Copyright is held by the author. This story first appeared in Neo Opsis magazine.
SWEEPING’S FOR old women and crater-faces — everyone knew that. It wasn’t fair! It could have happened to anyone. It wasn’t my fault. The judge had it in for me. My mom cried when the judgment came down.
“On the two counts of irresponsibility, how do you find the defendant?”
“On the count of smugness?”
“And lastly, on the count of untidiness?”
“Guilty.” Then the judge lectured me on how I had endangered the whole community with my sloppy, uncaring attitude; with my inability to keep things in order, blah, blah, blah. The sentence? Four months hard sweeping. Un-fucking-believable.
“Hey dusthead, wake up!” Someone whacked me on the head in passing. It was my supervisor No-face Jake. “Get your gear and come on.” I gathered up my mask and visor and scrambled after him — waddled after him actually. The orange cover-alls I was wearing were gi-normous. Not really a good look for me.
Jake was a veteran sweeper. Rumour had it that he’d been on the job for close to 10 years — but that’s crap cause nobody lasts 10 years sweeping even with protective gear. Black lung got you long before that. I don’t know exactly what happened to his face, but obviously he’d been exposed way back when. One big, bad swoosh of black-green — black-green was the worse. It ate at flesh like starving rats. Jake’s right ear was gone, nibbled down to just a hole, while his right cheek and chin were puckered and cratered. The scar tissue was a dull grey.
I followed Jake into the lunchroom, where a dozen people in orange waited, their masks and visors in their arms. You could tell at a glance who were the regulars and who were the convicts. Half of the group was old and crater-faced and hunched over as if weighed down by piles of dust on their shoulders. Those were the regulars. They had chosen to be sweepers; they had signed up for the job. Whether they were scarred before they signed up or got the scars on the job, I didn’t know, but all them seemed to carry marks of their encounters with the dust. The rest of the group was young, unmarked and looked terrified; they were my fellow convicts. But I didn’t look like that — I didn’t — I wasn’t scared of anything.
“Okay, listen up you Dustheads!” That’s what the regulars called the convicts — don’t know why. “I’m going to assign you a senior sweeper for the duration of your stay with us. You are to stick with your sweeper like blue glue. You are to do what your sweeper tells you to do without any lip. You eat when they tell you to, you rest when they tell you to, you shit when they tell you to —that clear, Dustheads? I didn’t hear you. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Yes sir,” we yelled in unison.
“And another thing, today we’re staying inside, so it’s a bit different. But out in the field, full kit — no exceptions — boots, helmet, gloves, visor, mask. And you never take any of it off. I don’t care if it’s as still as well water out there — you never take it off. Is that clear? IS THAT CLEAR, DUSTHEADS?”
Jake had a way of thrusting his mangled face into yours when he talked to you — and he really did that now, making sure we all understood what happens when you take off your protective gear. Is that what happened to him? Was he caught without his mask?
I was assigned a sweeper — a regular — named Esmeralda. She was short, tiny and old with skin like cracked leather. When she smiled at me, her teeth flashed a dull yellow. “Call me Esme,” she said and shook my hand like she’d been pumping iron all her life.
“Easy day, easy day today,” Esme said. We were assigned to sweep the Maple Grove plaza; it was a Saturday and full of shoppers. Of all the bloody plazas in the entire city, it had to be Maple Grove. That’s my plaza. That’s the one my friends shop at and their parents and my parents and the friends of my parents. Crap! Esme said I didn’t need to keep my mask on in the plaza — it was mostly white dust that got in here and white was harmless — but I kept my mask on anyway.
Esme specialized in detail work. After the main crew passed through with electric vacs, Esme followed, sweeping out the nooks and crannies, cleaning the smaller surfaces, the benches, and tables, the counters and screens, every leaf of the plastic maples trees. “Go slow,” she said by way of instructions. “Carefully — from left to right, from up to down.”
Yeah, whatever. I tried at first, I really did, but it seemed so pointless. I mean you sweep today, and tomorrow you’ve just got to do it all over again. So my mind wandered. Esme kept scolding me and asking me to do things over. “Too sloppy, be more careful, go slow,” she repeated in a constant irritating chorus.
We were in the middle of the grove tackling one of the trees with hand brushes, when I spotted Lisel and Glory talking, strolling right toward me. I ducked behind a tree trunk. Esme chuckled. “Don’t worry. They no see you.” And she was right — they walked right by me, but never looked at me. How could they not see me?
I was distracted, trying to figure it out. All afternoon I tried to figure it out as other people I knew walked by me without blinking. You’d think they’d notice someone in bright orange.
