There’s no such thing as a good time to clean the dorm. If it’s morning, the kids are on the go to class, waking up at all hours, and if you’re in their way, it’s a nuisance and they file a complaint with the residence director.
Early afternoon and it’s after lunchtime and people need to poop out the Salisbury steak or whatever the dining hall served that day. But how long to wait? And how long is too long before dinner, when the kids emerge from naps, study, or smoke sessions and need to pee and you’re in the way again.
So, I wait. Between periods of vacuuming the hallways and scrubbing toilets and showers and sinks. Between cleaning out the trash from the garbage rooms. Most of us wait in the break room downstairs by the bank of laundry machines, but I prefer to see the people I’m cleaning up after. The nice ones make eye contact, smile, even say hi. The others walk by. These are the ones, I’m sure, who throw up in stairwells on a Friday night and don’t tell anyone.
I remember when gossip was knowing our first-grade teacher, Mrs. Curly’s first name (Elizabeth) or in high school when Johnny Reds let us all know that after the hall monitors chased the smokers from the football field at lunch, they smoked there themselves.
I liked that kind of gossip; I wonder if these kids might, too, or if they will someday later, when they’re old and not subject to uglier gossip like that the curly haired boy in room 214 masturbates four times a day or that the girl who always wears black on the sixth floor drew the swastika on the dumpster out back last fall.
Or worst, the rumor about Big Head in room 305, Dimples in 308.
Word around the dorm was that Big Head had a girlfriend in the army. Guys gave him a hard time, asking what was he sending a girl to the military for, around all those big dudes who’d be ripped by design. Worst-case scenario, she’d cheat on him the first night there and pick a different partner every night after. At best, she’d come back a girl who could kick his ass.
I heard he passed around a picture of this girl and she was a knockout and that shut up the guys, never mind that she was a human being and probably didn’t need her high school sweetheart’s blessing to enlist.
But then Big Head and Dimples started hanging out. I’d see them loading laundry machines together in the morning, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the lounge watching TV, holding hands on their way back from class, and finally I saw her coming out of his room one early morning.
Weekend mornings are the best bet to clean all parts of the dorm in one pass. When most of the kids sleep in and its quiet and still—no one waiting on you to remove the wet floor sign, no one dumping their leftovers in the trash seconds after you’ve changed the liner.
I found Big Head in the stairwell one of those Saturdays. Considerate enough not to wake his roommate. “I’m glad you’re coming, too,” he said. “No shame in it. And you’ll fit right in here next semester. No really. I’m so excited. We’re going to have a great time.”
He looked up and saw me at the foot of the stairs. Big Head was one of the nice ones, who’d ask how I was doing and wait for the answer. This day, he studied his arms and kept talking.
I cleaned the women’s bathroom on the third floor. I was on the second sink when I heard the whimper.
Dimples was on her butt in the shower. It was dry at least—the shower, not her face, of course—I don’t think anyone had bathed yet.
There was an empty orange shampoo bottle on the shelf above her, bent in the middle like someone had squeezed it hard to get out the last bits. One of my pet peeves. Not that it’s hard for me to throw a bottle in the trash, but it’s not any harder for the person using it to—the person who was naked with it and kept it in the room where she sleeps these past couple months.
Dimples didn’t have dimples that morning, only when she smiled. Instead, she had snot stretched from her nostrils to her lips and she smelled like bed. She was wearing brown and blue plaid pajama pants, just like the ones Big Head was wearing on the stairs.
She flinched when I sat down. I sat so close to her, not touching but nearer than I usually sat to the students. They got nervous.
I did what Mom would when I got sad, and leaned on my side, took the roll of Lifesavers from my pocket, and unrolled the wrapper, peeled back the foil and paper so the top one, a green one, was out in the open.
She looked to it, to me, back to the Lifesaver and took it. It took a little tug to break it free from the one beneath it, yellow, but it snapped off soon enough and it was in her mouth. I ate the yellow one.
They candy was warm and sticky from my pocket, but it tasted normal after a couple seconds in my mouth. Just sweet. And hard. Melting by degrees.
When mine was down to a sliver too small not to chew, I pulled down the wrapper and offered her another. A red one. I thought we might go through the rest of the roll like this.
She looked at it, then at me, then got up. Mumbled thanks and left the shower stall, then the bathroom altogether.
So I sucked on the red one myself, and I got back to work.
About the Author
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. His hybrid chapbook,The Leo Burke Finish, is forthcoming from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.