Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE VIRTUES OF CLEANLINESS
b y   a.d.   c o n r a d   ~   n e w   e n g l a n d

ONE OF the reasons they rented the apartment was because she said, "This kitchen is huge. It's got a million cabinets and two big sinks." He concurred, of course, and that was it. They moved in right away.

Most of their worldly goods remained in boxes while they dragged the table into the corner of the kitchen. They ate a breakfast of orange juice, eggs, toast, jam and pastry.

The dog helped unpack some of the boxes while they spent the day decorating, organizing and generally building a home out of their new apartment. Of course, they stopped to eat, grateful for the two sinks where they piled more dirty dishes. They organized some of the furniture and, once they finally got the bed in place, they made love.

She went to work in the morning before he did. She woke him by kissing him repeatedly on the face until she was sure he was awake. Then she left. He noticed the remnants of her breakfast stacked in the sink and added a small glass, a plate and butter knife to the stack.

He worked later than she did and when he came home he saw that she had made beautiful curtains of muslin stamped with butterflies and dragonflies. She was napping on the couch and he ate without waking her. When she did wake she said, "What do you think?"

He took her in his arms and said, "About what? The state of the economy? The streetlight on the corner that'll never get replaced?"

She laughed. "No stupid, the curtains."

He grinned as he kissed her. "They are the most beautiful curtains I've ever seen. And I know you made them yourself."

She nodded, still laughing.

"And that is why I'm going to carry you to bed." And he did.

In the morning, he woke late to the insectile buzzing of his alarm clock. In the kitchen he saw that her morning machinations had included brewing coffee, hanging pictures and filling the two sinks with water.

She had added the disemboweled guts of the blender to the top of the dish pile, giving it a shape that finally merited the name pile. The damn water in the pile had to be cold by now, he thought, but the mess seemed to be throwing a lot of heat. He stood close to it and felt its heady mist, like the composting of yard waste in midsummer. A few glasses perched precariously on the edge of the counter, threatening to commit suicide onto the linoleum floor below.

He dragged the kitchen table across the room and placed it in front of the sinks and moved some of the crockery and glassware onto the table.

Late as he was for work, he still ran the dog outside to perform his only trick. The crafty canine rushed across the dead end street, twirling his tail with excitement, to the wooded lawn of the next-door neighbor, where he deliberately shit in the tangles and brambles. Buster was back in a flash, chuffing and smiling. The man put the dog in, secured the house, and rushed to work.

At work, payroll numbers twisted in his head. For dinner, he stopped at the Silver Sluice diner for rotgut chili. When he got home, he found her dozing fitfully on the couch with the dog tangled in her long legs. He hurried into the bathroom to vomit.

He returned to the living room and sat in the overstuffed chair. He studied her. She looked comatose. Her breathing was deep and she snored a little bit. Catalogues were strewn before her on the floor.

He turned and peered at the dish pile. She had been doing some cooking. There were casserole dishes, muffin tins, cake pans and long evil knives crowning the pile now. It looked like the plain of Golgotha., the knife hafts jutting skyward like the condemned men dying slowly on their crucifixes. His vision blurred and he relaxed his eyes. It became clear there was a mountain in the kitchen now—not a group of man-made objects, but an organic feature of the landscape.

He exited his chair and crossed the living room, approaching the pile from several feet away. It obscured the window. There was nothing but pile. From where he stood he could, again, feel the heat of it. He could smell sulfur. Before him, the image shrank with each inhalation and expanded with each exhalation. He quickly retreated to the living room chair, where he fought the urge to pass out, and lost.

Daylight woke him. He was still sitting in the chair. She was bustling in the kitchen, creating a package of lunch to take with her to work.

"You're finally awake," she said. "You're gonna have a terrible pain in your back." She kissed his mouth.

He noticed furrows of darkness beneath her eyes.

She frowned. "I've got to wash those dishes."

"I'll do it," he said without knowing why.

"Can you put the dog out before you go?"

"Of course."

And she left.

He put Buster out and avoided the kitchen. It was too hot in there for him.

After work that evening, he went to the Silver Sluice Diner for a hamburger. It toasted his innards so much he had to stop and vomit on the way home.

When he arrived, the dog was dancing nervously at the door. She lay on the couch surrounded by newspapers, catalogues and books. He went to her and took her hand. She didn't wake. Her respiration was shallow, and her skin was waxy. She was breathing through her mouth and drooling. He shook her until she mumbled something incoherent and went back to sleep.

