They come in the abandoned hour of the night, moving through
quiet arterial streets, empty intersections, past gated storefronts
and darkened windows, homeless men curled into bus stop
shelters, prostitutes walking the desolate concrete stretches.
They come in a pair of white Ford Econolines, identical vans, flanks
unmarked, windowless and blank. They sit parallel at stoplights and the drivers
raise their eyebrows at each other and yawn, sip coffee from Styrofoam cups,
roll forward when the lights change, toward the motel, the apartment complex,
the house in the hills.
There is always someone waiting when they arrive, someone standing in
the driveway or doorway, looking more than a little shell-shocked, still not
quite able to believe what they've seen, that what has happened has actually
happened. The police have left, the coroner's people have left, but someone
slipped them a business card on the way out, passed along a company name and
phone number and told them to call and wait. Mothers, husbands, wives, motel
night clerks, apartment managers, security guards. Whoever was unfortunate
enough to be the one to open the door, to walk into the room and see
something they will never forget.
They weren't going to call the number. There was a moment after all the
noise and commotion, after the police and the coroner's people left, when the
person waiting in the doorway was alone in the new silence of the place, just
outside the room, a moment where they thought they could handle it
themselves, thought they could take care of things quickly and efficiently, that
it would be the right thing to do for their son or husband or tenant or
employer. That it would be unpleasant but possible. But then they remembered
the sight and the smell and the profane mess, the horror of the thing, and they
dialed the number on the card and spoke to a sweet-sounding old woman who
took their information and told them that help was on the way.
The white vans pull to the curb, engines cooling, ticking in the stillness.
Two men get out of the first van, stretching and yawning in the bad
light. These are not the kind of men the person in the doorway expected. The
person in the doorway is not sure what kind of men they expected, but these
are not those men. One of the men is tall, buzz cut, with full sleeves of
multicolored tattoos. The other is short and gym-built, with a thinning cap of
flaming orange hair. These are rough-looking men, truckers or sailors, heavylifters,
men who look like they're in the habit of breaking things, dropping
things, banging around in small rooms. They do not seem equipped for the
subtlety and reverence required for the task at hand. The grandmother on the
phone had used the term technicians, had said that she was sending a crew of
technicians, but these men do not appear to have the degree of precision that
the term implies, the level of scientific expertise.
The person in the doorway considers redialing the number on the card,
canceling the job, dealing with this themselves. But then there is the memory,
that first moment when they opened the door and came upon the scene in the
room, the unspeakable thing. So they do nothing, they hold the business card
and wait as the men move to the backs of the vans and pull out their
equipment, red plastic buckets, squeeze bottles and spray cans, wire brushes and
putty knives, roll after roll of paper towels.
Another man, the driver of the second van, steps down onto the
sidewalk. He approaches the person in the doorway, walking slowly, head
down. He is terrifically fat. He has a graying ponytail that stretches down
between his shoulder blades and a thick, bushy mustache that turns up at the
ends. There is a name for this type of mustache, an antiquated style, but the
name escapes the person waiting. Remembering it seems important, suddenly,
proving that they are still capable of simple acts, putting names to things. It
seems like this would restore a level of normalcy to the night, having a name for
it, that style of mustache. But the term is just out of reach and they are left at a
The two men at the vans are pulling on blue paper body suits, they are
pulling on rubber gloves. They are duct taping each other's suit sleeves closed
around the gloves. They are pulling safety goggles out of the vans, plastic-andrubber
respiration masks, a box of disposable surgical booties. More duct tape
for the pant cuffs of their suits, a man standing on one leg, balancing with a
hand against the side of a van while the other rolls the tape around his ankles.
They look like something out of an old science-fiction movie.
Moonmen. They look like moonmen.
The fat man approaches, the fat man arrives. He is even bigger up close,
towering, damp-browed, breathing heavily from the short walk. He smells of
cigarettes and coffee. He looks down at the scuffed toes of his work boots. He is
about to speak and the person in the doorway has absolutely no idea what he is
going to say, what anyone could possibly say on this night, standing outside
after the police and coroner's people have gone, after the facts have been given
and recorded, the known details. The person has no idea what's left, what
words would still have a shred of relevance, what words wouldn't fail, utterly.
The fat man nods and looks up and speaks in a low, rich rumble.
