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Vipers « Fiction365
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Today's Story by Kevin Halleran

Ma’am, if I can just get my clipboard back, we’ll be on our way


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Vipers

Tuesday, sometime around noon, Mrs. Marilyn Pierce, all thirty-nine years and seventy-three inches of her, stretched out on the sofa listening to the television.  She lay on her back, her head propped against a soft green pillow, gazing at the familiar cream ceiling of the living room.  Her long legs were wrapped in tight black yoga pants and crossed at the ankles.  No makeup or lipstick, hair tied back plainly, no paint on her bare toes.  John at work, Gerry at school, the laundry piling up, the refrigerator almost bankrupt, a Little League registration form sitting on her dresser, and the jasmine sunlight through the bay window keeping the room anesthetized.

On the television some actress—she sounded young and skinny—was babbling about how rewarding it was shooting her latest film in Africa.  Of all the things Mrs. Pierce hated, insincerity was at, or very close to, the top, and she swore that if she ever became a big star herself, she’d tell the world what she really thought.

The doorbell meant a salesman.  Anybody from the neighborhood would have knocked.  She considered ignoring him but he rang again, two rings this time, which meant he could wait as long as she could.  She switched off the television—she couldn’t listen to another word from that phony actress anyway—and took her time walking down the hallway to the front door, sneaking a quick glance in the foyer mirror as she passed.  She pulled open the door just as the bell rang again.

Startled, the man jerked his hand away from the button.  His eyes were wide with embarrassment as if he should have known better than to press it at all.  He was stocky with a thick neck and graying hair, very plain looking.  It didn’t help that he was decked out in billowy blue vinyl coveralls.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said, clearing his throat.  “Viper Clean.”

Mrs. Pierce squinted in the bright sun and looked past his shoulder across her lawn.  Down by the curb two younger men in matching blue coveralls stood beside a flatbed truck filled with hoses and poles and other long handled tools that looked to her like some sort of gardening equipment.  She also spotted, hiding under one of her rhododendrons, a tan football that she would have Gerry bring in when he got home from school.  If it was his, she’d give him the usual lecture about leaving things lying around; if it wasn’t his, it would go out tomorrow with the trash.

“Viper Clean, ma’am,” the man said a second time.  She noticed the clipboard tucked under his arm, but there was no chance she’d be signing up for anything today.  The man cleared his throat again.  “We have an appointment.”

“Not with me you don’t.  We’re not interested.”  She reached to close the door.

“No, ma’am, we already have an appointment scheduled for today.  Tuesday at noon.”

He held up the clipboard and pointed to something small and faint.  She snatched it from him so quickly that by the time he could react she had already discovered the error.

“You want the O’Briens next door,” she said.

“But isn’t this 17—?”  Struggling to remember the address, he tried to move alongside and read over her shoulder, but she shielded it with her body.

“No, this is 1727.  You want 1729.”

“Sorry about that, ma’am.  Seems like none of the houses on this block have numbers anywhere.  Are you all hiding from somebody?”  He smiled but got no reaction.  She was too busy looking over the work order, trying to make sense of it.

“Well, you might as well come inside for a moment,” she said.

“Oh, no, ma’am.  We’ll just be on our way.  Sorry to bother you.”  He reached out for his clipboard but Mrs. Pierce turned sharply and started down the hallway with it.

“No bother,” she said as she turned the corner.  “Shut the door behind you.”

In the kitchen she leaned against the sink so that the sun streaming in tickled the back of her head and gave her plenty of light.  She couldn’t understand any of the abbreviated jargon on the O’Briens’ work order, but the one thing she understood clearly was the two hundred and seventy-nine dollar estimate at the bottom of the page.

The front door closed softly.  He stepped into the kitchen gingerly, almost as if he was trying to sneak up on her, but his coveralls crinkled like newspaper the whole time.

“Ma’am, if I can just get my clipboard back, we’ll be on our way.”  His tone was still courteous and professional and much too jovial for a Tuesday afternoon.

“Who are you, anyway?” she said without looking up.

“Viper Clean, ma’am.”

She had assumed she misheard him back at the front door, but now she could see at the top of the page the name in bold red above a fang baring black snake.  “Yes, I got that, but I still can’t figure out what exactly you do.”

“Power washers.”

She finally looked up at him.  He was all the way across the kitchen, standing stiffly in the doorway, his arms stuck to his sides, his eyes fixed anxiously on her.

“Would you like something to drink?” she said.

“Drink?”

“Relax.  I’m not trying to get you into bed.”  She went to the refrigerator and put the clipboard down on the countertop next to it.  “I meant soda, iced tea, water.”

“Oh, no, thank you ma’am.  We really have to get going.”

She took out a pitcher of iced tea and kept the door propped open with one of her long legs while she took down a glass from the cabinet above the counter and poured herself a drink.  “So what is it you do?”

“Power washers, ma’am.”

