A very short story for you to read, linked on this blog a couple of times. Inspired by the occupation of 'vacuum cleaner salesman' Aubrey Bell in Raymond Carver's story 'Collectors' (who does not have OCD in my copy...) and published online in Green Silk Journal in late 2005. I love Carver's work. His characters are terrific, his dialogue wonderful, his marriages ghastly... a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman is a wonderful occupation for collecting bits of dead marriage via bodily detritus. Yik. And they do use filters, white and black. It's what vacuum salesmen do. Amazing and freaky to witness. Where does all the guff come from? No -don't answer that.
The Collector -
He is completely, utterly bald, the vacuum cleaner salesman. Shining. No hair anywhere I can see. No eyelashes, no eyebrows, smooth, pink cheeks like a baby, and clean, white, podgy hands.
“Mr and Mrs Braithwaite, I am privileged to introduce you to the Homevac system.”
Jane, my wife, has a problem with cleanliness. Compulsive disorder. It started when we were newlyweds… she washed her hands three times, drying between the fingers with a clean towel each time, putting the towels in the machine. “I don’t feel clean unless I do…” The bathroom is scrubbed every time it's used. Top to bottom. God knows how much bleach we get through now. The house is dusted , vacuumed twice, three times daily. Clean sheets every day, top and bottom. And if I touch her, if we… clean bedding straight away. Sheets in the wash. Now it's stopped, all that. We both have to wear underpants in bed.
She extra-cleaned the house today because we had this salesman coming. We wear out vacuum cleaners regularly. They burn out. The motors. Jane says they aren’t made for domestic use. I know they are. It’s just we don’t use them domestically. Her hands are red raw. “Why the hell didn’t you wear rubber gloves?” I say. But she’s never been one for rubber gloves. Says you can’t feel if there’s dust on things. Dust? How in God’s name do you feel dust?
He reminds me of a spider. A big, fat spider flexing its legs, waiting to spin.
Jane is hovering, watching, waiting to see this magic machine that will allegedly make her house so clean you could eat off the floor. Or eat the bloody floor. We can’t eat anything until he’s been and gone. It would untidy the kitchen. She'd have to wipe everything down, polish the chrome…
I’ve switched out of this. But something makes me look at Jane. She’s looking worried. Distraught. The spider (I don’t even know his name) is leaning out of the chair, assembling his machine on the carpet. He’s lining up black cotton or paper filters, like small coffee filters, on a side table.
“Soon, Mrs Brathwaite, you will see how your own bodies are betraying your every effort to keep your home sanitary…” he spits out the word ‘sanitary’ as though it is covered in old blood. Jane has gone pale. The machine is a large, silver canister, a hose, and interchangeable nozzles… I’m thinking it's exactly like any other vacuum. The spider gets up, bends with a grunt to plug it in, fits a filter over the hose and attaches a nozzle.
“Right,” he says. “Shall we start with your husband’s chair?”
“I don’t think so…,” I’m about to say… but the machine has been switched on, a high whine…Jane is pulling me upright, and I’m standing, watching this ill-fitting man sweeping the nozzle slowly, deliberately over the place where I’ve just been sitting, the chair cover pulling taut as the vacuum passes it.
“So strong…,” he soothes. “Can I ask you… when was this chair last brushed, cleaned, vacuumed?”
“Only this afternoon,” says Jane, biting her lip. I am willing there to be no dust…
The spider finishes, switches off the whine, detaches the nozzle, and takes the filter away from the hose with two fingers, holding it up for inspection, curling his lip. “Mrs Braithwaite,” he says. “Do you see this?”
He places the filter on the side table. There is a white circle in the black…he looks at me, and says one word,
“Look here," I say…" there’s all sorts of things come out of a chair if you suck hard enough… the stuffing, cotton, dust from the wooden frame…" (I’m searching frantically for things to make white dust that isn’t me…). He looks at Jane and says two words.
She looks shocked, appalled. “What IS it?” she says, looking at the filter, not too close… one hand over her mouth like a mask.
“Dust mites. Dead dust mites. Dead skin. Dandruff. General bodily detritus. Tiny hairs. If you analysed this… (I wouldn’t suggest…) traces of faecal material maybe. It has been known. The bed? You sleep together?”
Jane’s eyes are huge. “Well, yes, I…”
He sighs. Picks up the machine, and Jane follows him to the hall, up the stairs. I listen for the whine.
Finally, after vacuuming the mattress with his nozzles and collecting me, my bits, in his filters, he comes back downstairs.
Lined up on the side table in my sitting room are half a dozen black circles, covered in white deposits. The spider sits back in his chair, strokes on the filters with a forefinger, lifts the finger, inspects it… for a second, I think he’s going to put it to his mouth, or smell it… but he says…
“There’s no rush. We have a policy. No hard sell.” He begins to collect the filters together, stacking them carefully one on top of the other, slides them into a white paper wallet, and seals it, licking the flap with a pink, wet tongue.
Jane is wringing her hands. “But we would love to buy your machine, Mr…. Please?” she’s saying as he unscrews the hose, curls it onto itself, packs the cylinder away.
He stands, suitcase in one hand, the wallet in the other.
“Thank you.” he says, walking to the front door. And I just watch my wife crumble, following him, saying, “Please? I need…”
And I sit down in my chair again, and wait.