could put your arms up, Mr. Pena.”
Berryman went for the thorough pat-down. It took Marco back to his first experience with a man. Together in his apartment, his senior year of college, on the mattress that lay on the floor of his bedroom. Marco had let the man explore him everywhere. As the plastic gloves finished up around his calves, Marco fought the urge to shake his head like a Magic 8 ball, as though to reset his thoughts.
“All right, now, if you could open your mouth.” The officer took a flashlight from his belt and clicked it on. Berryman took a look. He was not unlike a doctor, albeit with a khaki uniform on and without the credentials.
“Fun part now, if you could drop your pants and pop a little squat for me.” Marco let out a breath. Not because of the instruction; he was irritated with the phrasing of the instructions. If you could. Of course I could, he thought, I have to, don’t I? He thought of his stepsister, Maggie, who’d just graduated with a degree in linguistics. She’d probably take interest in Berryman and his word choice. Not as fascinating as her stepmother, of course, who was a fine specimen with an accented English Maggie could listen to all day.
“Cough,” Berryman said, as if reading Marco’s mind. Marco coughed.
“Passed with flying colors.” Marco brought his jeans back up to their rightful place on his hips. “Let’s head back.”
Marco discovered, following the conception of his business, he was not good at coming up with names. After coming up with the idea for his business, he devoted almost all his free time to figuring it out. He did the easy things first: listing off the best chemicals and products he’d need for his trade. Marco knew he’d need to sell off his Camry for a bigger car. Then he crunched numbers to come up with a reasonable rate, how long it might take him to turn a profit, and so on. He researched all sorts of deaths and domestic accidents in his area, extending radii of his search circle all the way out to Arizona. There was plenty of business for Marco to clean up.
His next issue, then, was marketing. Marco knew little to nothing about that. Death is a sensitive business for some. Marco could understand that, to some extent. Death was also a fact of life. Like wrinkles. And racists. But Marco couldn’t just say that to clients. His clients would be in a delicate state, in need of delicate words. That would be the key in getting clients who would pay him and spread the word: knowing exactly what to say, and how to say it. He’d rather stay quiet and get the job done—hell, another selling point: do a deep cleaning of the whole room, even throw in the whole house at a discounted rate.
The key came to him at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. The TV was on, playing some trash show he was half-interested in. The other half of his shallow interest was in his phone. Marco flicked his thumb through his social media feed. People from years ago getting engaged, getting married, getting doctorates, having kids, hitting all kinds of wonderful milestones. Good for them. He wondered, as he often did around the early stages of making his business happen, how he would confront and comfort these people if they needed his service. Marco tried to imagine himself as the nurturing type, offering condolences and his ear and his body for comfort. He could not. He looked up to the TV. One of the men on the show, about a pawn shop out somewhere in the Midwest or southeast or big ol’ Texas, was helping an elderly woman with a gun she wanted to pawn. He drawled on about what he expected the gun’s history to be, and asked her to wait just a moment please as he phoned an expert pal. Hey, Darrel, I’ve got a gun here you may well want to take a look at, the pawn man said.
Marco tried out his southern accent. “Hey, Darrel, I’ve got a gun here you may well want to take a look at.” He remembered hearing somewhere that people tend to trust those with a Southern accent more so than any other—of American accents, at least. He wasn’t sure what his stepsister would say about this. But it seemed about right. Southern comfort seemed to be married to the drawl.
From that day forward, Marco practiced his accent in the morning before work and the second he got home, speaking to his food, the television, and the mirror. Once he felt comfortable enough—two weeks after constantly talking to himself when he was alone—he tried it at stores. Once he tried it at a bar and managed to get a guy’s number. Marco ended up ghosting him.
Marco slipped up on the phone with his mother one time. She asked why his voice sounded funny. Marco played it off as the connection being weird. He ended the call ten minutes later with a strange sense of loss slithering in his chest, as though he’d finally had to retire a favorite pair of jeans. What if his mother had tried to change her accent? Trained day and night like he did, tried to learn more English. She was white; she could pass. His father had dipped his toes in the stand-up scene for years—he could’ve taught her. Not that Marco really wished his parents would get back together. It was simply a missed opportunity. Aunt Selena could teach her, too—her English was perfect. She was eight when they’d left Chile, seven years younger than Marco’s mother, and spending the rest of her formative years in near-total immersion had wiped her home from her tongue. But Aunt Selena was busy busy busy with work, and soon found her own place with a fellow lawyer in the city of LA. around the same time Marco and his mother moved out to the suburbs with Joe, who had a head full of gray hair, marking one of the many differences between him and his new wife.
Marco’s mother was technically more American than anyone in her family. She had gotten her citizenship sooner than her three siblings, when she became pregnant with Marco. But when Marco asked her these questions about her identity, mostly for elementary and middle school projects, she said the soil she’d grown in was thousands of miles south in her home country, but after she was uprooted and planted here, that didn’t change the tree she was. As he got older and had to learn a language in school, Marco asked his mother why she never taught him her native language. And why, for that matter, he didn’t know much about her culture except for some food (his mother, Selena lamented to Marco often, was not the cook their mother had been). I can’t switch between the two languages so easy, her excuse had been for the first question. I didn’t want the burden of an accent or two languages splitting your mind. I wanted you to be an American. Nothing less, but hopefully, something more.
