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Things To Keep Neat
Eric Karl Anderson

The people came running. A mass of heads bobbed. A man thrust his right arm before a red faced woman to assert his place before her. On his wrist gleamed a gold and silver watch. The second hand had stopped ticking. Arthur woke to his alarm ringing. He rose from his bed like a jack-in-the-box. His method was to start the day with a rush before the unsettling underworld of the dream could translate into a meaningful awareness. He stripped, washed, shaved as if the three were one movement. Then he straightened the soap, shaving cream, and hair products Bill had disturbed before he went to sleep the night before. He fixed the toilet paper so only one square of paper hung vertically, waiting to be used. He then concentrated on the protruding ball of flesh that was his nose. He examined it as an impractical, animalistic and offensive feature of the human face. Every day he arose two hours before he needed to step into the office in order to consider and care properly for this unavoidable thing. The chores of his body's upkeep consisted only of a little lather and soap, and the choice of clothes he selected from his all black wardrobe took him no more than two minutes to settle, yet the nose required careful and extended examination and maintenance. The arched bone covered in layers of peach and pinkish skin was his constant obsession, but only for appearance's sake. The phrase "lead by the nose" meant nothing in terms of how he considered his life. The physical actuality of the thing was what demanded attention. He pushed the flesh up, down and to each side with the tip of his finger. Pig-face, eagle's beak, car accident, walked into a wall. He searched the inside of each dark nostril hole as best he could. Using a pair of small silver scissors he cut each black hair he could find, often needing to yank the hairs out. Though usually smooth from the daily care, he strained to find new growth. The effort inevitably caused a nosebleed. And then he clamped the nostril holes with his fingers, closed his mouth and blew out of his nose with as much energy as he could. He wanted to blow the smell organ straight off his face.

"Arthur! Are you almost finished in there?" the sound of Bill's voice penetrated the thin white wood of the toilet door. Arthur breathed three heavy breaths, grabbed a small vial and then answered that Bill could enter. Although they had been lovers living together for four years, Bill still respected the fact that Arthur disliked being watched in his morning toilet functions. He assumed that Arthur took so long in the morning because he was finicky about his hair or had noisy, messy diarrhea. He decided that this was one of the things that could pass as a mystery in their relationship. As he entered the toilet, Arthur was rubbing scented green after-shave over his chin and neck. Having no qualms about Arthur witnessing his toilet-habits he pulled his organ out of his pants and began urinating in the toilet beside Arthur. Arthur wished he wouldn't do this.

"How did work go yesterday?" Bill asked, "I'm sorry I didn't get home any earlier. Some twats made a huge mess in the bar's toilet last night and, of course, Nielsen made me clean it up. I think that was about my lowest point in a long time. Cleaning shit graffiti out of a toilet. Doesn't it seem like it should be someone else's job?"

Ugly images repulsed Arthur; to counteract them he mentally pictured perfect forms. A red balloon, a candle burning, a wicker deck chair. Though sympathetic to hardships, he knew that there were no answers to their reality. What was he supposed to tell his barmaid boyfriend? You're better than that; something good will come along soon; at least you have me? He simply didn't wish to degrade either of their sensibilities with points of commiseration. Instead, he bantered on.

"My mother called again while I was at work," he answered Bill. "I got the latest update on her day with Smicky. Smicky ran away when she called him into the house; Smicky doesn't like the new food she bought him; Smicky curls and meows when the mailman delivers the post. If she keeps taking up this much of my time at work I'm afraid Slater will get angry with me. He's so suspicious of all the employees and particularly of me."

"Are you joking? Whenever I meet you at work, everyone there raves about what a good employee you are. They say that when particularly difficult customers call, they transfer them to you because they know you'll be able to smooth it over."

"I do suppose they have quite a lot of confidence in me."

Bill finished and tucked himself back in.

"Look," he smoothed back Arthur's stringy shoulder-length hair, "I reckon that you are the calmest, most soothing person in the world. Someone like you could clean shit off from walls and be as content as if you were picking daisies. The entire time I was wiping up that stuff, I swore to myself that this would never happen again. But I know the next time those kids sneak in I'll be asked to stay late again. There will be another mess and I'll think of myself as a cosmic joke."

"Someone has to do it." Arthur said. "Why let it get to you? And if you're really that miserable, then leave. You know your parents are just aching to give you another loan."

Bill laughed.

"I'm going back to bed. Have a nice day, honey," he said with a mock smile and stroked Arthur's thigh affectionately as he passed him. He leapt back under the sheets of their queen-sized oak bed and disappeared beneath a cowl of white.

