Fictionby Stoney Emshwiller
THAT STUFF UNDER THE BED had been growing since June. I think. Oh, I’d been planning on a thorough cleaning for months but I’d always put it off. Ever the procrastinator, me.
It was a free Saturday, and I'd run out of excuses. I suited up in my dirty jeans, the ripped Annie t-shirt I never wore, and old tennis shoes. First on the agenda was under the bed, but I did the sink instead. The sink was a mess. I had to pull out a lot of dishes just to find the faucet. I'd already opened all the windows so the smell wasn't too bad, and under the TV I’d found Abbey Road and put it on so I could sing along while I cleansed. How I ever amassed so many dishes I’ll never know. I suppose instead of washing them I'd just gone out and bought new ones — I don’t remember. But it wasn’t an easy job. There was mold and lots of smelly, lumpy things. I couldn’t get the white specks out of the bottom of the pots and pans, so I gave up trying. "Strep-spots," I called them, and left it at that.
When all the dishes were done and put away (four playing of Abbey Road later), I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
"This should be done more often," I thought.
I rewarded myself with a cigarette and cleared a space to sit down for a moment. Next in line should really be under the bed, but I thought — maybe not right off. I dropped the butt into a Coke can and it made a little “sitzz” sound when it hit liquid and went out.
I started some general straightening up: dirty clothes in one pile, papers and magazines in another, garbage and old food in another, and one miscellaneous pile for whatever was left. I wanted to clean out the cat litter box next but I couldn’t find it. Anyway, I think the cat died — I can’t remember for sure.
I found more dishes (a fork here, a glass there), and, surprising even myself, stopped to clean them, too — no more, Mr. Procrastination. I ran into things I didn't even know I had. I ran into things I didn't even know anybody had.
The clothes fit into two large plastic bags and the garbage, papers, and magazines I squeezed into three others. I brought the garbage down to the street and put the clothes bags in the closet. The miscellaneous pile I sorted in drawers and onto shelves. Things were shaping up. Looking very well actually. Under the bed was still left to do, but I thought I’d try vacuuming first. It'd been a long, long time since I vacuumed. I set up the Hoover and turned off the stereo. Too hard to hear music over the vacuum. The noises clash.
I started near the couch and watched with great satisfaction as little things disappeared into the machine. Ashes, dust, hair, popcorn pieces, crumbs, scraps of paper, little metal things — all vanished into the nozzle, leaving smooth carpet underneath. The carpet was stained with god-knows-what-all, but at least it was getting clean now. Occasionally, the vacuum cleaner tube would clink and rattle when it sucked in some unseen metal thing, or scream violently if it grabbed something too big, but I managed to complete the whole place. Except under the bed.
By now it was evening and my stomach wanted something. I didn't want to dirty any new dishes right off, so I decided on a corner coffee shop. Finishing up and cleaning under the bed would come after dinner. I was doing handsomely and food was well deserved.
Over my hamburger, it dawned on me that I might have mistakenly put my clothes bags on the street and the bags full of garbage in the closet. This would be easy to remedy, though. Garbage pick-up wasn't til Tuesday.
The hamburger tasted funny, so I ate it real fast and quickly paid for it and for some other things I'm not sure I ordered.
It was already dark when I returned to my apartment. I had to turn on all the lights, but it was worth it. My place hadn't looked better in years. I took a damp cloth and ran it over the TV, the stereo, and most of the shelves. Everything started looking shiny and bright. The cloth was totally black when I'd finished, but perhaps it had been black when I'd started — I don’t remember. I wiped down the table with a sponge and used the same sponge on the bathroom mirror. This way my reflection came in much stronger. I made the top of the bed with different sheets and tucked them carefully in around the corners.
The place was just beautiful. Like a whole new home for me. Only thing left was under the bed.
I took a break and had a cigarette on the couch. I got a can of Coke from the fridge. I surveyed my handiwork. Yes, the place was beautiful. Been years since it had been that clean. Years.
I could see the bed from the couch and the movement underneath. Not too much movement, actually. Usually, I didn't have a view because my sheets would hang down and there'd be garbage and stuff in the way, but now I could see clear-through to under the bed.
Was that Kitty moving under there? Gently rolling from side to side? But, no, I think the cat may have died, long ago. And anyway she’d have had to grow to ten times her size to look like that. Although Kitty was always a large cat, if I remember correctly. But that didn't look at all like a cat from where I was. Of course it was hard to tell because I hadn't cleaned under there, so it was probably still very dirty. And the lights didn't quite reach around to under the bed. It was really just a lot of shadows. If you squinted and tilted your head it looked like a child's face smiling — just the way rumpled clothes can look like faces when you have an imagination. And if you squinted a little further and made the eyebrows into paws and the mouth a belly, it looked like a pregnant dog or pig on its back breathing real deep and slow.
I let my cigarette go "sitzz" in the can and heard something like a “sitzz” in return from elsewhere in the room, as I got up to get another garbage bag. One more clean-up job, and I'd be done for the day. Under the bed was all that was left. And what a productive day it would be at that. Quite a productive Saturday after all.
I put another record on (Abbey Road by the Beatles) and set to work. First I'd need a flashlight. I looked into the closet. Instead of a flashlight I found two huge plastic bags. Inside them there was nothing but garbage. And behind them more bags with more garbage. The closet was bigger than I remembered it. There must've been ten or fifteen bags full of garbage in there. This was a real disgrace. I don't remember what possessed me to keep all that garbage. I must've had a reason, but I'd totally forgotten it. I closed the closet door. Garbage pick-up wasn't til Friday so there was nothing to be done before then.
By now it was past bedtime, and the lights would be dimming soon. I put an empty plastic bag I'd somehow left on the bed back in the kitchen and got undressed. I left my clothes all over the floor, but I promised myself to pick them up the next day. I'd done a good day’s work and deserved my rest.
I climbed into bed just as the lights went out. I must've kicked the covers off when I got in, because I had to reach to the floor to get to them. I pulled the sheet up over me. It felt warm and fleshy, like a great bat's wing. Smooth and soft with hardly any bones. I covered myself completely and curled up into a comfortable position. I'll have to clean this place more often, I vowed silently as the sheet shifted over my head. I relaxed and drifted off to sleep to the sound of lit cigarettes hitting the liquid at the bottom of a can.