Short Story. 2900 words. October, 1996.
Photo: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada, 2007.
Originally published in Literally Stories, June 8, 2018. My author’s biography at Literally Stories is also online.
I work for the federal government.
I don’t know what that means.
Yes I do. It means pushing this broom from one end of the hall to the other ─ this end to that end ─ when it’s dark outside. Like now. I don’t like the dark but these humming lights always work. If they don’t, I must report them to my boss. Mr. Shapiro.
Does that make me a reporter? No one likes reporters.
I hope the humming lights never burn out.
Working for the federal government also means opening these doors, one at a time, emptying waste baskets and dusting ledges. It even means vacuuming carpets and I like the vacuum. Big and bright blue with a yellow hose. Black wheels. It sings and sighs and plays a tune when I push. If I turn it on and don’t push, it only plays one note. Waiting for me.
Mama’s vacuum is so small and skinny. Grey plastic. The wheels are afraid to be seen. It hardly creates any wind and doesn’t sound as nice. She doesn’t let me push. The tune she plays is grey and boring. Like an engine steadily revving. Same pace as the rocking chair that creaks when she sits in it. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Mama knows where I work. She must know what it means to work for the federal government. She tells everyone about my job. Everyone who comes in the door. Michael has one of the most important jobs in the country, she says. He works for members of parliament and cabinet ministers, she says.
Do they preach to the cupboards?
In the halls of power, she says.
This hall has no power, not while I’m here. Just this wide broom.
No. It has some power. Sockets. Humming lights. I hope they never burn out.
The floor polisher has power, too, but they don’t let me use it. Not since I let go. It didn’t want to be held. The thing kept wailing and pulling away, so I let go. It ran straight for the wall, then followed along all the way to the stairs. It should have known not to walk down the stairs. When I saw the floor polisher’s round bottom in the air, still going round and round, still wailing, I wondered why it ever wanted to go downstairs. I would have pushed the elevator buttons if I’d known what it wanted. I like watching the little circles light up.
Sweep, sweep. No music. But I can’t start the vacuum until the hall is swept. Mr. Porter’s office comes first. His office is small and always cold and I’ve never met him. He never works late. Mr. Johnson is next and he sometimes works late. Only sometimes.
Mr. Johnson never says hello. He just hunches closer to his desk and twitches his nose. Or else leaves and comes back when I’m finishing, breath smelling like onions.
Mrs. Robinson’s big office comes after that and she’s only there once a week but always a different night, so I have to try the door first. If it’s unlocked I can’t go in but if it’s locked I can. It should be the other way around but Mr. Shapiro said a locked door means she’s locked it behind her on her way out. An unlocked door means she’s still in there. Don’t go in if she’s still in there. Got that? You can’t go in while she’s still in there.
That’s what mama said to me about the bathroom. You can’t come in while I’m still in here. But mama locks the door when she goes in. Not when she comes out. Mrs. Robinson does it wrong. Maybe I should tell her but I don’t want to. I see her going out sometimes and her clothes always look stiff. Cold blue. Her hair looks plastic. People always follow her but she doesn’t face them when she talks.
My vacuum won’t sing for you, Mrs Robinson.
I don’t like Mr. St. Pierre either. His office is here, next to Mrs. Robinson’s, but I’m absolutely not allowed to touch his door, ever, under any circumstances. Never, never, never. Mr. Shapiro said so. Mr. St. Pierre must like dust and hair in his carpets. He must be a bad man.
Mr. Rutherford is my favourite. Mr. Rutherford smells like powder and he is a nice man. This is his door here, right in there. His office is big and warm but it looks like he has gone home already.
Too bad. That’s two nights in a row. But when he’s not here I can listen to his voice on the telephone. I like that. His voice sounds so nice. Smooth as a breeze.
Maybe I’ll just go in and listen now.
No. I’m not allowed. I can only start vacuuming the offices when I’m done sweeping the hall. And the rooms must be done in order, starting way back there. Unless Mrs. Robinson’s door is unlocked, then I go back later. After my break. She’s always gone by then.
Mr. Smith’s office is last. It smells like salmon. Mr. Smith only worked late once. Really late. My shift was nearly over. But he wasn’t working. He was taking a break because he was sitting on the couch. His secretary was there. But she wasn’t working. I don’t even think she was taking a break. She was crying. I think she was crying. She was kneeling on the floor with her head in Mr. Smith’s lap and her shoulders heaved up and down. Up and down. Steady as mama’s vacuum. Her dress was tight but soft-looking. Dark, dark red. Warm as blood. Her hair was blonde but not long. She looked too small and pretty to be crying. And Mr. Smith looked too happy, the way he grinned down at her. I wanted to ask what was wrong but that’s when Mr. Smith looked up and yelled at me.
