Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Good Clean, A Harsh Clean: Part III

Malcolm Greenstone was dead. I knew that because no one could live through what I'd done to him.

"I can't do booze," the old man said. "I spent twenty years pickled in the stuff but my stomach just can't take it anymore." The more I looked at him the more I saw Malcolm. The chin. The nose. The way they'd looked before I got to them. "I'm switching to beer, you want the rest of this?"

"You've given me enough."

"Don't go pussy on me, just take the damn drink. If it's not you it's the sink, and I think just enough of you to give you first shot." I pulled the glass over and my hand came close to his, nearly touching it. His hands were impossibly dry. Malcolm's were not. He called for a beer while I worked with what I had. "What line of work are you in then?" He was playing with the veins in his hands, pushing them around under the surface.

"I'm between jobs at the moment."

"Of course. Only two men drink that way- the heartbroken and the unemployed."

The bartender brought a beer; shitty, domestic stuff you could see right through. He said, "Women are like jobs and jobs are like women. What do they call that? Interchangeable? You put on your best suit at the start but by the end you can't be bothered."

The old man took the beer. "A big guy like you could find a new one in no time."

"Which are we talking about," the bartender asked.

I said, "You're not making this easier."

"Don't imagine I could." The bartender finished wiping the bottles off and moved to the wood, taking a thin layer of greasy dust up with his damp rag. Then he took out a spray can of lemon cleaner from under the counter and set to filling the air with a choking citrus as fake and constant as the people you find on boardwalks.

"What's that gonna do," the old man asked. "Nothing but a squirt of piss. This place is filthy. It needs a good clean, a harsh clean, with real chemicals like, like..."

"Bleach," I said.

"Did you know that shit kills HIV? Doctors are out of their minds looking for a cure and it's right under their noses. 'Course you can't go injecting people with bleach, but I'm sure they can figure something out, you know they can, just have to be willing to break some eggs."

I pictured Malcolm's white basin sink and a spiral of pink swirling around and around and down the drain, and in my hand the jug I'd brought from the car, spreading it around, covering my hands when the sink was done.

"Listen, the bartender said, "shut up. Neither of you knows a thing about running a business. You think customers will stick around if the place reeks of noxious fumes?"

"What the...noxious fumes?"

"Yeah. Noxious fumes."

"You really think that's a problem? Look around, you have no customers!" The old man turned. "You wouldn't mind the smell, right?" I shook my head. "See? If you're gonna clean a place at least do it right. It's called being thorough, and people appreciate it."

I stood and walked along the bar, past the stools and to the door with a sign that read 'men', not that there was a second one for women. When I reached for the handle I missed, reaimed and found it, and I wondered if it was the gin screwing me up or everything else. Then I went in.

The bathroom was small, dim, a toilet and a sink and a fluorescent strip in the ceiling with one tube working, the other a faint, purple pulse with a voice like cicadas. As I pissed I could still hear the old man talking out there, arguing, giving his opinion. He never stopped. He had a gift for words which he'd passed down to his grandson, though it hadn't worked out as well for him. Words get people into trouble. Especially ones that rhyme. I tried not to think about it, then I flushed. When I came back the old man had the bar phone to his ear, the cord stretched across the bartender's workspace and over the counter. He seemed annoyed.

"He's not answering," he said, handing it back. "How the hell am I supposed to get home?"

The bartender hung up with his finger and waited for a dial tone. "I'll call you a taxi."

"Are you crazy? I can't afford that!"

"You're drunk, even if you had a car you couldn't drive it. Hell, I'll pay for it if it gets you out of my sight."

I sat again, noticing my drink was gone. I realized it looked done but the ice holds onto some. "Problem," I asked and he sunk down.

"No, no. He lives a few blocks away, I'll walk, see what's going on. He falls asleep in front of the TV sometimes. Lazy idiot."

The bartender said, "It's none of my business but you probably shouldn't be walking that far at your age."

I threw some bills on the counter. "Don't worry. I'll take him."

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