He looked to the dog. "How long has she been like this?"

The dog tipped his head to the right and barked non-committally.

The odor and heat struck him from behind. He slowly turned around. The pile was so toxic he could barely breathe in its presence.

He turned away from the horror and rushed to the basement, returning with a twenty-gallon bucket, which he filled with scalding water from the bathroom faucet. He wrestled the bucket into the kitchen, where his adversary waited. He squeezed half a bottle of dishwashing detergent into the water, grabbed a wooden spoon from the pile and stirred until a head of white foam topped the bucket.

He then rushed headlong at the pile, grabbed a handful of dishes, dunking them into the bucket. The pile replied with a giant puff of static, but he ignored it, grabbing more dishes and thrusting them into the bucket. With a rough sponge, he began to scrub.

The dog watched him curiously from a respectful distance as the man slowly made a pile of clean dishes on the floor beside him.

His hands became numb. When he studied them, he saw they were peeling in ragged chunks.

No matter.

He cleared the table of dirty dishes. The remainder of the pile let out a huge gasp in protest. Arcs of electricity flowed through the pile. Still, he persisted.

He washed the dishes, one by one. When he felt a hand on his shoulder, he threw a coffee mug straight up at the ceiling, startled.

As the cup crashed to the ground, shattering, she laughed and smiled. "I was hoping we'd get around to this." She joined him in scrubbing.

The pile looked rather defeated now. He reached in and pulled out a plate he'd never seen before. It was ivory with blue and orange and yellow tulips glazed on it. He reached in again and found two remarkable champagne flutes tinted black. He ran his wet fingertip over the rim of one and the sound was crisp and mellow.

He found eleven more plates just like the first, and an enormous silver teapot with tiny leaves and vines of silver ivy growing all over it. He passed the treasures to her and she scrubbed them.

By now the electricity was flying as he pulled out golden chalices and several filigreed gold plates. These were followed by jewel-encrusted goblets and ruby-pommeled steak knives.

Soon, there was nothing left in either sink but steam and one very large object. His hands were tattered from the heat as he reached in and pulled out an enormous golden vessel encrusted with rubies. It resembled a beer stein and must have weighed at least twenty pounds. Elegant script proclaimed it was the property of Carolus II Brittanic Rex Dei Gratia. A lion and a unicorn danced together on its surface.

They scrubbed until everything was clean. Afterward, they sat on the couch as she bandaged his hands. With the job done, they were both exhausted and fell into a deep sleep nested in the warm recesses of the sofa.

When he awoke, daylight was filtering into the room through the half-drawn curtains. He couldn't tell if it was morning or noon. He was alone. He lifted himself up and peered into the immaculate kitchen. She wasn't there. He went to the stairwell and called upstairs: "Darling, are you late for work, or are you not going to work, now that we're rich?"

But something wasn't right. Something was missing. It had four legs. Buster.

"Buster, you up there, you old wrinkle head? Come on down here. Let's go outside. We'll do your trick."

He rushed up the stairs to look for his dog, but Buster was gone.

He went back downstairs and found Buster absent. From the front porch, he discovered that her car was absent as well.

Maybe he should call her at work. But would she bring the dog to work? At the bank? Not bloody likely.

He was really worried now.

Back in the kitchen, he found all the clean dishes still piled on the floor. The sinks were clean and a fresh bright scent reigned.

Wait. The treasures. The beautiful dishes, the golden goblets with their gemmy encrustations, the steak knives with rubies on their pommels—they were all gone. All the treasure that had come out of that incomprehensible molten sink was gone, except for one thing—the enormous golden beer stein that had once belonged to King Charles II of England.

He knew that the King's father, Charles the First, was killed in favor of the Cromwells. When the English got tired of the Cromwells, they'd asked bonnie Prince Charlie to come back from exile in France. Upon his return he became, by the grace of God, king of all the Britons.

The man knew the stein's value was immeasurable.

He stood there, realizing he'd lost her and his precious Buster. On the verge of tears, he remembered a recent conversation:

"What's the one place you've always wanted to go?" she asked.

"England, and you?"

"Nothing like that. I'm afraid of boats and planes and even trains. I'd just like to drive."

"Drive where?"

"Everywhere."

He took the obscene relic of British history and, wiping the shameful tears from his face, went into the garage and started his car.

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