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Noah Milligan

Writer

143

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Sample Project - Status Zero by Noah Milligan - Originally Published in Make Literary Magazine

Status Zero

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            There was blood everywhere. It had splattered onto the yellow curtains and the new Berber carpet and dried into the little fibers so that he had to scrub with a wire brush. Skull fragments were lodged into the wall. He had to pry them out with pliers. Later he would have to smooth the wall out with plaster and paint over the cavities. He found bits of skull underneath the bed. He found brain tissue, the texture of dried beef jerky. These would be collected and then incinerated in a large furnace back at the office. Being the new guy, Max figured this would be his responsibility.

            A middle-aged man, director of the local food bank and father of two, had shot himself with a recently purchased 9 mm semi-automatic Berretta. He’d left a note. Officially, the cops weren’t allowed to share that sort of information with Apex BioClean, Max’s new employer, a crime-scene / suicide cleaning agency, though his co-workers said they almost always did. This one, it was rumored, had simply said, “I’m sorry—I can’t provide for you any longer. Please contact Michael Thomas, our insurance agent, about collecting life insurance money. If they refuse to pay, hire a lawyer. There’s a two-year exclusion on suicide. Afterwards, they have to pay. I checked.”

            He couldn’t imagine finding such a note, then finding his spouse with half her face missing. It made Max not feel so badly about his own circumstances. Such trauma makes your problems all of a sudden feel trivial and unimportant. To remind him of this, he pocketed a piece of molar. It was just a shard really, only distinguishable from other bone fragments because of the tiny bit of silver filling that remained.

            “Excuse me,” a voice said behind him. “I didn’t realize anyone would still be here.” He looked up. The voice belonged to a teenage girl, probably fifteen or sixteen. She wore glasses much too large for her face and stood behind the half-opened door. He must’ve looked a bit frightening. He wore a hazmat suit, made of nitrile rubber and an aluminized shell.

            “I’m sorry.” He really didn’t know what else to say. He was on all fours, brushing commercial-grade biodegrading soap into the stains her father had made.

            “No. Don’t be. I’ll get out of your way.”

            She left him to his work, which took two hours more. When he was done, he gathered his supplies and exited. He found her sitting at the kitchen bar. She didn’t watch television or eat a bowl of cereal or read a magazine. She sat staring at nothing, the blank look of someone whose vision had blurred, lost in thought. Max wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d been sitting there the entire time he’d been working. He’d never lost anyone before. His grandparents were still alive. No cousin had died in a tragic car accident. A friend didn’t pass away unexpectedly while on a ski trip, perhaps a little tipsy before flying headfirst into a fir tree. He had no idea what that was like, to mourn someone.

            She smiled when she noticed him. “Finished?” she asked.

            He’d taken his mask off even though he wasn’t supposed to; he still carried human remains. “Yes,” he said.

            “My name’s Alice, by the way,” she said as if they’d bumped into each other twice in one day, two strangers, under normal, though improbable, circumstances.             “Max,” he said.

            “You’ve been doing this long, Max?” she asked.

            “My first job by myself, actually.”

            “They let you do this sort of thing by yourself?”

            “We’re shorthanded.”

            “I see.”

            An awkward silence followed.

            “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            She pointed to his pocket. “I saw you pocket part of my dad.” He froze. He could feel himself turn pale in embarrassment. “Don’t worry,” she repeated. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “Stop.”

            “Really, I—”

            “It’s okay. Honest.”

            Without knowing what to say, he excused himself and packed up the biomaterial and cleaning supplies into the van. Through the bay window, he could see Alice watching him, her head cocked and turned, reminding him of an ostrich. She was studying him, like a scientist might a newly discovered species. In his hurry to leave, he hadn’t properly closed the container holding the remains of the deceased, and as he threw the supplies into the back of the van, the container tipped over and spilled dried gray matter. He should’ve immediately disposed of the remains and decontaminated the van, but he didn’t, uncomfortable under Alice’s close scrutiny.

***

Background

            The nicknames began almost as soon as he’d unpacked his last box: Boomerang Boy, The Renter, Maxy the Moocher. He tried to laugh alongside his father—he was, after all, trying to make the best of the situation. Economics degree in hand, he’d been unable to find work for six months after graduating and had, embarrassingly enough, been evicted from his one bedroom apartment, forced to return to his parents’ home to sleep in his childhood bedroom. It was humiliating. When he thought about it, which was most of the time, he couldn’t help but want to hide indefinitely.

