Thursday, April 22, 2010

Round the Kitchen Table

The breakfast table was too big for just the two of them that morning, sitting there staring down into their cups of coffee as though the swirls of cream would have the answers they sought. Once there had been a family here. You could feel them, in the pictures pinned to the refrigerator and the few dirty dishes stacked in the sink. It had a quiet chaos to it. Someone tried to build a home here.

“So now what?” The younger one said. She was pale—both naturally and in pallor—and her hands trembled slightly when she raised the coffee cup to her lips. One knee bounced anxiously.

“Now nothing. We sit here, enjoy our coffee, until we get the call.”  The man across from her was sitting relaxed in his chair, arm half thrown over the back of it. He looked overly large in this kitchen, the furniture too small. He was a thick slab of muscle in a suit that she assumed had to be tailor made for his mountainous frame.

“They can’t expect us to just sit here like nothing happened,” she said. “I mean … come on!”

“Come on nothing,” the guy said easily, reaching out to grab the cup of coffee and taking a long drink. “I expect you to sit there like nothing’s happened. It’s what the job entails. If you don’t think you can cut it…”

The woman sat up straighter, clearing her throat. She reached up and adjusted the nondescript black ponytail she wore. She was in a matching suit, dark fabric. He had insisted. “No, I didn’t mean that. I’m just … nervous.”

“Of course you are. You’re just starting out. I’ve seen plenty of people handle it far worse than you.” He leaned forward in his chair and waved the coffee cup in her direction. “Besides, this wasn’t exactly an easy one. I mean, kid? Geez. I don’t even like it when it’s kids.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You?”

“You might not know it to look at me,” he said, “but I’ve got a big old soft spot. Love kids. Absolutely love ‘em. I’ve got a niece that I visit as much as I can, work permitting. Cute as a button. She’s turning four next month.”

“I … how can you be so laid back about this, then?”

“I have a job to do,” he said with a shrug. “I do it. If I didn’t, someone else would. I happen to be good at what I do, so I don’t worry too much about being bothered by it. It’s just a job, you know?”

“I … don’t think I’ll ever be as blasé as you.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He tapped one into his hand, and then pulled out the lighter. He inhaled sharply, letting it out slow as he pocketed the lighter again and settled back in his chair.

“You act like you own the place.”

“Might as well. Pretty sure the previous owners don’t have much to say about it,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, the back legs groaning as the chair tilted at an angle.  He balanced there perfectly, an elephant on a toothpick.

“You’re disgusting,” she said, standing up. She walked over to the sink, hands resting on the metal rim, staring out of the window that opened out onto the modest yard.

He just continued to smoke, blowing rings up into the air around him. In the stillness of the room, it hung about him like a cloud, thick and heavy. “You know, the first time I did this, I had to go out and have a cigarette to calm my nerves. I felt like I was going to throw up. The guy who was with me, he was a real hard ass. Would have made me feel it if I had lost my lunch. So I just smoked and tried really hard to keep it down.”

“Yeah, and?” She still stared out the window. She could see the wet trails down her cheeks, knew that she didn’t want him to see them. She poured all of her anger and willpower into stopping that flow. That was something she could control.

“And now it’s my ritual. I do my job, I smoke. It’s primal. Man makes fire, man becomes one with fire, the smoke moves like ghosts around you."

“I didn’t know you were such a poet,” she said, nearly shaking with anger. It was easier than hurt, to be pissed at him. “You should write a fucking book.”

“Yeah, maybe, eh?” He said, cackling. If he gave any indication of her distress, he didn’t let on. She wasn’t sure if she was thankful for that or resented him all the more for it. “Maybe when I settle down and retire. That’d make a hell of a book, huh? Pretty sure someone’d pay good money to listen to my bullshit.”

The two of them fell into silence. There was a long moment where he smoked and she struggled to get herself back together. Then there was the sound of knocking on the door. She visibly jumped at the intrusion, but he didn’t seem to be bothered. He tapped ash into what was left of the coffee and went to the back door. 

“Well, hello hello. Took you guys long enough,” he said. He held open the door as two other men, completely nondescript with everyday clothes, walked in. One of them was carrying a gym bag, looked like he had just been out running. He set it on the floor of the kitchen and pulled out two full body hazard suits.

As the two men dressed, the one who was in the running attire nodded to the woman. “Who’s she?”

“My protégé,” the man in the suit said. “This is her first time.”

“Oh, I see,” the other man, now fully zipped up in the hazard suit, said. “Congrats. I had my first day not 18 months ago.”

“Give her the rundown of what we do, boys,” the suit said.

“Right, well, what have you guys touched?”

“Just the kitchen here,” she said. “We both had a cup of coffee, he’s smoking,” she pointed at the trail that led to her partner, leaning against the wall and watching her talk. “The .. um … the big mess is in the bedrooms. They were still sleeping.”

“Of course, though this is the mess we’re really concerned with. You guys’ DNA will be in this room.” The two of them gathered up the coffee cups and all the things she pointed out that they touched. “We’ll get rid of all of this. No prints. Any wiped surfaces will just look like a normal kitchen cleaning.”

“I see … that makes sense,” the woman said with a nod. She watched them work and when they were done gathering up everything they had touched, she took a deep breath. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you the bedrooms.”

As the three of them went back into the bedrooms, the man in the suit stayed put. He couldn’t go out smoking in the yard, too much of a chance someone might watch him. It was still early, but this was the suburbs. People woke up awfully early sometimes.

One of the cleaners came down not long after they were gone, the older of the two who had been wearing the jogging clothes. His gloves were already stained bright red. “Your partner insists on watching us clean up.”

“Good for her,” the man in the suit said with a grunt.

“You sure that’s wise? She looks kind of shaken up by the whole bit.”

“Of course she does. Pretty gal like her? We all have our rough first time. But if she’s sticking around, then maybe she’s not too scared off about it. Hate to waste potential like that. You should have seen her, Bobby. She was a natural. A natural.”

“No, thanks. I don’t like watching. I just like putting things right again.” And he turned and went back upstairs, where the trash bags and detergents and hack saws awaited.

His cigarette went out. The man in the suit pulled out a small baggy and dropped the butt into it. Wouldn’t do to leave evidence, now that the cleaners were here. He was, after all, a professional.


Dan said...

This was excellent. My very first instinct screamed Hemingway's "The Killers"...and you didn't let me down.

Marisa Birns said...

This was excellently written; you have a wonderful way with dialogue.

Great story!

John Wiswell said...

Are they hiring?

Anonymous said...

Yikes, totally creepy. Well written, and I agree with Marisa, just excellent dialogue.

I have chills.