Safe as Houses
by Ada Fetters
“You working today?” Mel asked, peering at Jaivin through sodium-tinted darkness. Jaivin had left his older sister Alondra and daughter Ivy asleep moments ago. He was standing outside the sky-blue house they shared, waiting for his boss to pick him up.
“Yeah,” said Jaivin. “You still at Ultimate Pawn?”
Mel was jittery. “Listen man, I can’t work in that pawnshop for two hours before I want to punch someone. The gunk on all those rings and TV’s and guitars makes me fighty. It’s like dirty fingers all over my brain. Boss won’t let me p-scrub any of it properly, you feel me?”
This was a familiar refrain from Mel. He took the Phrenic Sanitation Index seriously and tried to insist everything should be cleaned to 0.9 PSI or lower. Bosses didn’t like it.
Jaivin knew what was coming. Mel wanted to get back to work on the p-scrubber crew. It meant more hours and better money. Jaivin would have vouched for him except the last time they’d worked together, Mel had nearly gotten Jaivin fired with him.
Before Mel could appeal to any other senses, Jaivin’s boss pulled up. Perruque’s truck was faded green with a red and white logo that looked like a three-pronged fork standing on its handle. This was the call sign for p-scrubbers the way three dangling spheres was the call sign for pawnshops. It was the reason why discount p-scrubbers were often called “forks.” Where had the fork sign come from? Jaivin had no clue. Who knew how these things got started?
Jaivin darted forward to join Perruque and the others in the truck. The others on the crew were talking in English and Spanish Creole. Jaivin listened: he had the first two out of three. Though the others on the crew had introduced themselves when he joined a week ago, he knew them by sight, not by name. He knew Perruque, though. The boss was big, bald and slab-muscled, with arms as big around as Jaivin’s thigh.
The speed-generated wind through the window smelled like salt water and exhaust. It whipped Jaivin’s dark, curly hair into his eyes until he found an elastic band in his pocket and tied it back.
Up above the concrete canyons and vacant lots, the sky reflected the red haze of downtown Atlantic City.
* * *
They pulled up to a long, low apartment building with more sand than grass in the yard. Before Perruque even put the truck in park, Jaivin knew which apartment needed servicing. The movers had already been and gone. Furniture, bags and boxes were piled on the curb in a parody of a living room. He was relieved. It was much easier to deal with an empty room than with endless fussy planes and angles, nooks and crannies.
The inside of the apartment smelled like new paint and old grease. The sink was full of noodles and cloudy water. The plumber hadn’t been by yet. Jaivin heard painters working in the other room. Hoots and laughter echoed sharply off the bare walls. The rollers made sticky sounds.
Perruque drove his crew off to another job, but he’d be back all too quickly, expecting this one done when he arrived. That was how Perruque’s crew worked. One way or another, they got through everything on the docket. If a person couldn’t or wouldn’t keep pace, they were out. Like Mel. Mel was a crusader. He wanted to spend all day bringing everything up to PSI code.
You gave Mel a ride, he wanted to drive.
There was no furniture in the room. Jaivin settled himself tailor-style on the grimy shag carpet. On a good day, he could get the first job done without much strain. He took out a small wooden box with a latch. It was lined with green velvet and held glass beads that matched the decor of the casino where he used to work.
Jaivin’s fingertips whispered across unvarnished grain. The soft swooshing noise was calming but did not trigger him. He clicked his nails against the metal latch. Something deep in his brain stirred.
He opened the lid and tapped his nails against the wood with a delicate, hollow sound like the patter of rain. That finally did it. The top of his head felt cool and tingly and light, almost as if he’d taken a toke of weed. The tingling spread through his nervous system. He could feel the sound of his fingernails against the wood grain as if someone else were running theirs over the skin between his shoulder blades, under his forearms, below his collarbone. He shivered.
In his mind’s eye he saw the planes of the space around him and the echoes of the people who had lived here before. They had flung a recent series of intense arguments into the walls with their shouts and gestures. This initial layer of gunk was not uncommon for evictions, and Jaivin got his mind around it pretty quickly, scratching it away as best he could, using the same ephemeral fingernails that ran over his nervous system. Bit by bit the anger and desperation flaked away.
The gunk underneath wasn’t mere echoes flung against the walls. The residents had lived here long enough to wear a series of mental grooves into the place. They weren’t unpleasant; in fact there was a lot of affection and gentle teasing worn in with the bickering and worry. But all of it had to go. The new people, whoever they were, needed a home without too much dream-bleed or creeping nostalgia for lives they’d never led.