Those answers did not satisfy Marco then, nor as an adult. He ended up taking French in high school, and figured he would ask his mother again when he was an adult and she was older and reflecting on the things she got right and wrong in her life. Marco had yet to do so fifteen years later.
By the time he’d finished designing a website and advertisements, Marco deemed himself bilingual in his faux accent. His bank account was comfortable, and could be even without revenue from the business, due to his side hustle of selling pictures of his feet online. All he had left was to get rid of the placeholder [NAME HERE] in all of his ads and mock-ups and such. He thought back to his days with his mother and tías-but-not-really, who held his hands and told him to be careful as they walked up the stairs together to houses they did not dream of for themselves, but for their children. Cuidado, the other women would say. Careful, his mother would translate, and squeeze his hand twice, like a heartbeat.
He typed “With Care Cleaning Service” into the title for his website. It looked right. It seemed right.
Two days later, Marco handed in his notice at work.
Berryman led Marco through the door and into the dull, white-bricked hallways of the prison. They did not encounter anyone through the maze to the bathroom.
“Everyone’s at lunch, or taking in sunshine,” Berryman said as they passed steel doors on their left and right. “But they’ll come back while you’re working.”
“I guess I’ll tell you now what you’re up against, then,” Berryman continued. Marco rolled his eyes. “One of the newer boys got shivved here early this morning. We still don’t know all the details—though even if we did, they wouldn’t matter much to you, would they? Are you following that ‘true-crime’”—Berryman inserted air quotes here—“fad?”
“No,” Marco answered. Sure, he’d watched crime shows on occasion before. Now, he didn’t have to listen to the podcasts or watch the documentary shows about murders and such. Marco lived in crime and sins’ aftermath an average of four and a half times a week—he could spend a whole afternoon in a bedroom where someone puked up pills all over the place and not be fazed. His first boyfriend had suffered nightmares of a robot apocalypse after they’d binged Black Mirror together in Marco’s apartment one Saturday, late in their relationship. Diego complained afterwards about being twenty-six years old and having the imagination of a six-year-old. Marco had reminded him that they’d spent hours together in bed with their eyes glued to the screen. Too much is no good, he’d said, reminding himself of his mother.
“Well, you’ve probably seen a lot of awful shit, anyway.” Berryman’s voice cut into Marco’s past. Marco’s memories of fourteen months of intimacy and possibilities took longer than usual to slink back into the depths of his brain where he avoided fishing. “I’ve seen some shit too, of course. Dudes getting choked out, beaten to a pulp. Can’t fuck with me, though. I’ve gotta stop those kinds of things. I guess it’s sorta the same for you.”
“I reckon so,” Marco said in his second language. The hallway seemed awfully long. Marco wished he’d brought his water bottle, which was warming up in his truck’s cup holder.
“Couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different, though,” Berryman continued. Marco realized it was likely the man never got to talk to a “contemporary,” a white (passing) man that wasn’t in the prison system. Marco never had to talk much during his jobs, just say some nice things and get to work. He liked that.
“Here we are,” Berryman said. He directed Marco to an opening on the right. The short, narrow hallway lit up as Marco and the officer walked through, then approached openings to the right and left of the hall’s end, each marked with beige tiled floor. One did not have to be a master sleuth to figure out where the stabbing had happened: there was a rusted handprint on the floor to the left. It was perfect, like a careful child’s art project. Marco stepped towards the print and waved his arm in the doorway to activate the motion center. The light ticked on; the evidence of the early-morning scene was splayed before him.
“Sure is a ton o’ blood,” Berryman commented. He left no time for Marco to think about the red, paint-like substance that streaked the floor from the last shower stall—about seven uncovered stalls down—to the handprint. It congealed in the middle of the room, caked on top of a drain. All rivers lead to the sea, Marco thought. “The bastard’s in the hospital now. Don’t know much about it, though, since it didn’t happen during my shift. Just missed it.” Berryman’s voice fell, like a high school boy who’d missed a fight between sixth and seventh period.
Marco swept the room with his gaze again. The job wouldn’t be that bad—the circumstances were, of course, but the cleanup was okay. Blood on tiled floor and shower curtains—easy enough. The red finger paint on the walls would prove a trickier fix. As per his business model, however, Marco had guaranteed service beyond removing blood. All the showers had to be bleached and scrubbed and cleaned as to make up for years of subpar cleaning jobs too few and far in between.
“How long do you think it’s going to take you, chief?” Berryman asked just as Marco was calculating his approximate wages for the amount of work in front of him.
“Let’s say three hours,” Marco said carefully. He suspected the blood would take him under an hour. The rest would take longer. Likely not two hours, but he wanted to show his diligence. “So you should probably let your boss and coworkers know this shower is going to be out of commission for about that time.”
