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Manny the Cleaner, by Timothy Kaiser.

 

I'm Manny, a night cleanup man hired to collect and remove trash, food, and dirt from the floors of Gershon's Hi-Pointe Cinemaplex. This means that I don't go to work until everyone else – patrons and employees – are dreaming in their beds. I labor under bright halogens while the outside world rests under cover of darkness. My presence is felt during business hours, in the shine of the concession stand glass and in the slippery theater floor. My presence is felt, but I am not. If I've done my job, you don't even know I exist - honestly, how often have you visited a theater and wondered about the poor sap who cleans the floors?

Now, I've never actually met Gershon (or "The Big G," as our manager Jonathan calls him), but all the employees are scared shitless of him. The Hi-Pointe is his Kingdom, and within its walls his word is Supreme. And after the events of last night, I hope I never have to meet him.

I've seen my share of movies, so I know how stories are supposed to work. And to call me the "hero" would be ridiculous – typically, heroes strive against great adversity toward some hopelessly noble goal. To tell you the truth, all I really wanted to do last night was get through work so I could go home and rent a movie. If pressed, you could probably concoct some other, more abstract motivation, but you'd be stretching it.

Last night, like every Thursday, I parked my gray '88 Maxima in the vacant, unlit side lot, ambled through the black back door, bypassed the lobby and walked into the employee lounge.

I stepped inside the dimly illuminated lounge, pulled back a red plastic folding chair and sat down hard. David sat across the mock-pine table, sucking down a cigarette like he was chasing lightning. The packed salt-and-pepper ashtray told me that he had been there for hours. David sometimes slept in the empty theater when we previewed the next day's new releases. You know how certain people can't sleep without a nightlight while others need absolute darkness? Well, the warm glow of the screen was the only thing that pacified David - that and American Spirits.

Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation read the battered blue cola machine. I slipped two quarters inside, pounded the clammy metal with a balled fist, and took a long desperate gulp from the plastic bottle.

"Hey man, ready to do some cleaning?"

David grinned out of the free corner of his mouth, exhaling smoke while inhaling air, his mouth and nostrils in beautiful synchronicity. In the corner, a small square TV flickered, perched atop a dying microwave oven.

The program, some kind of rock 'n' roll game show, transfixed David. He pushed back a curly strand of rust-tinted hair from his eyes, his lanky body tilting forward as he listened:

"This country outfit, led by Foy Willing, took their name from a classic Western novel."

"The New Riders of the Purple Sage!" David spat out the answer with an almost vicious celerity. David doesn't speak often, but when he does the words come in quick, snarling bursts from the corner of his mouth. In this respect, he resembles a failed ventriloquist or a stroke victim. This peculiar speaking manner leads people to believe that he's a psychopath, which couldn't be further from the truth – David's always had his problems, but before last night I'd never once seen him become violent or even angry.

Since childhood, David had possessed a seemingly preternatural fascination with trivia, which was only surpassed by his knowledge in said field. In a way, he was born into it; he achieved minor celebrity in 1979 when his psychiatrist father locked the infant David in a black box, in which the only light shone from a television in the corner which played at all times. Imagine a mix between the Skinner box and that scene in A Clockwork Orange where they strap down Malcolm McDowell and force him to watch all that crazy shit. Only with Jeopardy! instead of the crazy shit. There's even a book on the whole ordeal you might recognize: Baby David: An Experiment in Media Indoctrination, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 29 consecutive weeks.

"Let's get to it," I said, flipping off the television with a quick cruel turn of the knob. "I wanna get this over with."

David lumbered to his feet and followed me out of the lounge into the main lobby. Christ, that lobby was an eyesore. Reeking of cheap canola oil and plastered in royal imitation velvet, it was smothering in its visceral assault. This was the science fiction twin of nature – towering mock-gold columns in place of trees, silent except for the singular hum of the cola dispenser, which sounded to David and me like the chirping- animal night music of a country pasture. I despised the lobby and all its flashy, false glory; but I knew that it was a part of me, and will probably be forever. It made me sick to be there, actually – the bright swirling colors and glossy print ads made me want to vomit, but yet, like a rubbernecker witnessing a car crash, I couldn't bear to look away.

Stepping behind the concession counter, I opened the popcorn machine and began shoveling the night's unsold morsels into a large white garbage sack, making certain to double-bag– if you don't double-bag, a large greasy stain appears on the floor when you set the sack down. I had learned this lesson the hard way. Still, I yearned to leave my stain, if for no other reason than to see if anyone would notice.

For over an hour David and I sweated and scrubbed at the concession stand, emptying the smoothie machine and refilling packets of cola syrup, stocking the candy bars and polishing the glass countertop to a mirror shine. Theaters make most of their money on concession proceeds, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. I mean, they charge seven dollars for a seat in one of eight theaters, each of which holds roughly two hundred people. But they still make more money selling a fifteen-cent bag of popcorn for $4.35 – quite a markup, especially for something that clogs your arteries with gooey fat. "Good ol' Gershon," I thought. "Robs you blind before he kills you."