The next day Esme and I were sent to recover items from the collapsed section of a nursery school that had been caught in Dust-storm Tina. It had been all over the media — people up in arms accusing the school board of building too close to the surface — the school board blaming the building contractors for faulty construction. Three teachers and 25 kids dead. The items had been brought into a clean room set up close to the collapse. They looked pathetic and a little creepy under their shrouds of dust. It was just Esme and me doing the detail work. We were alone in the room all day long. Esme wouldn’t let me take my mask off this time. Full kit, she said, you never knew where a bit of blue glue, or black-green could be hovering.
It was my job to immerse the items one by one in a series of vats filled with various cleaning solutions. Some of the cleaning stuff looked disgusting and reeked like vomit. I wanted to get it done fast and get the hell out of that room, but again Esme insisted otherwise and so I fell into a slow, robotic pace. I had to inspect each item to identify the dust. Items covered in blue glue were taken up by wooden tongs (never your gloved hands because the blue glue would stick to your gloves) and dumped into a vat of hot fat that dissolved the blue. Anything with red streaks went into the vinegar vat. Anything with grey or white went into plain soap and water. Anything with violet splotches went into one of the smelly solutions. And anything with even a smidgeon of black-green was deemed irretrievable. I packed those in vacuum containers. These items would be removed later and burned as fuel in the city furnaces. Once the items had soaked in their various vats, Esme would take each out, rinse them in clean water and wipe them off with a soft cloth.
I was soon bored and sleepy. I kept yawning under my mask. I can’t tell you how much time went by. It could have been 10 minutes or three hours. I don’t know. Then I heard humming. It took me a while to figure it out; it was coming from Esme. She hummed and muttered ever so slightly as she worked. She’d pick an item out of the vat with her strainer and then talk to it — like she was talking to a baby. She scooped up a dollhouse table and its four miniature chairs, and crooned to them: “There, there, it’s all right now my little chicks.” She dropped them gently in the rinse vat and asked them: “Doesn’t that feel nice?” And then she picked them out one by one from the water and meticulously dried every inch of them. Her soft cloth caressed the beat-up plastic as if it were something rare and fragile. And then she placed furniture on the clean tray — the table in the middle, the four chairs tucked in around it, just waiting for the dolls to come in and set the table or for the dead children to come back and play.
In the evenings we had to endure group sessions. Monday’s lecture was about the importance of civil obedience, of the communal commitment and vigilance against ever-encroaching dust and decay. Tuesday evening we all slept through the procedures of maintaining a dust-free zone. It was kindergarten stuff that. Wednesday’s session was entitled, “Dust and your Health” and the gruesome images and medical horror stories were a big hit with my fellow convicts. Thursday was “National Sweeper Day” and they told us in nauseating detail about Mrs. Elba Maroni who swept the children’s park in Little Etna every day — morning, noon and night— for 30 years, thus keeping the black lung stats in Little Etna’s children under 5%. They gave her a medal — a month before she died of emphysema. I’ve heard these types of sweeper-hero stories all my life — so barely listened. It was bullshit — no one really important or really smart ever became a sweeper. Friday night was marginally better. We went through safety drills to prepare us for emergencies in the field: what to do if you get blue glue in your eyes or black-green on your skin. “Kiss your face good-bye,” murmured the guy beside me. But in fact there was stuff you could do — and I found myself listening.
I was looking forward to the Saturday social — until someone told me that “social” was code for confessional. Basically all us convicts had to get up one by one and confess our crimes in front of the group. At first, being intensely curious about my fellow convicts, I thought that might be interesting. Then, I realized I’d have to stand and ’fess up myself and I started to freak out. In the lunchroom on Saturday, Esme sat down across from me and asked me what was the matter.
“Nothing,” I said, shrugging.
“Nothing,” she said in that soft voice of hers. “Nothing at all?” And when I didn’t answer and we had sat in silence for a while, Esme started to tell me this story — it was the most she had ever said to me in one go. She said: “One day, when I was 12, my mother went to the store and left me with my baby brother. But I didn’t want to look after him; I wanted to be with my friends. So I took him to the playground and put him in a baby swing, swung him a few times, left him there and then went over to my friends at the monkey bars. He was only a few feet away; I could see him, keep an eye on him. I thought he was safe. Then my friend Zellie said something to me and I turned to answer her and I heard this swoosh behind me, I turned back and the ceiling had collapsed on top of the swings and all this dust had come pouring in. There was just this mound of dust where the swings had been. Before anyone could stop me I was digging in the dust with my bare hands looking for my brother — that’s how I got these.” She spread her scarred hands out on the table. “It was stupid. My brother was already dead of course. That’s my confession.”
“Your confession?” I said in confusion. “Your confession?”
She nodded her head. “So you won’t feel too bad confessing your crime.”
How did she know what was bothering me? Never mind that, why did she think her confession would help? “It’s not the same!” I said, trying to keep my voice low, so no one else would hear.
“It is the same. I was neglectful — I killed someone.”
