Features

Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.

A hundred coins clink down the rows of slot machines as I slide my card into the punch clock. At 19:02 I’m on the job and the fat lady at Number Four wins $65.

I’ve got to pick up my cart from the supply closet but first I like to step onto the floor—just to look around for a few seconds, you know. Every shift I wonder if I’ll see somebody I recognize, even though I very much don’t want that to happen. Maybe Ms. Maldonado from up the hall… I don’t ever want to see her here, all excited and sexed up and spending the coin. I don’t want her to see me, either, in my coveralls, with my mop, just shuffling around and cleaning the place.

Once I get to wheeling my squealing cart around the games floor, I’ll be finding all sorts of messy things. Abandoned bottles, crushed smokes, sticky mint wrappers, glitter from chests or faces, a golden cufflink worth twice my wage left by some big shot who won’t realize it’s gone.

But those are the easy stuff. The filth that really sticks is the kind I can’t simply throw out. There is a kind that breathes and moves. It thinks and it feels, but it loves more than anything to abuse.

It’s like they invite all the dirtiest folk to this place. Ladies in long fur coats or girls in short dresses tight as a glove, downing champagne like as if it was holy water. Their hands will be climbing up men’s slick necks, and these men will be slapping down cards and feeling their way to pleasure with their free hand. Rings will rest against the insides of pockets, dark spaces to seal off the madness.

All these filthy things, and there’s a man to clean them up. I’m the cleanest, straightest, godliest creature in the whole joint. And I tell myself that it takes an outsider like that to work my job. It takes someone who knows the world differently.

People like me don’t see things as fair or unfair. We can’t afford to. As I’m sweeping up scraps into my dustpan, moving between tables and whispering “Excuse me, ma’am” here, “My apologies, sir” there, I will know only judgement, shallow and impulsive. No matter their shouting and stumbling, cheating and deceiving, the folk in this place will reserve for me a special condescension, and, as if they’ve picked up a mop of their own, they’ll scrub me away like trash.

I come out here every night and do my job as good as I can. And I do it real good. The bosses pay me alright and I don’t get to expecting anything that can’t be written on a cheque.

When I get to feeling sick, I think about sweeter things. My mama and my baby boy, who wait for me to come back in the early hours of the new day… sometimes even old Ms. Maldonado in her cardigan, who left a pot pie on our doorstep on Thanksgiving.

It’s almost Christmas now, and I think that with the good hours I’ve done we’ll have enough to put together a proper dinner. Maybe I’ll become over-excited at the grocer, egged on in that odd, silent way by all the people who march around buying nice things for their own dinners, and I’ll ask over the counter for both ham and turkey, already neatly sliced.

It will be worth it, I know it. Mama will set the table and my boy will try to sit up tall like a man and be proud of what his family will eat that night. I’ll invite Ms. Maldonado over, too, and somewhere over the meal, I’ll say thank you so much for the pot pie.

That’s what I’m thinking about tonight.

When I hear the crash, I look up quickly from my work then down across the floor. Somebody’s upset a craps table. Among the spilled chips there’s standing this beast of a man. A young lady, discreetly massaging her wrist, stands next to and a little behind him, and he’s yelling wildly at another man.

A shameless hush falls over the room. All the filthy people feign concern for what will happen next, but their thirst for something magnificent and awful is right there for everyone to see.

I’ve left my cart and dustpan behind and I’m making my way towards the angry man so caught up in the scene he created. All business on the games floor has now stopped. When I get so close to him, some people notice me and whisper among themselves. The man ignores me until I speak to him. I do it forcefully, pointing a shaking finger.

“Now sir—listen, now, sir! That’s enough of this! These people are here to enjoy themselves. Don’t be standing in the way of that, now. Come on, sir!”

It’s at moments like these that I know who I am. It’s also at moments like these that I feel my boy and my mama and dear Ms. Maldonado very close to me. They stand like lonely flowers in such a vast field of mud.

If they were on the floor with me tonight, I know they would see the sweat rolling down the back of my neck. I know they would see the silver glint of a pistol grip sticking out from the angry man’s waistband. I know they would see the box cutter that I hold in the hand behind my back.

I hope they would see the subtle difference between the terrible and the heroic and so find a way to forgive someone who may get the two confused.

Keelan Buck, second-year public administration and linguistics.