When you're scrubbing, dusting, mopping, or sweeping, there's very little to occupy your mind. So you daydream. You dream about killing your boss. You dream about being the boss. Transfixed by repetitive motion and the robotic groove of labor, I imagined myself, freshly free from work, lounging at home in front of my television, Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law blaring, bag of frosted pretzels in-hand. This line of thought was dangerous – anticipation made the hours pass even more slowly. The trick was to lose hope completely, to settle into the regime of labor blindly and graciously, so that freedom, when it came, seemed not a right but a privilege.

But my mind kept on, and as I wiped the sticky pink sugar residue out of the brand new cotton candy machine memories flooded my mind - memories of my parents and the theater, memories of the orphanage in which I spent my formative years. I began to wonder how I went from a childhood of mad possibility to a life of laboring in the dark. That's the thing about childhood: all anyone can see is possibility.

I remember the day that I was orphaned. I was six, and my parents took me to see the Flash Gordon afternoon matinee. We went to the movies every Saturday afternoon. They sat me down in my seat with a cone of pink cotton candy. They knew it was my favorite. To be fair, they did sit through half of the film before walking out forever. They told me that they were going to buy popcorn, and that they'd be back shortly. I sat in the darkened theater for over eight hours as hordes of patrons exited and were replaced by new, indistinguishable swarms. No one noticed me until the end of the day, when a young employee found me huddled in my seat, nestled in my father's coat and shaking in sleep. The next day I arrived at the Blessed Cherub orphanage.

The kids at the orphanage used to call me "the robot." The nickname began as little more than gentle ribbing, which I didn't let bother me until I realized that they actually believed that I was, in fact, a machine. Often I felt their eyes upon me, and I knew that they were looking for a stray bolt or a loose wire – anything that would betray my carefully constructed cover. It grew into a kind of obsession for a pack of about five kids, and they began devising increasingly elaborate scenarios to expose me. Once a kid chased me around the neighborhood with a butcher knife; apparently he thought I would bleed motor oil.

I'm not sure where the whole "robot" thing came from. I guess my social skills weren't developed well – after mom and dad left, I preferred ransacking the shelves of the orphanage's library or watching TV game shows to playing "kick the can" or whatever young boys do. I developed an insatiable thirst for information, for facts. I became a sponge for it. During my formative years at Blessed Cherub, I absorbed every morsel of knowledge laid before me. By the end of the year I had already read Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan. Twice. My instructors at school separated me from my class at the age of ten and arranged for an independent study program so that my less resourceful peers wouldn't hinder my progress. But my interests steered more towards sitcoms than science. Entertainment! Tonight was my Holy Bible, Hollywood Squares my Hamlet. I'm still a sponge, though now I soak up shit as I once absorbed knowledge.

After buffing the lobby to an institutional clean, David and I moved on to the theaters themselves, sweeping the floors and removing the discarded sodas cups, popcorn buckets, and candy bars from the aisles. Essentially, our job was to erase all evidence of human presence in the theater. Human beings are helplessly messy creatures – sweating and stinking, they leave behind scents, traces of their filth. Like smoke from an extinguished candle, their scents linger in the air long after they've gone. That's the problem with people: they're hopelessly real. And when you sit down to watch a movie, you don't want that kind of reality. Sure, you want heart-wrenchingly moving human drama, but you don't want to see the piece of freshly chewed gum stuck to the seat in front of you. David swears he even found a used condom in the back row one time.

Of course, every so often people leave behind some nice things: cheap sunglasses, handkerchiefs, plastic toy Tonka trucks. Anything of possible value goes in the 'lost and found' box. And usually I'm more than happy to oblige – I mean, what would I want with a pair of ratty old sunglasses, anyway? But last night, while inspecting the aisles, my eyes fixed upon a brown leather car coat, beautifully stitched and expertly crafted. It must've been at least thirty years old, but it had chapped in all the right spots and somehow smelled like it had just come off the cow. This was the find of the year.

When I put it on, I felt just like Harrison Ford in Force 10 From Navarone. Silly, I know, but true nonetheless. I imagined myself a dashing World War II pilot with a terminal temper and a rapier wit, traipsing through the Italian countryside, leaving a string of broken bodies and broken hearts in my wake.

After my discovery, work didn't seem nearly as taxing; at least not for a while. I swept through it, cleaning butter grease, sticky soda spills, and even what looked like baby vomit without a hint of my usual indignation.

But this all ended soon enough.

"Holy shit, you found that in one of the seats?" David asked in astonishment.

"Yep," I replied in my most carefully calculated cool. "It's nice as hell. Seriously, you should smell this shit."