Berryman plucked his walkie talkie from his belt and held it to his mouth. Marco crouched down and began sorting through his bag. All the liquids and powders he needed were there, along with sponges and wipes and scrubbers. The prison had provided him with a mop, which had been left in the corner of the room, away from the mess.
Five minutes passed in silence between the men. Marco focused on the task at hand: the plastic handle in his grip, liquid sloshing at his feet as he wiped the blood to the drain. He suspected that Berryman was watching him. The man didn’t seem to do well with quiet. As Marco made his way across the room, Berryman’s voice crescendoed. Clearing his throat as if to announce something, sniffling, cracking his knuckles. Marco’s mother tsked quietly at the officer in his head. She too valued quiet. She taught him—perhaps too well—the importance of stopping and listening deep inside. To slow the patter of his heart and listen to it drum on, to feel the thoughts in his head rather than listen to them. Thinking of his mother in this moment, his heart hollowed out and squeezed.
“The kid didn’t deserve it,” Berryman finally said. Marco flinched. The silence was over—though that was probably for the best. Marco walked—the blood on the floor was gone—to his bag for a scrubber. “At least I don’t think he did. He’s a young one, early twenties, and he just got in here. I don’t know, maybe three weeks ago. Anyway. The guys who did it had their reasons, I guess. I’ll find out soon enough. No offense, but I won’t find out until I get back with the others. But I know they’re leaving here for sure.”
Berryman went on giving background about all the people involved, probably giving more information than he should have about a case others were still investigating. Marco scrubbed hard at the wall; the blood chipped away and sprinkled onto the floor. He kept expecting a group of inmates to show up and heckle him. For something to happen, aside from Berryman droning on and on. But—excepting Berryman’s incessant chatter—the cleanup was quite ordinary.
His jobs were almost always uneventful. Someone with red-rimmed eyes with dark circles stamped underneath would welcome him in. Then, they would either show him where it happened, or send him off with directions through their home. Marco would do his work, calculate how much he was owed, and find whoever received him in the house or building to collect his pay, or leave them with his calculation, contact information, and a week to pay him.
When Marco closed his eyes while cleaning out the fourth shower stall, he imagined himself at home, scrubbing out his own shower. He could take himself back four and a half years ago, having his last fight with Diego. He’d been in the shower. Diego in the doorway. You make it so fucking hard to love you, Diego had said. Marco hadn’t said anything back.
Or Marco could imagine himself at fourteen in Joe’s house—which was theirhouse, Joe insisted after he and his mother moved in—sitting on the shower floor with the water running, mingling with the tears that wouldn’t stop. The tears that came from nowhere, because sometimes he felt like there was nothing inside of him. He couldn’t figure out why. He still couldn’t.
Marco opened his eyes. The shower stall was smaller than it had been when he first entered it. The fumes from his products, he assumed, were getting to him.
“…and my sister’s ex-husband, well, he’s a real nutcase,” Berryman’s voice found its way back into Marco’s attention. “Thank God she dropped him. Don’t care much for her new guy, though.”
Marco emerged from the stall. “Do you mind if I take a sec for a breather, Officer?”
“Oh, not at all, not at all,” Berryman said. “You’re making real headway, aren’t you? All the blood’s gone, looks like, and it’s been not quite an hour.”
Marco joined Berryman in the hallway. He stared out into the room he hadn’t finished yet. Marco never took breaks on the job: he liked to get it all done in one go. This time, he needed a second to clear his mind. No biggie, just two, three minutes, tops. Then back to work.
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you, chief,” Berryman jabbed a stubby finger into Marco’s tricep. “How often do you think about your job? Like, really think about how you get business?”
“How do you mean?” Marco pushed his accent. He was probably going to ask the question Marco had long anticipated—do you think about death, dying et cetera.
“Like with this situation here. These two guys tried to kill another guy. I mean, all the guys in this place did something shitty, but…I don’t know about you, but standing here, watching you kind of erase a work of evil is weird. I’m just trying to put on your shoes for a moment.”
“Huh.” Marco leaned his back into the wall. Kind of the question he expected, but not quite.
He looked back into the room. His mother never took breaks during jobs. She just did her work—as a housemaid, and as a mother. She listened to him sing the Itsy-Bitsy Spider and others while she scrubbed toilets. She kissed his palms after he fell over on the pavement, walking back from a house. Marco could not recall ever hearing her complain. Perhaps she did, in Spanish. Marco wouldn’t know. But her employers were people she had nothing to do with, except providing a service in exchange for cash.
“Well, I’ll be frank with you, Officer,” Marco began. He was trying to be frank, truly, in his pawned accent. “It’s just cleaning up someone’s mess. That’s all.” He paused for a moment. Then, before Berryman could interrupt: “Now, I think it’s time for me to get back to work.”
Marco stepped back towards the prison showers and reached into his bag for his breathing mask. He snapped it around his mouth. Marco took a hollow breath.
Back to work.
Alison Cerri has been published in RiverCraft two times before with stories about Argentinian immigrants. She enjoys playing rugby and listening to This American Life in her spare time.