You are running late and still not ready when the doorbell rings. Detritus has accumulated in all corners of the bedroom and must be cleared before the furniture can be moved. Here is a stack of medical journals you will never read. There is a pile of clothing that no longer fits but one day might. The surface of the desk is covered with junk mail and school projects. A clay figurine resembling a dried turd has a child’s name scratched into the bottom. How can you possibly throw that out? Every item presents a quandary. To the trash or to the cabinet? At the last minute you grab paper grocery bags and start dumping everything into them. Perhaps Richard will mistake them for trash and haul them out. It will not be your fault.
At the same time you are washing clothes, returning phone calls from patients, and trying to wake Ellie, who, at 14, can sleep an entire day away. The office has paged twice in the last hour. Mr. P. is out of pain medications. Will you fill them? Mrs. R. says you were going to order a CT scan but she hasn’t heard anything. You already resent that Richard has gone out, relegating you to drudgery on a rare and precious day away from the office.
“I’ll let you ladies have the day to yourselves,” he said, and you thought you might spend some time with Ellie, perhaps on a trip to the zoo or a shopping expedition. She shrugged when you made these suggestions and then Richard remembered he had booked the carpet cleaner.
When you open the front door, you are alarmed at his appearance. Instead of a uniformed professional in a lettered jump suit you find a disheveled and tired looking man with no identification.
“I’m here for the carpets, ma’m,” he says, in a tone that indicates he is accustomed to scrutiny. You peer around him and see a grimy off-white van with once hopeful lettering, Bob’s Professional Carpet Cleaning, now barely visible on its side. Already sweating, although the heat is milder than it has been for weeks, Bob begins dragging in frayed hoses and vacuum machines from the van. You lead him to the back through the family room into the bedroom and see that Ellie has finally appeared and dragged the easy chair up to the computer screen. She is sprawled languidly, intent on an anime movie. As you glance back, you see him staring at her. Her shorts are too short and her T-shirt climbs up her pale abdomen. With rumpled hair and yesterday’s makeup now the faintest smudge under her eyes, she is totally unconcerned with her appearance, a teenage goddess at the peak of summer indolence. She gives him the briefest glance as he goes by, a look you recognize that says why are such unattractive people permitted to exist? Bob is tall and bony and probably still in his forties but looks ancient with his thinning blond hair and tobacco stained teeth. His skin is pasty and damp. A T-shirt of the same beige color sticks to his back.
In the bedroom, you inspect the stains together.
“Did you use soap on these, ma’am?” he asks while fingering the darker blotches. You pause before saying no, you don’t think so.
“Once there’s soap on the fibers, the stain will never disappear completely. When’s the last time you had this cleaned?” You’re not sure, you say, perhaps a year or two ago but even as you say it you know it has been much longer. Probably right after Bear was finally house-trained. When you lead him out to the garage this morning he was limping arthritically and you noticed tufts of grey fur growing from his snout. Could he already be old?
Bob begins to move the furniture out using a dolly and you see him sneak glances at Ellie each time he passes by. You finish the sorting, then move the lamps and end tables yourself, over his protests, puttering around the room and looking for things to keep you there. The bookcase is in desperate need of dusting, the cabinets need organizing, and the games are long outgrown. As you peer inside you see Candyland in its dog-eared box and remember a time when Ellie was small and wanted to play it over and over again until you felt you would cry. Why weren’t you more patient with her then? Why couldn’t you enjoy those moments? The pager goes off in the kitchen again.
When Bob turns on the machines, the sound is deafening and filthy fluid begins to flow through the tubing. Ellie flips her hair impatiently and puts on headphones. As he works he sweats profusely even though the cooler is on. You turn it up to high but it does not help. He looks like he just stepped out of a rainstorm as giant drops of sweat form at the end of his nose and fall silently to the floor. Will he work backwards, you wonder, to shampoo up the puddles he is leaving? But he faces the open door as he works, looking up frequently. You try to block his view as Ellie pads across the floor into the kitchen to get another glass of orange juice and you follow her.
“Sweetheart, please get dressed and I’ll make you something to eat,” you say in your brightest voice, but she ignores you and heads back out to the family room. He is standing in the doorway, dabbing at his brow ineffectively with his already soaked shirt. Would it be rude to offer him a towel?
Hyperhidrosis, you want to tell him. There is treatment for that but you can’t imagine he has health insurance. His van and equipment have clearly seen better days and he is only charging you sixty dollars, which does not seem like nearly enough given the state of that carpet and the shameful presence of soap on the fibers. Just as you are thinking you should pay him more, you see him bending over at the doorway, ostensibly fiddling with a hose but watching Ellie again. You move behind her to block his view, pretending to watch the animation although there is no sound with the headphones plugged in.