            It became worse during his father’s monthly barbecue, where he would invite his schmoozer friends over to eat pulled pork, drink beer, and place wagers on his manicured putting green tucked away in the corner of their backyard. His father was a commercial lender at a privately held bank specializing in real estate development, so there was a lot of the proverbial influential class of Oklahoma City present, semi-drunk and one-upping each other. They should be able to get Max a job, but that would, his father maintained, be unethical, not to mention nepotistic. They were his clients after all. Not friends. Max couldn’t help but notice, however, how they drank his father’s beers like friends.

            Max was expected to schmooze alongside his father anyway, drinking American lager and missing short putts on purpose. At this moment, he was holding the pin for his father, who’d wagered over $300 on a game of LAFFER, a take on basketball’s HORSE but named after the notorious economist Arthur Laffer who devised the Laffer curve, a hypothetical representation of the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues, arguing that the higher the rate, the less the government would reap. Basically, one contestant would putt from a spot of his choice, and if he sank it, then his challenger would have to sink the same putt. If the challenger missed, then he obtained a letter in LAFFER. The first one whose letters spelled Mr. Laffer’s surname in its entirety lost. Then, Max’s father, Aubrey, led Mr. Dillard, a used-car salesman turned real estate developer, E to second F. Max had recently turned in resumes to both Mr. Dillard’s finance company that funded his buy-here, pay-here car dealership and to the development company. He hadn’t received a call back on either.

            It was Mr. Dillard’s shot. He lined up an eight-footer on the east side of the green, which faced an uphill grade with a right-to-left slant of approximately four degrees, a relatively easy shot for a sober person. He took a few practice swings and then inched up to the ball. Except for the occasional sip from a beer, the backyard was quiet. Mr. Dillard’s tongue hung limply from his lips in concentration. He swung. The ball followed the grade beautifully, curving slightly towards the pin. Max raised it, but the ball lipped out and swung eight inches or so from the cup.

            “Always hung a little to the left, hasn’t it, Pickle?” Aubrey said, a bad nickname he had for Mr. Dillard. Dill pickle. Get it?

            “Long and lanky,” Mr. Dillard said. “As always.”

            It was now Aubrey’s shot. He circled the cup, trying to find the most difficult shot he could make. Max’s father had always been a golfer, a love for a game he’d tried to pass down to Max, though it never really took. Max remembered many nights out here practicing, his father crouched like a catcher as he coached Max on how to keep his shoulders square, how to keep his line of vision straight down the club, and how to minimize motion in the putting stroke. Max never thought his father had lived vicariously through him, goading him into youth tournaments in order to fulfill his own PGA fantasies. Mostly, Max considered his pushing as a means to build a connection, find some hobby that bonded them together, a thing just their own. By the time Max had reached his teenage years, though, he informed his father he no longer wished to golf. It wasn’t that he hated golfing per se, but he got tired of losing week in and week out, routinely missing the cut so that he could stay home on Sundays and listen to his father’s condolences. You’ll get ‘em next time. Just keep your head up. You’re due for a win. He was absolutely sure of it. That weekend, the clubs went up into the attic, not to come down again until his fraternity brothers and he would get drunk on the front nine when they should’ve been studying for midterms. Now, at the barbecue, Aubrey focused on his own shot, a snaking fourteen footer, as Max fought back the urge to tell him to square up his shoulders and quit wobbling so much. It wasn’t needed, though. He sunk it with a satisfying plunk into the bottom of the cup.

            “You always wait until I get a good buzz going,” Mr. Dillard said. “It’s the only way you can win.” Mr. Dillard lined up the same shot as Aubrey’d made. If he missed, he would lose. Unhappy with how it looked, he crouched and shut one eye, trying to discern the grade and angle needed. “Got any tips?” he asked Max.

            “I’m sorry, sir?”

            “Tips. I’m sure you know this green. Got any advice so I don’t lose to your old man?”

            “No. I’m sorry.”

            “None at all?”

            “Don’t miss?”

