Fiction: Bleach & Bourbon
By Chris Gilman Whitney
Parker has only cleaned toilets for 2 weeks before his mind turns to murder.
We’re in the men’s room on the first floor, between the offices and the shop, the bathroom the machinists use. I’m using the kneepads the company gives us, but Parker is standing, his legs spread wide and locked, bent over at the waist scrubbing the back of one of the toilets, mumbling curses under his breath.
“Told you, always use the pads,” I say. His scrubbing is erratic and sloppy. I can tell just by the sound.
“Think I wanna kill this guy,” Parker says. “The owner. What’s his name again?”
“Don’t know.” McGill, his last name, on the front of the building. We clean the building every Tuesday. I don’t want to fan the flames.
“Fucker,” he says, grunting.
We’re silent for the rest of our shift.
After I vacuum the front office I wrap the cord around the unit and bring it out to the van. Parker is already there, his arms crossed and head tipped back surrounded by smoke.
“I’ll put this in the van and finish the paperwork. Run back and turn out the lights.” I hand him the keyring.
He holds up his cigarette, shrugs. “Long night, man.”
I sigh and prop the vacuum against the van, steadying it because I know if it tips over he’s not going to do a damn thing. The sprinklers are on along the walkway back to the front door, their chh-chh-chh throwing droplets of water on the fat orbs of purple hydrangeas.
Starting back at the shop, I tap switch after switch and bring darkness to the building. Working my way down the corridor of offices, I stop at the second to last one. A shock—a bright pink sweater draped on a desk chair. Obvious against the constant grey: the low-pile carpet, the soft walls of the cubicles, all an endless monochromatic swath. I run my hand over the sweater, look at the photos on the desk that I’ve never noticed before. There’s a couple of crumbs left over on the desk so I sweep them into my hand and brush them off into the trash and turn out the lights.
Parker has me drop him off on a random corner of Tyler Street—“I’ll walk from here”—and I notice the neon glow of a Coors Light sign on a small brick building.
I drink. Too much, but I’m working on it. After Parker disappears up the side street into the darkness of the night I find myself staring at the neon glow like a siren beckoning. I resist, because I know what will happen: one beer will turn into three, three will turn into six, six will turn into me sleeping in the van in the driveway, my mother slamming on the hood at seven AM shouting at me to move the damn thing. I make the right decision and head home, park in the street so my mother has enough room to leave in the morning.
I let Parker mop the floor of the shop while I clean the toilets solo tonight. He was still bitching when I picked him up so I put my headphones on and told him to have fun. There’s a rhythm to cleaning the bathrooms, especially the ones the machinists use. They seemingly don’t know how to aim their pricks and they also sometimes miss the bowl with their shit somehow, no doubt a result of the greasy food trucks that are parked on the cul-de-sac of the industrial park. Not that I mind, I’m used to it—it takes me back to when I was younger, 12 or 13 or so, my mother standing in the doorway of the bathroom barking orders at me, how to scrub the backside of the toilet, her scratchy voice reminding me to rub my finger under the rim with a damp paper towel to catch what the brush couldn’t, arms crossed in her pale robe with a slim cigarette hanging from her lips. “Scrub it like ya mean it, kid,” she used to say in between hacks. After I was done I’d have to wash out the ashes in the sink. That was after my dad left, right before I started drinking.
Now no one yells at me when I clean toilets.
After I finish the bathroom I peek out into the shop and see Parker in the far corner, moving the mop around erratically. No flow, no purpose to his mopping, just jerking motions in every direction, streaking up the epoxied floor.
The pink sweater is still on the desk chair. My fingers graze the material, like wool but thinner, more luxurious, something I’ve certainly never felt before. I sit in the desk chair and slowly rotate. The pictures that line the desk show the woman in what most would call a well-lived life: a beach with friends, a ski hill with a couple kids, skydiving with a thumbs-up gesture. She is smiling in all of the photos, and it helps me imagine that she is smiling all the time. She’s tan in that way that wealthier woman tan: skin creased, almost as dark as her hair, gold jewelry a stark contrast. A beautiful woman, a beautiful life.
I take the sweater off the chair, bunch it up, put my face close. Take a deep inhale. Picture myself next to the woman on the beach, her skin slick with sweat, the two of us with maniacally wide smiles. I sniff the sweater again. I think I love her.
I hear the door from the shop slam close, and Parker calls out my name. I ball up the sweater and throw it in the back of a filing cabinet in the corner of the room and shut off the light.
“This is my buddy’s spot,” Parker says when I pull up in front of a party. He had me drive here instead of his house and now he’s asking me to come in. “There’s some cool people here. Smoke? Drink?”