Get out. Get the fuck out, you stupid moron!
Get out. Get the fuck out, you stupid moron.
What a mean man. He must be a bully. Mama always tells me to never mind the bullies. They’re just bullies, you never mind them.
The secretary didn’t look up when Mr. Smith spoke. She lowered her head deeper into his lap and it looked like she got stuck there. She didn’t budge. Mr. Smith wanted to say something else but screamed instead. He was in pain.
Serves him right. Maybe she hit him for grinning at her while she cried but I didn’t see her hit him. She just stayed frozen.
I knew I wasn’t wanted, so I left, but Mr. Smith threw something at me. An ashtray, I think. It missed and I heard it smash into a billion pieces.
Mr. Shapiro said I didn’t have to go back and clean Mr. Smith’s office.
─ Have I done wrong?
No. You haven’t done wrong. Just clean the room twice as hard tomorrow night. I’ll go back later and clean up the ashtray, though.
─ But what if they’re there again tomorrow night?
I’m sure they won’t be.
And they weren’t.
─ But why was his secretary crying?
Mr. Shapiro grinned but didn’t answer. No one seemed sad that the woman was crying. Everyone grinned. Her dress was dark, dark red. Warm as blood. I asked again why she was crying.
You’re not meant to know.
I’m not meant to know.
Why am I not meant to know? Mama says the same when I ask who my papa is.
You’re not meant to know, Michael.
Mr. Rutherford never says I’m not meant to know. Too bad he’s not in his office tonight. There’s no strip of light at the bottom of his door, so he must be gone. Two nights in a row. Maybe I should knock, just to see.
No. It’s not time to do his office yet.
Maybe Mr. Rutherford is my papa. He says he has a son like me. Maybe me and his son were twins. Separated at birth. Or maybe I’m his only son and mama took me away. Mr. Rutherford might not want anyone to know his son is missing and maybe he just doesn’t know I am his son.
I wish I really were his son. Mama says it’s good to pretend.
She seems to know what it means to work for the federal government. How does she know? Unless she used to work here. Maybe she used to work for Mr. Rutherford. Then she cried and everyone grinned and that’s why she took me away. Even though Mr. Rutherford didn’t grin when she cried. Just everyone else did.
Mr. Rutherford could be my papa. He talks to me. Says I’m like his son.
I have a son like you.
He also shows me wonderful things. Like when I saw him push a white button on his desk phone. Then he pressed six, four, seven, two, nine and just sat there listening.
─ You need five more numbers.
No, I’ve got what I need, thanks.
─ You need five more numbers. Phone numbers have ten numbers.
Mr. Rutherford shook his head and went on holding the receiver to his ear.
─ Unless it’s long distance. Maybe it is. Six, four, seven isn’t local. If that’s the area code, you need six more numbers, starting with a one in front.
Mr. Rutherford put down the phone.
Did you really see what numbers I pressed? From all the way over there?
─ Six, four, seven, two, nine.
You really are a lot smarter than everyone thinks.
Mr. Smith thinks I’m a stupid moron.
Then Mr. Rutherford told me about voice mail.
─ How can you put a stamp on things you say?
He explained and looked right into my eyes. He only looked away to look at the phone.
─ It’s just like mama’s answering machine, except you have to press six, four, seven, two, nine, instead of PLAY.
Y-yeah. Something like that. Now look, Michael. I’m going to trust you with this, okay? No listening to my messages. They’re personal. Confidential. I know if you promise not to listen, you’ll keep your promise.
─ Can I listen to your voice sometimes?
Mr. Rutherford stared at me. Oh, you mean my outgoing message? The one I played for you?
I nodded several times.
Why, of course. If that’s what you want. Just press that white button there. Mr. Rutherford smiled. You can only press the white button and then listen. Don’t press six, four, seven, two, nine. Promise?
─ I promise.
When I hold the receiver and press the white button, it sings too fast. Bu-bu-pu-pu-ba-ba-bup. Then I hear Mr. Rutherford’s voice. Smooth as a breeze.
The hall is swept now. The federal government has a swept hall. The broom goes back in this closet with no fancy door. Smells like old water. It’s hard to get the wide broom to stay on that little hook. I can never get it the first time. If it stays, I can take the vacuum out.
It’s staying. Only my first try. I’m getting better.
I can feel the vacuum wanting to sing. One wheel squeaks the best it can but it’s not enough.
Mr. Porter’s office. That’s his name on the door. I have to find the right key and empty the waste baskets and dust the ledges before the vacuum can sing. The keys all look the same. If they weren’t numbered, I’d never know which to use. Got it. Why doesn’t Mr. Shapiro just give me one key that fits every door? He wouldn’t even have to number it. My house key opens the back door and the front door.