            “I see.” Mr. Dillard twirled the putter and then dropped it accidentally on the green, moving the ball. After fumbling it a few times, he placed it back where it needed to go and picked up the putter. “Perhaps you just don’t have enough vested in the shot. Here.” He held the handle out for Max to take. “You shoot.”

            “I don’t think that would be wise, sir.”

            “And why’s that?”

            “I’m not very good.”

            “Okay. Okay. Let’s make it a little interesting, then. You sink the putt, and I’ll hire you on.”

            “Really?”

            “Absolutely.”

            Max checked the others’ faces, Aubrey’s especially, to see if they believed Mr. Dillard. They all looked on, interested in the outcome, none with a look of uncertainty.

            “I sink the putt, and you’ll give me a job?”

            “Why not?”

            Max had a multitude of why nots. Fiscal responsibility. Efficient operations. Profit maximization theory. Marginal cost equals marginal revenue. They were in a recession for Christ’s sake, or at least GDP growth was minimal enough to stall the recovery. Offering jobs on a drunken whim didn’t seem prudent, downright foolish actually.

            “Okay. Sure. I’ll shoot.”

            Mr. Dillard rubbed his hands together in excitement. “Good. Great. Now things are getting interesting.”

            Max took the putter and lined up the shot the best he could. He could feel his father and his friends watching him. It was funny—he considered himself an adult now, despite his living conditions, but he couldn’t help but feel like he was a child again, performing under his father’s scrutiny. With it came the unshakeable desire to please him. It made Max ashamed in a way, and he hoped they were too drunk to notice his cheeks turning red.

            With a smooth motion he reared back the head, his arms and shoulders still, allowing his torso to do the work, and struck the ball. It was a clean shot. The ball moved well at a good speed and followed the sloping green toward the cup. It looked like it was going to go in. It really did. In a collective hush, he could hear all his father’s friends suck in one, large breath, but then release in a plume of hot wind as the ball lipped the edge and rolled mere inches from the cup.

***

Development

            He saw her every morning after that. She would wait in the park opposite Apex BioClean’s offices, and she would be there when he returned the van that evening. She wasn’t trying to hide by any means—she sat on a park bench clearly facing the front of the building. She looked out of place there. Despite the triple-digit heat, she wore an oversized sweatshirt and picked dandelion fuzz from her hair. A bicycle lay on its side at her feet. Books were stacked neatly next to her, though Max never saw her actually read one. It was like she was on a stakeout but wanted the suspect to know she was on to him. She obviously wanted to talk to him, but she didn’t for a while. The other guys began to notice and make sneer comments. Probably a Goth girl. A necrophile. A necromancer. Finally, after a week, she approached.

            It was awkward for sure. She hugged a book to her chest, some paperback, her hands hidden underneath her sleeves.

            “Hey,” she said.

            “Hey.” Max didn’t know what to do or say. He still had her father’s tooth. He kept it with him actually, for reasons he couldn’t articulate. A memento from his first job, he supposed, something that made him uncomfortable but couldn’t bring himself to dispose of either. It fascinated him in a way, like how a wound on the inside of a cheek can, tonguing it despite the pain. “What’re you doing here?”

            “Can I ask you a question?”

            “Sure.”

            She motioned toward Max’s coworkers. “In private?”

            Max led her to his van, opened the door for her, and helped her climb in. She was shorter than he remembered. Her feet barely touched the floor.

            “Thanks,” she said. “Those guys were kind of giving me the creeps.”

            Max nodded. “They tend to do that,” he said, although he wasn’t sure why. She was the one who’d been stalking their office. “What can I do for you?”

            She leafed through the pages of the book she had brought with her. It was a tattered copy of The Grimm Fairy Tales. An odd choice for a teenage girl, Max thought.

            “I want you to take me with you.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            “On your next job. I want to go with you.”

            “I don’t think I can do that.”

            “I’ll stay out of your way. I promise. I just want to see.”

            She had a pensive quality to her. It gave her the air of a much older woman, perhaps the result of her father’s death. He’d looked at pictures of her when he’d been alone in her house. He would’ve described her as baby faced. She still had the chubby cheeks and glittering eyes. She was the type of person who smiled with her entire body. But now she brooded. Her once smooth features had been etched with lines of concern. Her posture had deteriorated into a slump.