Arthur walked into his office at 9:00 on the minute. He didn't consider punctuality particularly important. He just liked to keep things neat. Whenever he arrived early, he sat on a bench in a park near his office building and watched the children running to the nearby school. This was the same school he went to as a child, where for years he beat up all the thin and ugly boys and called them poofs. He found it difficult to imagine where the impulse came from. When he was that age it seemed the natural thing to do, as if he were fixing an irregularity. His teachers and parents became so concerned over his identity as the school bully that they decided suspension from school wasn't enough. They met for an hour one day and decided that the proper punishment for the troublemaker was dance lessons. Three days a week for two and a half hours each session, he attended Fast Step Dance School where he was alternately instructed by Madam Hubbard, who taught classical and ballroom dancing, and Señor Albion, who taught Spanish dance.

Arthur was stubborn at first, sitting in the corner and telling anyone who came near him to piss off. But his parents insisted he be enrolled in every class and he gradually acquiesced to practicing the dance moves. The parents attributed his gradual transformation of stubborn brat to willing performer to the stern command of Madam Hubbard, who wielded her "correcting" rod like a weapon. However, the true cause was due to Señor Albion's gentle and persistent manner. Arthur did not play the defensive teenager around Señor Albion, but the shy young man who had a crush on a handsome older man. Arthur's favorite time of the day was after class when his instructor stood beside him, wiping the sweat off his body with a towel and telling Arthur about his life in a thick Spanish accent. He grew up in Barcelona under the hand of his abusive father and then ran away to tour the country of Colombia. Dancing, he said, was his primary expression of feeling. Arthur hung on his every word.

Arthur began dancing and showed the least coordination of anyone who had entered the school. But after the customary two weeks required for any inactive person to begin making real improvements, Arthur showed no signs of easing into the quick strong moves required. This lack of improvement became entirely purposeful on his part when he learned that each time he went out of step or turned in the wrong direction, Señor Albion would seize the part of his body that made the irregular move and correct it. The reasons for Arthur's obvious follies became evident to Señor Albion very soon, and with persistent intimacy, he would make Arthur tremble by becoming increasingly familiar with every part of his body. At the young age of sixteen, Arthur acquired his first male lover. When his parents realized that their son's newfound passion had turned to a suspicious obsession, they forbid him from returning to the dance sessions and the perfect forms in his mind became hollow and cold.

As Arthur sat on his park bench, he watched a group of boys taunting a plump younger boy with a Pokémon backpack they had taken from him. The young boy chased after it for a moment and then, realizing he couldn't outrun the older boys, gave up and trotted along, teary-eyed, while the older boys circled him and dared him to take back the bag. Arthur imagined a row of white houses, a pastry shop window, a church bell ringing. He waited for the boys to pass out of earshot and then ran to his office building in order to step over the threshold by 9:00.

Elizabeth, Nina and Sue were standing next to the sink with full mugs of coffee in each hand. Although Arthur could hear two phones ringing in their office, he knew the girls refused to answer them before the hour customer service specified as its opening time: 9AM. This meant they didn't actually start answering phones until quarter past.

"Good-morning Arthur," chimed the trio of ladies as he passed them into the office.

"Yes, good-morning," he nodded to them as he hurried to his desk in the corner of the office. One of the phones ringing was his. He slid into his desk, dropped a bag containing a grapefruit and a cheddar cheese roll he brought for lunch into his desk drawer, and answered the phone.

"Smiley Foods International Incorporated, Arthur speaking. How may I help you this fine day?"

That morning he received thirteen complaints on Smiley Smacks Cereal, seven complaints on Smiley Yummy-Tummy Yogurt and one compliment on Smiley Smart Oat-Bran Bars. Most of the voices he heard, he recognized. They were the familiar callers who complained regularly in order to receive discount coupons. Their stories ranged from mild objections to flavor, packaging and quality to wild stories of horrific encounters with Smiley brand products including discovering bugs, metal objects, and human or animal excretion in the packaging. Such exaggerated tales were almost certainly fabricated, simply owning to the fact that the consumer was calmed by the promise of two coupons for free Smiley Choco-Cake Snacks. However, the occasional horrific encounter with products mixed with vermin parts or sold after the expiration date did occur. In those cases it took a very skillful customer service representative to calm the consumer and deter them from taking up a legal action. The management was never seriously bothered by any complaints incurred. It was very difficult to prove the validity of contaminated products and consumers rarely had the energy to fight for compensation unless serious damage occurred. The company simply considered it good form to maintain healthy public relations.