The show is a Japanese cartoon with English subtitles you have to squint to read. It seems to be about children living in a sort of gritty underground subway. The main character is a girl in a trench coat with over-sized pockets that conceal a revolver. As you watch, she lures a large thuggish-looking man into a dark corner of the subway. She turns the revolver on him and starts confronting him about the rape of someone named Natsuki. Then she shoots him multiple times through the torso, splattering cartoon blood all over the screen. You are aghast. What is it she is watching? She has spent dozens of hours on these cartoons this summer and here you were telling yourself, How wonderful. She’ll learn Japanese.
“Ellie,” you start to say but the pager is going off again and you have ignored it for too long. You return to the kitchen to make calls away from the noise.
The room has grown quiet when you return to find Bob standing directly behind Ellie, almost close enough to touch her. He has picked up the orange juice glass she was just drinking from and is circling the rim with his forefinger as he watches the program. You are there in a flash, inserting yourself between them and taking the glass from him.
“Is there a problem?” you ask.
He smiles a mocking half-smile and says, “I’m afraid there is. I need to show you something, ma’am.” He leads you to the bedroom and leans over the equipment, flipping on the switch to the power head which shudders and grinds. Before you know what he is doing he grabs your hand and shoves it under the slimy wet brushes. You pull away and he flips it off again.
“What did you feel?” he asks.
“That’s exactly right,” he says, patient as a schoolteacher. “You’re supposed to feel suction.”
He squats down, over the equipment and begins unscrewing nozzles saying, “And now I’ll show why.” He holds up a section of plastic pipe that contains some kind of filter and says. “Put your finger in there.” This time you recoil so he puts his own finger in and pulls out a brown, gritty residue, holding it up for you to see.
But you see something else. As he is tinkering with the machine, his soaked T-shirt has fallen off one shoulder, exposing a dark stain on his skin. You sidle closer and ask, “What is it?”
“Sand,” he says, holding up his finger and rubbing the substance with his thumb. You inspect the lesion more closely as he bends back down and see the characteristic velvet texture, the irregular borders, the deep blacks and browns. It has to be a melanoma, and a big one, almost the size of a half dollar. Is it possible he isn’t aware of it?
“They aren’t meant to take this amount of sand,” he says. “It ruins the equipment.” Sand? The sandbox came out years ago and the carpet must have been cleaned since then.
“I’ll have to get some replacement parts,” he says, starting to roll up the hoses and pushing the machine towards the door. “It might take a few days.”
“You’re not going to leave it like this?”
The back half of the bedroom, usually occupied by furniture, looks clean, but the front half is grimier than ever, and now soaked in suds as well.
“I didn’t expect sand,” he says, looking towards Ellie again. You look that way also. She is watching the same program and the girl in the trench coat is hiding under a stairwell now, visibly trembling, her enormous black manga eyes welling up with tears. The pager interrupts again from the kitchen counter and when you return from retrieving it, he is standing in the hallway.
“I’m going to have to ask for more,” he says, “on account of the equipment damage.”
“How much more?” you ask, thinking you would pay about anything just to be rid of him.
“It’ll take a couple hundred just to replace those hoses,” he says, “and then there’s the job itself.”
“You have to be kidding! You haven’t even finished.”
“Do you want me to wait around and talk it over with your husband, ma’am?” he asks with a rubbery smirk.
“No,” you say and write the check as he finishes wrestling the equipment just over the threshold and then stands inside the doorway, his arms crossed as he watches you.
“I’ll just come on by when I have the parts and finish up,” he says, glancing into the house again towards Ellie, but you thrust the check at him and say, “No. Never mind. We’re just going to replace it.”
You watch from the window to make sure he leaves and see that Bear has gotten out and is bounding towards the van. He grabs an end of the hose with his huge jaws and starts pulling at it. You can see he is playing by the twitch of his tail but know how threatening his growl can sound when he plays tug-of-war. Bob is yelling and flailing his arm as he tries to get the hose back and stuff it in the van, but Bear never loses this game. You stand there a bit longer before opening the door to call Bear in, giving Bob a little wave that he does not respond to. You know you should go out there and tell him about the skin lesion. It’s definitely a melanoma. You could offer to make some calls, arrange for a biopsy. You tell yourself you’ll do that tomorrow.
After he drives away you wander back to the computer and watch with Ellie for a while, smoothing her long curly hair, which badly needs washing. The trench coat girl is now walking hand in hand with a boy down a lane flanked by trees covered in white blossoms. You brush at a speck on Ellie’s shoulder, a tiny pink mole. She allows your hand to linger there a few seconds before shrugging it off and asks, without looking at you, “Is he gone yet? What a creep.” You try to think of the right response, something wise and non-judgmental but you can think of nothing. Ellie has turned off the monitor and is yawning and stretching her long arms high into the air. “Mom,” she says, “can we make waffles?”
“Sure,” you say, trying not to look too happy as you walk off to look for eggs in the kitchen, thinking that the day, after all, is not a total loss.
Elizabeth Toman writes fiction and nonfiction. She works as a primary care physician in New Mexico.
© 2021, Elizabeth Toman