            “No, I mean, it’s not up to me. It’s against company policy.”

            “It won’t be a big deal. I promise.”

            “I could lose my job.”

            “How about this,” she said. “Take me with you, and I won’t tell anybody that you took my father’s tooth.”

            There it was. Blackmail. What else could he do?

            The first job was on the northwestern side of town, not far from Max’s house. In this part of the city, affluent neighborhoods abutted against more blue-collar ones. Expansive green lawns gave way to Oklahoma’s trademark red clay. When he’d been assigned the job, Max had assumed it would be in the more blue-collar neighborhood, but it wasn’t. It was in Nichols Hills, one of the more prominent divisions in the city. Oilmen lived there. Bankers and attorneys and entrepreneurs. The house in question was owned by a doctor. Apparently, he’d snapped and was found cradling his lifeless son in his arms. He’d stabbed the boy 34 times in the torso, neck, and face. When the police found him, he kept repeating that the devil was in the boy, that he had to do it, he didn’t have any other choice. The news had already gone national. Backgrounds and histories were dug up. The doctor had had psychological problems in the past. Twice he’d been institutionalized for depression and suicidal tendencies, once while in medical school and again during the first year of his residency. Lately he’d been under a lot of stress, his wife had said, due to an IRS audit of his practice. He went off his medication apparently, thinking he might sleep better.

            It had happened in the kitchen. Blood stained the tile floor. It wasn’t stained the way spilt barbecue sauce would, just a slight film that could be scraped off. The blood had coagulated into a hard rubbery substance like the texture of a Petri dish. Handprints painted cupboards. Little footprints inked the crown molding where the little boy had fought for survival. It was the most difficult thing Max had ever had to do, clean the site where a child was murdered.

            Alice did as she said she would; she stayed out of his way. While he scrubbed grout, she stayed in the breakfast nook, sitting with a paper pad in her lap, drawing the scene. Every once in a while she would ask Max to hold that spot for a second, she liked how the light caught the red and soap together. She showed him her work as she progressed. They weren’t very good. She tried a surrealistic approach, reminiscent of a Dali. Proportions were hyperbolic. Max appeared much larger than the stain he cleaned, the refraction of the light shot into a hinged rainbow like on the Dark Side of the Moon album cover. It gave the whole scene a comic quality to it, trivializing what had happened.

            They continued on this way for the remainder of the day, and for several days thereafter. She would wait in the park for him every morning, and he would pick her up a little ways down the street. He would clean, and she would draw. They would engage in small talk. It was almost like they were an old married couple, sentenced to talk about the trivial because they’d exhausted all that they had to say to one another. Soon Max became comfortable with this arrangement. He even started to look forward to it, the way an old married man might. He had his routine. He had his morning coffee, his newspaper, his work, and his wife. He had it all while he cleaned up the bloodied messes left by everyone else around him.

***

            He still went on interviews. They were all for entry-level jobs. Some were in the oil and gas industry as a project analyst, scouring over geological surveys and cash flow projections. Others were at Boeing where he would crunch raw material and labor costs. Still more at banks in operation departments, doing data entry and document prep. Entry level had a different meaning, he found out, than he’d been told at the career services department at school. Entry level now meant a minimum of two years experience. This was a troubling thought. He needed experience to get an entry-level position. He needed the entry-level position to get experience.

            It was supposed to be getting easier, wasn’t it? The unemployment rate was lowering, after all.

            That didn’t mean anything, though. The unemployment rate was calculated by dividing the number of unemployed over all potential workers. People who were no longer looking for work and people like Max, recent graduates who weren’t in education and had not previously held a professional job, however, were not considered either employed or unemployed. He was a non-person. He was, as the government deemed him, status zero. Ultimately, when it came right down to it, he felt lied to.

            The woman interviewing him seemed to be lying to him, too. She had an office in the back of Coppermark Bank whose walls were made of glass and whose desk had business cards on it emblazoned with the words “Assistant Vice President.” Her skin had grayed and looked weathered. It appeared she had drunk too much coffee; her eyebrow twitched as if being shocked by a low amount of electricity.

            She asked questions that seemed scripted. Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your greatest strengths? Your weaknesses? What type of experience do you have? What type of loan documentation knowledge do you possess? What are you currently doing? Do you like that? Do you have reliable transportation? The job requires long periods of sitting and staring at a computer monitor, would that interest you? How fast is your ten-key? What days would you be available to work?