What he says is, I'm very sorry for your loss.
And maybe this is the moment when the person in the doorway cries or
screams or lets loose a fusillade of vulgarities, a seething mass of profanity and
loss. Maybe this is the moment where the person falls to their knees, dissolving
into guilt, sobbing convulsively, and has to be helped up by the fat man, held
under the elbows and lifted, gently. Maybe this is the moment when the person
hits the fat man, when they punch the fat man in the chest, just to put a
physical action to the feeling, just to strike some kind of blow. Maybe this is the
moment when they speak in tongues, when they resurrect a primal language,
finding comfort in the acceptance of extreme things, babbling in God's own
voice. Or maybe this is the moment when they say nothing, when they stand
silent, when the weight of the thing that has happened finally settles upon
them, and they sag a little, in the shoulders and knees, the smallest thing, the
way they will sag from now on, the way they will carry this night in their bodies
from this moment forward, and maybe this is their only response to what the
fat man says.
The moonmen pass inside, carrying their equipment. Their blue paper
suits crinkle and shush. The fat man stays for a few minutes, and maybe he says
something else and maybe he doesn't. Maybe he just stands and waits as the
person in the doorway gets used to the sagging weight, their new posture, the
slight adjustment in bearing. Then the fat man returns to the vans and pulls on
his own moonman suit, gathers the equipment the others have laid out for him,
passes by the person in the doorway and enters the motel or apartment or house
in the hills.
And maybe this is when it comes to them, when it arrives unexpectedly,
the lost identifier. Maybe this is when they remember. The name of the thing.
The fat man's facial hair. Maybe it comes to them then, just like that, a gift.
Handlebar mustache. The name of the thing is handlebar mustache.
David Darby hauled his gear down the narrow hallway and up the stairs
to the fourth and top floor. Jerry Roistler followed half a flight behind. They set
their buckets down outside the numbered door and waited. Bob Lewis was
downstairs speaking with the person who'd been waiting when they arrived.
The apartment manager, Darby guessed, a harried-looking man with a gold
hoop dangling from one ear. Bob would get whatever information he felt
necessary for the job, probably more than he needed, then he'd come up and
look at the room and give the manager an estimate, a timeframe for
Darby could already smell the job on the other side of the door. The
room had sat for a while. A week, he guessed, maybe longer.
Roistler winced at the smell, pulled on his respiration mask.
"What do you think, Tattooed Lady?" Roistler said, voice muffled by the
mask. "Vectors or no vectors?"
"Five bucks says vectors."
"With that smell, five bucks says mucho vectors." Roistler worked his
knuckles, his neck and shoulders, an irritating sequence of firecracker pops.
Darby ignored him, listened to the stairs groan as Bob lumbered up to the top.
"Apartment manager was in Reno for a week," Bob said. He pulled a
loose strand of tobacco from his mustache. "Came back to a phone full of
messages about the smell."
"Nobody called the cops?" Roistler said.
"Older people in the building, mostly. Keep to themselves. Nobody
called anybody until it was time to complain about the smell."
Bob pulled on his mask, lifted the instant camera out of his bucket,
unlocked the door with a ring of keys the manager had given him. He would
take a picture of the room before they started work, what they called the Before
photo. He stepped into the doorway, filling the frame.
"Studio apartment," Bob said. "One main room, small kitchen off one
side, smaller bathroom off the other."
He lifted the camera to his eye, snapped a picture. The light of the flash
echoed back out into the hallway. The print slid from the face of the camera,
slowly developing. Bob pulled the print, shook it with his free hand. Darby
strapped on his safety goggles, picked up his equipment and entered the room.
The trick of the job is to forget what had happened. The trick of the job
is to acquire as little information as possible about the site, the former
occupants, the current occupants, the thing that happened there, and then to
forget that information. Not to see the big picture, the whole story. There is no
big picture, there is no whole story. There are only details that need to be
sprayed, scrubbed, bagged, disposed of.
The trick of the job is to use an alternate vocabulary for these details, a
list of terms developed over the years by the technicians, sanitized for their own
protection. Once inside the room, there is no blood, or skin, or hair, or teeth,
or chunks of brain, heart, lung, stomach. There is no evidence of violent death,
self-inflicted or otherwise. There is no detritus of a human body left to
decompose for days or weeks. There is only fluid and matter; there are only
spots, stains, leakage.
