Animals in the Clouds – Chapter 1



Richard Croft

Chapter 1: Cleaned Out

Someone is in there. In a black smock and generic superstore sneakers the maid pauses before the doorway to the big office. At her feet, the teal turf bumps up to chocolate shag.

* * *

When Charlie was twenty-four, a man he would never see again sold him on a budding career in paper products sales. Decades withered. Charlie was happening, not living. Were Charlie more ambitious, he may have achieved great things, but until six years ago, he’d preferred to keep the topic open for debate.

It was springtime in Orlando. Charlie’s Mid-Western roots tingled with false awakening. Overhead, the sun shone like a brass ring–its yellow light glittering from the wings of migrant snowbirds. It had been a long, harsh winter, and Charlie ached for warmth.

But Crystal was frosty. Among her pet names for Charlie were “lazy bum” and “pansy.” With a wife like that, who needs an ex-wife. Even oaks, Charlie’d reason, need fair weather to germinate, spring zephyrs to caress the flaccid shoots. And he’d reason further… reason that his very inability to achieve firmness of purpose… that his very inability to blossom as a man, hinged precisely on his wife’s inability to provide sufficient enticement. But signing the lease…. It was no imaginary feat. It was heroic. It felt real. And Charlie hoped it would save him, and maybe even elevate him in her eyes.

On the horizon loomed a brainstorm with architect Bill Dingboom. Charlie dreaded it like public urination; rarely could he squeeze out so much as a braindrop under such pressure.

Well, Dingboom came, and Dingboom went–more like a burp than a storm. And in that burp’s wake, Charlie stood feeling dazed, and not a little betrayed, as he held to a cardboard tube in which the blueprints were coiled. He withdrew, unfurled, and again studied the plat. But Charlie’s fresh eyes saw no more than his weary ones, which were blueprints that would by contrast make graph paper seem a creative marvel. Whether the architect was lazy, inept, or hateful of those destined to inhabit his contrivances, Charlie couldn’t say. All he knew for sure was that Dingboom was no more expensive than he was imaginative. He was also hired.

Four weeks later–construction complete–Charlie trailed the foreman into one of the twenty-six plasterboard cubes. He flipped a light switch on and off, then ran his hand along a wall to inspect for smoothness. “First-rate workmanship,” he chirped, but had only to slam the door upon exiting to prove himself a second-rate judge. The walls rippled; chips of plaster fell–the entire structure of connected cubes teetering in the tremors. It was the doors. They were too heavy, claimed the foreman. Charlie purchased new ones advertised to be “feather light.” They were. Future cube dwellers would joke that you could get one stuck to your back and not know it till someone tried to open you.

New doors be damned, the office was still no more robust than a house of cards. The foreman assured Charlie that a good paint job would cement matters. A good paint job, however, costs a good sum. Charlie paid less, and got what he paid for: a pubescent band of renegade Pollacks who–as if to insult the poor design–slopped the partitions, floor, and Styrofoam ceiling tiles with a cut-rate shade of gray. Morning Mist it was called–and a deceptive mist it was. In the light of the hardware store, it looked great. Faeries could have slumbered in such a mist. But in the dingy fluorescent glow of The Mother Board’s West Washington Street offices, Morning Mist degraded to a shade deserving a bleaker moniker… Malignant Tumor, Bus Exhaust, Ball of Lint, Drizzling Cloud, Gary Indiana Sunshine….

Yes, The Mother Board would be a dreary place to work–dreary, that is, for all but one. In drawing up his own office, Charlie took executive liberty. After consuming eight cells with his mechanical pencil, he went out and hired the best decorator he could find. The product of this creative flurry was a chamber fit for a king.

Towering high above the cubicle honeycomb, its rigid, four inch thick walls are the only but the outermost to achieve union with the ceiling. At its doorsill, spatterings of Morning Mist are edged out by clean cut lines of chocolate paint. The interior–brushed Bull’s Blood red–is accented by wainscoting, moldings, and baseboards of stained walnut. As a whole, the office was then as it remains: sturdy, isolate, comfortable, and amid such shoddy surroundings, odd.

* * *

The maid’s hair is silken, black, black as her eyes, pure black, her hair and her eyes, such pure jet that they appear blacker than her dyed black smock or her paint-dipped black shoes.