            He took a personality test and an aptitude test. He performed basic algebra and answered logical questions such as if all As are Bs and all Bs are Cs but not all Cs are Bs, are all Cs As?

            No, he answered. No, they are not.

            After her questioning, she opened herself up to interrogation. Max himself relied upon a script given to him by a counselor at school. Base salary? Reasonable. Bonuses? Based on profits. Annually? Yes. Vacation time? Two weeks. Student Loan reimbursement? No. These were mere formalities. He wouldn’t get the job. He could tell by her dry, monotone voice and clipped answers, the way she sat on the edge of her seat, as if waiting to show him the door.

            She thanked him for his time, and he for hers. They shook hands. She smiled and so did he. He took a card although he knew it to be worthless and placed it into his pocket. He kept his hand there as he exited and only took it out again after he heard the click of her door latching into place.

***

            They went to a Redhawks baseball game, the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. His father ordered a beer and a hotdog with sauerkraut, and Max a beer and peanuts. It was fall, and the team was sixteen games out of first, no chance of making the playoffs. The players didn’t even care anymore. They lobbed the ball to one another and jogged to first. After a long and grueling season, Max couldn’t blame them. They were hurt and tired and the games didn’t mean anything. All they wanted was to earn their paycheck and go home. A sentiment Max could relate to.

            Max listened to his father explain the game as if he’d never been to a baseball game before. He demystified the importance of the rosin bag in pitch control, the shift bunt defense, and the puzzling infield fly rule. Stalling tactics. Max could always tell when his father was about to broach a subject he didn’t wish to. He looked like a pizza boy standing on a stoop, awaiting a tip that wouldn’t come. Then he’d say, without the slightest bit of confidence, “You know, your mother and I have been talking.”

            “Uh-huh,” Max said, a piece of peanut skin annoyingly stuck to his bottom lip.

            “Let me predicate this by saying that we’re glad you’re living with us. We are. It’s like old times.”

            Max didn’t say anything. He and his father sat behind the third base dugout, and a group of teenagers behind them berated the third base coach. “MahOOoooooney,” they yelled. “You’re full of balOOOooogna.” They slurred their words and smelled of cheap beer. High school kids, more than likely, who had a former classmate working the beer stand or had fake IDs. They laughed and high-fived and cajoled. Max remembered having that sort of fun. He remembered right before graduation, he and his fraternity brothers had stolen a goat at a local petting zoo and got it drunk on Pabst and let it loose in the student union. It shat everywhere. It was the last time Max remembered laughing so hard he could hardly breathe.

            “We just want to make sure that you’re happy.”

            “I’m happy.”

            “Are you?”

            The batter hit a foul ball towards the third base coach. He bent over to attempt to field it, but the ball kicked off his hands. The kids behind Max stood up and cupped their mouths. “Hey, Mahoney! Nice boot, cowboy! You couldn’t catch a cold naked and wet in Canada!”

            “Yes. I’m happy,” Max said.

            “Can you believe these kids?” Max’s father pointed his thumb behind them. “Belligerent little shits.”

            Another time he and his friends had set an old couch on fire with roman candles and lighter fluid. He’d gone to Mardi Gras and ate so much crawfish that he’d puked bile the color and consistency of old tomato soup. A strange girl at a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones concert had felt him up when she’d passed him a joint. He missed that.

            “I wish I wasn’t living at home. Wish I had a job where I didn’t clean up dead people.”

            The teenagers started heckling louder. I’ve seen better movement in a bedpan, they said. Hey two-four, your mom’s a whore, they said. On and on. MahOOooney. MahOOooney.

            “Where are their parents for Christ’s sake? Or security?”

            “It gets to you, you know? You start questioning yourself.”

            MahOOOoney. MahOOoney. MahOOOooney. He’d ignored the kids’ taunts up until this point. After they called his mother a whore, though, he glanced up into the stands every few pitches or so. There was a hurt expression underneath his hat brim. He looked lonely. He looked like a man who desperately missed his mother.

            “That’s sort of what we wanted to talk to you about. Your mother and I. We think it’d be best for everyone if you found your own place.”