She was growing tired of all this ma’am business.  If she had wanted to seduce him, she would have bent over as she put back the pitcher and let her black yoga pants show off her ass.  That would have finished this ma’am nonsense right then.  Instead she just slid the pitcher back onto the top shelf and let the door swing shut on its own.

“And what in the world does that mean?” she said, turning towards him again with her glass in hand.

“We use high compression water and safe proprietary cleaning solutions on all exteriors to deliver a deeper, longer lasting cleaning.”

“Sounds pretty swanky.”

“We like to think we do a good job.”

Gerry had put too much sugar in the iced tea again.  Her tongue felt sticky and sweet as she thought about the O’Briens’ pool.  In the summer she could hear them splashing around and laughing, but the O’Briens had never invited them over.  That fact had never bothered Mrs. Pierce before.

“So the O’Briens are too good for old fashioned soap and water.”

“Trust me, ma’am, when I tell you that we perform a much more thorough job than an ordinary garden hose and sponge.”  He seemed more relaxed now that he was feeding her the company line, and his coveralls rustled again as he waved his arms when he spoke.

“A lot more expensive, too,” she said.

“Actually, ma’am, our rates are extremely competitive, and we offer our clients a more complete package than other companies.”

“Your other clients, what are they like?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are they all as posh and la-di-da?”

“I couldn’t really say, ma’am.”  He was looking past her now at his clipboard on the countertop.  After a moment he scratched at his nose, maybe just to have something to do, and the sleeve of his coveralls slipped down revealing a thick, dark scar running all the way down his forearm, as if his arm had gotten mangled in some steel contraption.  He noticed her staring and quickly dropped his arm back down to his side, sheepish as a schoolboy with braces.

Feeling ridiculous just standing there holding her glass for so long, she took another sip and tried not to wince.

“I could leave you a card if you’re interested,” he said.

Mrs. Pierce pretended to be shocked, even cupping her hand to her mouth as if to keep from spitting out her drink.  “If I’m interested?  You think I’d be interested?  I’m afraid we’re not quite as well off as the O’Briens.  We actually have to scrub our house ourselves.”  She put the glass down on the counter and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  Then she glared at him as if he should be apologizing.

He looked around the kitchen and, noticing all the wood cabinet doors, said, “We also do a lot of decks.”

“And I’m sure the O’Briens get it all, don’t they?  They probably have a whole crew who mows their lawn and mops their floors, and someone else who fills their ice trays.”  After all, these were the same people who subscribed to The New York Times instead of The Reporter.  She knew because the delivery boy sometimes tossed it on her lawn by mistake.

His response was to unzip a side pocket on his coveralls and take out a black business card.  She didn’t react, even when he started rustling towards her, holding the card out in front of him like a stiletto.  She made no effort to meet him, so he had to cross the entire kitchen floor.  As he got closer, she was surprised to find the strong musky cologne he wore to camouflage the scent of chemicals not unpleasant, and when their bodies were almost touching, she had to look away.  He lingered a moment then tossed the card onto the counter and snatched his clipboard.  As he hurried back towards the hall he apologized for troubling her.  This time the front door slammed hard.

Her mouth was still sugary from the iced tea.  She’d never really had any feelings about the O’Briens in the couple years they had lived next door.  Mrs. O’Brien—Nancy, was it?—had been friendly enough whenever they both happened to be outside, waving hello or complimenting the weather.  Their son was a few years older than Gerry so they weren’t friends, but she never heard of him getting into any trouble.  She hardly ever saw the husband.  He seemed to work about eighty hours a week, which at least meant they hadn’t simply fallen into money.  Nice enough people as far as she could tell, but apparently not her kind of people.  Just because you lived next door didn’t necessarily make you neighbors.

She poured the rest of her glass into the sink and rinsed it out.  Then she dumped out the entire pitcher from the refrigerator and washed that out too.  She had to get going.  There was laundry to do, groceries to buy, a check to write.  On her way out of the kitchen she dropped the business card into the garbage.

The Viper Clean representative cut across Mrs. Pierce’s lawn to 1729 and rang the bell.  His two younger coworkers had driven the flatbed truck the hundred feet or so up the street in front of the house, and this time they stayed inside with the engine running until they were sure.

Unlike her neighbor, this woman answered the door on the first ring, jerking it open expectantly.  She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week.  Short, thin, and fragile looking to begin with, her eyes were glazed over with a milky film and her dry lump of hair looked like a tangle of twine slipping off her head.  She wore a faded pink sweatshirt, wrinkled grey dress slacks, and a pair of flimsy white sandals, as if she had randomly grabbed at things in her closet.

When she saw him in his protective vinyl coveralls and saw the clipboard he clutched tightly against his chest, her knees buckled and she had to grab the door with both hands to keep from falling.  She looked up at him, her face cringing and twisted like she was struggling to cry but had nothing left, and he instinctively reached out for her with both arms, not knowing what he would do if she actually came to him.

“Oh, god!” she cried.  “What is it now?”

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This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.

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