Jaivin couldn’t hear the previous occupants’ voices. He didn’t know who they were or what they’d said in anger or joy. He was a fork, not a detective or spy. He couldn’t lace the apartment with his own intentions either, at least not unless he lived there for as long as these people did, unconsciously radiating their nervous energy into the space around them. Anyone could do that. Everyone did that, just as everyone wore tracks into the carpet.
So he scrubbed at their mental grooves, trying to eradicate them. It didn’t always work, not completely.
Suddenly Perruque’s big hand weighed on Jaivin’s shoulder. “We good?” The power to jolt Jaivin’s nervous system buzzed in Perruque’s palm. He said he only jolted his fork-crew when they asked for it, but since Jaivin had started, nearly everyone on the crew ended the day looking spacey or stoned. Jaivin was a little afraid of him.
Just passing through, he reminded himself. Forking’s just a way to keep above water until I find something better.
“We’re good.” Jaivin snapped his wooden box shut and got to his feet. Good enough, anyway. He felt another layer of gunk trying to bleed through from years ago. The last fork hadn’t gotten it, or maybe the landlord hadn’t hired one at all before leasing to new residents. It wasn’t as pleasant as the most recent stuff. Better to leave the last thin layer of bickering than to let something worse ooze into the lives of the new occupants.
* * *
Outside, the sun was up. It shone off of dishes and plastic bags in the yard. The matte-green truck looked worse in daylight, but the red fork symbol blazed.
Jaivin tapped his fingernails against the metal fixtures and faded blue vinyl on the door of the truck. He watched the sun flash on the ocean between the buildings. Street signs with names of states flicked by. Changes in the sound of the wind stroked his brain, made him aware of echoes arcing across the skyline.
The casinos were brilliant to his inner eye: groups of architects designed psychic displays as dazzling as the lights. Jaivin could appreciate the details. Most people felt drawn to opulence and excitement.
Jaivin had been forced to learn about the science of phrenic ability in high school, along with mitosis and the genes of pea-plants. He knew that certain parts of the brain were connected differently in people with active ability, while the majority were passively affected by gunk. Who had discovered the phrenic gene? Hegel or Mendel or somebody. Or was that the pea-plant guy? The details were faded like beer cans washed up on the shore.
It was a beautiful day. The air was crisp, summer verging into fall. When the truck stopped, women were strolling across the street in hooded sweatshirts and short-shorts that showed off endless brown legs. Jaivin found himself smiling. Perruque dropped off other forks in ones or pairs at other jobs. The boss had scheduling down to a science.
Jaivin recognized the next property. They’d been there before. A row of clapboard houses sat on a plot backed up against the “prairie,” a vast tract of cracked concrete and grass stretching all the way to the sand dunes. It had been cleared for ventures that failed before they’d gotten off the ground.
“Abandoned. Again,” said Perruque as they pulled up to a sand-scoured red-and-white house. “Landlord said the renters ditched the place.”
They’d barely climbed out of the truck when an overweight woman darted out of the neighboring house. She shoved the screen door open so hard it banged off the siding. “You forks finally come to fix my place? Shadow people in the walls gonna make me lose my mind.”
Jaivin forgot the name of the guy who had discovered how to activate the gene for phrenic ability but he knew the signs of gunk-induced paranoia. Never mind Mel carping about 0.9. It had to be at least 20 PSI in there. The whites were visible all the way around the woman’s pale blue eyes. The buttons on her shirt were askew.
“Naw,” drawled Perruque. “We’re here for this one.” He pointed at the woman.
The woman threw her hands up in frustration.
There were no trees to shade, just low grass and sand. A wave of heat rolled out of the place when he opened the door. It smelled like death. Jaivin put his hand over his nose and mouth, allowing his eyes to adjust. Piles of trash, a rabbit hutch full of decomposing pigeons, and God knew what else combined with the heat to create a stench so thick it choked him.
Perruque let loose a string of profanities. His feet punished the steps on his way back down the front steps.
Jobs like this made Jaivin think about working at the Taj Mahal, back before it had closed. He’d worn a suit and tie because the owner of the casino liked to give guests a sense of class. If management wanted to hint that Jaivin had more power than he did, who was he to argue?
He’d strolled around the bars and tables, p-scrubbing the last forty-eight hours of carousing as he went. Wouldn’t want the tourists feeling echoes of despair or getting others’ memories confused with their own. Wouldn’t want them to sue for acting on impulses from a compulsive gambler. When he wasn’t working, he flirted with the showgirls and waiters and tourists.