Nothing ever happens in here. It’s always empty and cold. Nothing interrupts the vacuum. Not even the phone ringing. It never rings.
It rang in Mr. Rutherford’s office. I heard the ringing and shut the vacuum off. It was disappointed but the phone wanted attention. Four times it rang. Then it stopped and rang four more times. It just kept going like that. Mr. Shapiro said don’t answer any ringing phones but this phone needed to be answered. I also thought maybe Mr. Rutherford might want me to.
And he did. It was Mr. Rutherford calling.
Hello. Good boy, Michael. I knew you’d be there. You’re always there this time of night. I figured if I kept hanging up after the voice mail switched on, then calling back, you’d eventually pick up the phone.
─ I thought you might want me to.
And I did, Michael. I did. That’s why I’m calling. I’m so sorry to bother you but I need a favour. I’ve made a mistake and forgotten an important file there.
It must be on top of the filing cabinet by the door. Can you see a file folder there?
I looked across the room and saw one thing on top of the filing cabinet. The cabinet Mr. Rutherford must minister to.
─ There’s one file there.
Good. Good. Now, have you ever seen me use the fax machine? It’s that big cream-coloured thing on the table next to the small window.
─ Yes, I’ve seen you use it.
Well, if you’ve watched me use it, you can probably use it yourself. Can’t you?
─ Yes, I think I can.
I know you can. I know how smart you are, Michael. Just like my son.
─ Just like your son.
Okay. Here’s what I want you to do: take all the papers out of the file ─ there should only be about ten ─ and put them face down on the fax machine. Just like you saw me do. Make sure they’re all lined up together and give them a little push. Then hit the second orange button from the top. That’s where my home fax number has been programmed. After that, hit the green button. That’s all you need to do. I’ll just stay on the phone and wait. If you can do all that, I’d be ever so grateful.
The fax machine was easy to use. Easier than the floor polisher but not as nice as the vacuum. It didn’t sing. It beeped once, one long screaming beep, and then sort of hummed. Sort of.
Mr. Rutherford was ever so grateful. He thanked me after all ten pages went into the machine and then came out again, but I don’t know how he knew I was done. Maybe he heard the humming stop.
It’s one of the world’s last remaining fax machines but it has sure been handy tonight. He said he’d do a favour for me someday. He didn’t say when but then he brought me a slice of cake and a silver pen.
The cake was delicious and the pen is in my drawer at home.
There, that’s it. Mr. Porter’s waste baskets are empty and his ledges are dusted. The vacuum is ready to sing.
It’s time for Mr. Rutherford’s office. His key is my favourite because it fits in the door easier than all the others. The key to Mrs. Robinson’s door always sticks. Mr. Shapiro sometimes has to help.
The name plate.
The name plate is missing.
Where did it go? It hasn’t fallen to the floor.
I bet Mr. Smith took it. Just like the big kids took my mittens. Mr. Smith is a bully. If Mr. Rutherford were here, I’d tell him not to mind Mr. Smith. He’s just a bully. You never mind him.
Where have all the pictures gone from the walls?
Something must be wrong.
That picture of Mr. Rutherford shaking hands with the big-eared man is gone. The picture of him with the woman in green is gone.
Why would Mr. Rutherford get rid of the pictures? They belong here. I can see lighter patches on the wall where the pictures belong.
Other things are missing, too. That old wooden chair from the corner. The navy umbrella that’s always hanging on the coat rack. The fax machine is gone. It’s almost the last one in the world.
Mr. Rutherford has been robbed.
I hope no one takes my silver pen.
Mr. Rutherford has been robbed. Maybe it’s my fault. Is it my fault?
Has anyone taken his phone? No. It’s still there.
If I want to hear his voice, I just press that white button. Mr. Rutherford says I’m allowed. I want to hear his voice.
Uh-oh. That’s not Mr. Rutherford. Why not? Where did Mr. Rutherford’s voice go? It belongs here. Who is this lady and what has she done with Mr. Rutherford’s voice? Is she the robber? And what does she mean this mailbox is no longer in service?
What mailbox? Did I break it? Does she mean the mailbox from the corner near my house? It’s not in service. It’s gone. Like the name plate, pictures, chair, umbrella and fax machine.
I’m allowed to listen to Mr. Rutherford’s voice. But maybe not anymore. Why not? Have I done wrong?
Maybe if I try again. Come on. No, it’s her again. No. No. No.
I’ve done wrong.
This mailbox is no longer in service.
What mailbox? What does she mean?
I don’t know the answer. I know I’ll never know. It’s like Mr. Shapiro said. Like mama said. I’m not meant to know.