            “Like the other day. I stole a tooth from work. Some dead guy’s tooth. Who does that?”

            “We’d help you out of course. We could pay your security deposit and first and last month’s rent. You’re making good money now. Like twelve bucks an hour, right?”

            There was a shot into the left-center gap, a real rocket that sounded like a tree being struck by an axe. The batter rounded first and picked up speed. He was a tall, gaunt man whose joints seemed to jab in the air like a bow-flex machine. The ball ricocheted off the wall at a weird angle and shot past the left fielder.

            “And now the guy’s daughter is following me around! Like she’s fueling some weird curiosity about death now that her dad shot his face off or maybe she has a crush on me. I don’t know. But I can’t tell her to stop. Not now. Not after what I did.”

            The runner rounded second and was approaching third. The left fielder bobbled the ball, and Mahoney was waving the runner to run home and score. All the while the kids were badgering this poor man who was only trying to do his job. MahOOoooney. You big, fat PhOOooony.

            “You’re an adult now, son. I guess what I’m saying is that we want you out by the end of the month.”

            As the runner rounded third, he took a bad angle and looped a little further than Mahoney expected, who hugged the line too closely. The runner ended up smashing into Mahoney, and the collision toppled Mahoney end over end. The defense finally relayed the ball into the infield and tagged the runner out as he lay on the ground, rolling around in pain. Mahoney was motionless. The teenage kids laughed and laughed and laughed. You idiot, they said. You retard! Can’t you do anything right?

            “Shut up!” Max turned and yelled at the stunned kids. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

            The trainer jumped from the dugout and raced out to the injured Mahoney. For a few seconds, the entire stadium was quiet. No one chomped on sunflower seeds or clapped their hands or whooped a cheer for the home team. There wasn’t even a breeze. There was just a collective hush, shared by a few hundred people, and Max reveled; finally, a moment to collect his thoughts. But then it was broken, the silence, with a resounding taunt.

            MahOOoooney.

***

Climax

            The sex wasn’t planned. He hadn’t gone to work that day wanting to touch her. The night before he hadn’t dreamt of her. She didn’t appear in fantasies so vivid he could taste the salt in her sweat. After work he often forgot about her, worried about other things. During work she was a mere creature comfort, something outside the horror he had to face.

            It was the final job of the day—this one had been an accident. A woman had been cleaning a shotgun not knowing it was loaded. At some point, she pulled the trigger and shot herself in the face. It was double-barreled, the gun, and caused a lot of damage. Alice found a piece of mandible behind the recliner, covered in tissue and curved like a mouth guard.

            “It sort of reminds me of Halloween, you know. Those props you find in a haunted house. Like you wouldn’t even know it was real unless you knew knew. Know what I mean?” she said.

            He did.

            “All this stuff does. Once you get used to the smell, you kind of get used to all of it,” she continued. “You get desensitized in a way. You lose all sense of how macabre all this shit is. Like a funeral home director. Or a soldier.”

            “It still drags on you, though.”

            She shrugged. “I guess.” She flaked graphite from her pad of paper. She was drawing the mandible. She had it sitting on the dining room table as if were a vase of flowers.

            He cleaned the dried blood from the walls. The paint chipped as he scrubbed, and he would have to prime and repaint before the tenants returned. He dislodged shot pellets from the drywall.

            “Is it weird that this sort of stuff kind of turns me on?” she said.

            He stopped cleaning and turned to her. She hadn’t moved much. She sat like a behaved student might, her knees and heels touching, back straight, a pad of paper on her legs. He thought of a schoolgirl fantasy, and it made him nauseated. He’d always been embarrassed by the act of sex. The few times he had done it, he did so with the lights switched off and with girls he knew from class. Afterward, he wouldn’t know how to act, and they, sensing his discomfort, would soon stop calling or coming by his dorm room. When he saw them in econometrics or in derivatives and options securities, he would act like nothing had happened, and he sensed that they were laughing behind his back.

            This feeling of embarrassment returned to him like a friend who he’d wronged years ago might, out of the blue and coupled with a feeling of shame. They both sat staring at each other for quite a while after she said this, she, he thought, expecting him to make a move and him frozen in anxiety. It was like he could actually feel the lining in his stomach walls thin.