It smelled like my father's coat, I thought.

"Well can't I try it on?"

I knew that David would want to try on the coat. I should've hidden it in one of the break room lockers. David rummages through the "lost 'n' found" box every day before he clocks in, and takes distinct pride in his ability to discover lost aisle treasures. But this coat was mine, and I had every intention to keep it.

"Yeah, okay. You can try it on. Just be careful with it."

"Don't worry, don't worry. I won't hurt your precious coat." David struggled to fit his lanky left arm inside, and his bony shoulders poked out like anthills from underneath the cloth. He looked like a monkey in a tuxedo, or maybe Max Schreck as Nosferatu.

Take it off take it off take it off. Each second Dave wore the coat seared like a branding iron – what if he stretched it? What if he ripped it? What if he wouldn't let it go? Take it off take it off.

"Man, Manny, I mean, a pair of cheap sunglasses now and then is one thing, but this is a high quality garment you got here. Whoever it belongs to is gonna come looking for it."

When David realized what he had said, we stared at each other in confusion approaching shock. The coat belonged to a real live person. It was a scent, a trace of somewhere else, left behind. And unlike the mountains of garbage that we had cleaned that night, the coat had an owner who would be coming back to claim it.

David slipped the coat off his shoulders and held it in front of him. There was a name written in marker on the inside tag: "Drew Stinson, (999)-555-2314. 414 Clark Rd."

I grasped for the coat, wrapping my anxious fingers around the arm and tugging desperately. David held it firmly, refusing to let go.

"Give it back!" I cried pathetically.

David's face turned from exasperation to confused worry. "But Manny," he muttered, "I need this."

His grip loosened. Seizing my chance, I snatched the coat from David and pushed him away, knocking him backwards into a wall of poster advertisements, which tore and fell to the floor like paper kites in a storm.

Silence. I extended my hand to David and pulled him to his feet. He picked up the shredded poster and stared at it inquisitively.

"How in hell are we gonna explain this?" I asked rhetorically, sugaring my smoke-stained voice with all the levity I could muster. David continued to stare at the poster in his hands. David sauntered slowly to the Coming Attractions wall and with quick, concise ferocity tore another poster from the wall onto the floor. And then another. Madly and merrily he stormed through the lobby, shredding and ripping. I looked on in amazement.

"C'mon, Manny!" Dave beckoned. His glee, the pure liberation of his destruction was simultaneously terrifying and a pleasure to behold. I draped myself in the coat, hoping to once again feel the encompassing glow of fantasy. But it was no use. The wall of illusion was coming down brick by brick. We were real, and we were making sure that our presence would be felt even after the break of day. We were the workers, we were the cleansers, and we were the destructors all at once. We were the Plastic Pinocchio.

Cautiously reaching my hand towards the wall and gripping my fingers around the slick paper, I winced as I ripped the poster and sent it reeling to the floor. I felt the liberation of glossy cardstock under my brown worker boot. So I ripped another. And another. With each tear of my hand I felt myself becoming complete, like a velveteen rabbit finally springing to glorious life.

The contents of the large white sack of popcorn that I had so carefully bagged came spilling onto the floor like spores, and we began to tear down the purple velvet walls. Cash registers lay in pieces, shattered television monitors breathed broken glass everywhere. Kicking and shredding, clawing and scraping, we raged until the lobby looked like the employee lounge.

David left for a moment and returned carrying a large film canister. Terrified excitement overcame me, and I dashed the film against the ground repeatedly and mercilessly. The canister sounded three loud thuds as the film reels danced violently in the air around me.

David called from the entrance door: "Manny, c'mon! Let's go!" When I ran out the door I had no idea what David had just done. I also had no idea that canola oil was flammable. Driving away, we slowed to watch resplendent orange flames envelop Big G's Hi-Pointe Cineplex.

I didn't rent a movie last night. I didn't need to. I felt like I had been baptized into a world of inescapable reality and exhilarating uncertainty. If this were a movie, now is when the screen would fade to black. But this is real life, and neither David nor I know what will happen next. We're on the lam with $22 and no place to go, the lone suspects of a devastating act of arson. Our photos are probably posted all around town by now. People are going to be looking for us. Can you believe it? Looking for US.

I imagine they'll find us eventually, and I'll have to finally meet the Big G. But right now we're huddled into my gray '88 Maxima on our way to a new home somewhere on the road. We made one final stop before we left town. I like to think that when Drew Stinson of 414 Clark Road awoke this morning to find a welcome surprise under his doorstep, he wondered about the mysterious do-gooder who left it.

 


Timothy Kaiser is a 20-year-old English major at the University of Missouri. This is his first short story, the product of a Creative Writing course and cocoa-fueled late nights... You may contact him at timkaiser17@yahoo.com.

 



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