I rub my knees, my jeans heating up. “Better not.”
“Come on, one beer.”
I know what one beer leads to but I follow him anyway. A rhythmic hum comes from inside the house and as we walk up the front steps I can see red plastic cups, I can smell weed, I can picture the van parked crooked on my mother’s lawn. I stop and let Parker bound up the front steps. He turns at the top with a what gives? look on his face.
“I’m, uh, gonna head home,” I say. I turn around before he can utter a word.
“You ever take anything from these jobs?” he says, eating a bag of m&ms from the vending machine. He’s got his shoes propped up on the table that I’ll have to wipe down again.
“No,” I say, thinking of the pink sweater, the peach-scented…what? Lotion? Shampoo? Though I didn’t take it, I wanted to. I still might.
“I don’t mean like a soda or anything out of their fridge, that doesn’t count.”
“Actually, it does.” The last guy that worked with me got caught on camera taking the Dr. Peppers.
Parker waves this away. “I wanna look through some desks. Bet there’s some cool shit here.”
I look at the clock. “Go have a cig. I’ll finish up.”
He crumples the bag and leaves it on the table. “Yes, sir.”
“Take this next right.”
Parker has been giving me directions like this for almost 20 minutes. We’re miles away from his neighborhood, many more miles away from mine. We’re in the nicer part of town, or maybe even a town over. The streets have fancier names, even fancier identifiers—wealthy people seem to always live on a Court, a Terrace, a Circle. The rest of us live on streets, avenues, drives.
“Look, man, I don’t have time to be out here all night—”
“Almost there,” he says. “Couple more streets. Here it is, Stonehill Lane.”
I turn—Lane, that’s another one. The streetlights are modeled after old-timey lamps and the concrete sidewalks seem to glisten under the light. Driveways—some of them made of paver stones—weave through immaculate lawns that are a perfect green even in the dense of night. The pavers lead up to immense houses: swaths of brick and so many gables, Juliet balconies, three- and four-car garages. I drive slowly, awestruck, and Parker nods his head.
“Exactly, man. Slow down here, here. Forty-nine.” He gasps. “Cut the engine.”
We stop in front of a house with ivy crawling up a brick façade, the hedges lighted and angled sharply. An upstairs window is lit by a pale glow behind sheer curtains.
“Okay, nice house,” I say. “And?”
“That’s his house,” Parker says. “McGill. Lives there with his wife and three daughters. They’re kinda hot.”
“You been snooping?”
“Haven’t you?” He punches me on the arm, a little too hard to be playful. “I was looking through his desk and shit. Doesn’t keep any money in the office. But shoot, I bet there’s a bunch in there.”
I can practically hear him salivating.
“What’s the goal here, Parker,” I say. “I’m trying to get home. It’s late.”
“Some night, we’re coming here instead.”
I tip my head back against the headrest. Think about bourbon. Beer. Vodka. Gin. Kerosene, paint thinner, bleach. Anything.
“You ready yet?” I say.
“I’m fucking serious, man. You better get with it.”
I start the van.
“You wanna clean toilets forever? You wanna keep living with your moms and shit? Fuck that, man. We can come up. We can bust in there and take a bunch of shit. Cash, jewelry, art. Who knows. Could be major.”
I picture the woman from the office with the pink sweater and what our life would be like together. I’ve been doing it a lot lately. The smell of the sweater comes to me in the middle of the night, or when I’m stuck in traffic, early in the morning before I even have my coffee and before my mom gets in my ear about something trivial.
“So? What do you think?” Parker says. I’ve never seen him this animated, this excited. His eyes are wide with fury, or fear, maybe a substance or two.
“I think it’s time to go home,” I say, and shift the van into drive.
The bars that are still open call to me, and I pull the van over and let the neon wash over the windshield. I swear I can feel its heat. I close my eyes and picture the party, the cups, the bottles, the bar, the stools, the unclean bathrooms, the unclean women, the look of disappoint on my mother’s face. I turn the van off and go inside.
The bar is dark, quiet. Led Zeppelin coming out of the jukebox at just over a whisper. A pool table sits unused in the back corner. Three patrons at the bar, regulars no doubt. They all turn in unison as I let in the glow from the street, and I’m met with faces of incredulity, indifference. I leave a couple empty stools between me and the old timers and ease onto the worn leather. The bartender is a beady-eyed man with pockmarks on his face and a ponytail that reaches between his shoulder blades. He eyes me up and down and waits for me to say something. Like he’s annoyed I’m not a regular.