The trick of the job is not to listen to the people who are waiting in the
doorway, in the driveway, in the parking lot when the vans arrive. Often they
will have a lot to say, a lot to explain. It is important to understand what those
people do not: that there is nothing to explain. There is just fluid and matter.
There are just spots and stains. There is only a mess that needs to be cleaned
Remember those things, understand those things, and the job is possible.
The room can be cleaned, finished, set right. Remember those things and the
picture taken once the job is complete, the After photograph, will show
evidence that the trick is more than a trick. It will show what has been achieved
through hours of spraying and scrubbing and scraping and bagging, what future
occupants of the site will believe, safe and unsuspecting. That the trick of the
job is now the new truth of the room:
The recliner would have to be disposed of. That much was immediately
clear. The recliner was a lost cause, soaked in fluids and studded with matter.
Once Bob came back up from the manager's office, they'd need to wrap it and
carry it down to the vans. After the cleanup was complete, they'd drive it to the
disposal facility with the other red biohazard bags full of all the other things
they couldn't salvage, contaminated items that were impossible to clean.
The carpeting around the recliner was dark with dried splotches, stipples
trailing out toward the wall a few feet behind. Darby pulled a spray bottle from
his bucket, squirted the liquefying enzyme across the first splotch, softening the
dried fluid, creating a low mist around the recliner. He gave it a few seconds to
burble and hiss, then pulled a fistful of paper towels from a roll and soaked up
as much as the towels would hold. He red-bagged the towels and sprayed the
Roistler came into the apartment carrying the fogging machine. He
closed the door behind him and shut all the windows, sealing them in. He set
the machine down in the middle of the room. The fogger would flatten all
smell in the room, years of cologne and cooking and cigarettes and a week's
worth of fluid and matter sitting in the heat. It also helped with the flies,
though it didn't do much about the vectors.
Roistler had been right. There were mucho vectors. Flies gathered almost
immediately at a job site, and given enough time, flies laid eggs that became
vectors and vectors multiplied at an alarming rate, squirming around in any
fluid and matter they could find. A week was more than enough time for a
complete generation of vectors, maybe two.
Roistler flipped a switch on the fogger and the machine jumped to life.
Darby could feel its low rumble in his knees, vibrating through the floor. The
machine chugged and pumped, releasing a thin white mist in a steady stream.
Roistler said something Darby couldn't hear, then laughed at his own joke.
Darby sprayed another splotch at the foot of the recliner, tore more
paper towels from the roll, scooped the softened fluid. There were sharp shards
of broken glass near the toe of his work boot, the remains of a shattered vodka
bottle. There was another empty bottle on the TV, a third lying on its side on
the bed. Darby caught himself, stopped himself from looking around the room.
He narrowed his vision, refocused on the recliner.
"Darby," Roistler said. "Look at this."
Roistler was standing at the bookshelves on the other side of the room,
inspecting picture frames and detective paperbacks, anything that could have
been hit with flying fluid or matter.
"Darby, look." Roistler raised his voice to be heard over the fogger,
through the hood of Darby's suit. He was holding something between his
thumb and forefinger, dangling it for Darby to see.
Darby didn't look. He nodded like he'd looked, nodded and grunted
loudly as a false confirmation that he'd looked, because sometimes that was
enough, sometimes that satisfied Roistler and he'd get back to work without
any further conversation.
"Darby, look. You're not looking."
Darby didn't look. He nodded and grunted and scooped the last of the
fluid from the carpeting. It wasn't going to be enough. The carpeting would
have to be disposed of. He picked a scoring razor out of his bucket and started
cutting the carpet into record album-sized squares, pulling the squares loose,
stuffing them into a red biohazard bag.
It was already hot in the room. Darby sweated in his suit, used his
forearm to lift his goggles a half inch from his face, clear the condensation.
There was a large, shrieking splash of fluid on the wall behind the
recliner. Above the fluid was a fist-sized hole that had contained the discharge
of the weapon used. The discharge would have been taken by the cops, but
there would still be other things in that hole, things that clung to the discharge
as it made its way from the recliner to the wall.
Darby pulled a plastic dustpan from his bucket, sprayed the stain on the
wall with disinfectant and held the pan underneath to catch the fluid as it ran.
