Congratulations to Lyndsie Manusos and her wonderful story “Clean Team,” which we had the honor of selecting as the winner of Ooligan Press’ Write to Publish contest. In “Clean Team,” a hospital worker is tasked with keeping the building clean, however, one gets the sense that while cleaning satisfies an obsessive obsessive urge for the narrator, it is also driving the speaker toward a dark end. Enormous thanks to Ooligan Press for allowing us to choose their flash fiction winner.
by Lyndsie Manusos
It does not matter how you bleed. It does not matter if you’re being sewn shut or cut open. If your blood happens to splatter on this floor — my floor — I wipe it up.
I’m a nook and cranny expert. I dream of looking in all the right places. I’ve trained myself to find problem places nobody would expect needed to be cleaned. Hospitals are a temple of evolution when it comes to germs. I go out every on every shift with the weight of the world on my shoulders. When I begin, I begin a crusade. Don’t you get it? It’s a matter of reputation; a hospital is only as good as its clean sheets. Especially if you work for a hospital named after a saint. Nobody wants to read about a Catholic hospital overrun with blight. Like cleaning a paper cut in dirty water.
I wear latex gloves, and by the end of my shift, my wrists have indentations. My skin feels sandy and dry. Even when I take off the gloves, it still looks and feels like I have them on. I go to sleep rubbing my fingers together, expecting to feel the slippery material on my skin.
Most nights, I dream of a woman reaching out to me, covered in sores. She says to me, “Take my hand,” and I cannot. I dare not.
I have to get up and wash my hands, no matter what time of day it is. I think of the woman’s sores, and I wash until my hands are red and raw. I don’t consider myself religious but washing my hands is a form of prayer. An act of bodily erasure. Even the hospital’s name sake said in some brochure or another, “a servant is not holy if she is not busy.” My supervisor uses the quote during our annual reviews; he knows, though, that I don’t need the lecturing. Not everyone I work with feels the way I do. Not everyone takes cleansing home to bed. Most of them don’t care. But before the hospital, my father had always said, “Clean and be clean.”
Everything had started with him.
It’s the night shifts that veer on the spiritual. You’re going against nature and your own bodily clock, after all. It does things to you. The following mornings, I take long, hot baths. It’s so hard to fall asleep after a night shift. I carry hand sanitizer, not one bottle but bottles upon bottles of them. It’s never enough. If I could, I’d take a cheese grater to my hands to shed the dirty skin.
Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh.
* * *
There are whispers people like me could be replaced. They think they can create surfaces and hospital equipment immune to infection. Something about the material. “Rooms that clean themselves,” or something like that. When I hear that, I remember a particular day: it was winter, and I’m mopping the floor outside the waiting room. A man and his son walk through the sliding doors and the boy just ups and vomits right there in the entrance. Right there, like he had been waiting till that very moment. Ta da! The boy started crying, and the man put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointed to the vomit on the floor.
“Do you mind?” he asked me, his face blank.
Yeah, I wanted to say. Yeah I do mind, because that putrid thing next to you just ruined my handiwork, and what thanks do I get? Nothing. Even the receptionist looked at me with a “Well?” expression. I wanted to use my mop like a whip. CRACK! Splay the juices across the air, but I could never . . . I will never.
So they might need less of us, but they will always need people like us. People like me. I know the exact spot on stairwell railing that’s touched the most. I know where on hospital doors doctors push to wheel someone through. I know the curtains surrounding hospital beds can become re-contaminated within a week, even days, of washing. It’s the anxiety that makes me so goddamn good. Show me a technology that can clean like that — live like that — and I’ll burn my latex gloves.
Lyndsie Manusos’ fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Apex Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and other publications. She’s a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program. You can follow her on Twitter @lmanusos or visit her website. She lives in Chicago.