“Can I get ya?” he says finally, the other guys leaning forward to watch me.
I eye the bottles that line the wall, though the low light doesn’t help me discern what’s available. Doesn’t matter. I want cheap. I want well liquor. I just want to feel the warmth, I just want to get fucked up. I want to drink gasoline.
“Bourbon, neat. Whatever’s cheap.”
He nods, disapprovingly. This order seems to please the others and they go back to their murmuring. Something about taxes, the closed factory.
The bourbon is placed in front of me. The dark amber jostling. I look down at it and catch the vapors in my nose. Close my eyes, disappear. I imagine the woman from the pictures in the office, her bright smile, head tilted back in joy. Her degrees on the wall. Her sweater, lodged in the back of the cabinet.
The bourbon is taunting. I’m trying to picture the woman from the office, trying to imagine our life together, sipping margaritas on a beach with blinding white sand, and instead I hear my mother’s raspy and snarling voice calling me a fuck-up, a loser, telling me I’m a deadbeat just like every other man that’s ever been in her life. I slide the bourbon back across the bartop, the alcohol spilling over the sides of the glass and onto the permanently sticky wood. I slap a five on top and spin around and hope it’s enough.
“Sorry,” I say on my way out, “I’m really sorry.”
I’m exhausted. I’ve been sleeping in the van for a few weeks because my mom tears into me every time I’m in the house, and it’s easier to just ignore her and lay in the back, nudging the equipment to the side. The chemicals leave me dizzy in the morning, so I’ve begun my days by sitting on the curb and smoking cigarettes, first bummed from Parker, then bought by the pack, then the carton. I want nothing more than to bury myself in a whiskey barrel. I want to drown in golden lager.
Parker’s gotten skinny. Every night when I pick him up he talks about the house on Stonehill Lane and his plans. Cut the phone line, the power, go in through the sliding glass door off the kitchen—the one that overlooks the pool. He figures the master bedroom probably has a big safe in the closet, and if we move quick enough, we can get the family tied up in under three minutes.
I’ve started wearing headphones all the time.
I go back to the office with the pink sweater nearly every night. I’ve kept it tucked away in the back of the same filing cabinet, the files marked HR 2005-06, figuring she’s not going to be looking in here anytime soon. I should have left it on her chair, though: the smell has faded. Now I make sure to vacuum under her chair, hunched under the desk, in case Parker comes by and catches me there. He never does—he’s too busy rifling through McGill’s desk to find anything that can get him in the house easier: a garage code on an invoice, an extra key in the pen drawer.
Her desk chair is so comfortable. I sit and spin and tilt my head back and think about her, my eyes closed because the water stains on the ceiling tiles are too depressing. I should change them. She deserves that.
I open my eyes and go to retrieve the sweater. Sure enough, it’s smelling more and more like paper, manila envelopes, the metal of the cabinet. She’s still in here somewhere, though, just like she’s always with me. Except—something new on her desk.
A new picture.
She’s wearing a dress, sparkling, low-cut, almost too low to put out on her desk. In the picture, she’s got her arm wrapped around a guy. He’s tall, much taller than her, his suit perfectly pressed, his salt-and-pepper hair sculpted like some aging Hollywood heartthrob. Like George Clooney if he had never made it as an actor and sold insurance in the suburbs. Drives a certified pre-owned Volvo. Has a Goldendoodle. My future with her disappears, and he’s taken me from her. My hands tremble, the grip on the photo frame tightening, close to shattering. And how perfect would that be. The glass shattering, my heart, the picture ripped, our future together useless, all broken and thrown to the ground, vacuumed up and forgotten. The woman of my dreams gone, and my mother’s voice replacing her: telling me how worthless I am, how much I deserve this.
I ball up the sweater, I tear at it, I bury my face into it and scream, I throw it into the trash and kick the bin over and push the papers from the desktop, spill them all over the floor.
I find Parker in McGill’s office, his feet up on the desk, an open bottle of Pappy Van Winkle in front of him. I rush over, his face screwed up in terror.
“Wait, man, wait—”
I take a long pull from the bottle. The burning, the stinging, the warmth. The chaos. My breath labored, chest heaving.
“Man,” Parker says, “Is everything okay? What is it?”
My grip on the neck of the bottle is so tight I think I could crush it. I try to slow my breathing to answer him. To let him know what we’ve sent ourselves to, what must be done.
“Let’s go to Stonehill Lane.”
Chris Gilman Whitney is a writer from Western Massachusetts. He earned his MFA at Bennington College and his work has appeared in Gulf Stream, Anti-Heroin Chic, Complete Sentence, and Roi Faineant.