The disappearing stain revealed more matter stuck to the white paint, little
wads of what could easily be mistaken for colorless chewing gum. Darby kept
the dustpan pressed to the wall with one hand, tore paper towels with the other,
picked the matter from the wall. Sprayed the entire area again, wiping it clean.
He carried a short stepladder in from the hall, climbed up to the hole,
sprayed disinfectant and shone a flashlight around inside. Tough to see what
the situation was. He grabbed a wad of paper towels and pushed his hand into
the hole. Came away with enough on his towel to repeat the process a few more
Roistler stopped talking. Bob was back in the doorway. Darby tilted his
head toward the recliner and Bob nodded. They tore long sheets of black plastic
from a four-foot roll and wrapped the recliner, Bob rocking the chair one way
and then the other while Darby pulled the plastic tight. They each took an end
and carried it out of the room, down the hallway to the staircase, the gaps
under the doorways shadowed as they passed, eyeholes darkening, a few doors
cracking open along the way, braver souls, long faces peeking out, older men
and women, mostly alone, one per room, nightshirts and pajamas, woken by
the sirens and the sounds of people and equipment trampling through the
building, fearstruck now by the two moonmen. They pinched their noses when
they saw the recliner. The recliner didn't carry much of an odor, but they saw
the hoods and the masks and a chair bound in plastic and thought that it must
smell, assumed that it must stink like cellophane-wrapped meat gone bad.
Down the stairs, third floor, second floor, the recliner heavy from the
liquid weight it carried. They stopped at each landing for Bob to regain his
breath. Finally they were out the front door of the building into the early light,
the sun-gathering haze. Bob wedged a wooden block into the doorway to keep
it from shutting, locking them out. Darby covered the floor of the first van
with a large sheet of plastic and they lifted the recliner up and in.
They peeled off their gloves, pulled back their hoods, took off their
goggles and masks. Breathed deeply. Traffic was starting to thicken on the
freeway overpass a block away, headlights and taillights in the gloom. Bob
readjusted his ponytail up under his hair net, pulled the tape from his wrists,
rolled his sleeves to get some air on his skin. His moonman suits were specialordered
for his size. One of Roistler's favorite jokes was to open a new shipment
of suits at the garage, rummage through the box and announce that the supplier
had refused to make Bob-sized suits any more, that the techs would have to sew
two large suits together to make new Bob-sized suits.
Bob looked at his watch. "What do you think? Three hours? Four? We're
back at the garage by ten?"
Darby nodded. He looked up at the apartment building, a gray stucco
slab, counted up, counted back, looking for the light, the closed windows of the
"Which is it?" Bob said. "Three or four?"
"Fifteen bucks on three?"
"Dinner on three?"
Bob tapped his watch, marking the time. He pulled two new pairs of
gloves from a toolbox, handed one pair to Darby. He closed up the van and
Darby kicked the wooden block loose from the front door of the building as
they went back inside.
Darby stood in the center of the room, pulled off his goggles and mask,
pulled back his hood. The cleanup was complete. Roistler was hauling out the
last of the redbags and equipment; Bob was settling the paperwork with the
apartment manager downstairs.
Midmorning light through the windows, soft orange and yellow. Citrus
light. The beginning of another hot day in a string of them. Too warm for this
late into October. He tore the duct tape from his wrists, retrieved the camera
from where Bob had left it on the table by the TV.
The room had no smell, thanks to the fogger. There was a blank spot
where any smell should be.
Darby lifted the camera to his eye, stepped back toward the door, getting
as much of the room in frame as he could. There was a small, hard knot behind
the bridge of his nose, the kernel of a headache that spread quickly out toward
his temples, the back of his skull. A rushing in his ears, a loud white noise that
threatened to fill the room. This had been happening for a while now, this
feeling that came upon him when he was making his final check of a site. A
nagging disquiet. The feeling that the room was unfinished.
He looked for something they had missed, some detail that would be
discovered in days or weeks, after the carpeting had been replaced, after the wall
had been patched and repainted, a telltale sign that would betray the secret of
what had happened here. There was nothing. The room was clean, the job was
He tried to shake the headache. He held his breath to steady his hands
and snapped the picture. The room flashed white.