At lunch, Arthur sat at his desk musing over the photos in the newspaper's travel section. He was entranced by the openness of the lands pictured, the colorful definition of the landscape, and the unconscious, perfect poses of regional wildlife. Each section on a particular destination featured a map that dissected the crucial visitor points from the less interesting portions of the country. Elizabeth, Nina and Sue chatted around their computers to each other over their re-hydrated soups and ready-made salads. Elizabeth discussed the difficulty of mutual sexual satisfaction on any given night with her boyfriend. Nina attributed it to a lack of communication. Sara suggested they try drinking less one night and, if that fails, drink more the next night.

Crumbling white pillars, dune grass tilted by the wind, a smiling stranger amidst an expanse of yellow sand. Arthur flipped through the pages of his paper, staining it with drips from spoonfuls of pink grapefruit. Suddenly, amidst thoughts of sailing in the Bay of Naples, Sara's voice rang in his ears.

"Arthur has the perfect relationship. If the only time you see your man is in bed, what can go wrong?"

Apparently, the conversation had moved from what to do with men in bed to what to do with them out of bed.

"Bill complains to me that we should see more of each other," he answered, "but then he seems quite happy with the way things are."

"It's so unfair. You have things perfect, Arthur," Nina said, "You don't know how hard it is to be a woman. I wish I were a gay man. Some bastard is always after me. It's either my boyfriend, landlord or Slater."

"Quiet," Elizabeth whispered, "He's been lingering in the photocopy room lately. When the machines aren't running you can hear everything in this office perfectly. You don't want another lecture on office morale, do you?"

Arthur's phone rang. Although the girls let their phones ring through their lunch break, Arthur liked to answer his. He considered it his duty. He quickly folded his newspaper and laid it beside his desk. Cradling the grapefruit in his lap, he answered the phone.

"Smiley Foods International Incorporated, Arthur speaking. How may I help you this fine afternoon?"

"Arty? It's your mother. Arty, are you there?"

He sighed. "Yes, what can I do for you?"

"It's your mother Arthur. I'm not some bloody customer complaining about stale cereal. Talk to me properly."

"Yes, Mum. How are you today?"

"Not very well if you really want to know. My right leg aches so much I can hardly drag myself to the toilet. I really should buy a cane. Do you know how terrifying it is to not be certain you'll make it to the toilet?"

Arthur stared down at his grapefruit and waited several seconds to speak back.

"I'm thinking of painting my apartment white. The deep shade of blue I originally used to paint it is beginning to fade. I think white would make the place look fresher."

"Yes, I suppose it would, Arty."

Her breathing was long and raspy in the phone's receiver.

"I'm sorry I'm being so grumpy with you, dear, but there is something very important I want to speak to you about," she said with slow, carefully measured words, "Do you remember a few months ago when I told you about that lump on my chest? I thought it was just something that happened after falling against a chair when I got a pain in my leg. But it didn't go away. It just stayed there."

Fireflies in a field of grass, a man and woman holding hands, the rainbow burst of fireworks. Arthur carved out another section of grapefruit and ate it.

"Well, I finally went to the doctor last Friday to see about my calf that has been aching so much. I thought I might as well show it to Doctor Lindow since I was there. She became quite agitated when I showed her, very disturbed indeed. Insisted on testing me as soon as possible. I had to stay at the clinic three more hours. Bloody female doctors, I thought. By the time I got home to the television, all the good programs had finished. Well, she called me today and said that it has migrated through my blood. It's metastasized. Arty, are you there?"

"Yes, Mum," he said, while chewing more grapefruit, "I don't understand what you mean. There are many fine female physicians. I think women can make just as fine doctors as men. By the way, how is Smicky? Has he adapted to the new food you bought him?"

"Arthur, listen to me!" her voice rose to a startling high pitch. "I've fed that cat the same bloody food for the past six years. Now listen, it's invaded my heart. It's all through my blood. They say there is nothing they can do. I have bottles of pills. There are so many. I don't know which is for what or how many I should take. Arty, I just don't know."

She was silent for a moment. He could tell she was holding the receiver away from her face to wipe at her tears. The raspy breath was distant and muffled.

"I think you should take a nap, Mum. My lunch break is almost over. I need to work."