            It wasn’t there that they had sex, but later, in the back of the van as he packed his cleaning supplies and the human remains. Alice made the first move. Max pushed in the buckets of commercial grade biodegrading soap, and when he turned around, she loomed but a few inches away. She paused right there as if asking if it was okay that she was so close. When he didn’t object, she tiptoed up to kiss him deeply. He reacted timidly and leaned back against the van’s bumper, his lips tight and unresponsive to hers, but he couldn’t help but think how good she tasted. It was like sour grapes and popcorn and the comfort of no responsibilities.

***

Ending

            He didn’t return to work after that. He didn’t call or resign or give two weeks notice; he simply quit. His last paycheck would not be cashed, despite the company mailing it to him, and it would eventually be forgotten in some drawer. He tried to tell himself the reason was the work. Who could face that, day in and day out? Death and the sad survivors, their belongings forever scarred by what had transpired there. And then that smell. He couldn’t get it off of him at night. He would shower as soon as he returned to his parents’ house, and he would scrub and scrub and scrub, but it wouldn’t get off of him. It followed him everywhere, like an old dog would, mere days from death itself. After awhile, he even started believing that that was the case, that it was the work and not what he had done to Alice that drove him to quit.

            He didn’t tell his father. In the mornings they would have coffee together. His father would ask him rhetorical questions about the Fed’s quantitative easing policy or if he should refinance his house because interest rates were so low. They would make plans to go see a basketball game or take a vacation to Dallas and intentionally ignore the fact Max hadn’t moved out yet. Then they would say their goodbyes, leaving the house at the same time, and both wouldn’t get home until much later when they would be much too tired to spend any time with each other.

            Max spent his days simply walking around town, already having given up on responding to want ads. He would stop in diners and eat a piece of pie and leave a generous tip since it wasn’t his money—it was his parents’—and then catch an exhibit on the theory of relativity at the Omniplex and then a matinee at the dollar theater to see last year’s big summer blockbusters. When it was too cold or if the wind was too harsh, he would duck into coffee shops and nurse a cup of coffee as he stared at the passing cars. He enjoyed the solitude during these outings. He didn’t feel the need to speak to anyone or explain himself. Sometimes he would try to go the whole day without uttering a word.

            It was on a day like this that he found himself in front of the high school, his alma mater. His hands were tucked into his pocket. He clutched Alice’s father’s tooth and rubbed it in between his fingertips. It felt odd in his hands, almost like plastic. He wandered around campus for a while. He walked the track. He circled the parking lot. He read the marquee at the auditorium. Finally, he simply walked in. It looked much like it had when he’d been a student there. The linoleum floors. Old steel lockers. Pep rally banners made from cardstock and glitter paint. It even smelled the same, like disinfectant and tater tots. The halls were empty. No kids were walking to the office or the bathroom. It was odd, like a ghost town. He even peeked his head into a classroom. No one was in there.

            He sat a desk and tried to remember if he’d had this classroom for government or English. It was a science classroom now. A periodic table of the elements covered most of the eastern wall. Microscopes lined lab tables behind the desks. There were gas nozzles and an eye washing station. He wrote on the blackboard the only scientific formula he could remember, E = MC2, and then left.

            He found everyone in the gymnasium. On the court were the football team and the cheerleaders. The band played the school fight song as the student body all stood and cheered. Banners waved. Everyone clapped in unison. It made Max feel nostalgic in a way he hadn’t in years.

            After a few seconds in the doorway, a man wearing a suit approached him. Max remembered him; it was Mr. Byers, the assistant principal. Max expected him to ask what he was doing there. Unannounced visitors were rarely welcomed onto school campuses, even if they were alumni. Instead, he asked Max where he’d been.

            Confused, Max said, “I’m sorry?”

            “Get back in the stands,” he said.

            Mr. Byers thought Max was a student. For a moment, Max considered correcting him and then leaving, but he decided not to. Instead, he found an open seat on the front row between two students. They didn’t even give him a second glance as he began to clap alongside them. They thought he was supposed to be there just like Mr. Byers did. It was calming in a way. He belonged someplace. He didn’t have to think about his joblessness or lack of an apartment. He could simply get caught in the revelry, blending into the cheering crowd, a single digit amidst a long line of zeros.

 

 

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