That noise again. The girl starts, Bald guy?–or who? She’s seen the vultures. Angela–one of her co-workers–had pillaged enough to furnish her entire apartment, and even netted three hundred bucks from a yard sale of scavenged items. “Should grab some of this stuff,” she always says. “Place is a gold mine.” Magda rarely does though. Too proud. She’s made a point of taking only recyclables–though once she did take a chair hobbled by broken casters for her desk at home… and then there was that time she took the desk.

Magda peeks around the corner. Day waning, a dusty glow of smoldering light fuzzes the figure behind the desk. It’s not the fat man. There is a moaning–the sound either feminine or falsetto–but something like a stocky woman, smallish man or large child leans heavily over crossed forearms–the elbows jostled by a steady heaving. The face lifts. Magda slips from the doorway. Her other chores happen like heartbeats. The recyclable bottles and cans seem to borrow her hands to sort themselves. Her thoughts too seem cyclical and strange–like water flowing under a bridge on which she stands.

Evidence of Charlie’s paranoia is everywhere–keypads, lasers, cameras…. More dangerous to himself than any thief, she thinks. People punish themselves. No security system can stop them.

A glittering can of Mello Yello is all that’s left in the break room mini-fridge. A notecard taped to it reads, “Thou Shalt Not Steal!” in erasable red ink. Magda discards the card, pops the pull-tab top, sips and smiles. Hate to lose that guy. Bet we made a couple hundred off his cans alone.

Magda sets to work vacuuming the cubicles; pushing and pulling, her movements are hypnotic as she works the residue of humanity and other impurities from the carpet. On the streets below, three sunburnt stragglers argue over a map. They are just a few of the thousands who’ve pilgrimaged here to pay homage to the mouse king. His message offers faith to the wayward, beauty to the ugly, high moral character to the errant, and increased concession sales to the message-makers.

Magda doesn’t hate the wonderful world. She just distrusts it. It’s too… wonderful. Angela–who’d worked there for a time–told Magda of hidden Mickeys in the landscaping, and a subterranean maze of tunnels, through which scurry men and women dressed as dogs, ducks, dwarfs and rodents. You might see Goofy watching fireworks at the Enchanted Palace one minute, then, poof!–out he’ll pop from a hole in Tomorrow Land, just in time to join a jamboree parade. Goofy.

With a puff of dust, a loose tack ulcerates the vacuum’s belly. Magda gets a replacement bag from her cart stocked with toilet paper, light bulbs, jugs of pink soap, and paper towels.

At bedtime, Magda’s father used to tell a Chuj fable. In the beginning, there was Rabbit. Stirred by a pungent, yet familiar odor, he looked up and saw Coyote crisscrossing the horizon–sniffing, getting closer. It was a windless night and clear, and the moon shown white and full on the water. Coyote had been two weeks hunting without success, and for it was lean with a hunger that itched his belly like a bruise inside. Rabbit had to think fast, and had soon concocted a plan. It was almost too easy. In no time he’d convinced Coyote that the moon’s reflection was a wheel of cheese at the bottom of the lake. If Coyote would but drink up the water, Rabbit promised that they’d both have quite a meal. None too wily, Coyote began to drink. He drank and drank, paused, then drank some more, until at last he was too full with water to eat even a crumb of the cheese that didn’t exist–nor a morsel of the Rabbit that did. Sometimes, as her father told it, Coyote would starve to death for being so full.

The truth, Magda believes, reveals itself only to those who want nothing from it. She has told herself over and over to see it so. Break-ins, birthdays, bankruptcies…. She can read garbage like tea leaves. Her eccentric philosophy and foreign tongue make her feel distinct from it all. This apartness acts, she believes, as a kind of lens. She can predict success. She can foresee trouble. Sometimes she’s right.

Magda is dusting louvers when she hears the bolt of the main door catch in its cavity. Curious, she sets her duster on the cleaning cart, and enters the big red office. Before her stands the mammoth desk–a bright pool glittering on its fiery grain. The atmosphere in here, there’s something strange about it. Or perhaps it’s like any other, and the sensation of residual grief is Magda’s own. I knew it, she thinks. This is what she tells herself as, stepping over a pink memo note, she rushes out. Yes. Yes, everything is just as she expected.