After a few casinos closed, there were too many low-level p-scrubbers and not enough places for them. Still, fork crew paid a lot more than Wa-Wa Deli. Any warm body could stand behind a counter or wait tables or move furniture. Not just anyone could fork.
Between this and Alondra’s nursing assistant job, they made almost enough to pay rent while keeping his daughter Ivy in sneakers and sandwiches.
A battered Pontiac pulled up. “Landlord,” said Perruque.
He probably knew how bad it was and didn’t want them to walk away from the job.
Perruque eyed the abandoned house and weighed the trouble against the money. He folded his slab-muscled arms across his chest and turned to face the landlord. “No, no, we’re not standing in bird crap and dealing with this. Call Phrenic Sanitation in here or get a crackhead fork with no standards. We’re not doing this.”
The neighbor woman’s crazy eyes lit up. She screamed at her landlord, “You get them in my place or I’ll call Phrenic Sanitation on your ass!”
For a couple of minutes, everyone yelled at everyone else. Jaivin watched the sea-grass nod over the concrete prairie. Broken glass sparkled. So did the ocean.
Finally, the landlord gave the paranoid woman an appraising look, weighing the trouble she could cause by attracting the attention of Atlantic City Phrenic Sanitation against income from her rent.
“Yeah. Okay,” said the landlord. He told Perruque, “Leave the other one be. You have your fork clean up her place.”
Jaivin made a silent bet that if the trouble-making woman wasn’t paid up, she would be out next month and the fork job would be good enough for the next tenant.
The nautical wallpaper was faded from years in the sun. There were vivid patches on the walls where pictures used to hang. Now the pictures were scattered on the floor. Ragged tongues of wallpaper drooped from the drywall. The woman had scrabbled at the walls looking for shadow people behind the pictures. She’d shoved furniture away from the walls where she’d tried to chase them.
Everyone yelled at everyone else again. Property damage, shadows, PSI, sanitation. Round and round. It would be boring if his paycheck didn’t depend on it.
Jaivin took a few deep breaths. The place smelled like moldy cloth and sweat. Scratching the wooden lid of his box didn’t trigger him. He ran his fingers through the glass beads inside the box. They were the rich tawny color of posh carpet. The glassy clicks were mesmerizing.
The swirling, ephemeral fingernails that ran up and down Jaime’s spine dragged against the gunk that scabbed the walls. At first, everything was fine. He found flakes and textures to peel up and dissolve. Layers and layers of impulses were ground into the walls until they’d all glommed together into a psychic sludge that refused to dissipate. Where he disturbed it, the sludge got stickier. Idiot energy ran down over his tingling nervous system and swamped him.
PSI 20. At least. Yeah. Too late, Jaivin understood that this really was a job for ACPS. His heart kicked so hard he felt it in his throat.
Was his panic his own or was it emotional contamination? Confused, he tried to get up. If he could get out of here, get some air... The plan disintegrated when his eyes jerked to the left, hard, several times. They strained so hard they hurt. His head and neck twisted left as if his eyes dragged them. Twice, three times, four. He lurched and the floor hit him. There was too much contamination to fight. He couldn’t move; he couldn’t stop moving. His muscles thrashed with conflicting nerve-impulses.
“What’s wrong with him?” The paranoid woman’s voice was high and screamy. She sounded the way Jaivin felt. He tried to speak and nearly choked on his own spit.
“Seizure.” Perruque grabbed the back of Jaivin’s neck. “It happens. Gonna reset your clock, kid.”
Perruque sent a blast of energy into Jaivin. Warm heaviness spread through his chest and limbs. He was melting into the floor. Quivering spots of color hung in front of his eyes. Gunk peeled away under the force of his will.
Perruque grinned down at him. “Feeling good?”
The high was already wearing off, leaving Jaivin shaken. He felt he was floating away from himself as he emerged into the sunshine. The world looked bright and disjointed and terribly flat. He didn’t know whether this was from the seizure or the jolt, but either way he hated the feeling. It was all the worst parts and none of the good of discovering he’d gotten much more stoned than he meant to. He kept flexing his hands to prove he could move his own body.
Perruque laughed. “Next time you let me jolt you before you take on a job like that. ’Less you like humping the floor. You think twenty is bad? Nah. Not if I jolt you. Wait until you’ve been on a while. You won’t think nothing of it.”
Nope, Jaivin thought. As far as he was concerned, Perruque could go ride a tall mast in a bad storm. Not me. I’m just passing through.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Fetters