"Arty, I knew that it must have been something like this, but I just didn't want to believe somehow; I wanted it to be alright. Arty, what I'm trying to say is that I need help. I can't make it here without your father. After he died, I was all right. I knew I would be all right if I told myself to be. But now I can't anymore. I just can't. Maybe you think I was a bad mother. I don't know what you really think of me. All these years you've been so polite, but when you were a teenager you were terrible. The things you said to your father. You treated me like I was the worst villain that ever lived. Now, with all this happening . . . be a good son. Help your mother. Please."

A ball of purple yarn, the smell of sugar caramelizing, an empty nest in an autumn tree. Arthur scraped at the inside of his hollow grapefruit.

"Have a good weekend, Mum. Give Smicky a kiss for me and tell Dad that we'll have to play another game of golf soon. I love you. Good-bye."

Arthur hung up the phone and stared outside his window. The sun was shining brightly and the office had become stifling hot. But if he opened the window, the traffic noise would make it difficult for him to hear the consumers on the phone. He tried to remember what he should say to someone whose food has expired before the expiration date? He couldn't remember. At some point he became aware that the phone was ringing, but then it stopped and Nina was standing beside him.

"Arthur, are you okay? You've been just sitting there for twenty minutes. You look miles away. Don't you know your phone has rung three times and you haven't answered it?"

"I'm fine," he answered. "I just think I'm going to be sick."

He stood up and ran to the toilet. Elizabeth and Nina tried to chase after him, but he held his hand up and waived it behind him repeating, "Fine, just fine."

In the toilet mirror he saw his nose. It was large and full of veins. It was so ugly he began to pinch it as hard as he could. He would have ripped it off if he had the strength to, but it hurt so badly he released it and wept with his eyes closed. He stood like this until he heard someone knocking on the door and the sound of one of the girl's voices inquiring about his health.

"I'm fine. Thank you." He opened his eyes. His face in the mirror was streaked with tears and blood. Turning the hot and cold tap on full power, he submerged his face in the sink and scrubbed until all traces of pain had washed away, leaving his face looking pink and tender. He walked out of the toilet and exited the office building.

"Home early, aren't you?"

Arthur entered his apartment to find Bill lying on the sofa in his pants reading an Amnesty International newsletter. Recently, he had organized a group of neighbors to walk door-to-door petitioning for the release of peaceful people whose civil rights had been violated. Behind the bar, he used to convince customers to sign letters until his boss told him to stop.

Arthur tried to quickly think of a lie, but nothing came. "It's . . . ah . . . fine day . . ."

"Arthur, what's the matter with you? Your face has gone bright red."

Bill stood up and put his arms around him. Arthur collapsed into them and fell into a deep sleep. He awoke in his bed. Bill was sitting beside him holding a damp cloth to his forehead.

"You've finally woken up, handsome. How are you feeling?"

"Just fine now, thank you," he nestled his face into Bill's side. "My mother called again at work. She thinks Smicky has impregnated the neighbor's cat. She talked and talked about it until I thought I would fall asleep. The bus home was dreadful. It was packed with people. It was so hot I couldn't stand it. So I got off and took a taxi home, but the bastard of a driver smoked the whole way and refused to open a window. I suppose the pressure of it all got to me."

"That's odd. Your clothes don't smell of smoke at all. I'm sorry it wore you out. Do you feel like having something to eat?"

"No. I think I'll go back to sleep for a bit."

"Okay. I need to get changed and make something to eat on my way to the bar. I'll see you in the morning, love."

"Have a good night, Bill."

Arthur didn't fall back asleep. He didn't try to. He lay in his bed and thought of every perfect thing he had known in his life. The day his father showed him how to kick a football. His mother slipping off her shoes and splashing through a city fountain with him in the dead heat of summer. Señor Albion's graceful movement when dancing the Cumbia. The night he drank too much in the bar, stumbled to the floor and was helped up by Bill. But the most perfect memory he had was the day he received a routine consumer call from a housewife who loved Smiley Smacks Sugar Flakes. She said she fed them to her entire family every morning for breakfast. While he was telling her about discount coupons she would shortly receive in the post, he heard her crying. He simply asked her what was wrong and she proceeded to speak about every hardship she had encountered in the past year. The burglar who broke into her house and stole the antique broach her grandmother left her when she died, that she found a magazine with naked men in it under her son's bed and her husband's increased drinking and distance from her. Then she abruptly began to talk about the weather. The heat was unbearable. She wished it would rain. She wanted it to rain so hard that it would wash everything away completely. Arthur agreed that her problems were terrible indeed. He told her that he wished he were powerful enough to dissolve them, like the rain.

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