“It’s not the same!’ I said, now irritated. “Esme, you were never convicted of disorder were you?”
“No, but still…”
“You didn’t know the ceiling was going to collapse. You weren’t to blame.”
“I was to blame. I failed to keep him safe.”
“Oh God, Esme. Is anybody ever safe in this dump?” I said with all the sweeping wisdom of my 16 years.
But on this point Esme was adamant. “People can be safe, if we sweep carefully, slowly, thoughtfully every day.”
I began to laugh at Esme’s joke, sweeping thoughtfully, good one, but then I realized that Esme was serious — and possibly certifiable.
“ Is that why you became a regular sweeper Esme, because your brother died?”
She nodded her head.
“I never killed anyone, you know,” I said to her. “It wasn’t like that.”
“I know,” she said, patting my hand with one of her rough, scarred ones. “But you could have.”
That evening I stood up in front of everyone and confessed my crime. For all my anxiety beforehand, it was really a non-event — I said it in one go: I was on mandatory community watch one night — all high schoolers have to do it — and I took off early with Glory and forgot to shut the door to the dust collectors. A couple of cats got into them, tracked the dust everywhere. Stuff was ruined, people were scared and the community had to pay overtime for clean up.
“That’s it? You killed a couple of cats?” yelled someone from the audience.
“No, the cats were fine. It was grey,” I yelled back.
“Shit, you got a crap judge.”
I grinned; at last someone agreed with me — that I shouldn’t have received such a harsh sentence. But then No-face Jake dismissed me with a curt cliché: “A place for everything and everything in its place — that keeps us safe” and from the audience I could see Esme nod in agreement.
Two weeks, three weeks, one month and then another month went by — always the same, always doing detail work, in the plazas and offices, in the parks and playgrounds.
New evening programs were invented to bore us or gross us out. At first I slept walked through everything, didn’t care anymore that nobody recognized me in the plazas. But gradually I began to notice things — little things. How whenever a civilian stared at Jake’s scars he thrust his ravaged chin out even more, and barked his orders even louder. That made me smile. I saw how sloppy and oblivious the civilians were — littering, dropping crumbs everywhere, tracking in the dust, and never closing the bulkheads properly. I had been like that once, I suppose. But mostly I noticed Esme. She never rushed— never. Her hands were so still. Every time I saw the scars I pictured her frantically digging in the dust to find her baby brother. It was weird to think of her as frantic. And always she hummed. When she was particularly pleased, when I had managed to clean an item slowly and carefully enough, her humming would grow more melodious. When she was displeased, her humming was a lament, full of keening and low tsks and huffs. I found myself longing for her soft melodies and working hard to earn them.
You’re going to think I’m crazy, but there’s satisfaction in an item well swept and a place put to rights. One day, I was given the job of sweeping out a courtyard with a manual broom — somehow they couldn’t get the electric vacs in there. It was a long and tedious process and I fully expected to be bored, but I wasn’t. Instead with each sweep, I imagined all the dangers in the world, all the chaos, and shitty things that happen to you, being pushed out. I imagined myself marking the boundaries, declaring to I don’t know who — to God I suppose, or the devil or randomness — you cannot step over these lines, as long as I sweep, as long as I sweep, you have to stay out. And I believed that.
The next day, we were sent back to that collapsed nursery school. The city engineers had given us the okay as far as structural repairs were concerned. They had patched the ceiling and hoisted heavy scaffolding all around to guard against the shifting, creeping dust in the crawl spaces between the ceiling and the floor above. The heavy-duty vacs had come in and cleaned out most of the rooms, and the coroner had found the bodies and removed them. It was ready for the detail work. We went in with full kit. We had our first aid bag, our water. We were always cautious — safety first, with Esme, all the time. She was in a good mood. She was cleaning the counters, while I swept the chairs — slowly, carefully, left to right, up to down, just as she had taught me. And Esme began one of her happy hums and I was happy too.
I had my back to her when I heard the swoosh. I turned around and Esme was gone. All I saw was black-green. And I remembered the safety procedures from the Friday evening programs — Grey and White pour water; Red streaks pour vinegar, Blue-glue wrap in oily bandages, Purple splotches plaster on that smelly shit. But black-green, black-green — you had two, three minutes tops to get it off the victim before they became irretrievable. I dug, I dug in the dust frantically through the black-green, but there was so much of it. I couldn’t find her. That’s how I got these scars. I had my safety gloves on, but it ate through the material and into my hands because I kept on digging long after I should have stopped. It was useless of course. After five minutes, even with her full kit on, she was gone. The rest of my sentence was waived and I spent a year in a rehabilitation centre for the scarred — waiting for my hands to heal. Two days after I left the hospital, I went to see Jake and signed up as a regular. Anyway, that’s my confession — that’s why I became a sweeper.