Cement 1.1

by Ivan


Out in the middle of the Sunny Palm Boulevard the large back engine of a van rumbled as a generator powered the vacuum pump turning and humming along the back exit of the van, into a hole. She crouched near the metal hose, watching it wiggle living and hungry, sucking at the sewage air below the manhole and eventually into the sewer itself. The van was part of an line of trucks. Some with vats, some with more generators and more vans, stronger even. In total, four service vehicles.

The stench made her cover her mouth. She looked down upon the floor, bubbles coming up and towards her as far high stooped as she was at the edge of the grate hole. Workers rummaged in rubber suits. Kat kept her palm at her mouth. She leaned back a little bit and swallowed fresh air and went back to the workers with the pen clicked and armed. The septic workers trudged and laughed and took out clumps of toilet paper bundled at the exit way of a large pipe. One of them took what looked like a spear and raked the paper away and into a greater pool of shit-water. Wet marsh lands was more like it, the texture almost tacky looking.

“S-so when did the toilet situation begin, again?” Kat asked. She held a notepad and breathed slow.

The worker rubbed his face mask where his chin would have been. He was brown from the waist down and some on his sleeves. Behind her a truck honked. Here at the busiest road, Kat was watching men clean toilet paper and baby wipes out from the city’s bowels. People stared from across the sidewalk, watching her and drinking from cups of soda. And she felt embarrassed though did not know why. It was just work for all of them. Just work.

“I’d say it started a week ago. Probably.”

“Probably.” Kat wrote.

“It’s the wipes that are the problem.”

“Yup. Yup.” The other repeated.

They both prodded the wall of beige paper. A giant mass like a trapped canon ball. Water dripped out from the pipe and from smaller ones surrounding them and exhuming trapped gas from cracks in the metal or fittings. From the vantage, the two workers looked warped. Kat leaned back. One of the workers started climbing a ladder at the edge of the hole rim. He got up to traffic level, his dirty head looking out. Like a bee keeper, almost. She would have preferred stings over the scent any day.

“Almost lunch.” He said. “But after, we can show you where the problem really is.”

He pointed at the white truck and at a little tool kit propped open with an extra suit that leaned out at the edge. Plastic. Floppy.

When she was back at her office, she reached for the hand sanitizer and took heavy globs of it to her arms and forearms. Then her neck, scratching it into her skin. For the gunk seemed trapped on her like a film. She worked it into her face and everyone around her stared with raised eye brows, some laughing behind their laptop screens. Matt wheeled himself closer and leaned in to her.

“I don’t care how I look.” Kat said. “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.”

“Was it bad?”

“Was it bad?” She smiled. “I was in your shit, Matt. In your shit. In my shit. In everyones shit. An ocean moses couldn’t fucking part, even if he wanted to. It started at my stomach, alright? And by the time we were at the worst of it, it was up to my neck.”

“Marcy called in sick. Gabriel too – they were supposed to help.”

“Of course they called in sick.” I said. “I should have too.”

She turned her chair back towards her computer. Her yellow pad plopped down, some pictures too on a little clip attached to it. Across her “desk”, more a table amongst others in the open-concept†1 floor, and on it little more than a collection of bobbleheads and some pictures of herself with Robert De Niro – her smiling and him dead pan and pale in a dim lit diner foyer. She clicked about the computer without particularly doing any work, just staring into the screen.

“You know what I really hate about all this?” Kat said. “Two years and I’m still an intern.”

“It’s hard to move up. We’re Channel24, remember? Did you think it’d be easy being a full-timer?”

“Matt. We barely got a table to ourselves last year.”

“That’s how it is. I’m sure they appreciate your stint though. That takes a lot.”

“Appreciate fuck all.” She had both palms on the table. “I’m sick of this and I’m sick of going nowhere. You know how much money I’ve made freelancing?”

He sat quiet. She licked her lips and leaned back and thought about the scene that was her life at twenty six; no immediate path-line leading her to something else. Nothing so much but the promise spoken every day with that same tired lisp by a man comfortable in his early retirement ‘Show ‘em you have the gumption and you’ll be editor in no time.’ Her now, turning twenty seven and still with the same barely above average income in her barely above average existence. At home with her parents still. The thread line of a future cut somewhere she knew not, now with a dream of a dream. Escape rather than moving up. Survive rather than fight. She thought about her money. Always, even now, spinning in her office chair up the fifth floor of Channel24 news station. Saving up her two hundred? Three hundred? Four hundred spare bills from writing articles†2 on spare time. And maybe it wasn’t the most fulfilling thing in the world but what was fulfilling and who’s truly fulfilled any more? It’s as fictitious as the ephemeral American dream – that liminal dream stage imagined from stories spoken kept in the back of your head – vague and often wrong and definitely never coming true.

She’d made money as a con writer. She’d saved five thousand at least.

“I think I’m leaving the city.” Kat wagged her finger. “I’m going to Colorado. It’s cheap, I don’t think I’ll have to wait even five months to become staffed.”

“You said that last year.”

“And now I mean it. What about you? Wife can’t be happy you’re almost thirty and still an intern.”

“We manage.” He says. “Part of that is living within your means, you know.”

“I live like a rat. Isn’t that enough?” She almost laughed. “Mom cooks the food. I get whatever scraps are left, paying most of the bills, to come to work to write pieces on sewers. Covered in shit, mind you!”

“Alright. I get it. I’m just saying, wait a little. Just play life by ear, you know, see if things change.”

“Noted.” She sat tall and raised her legs up and looked about the room. The bobbleheads on her table danced in emphatic agreement, the co-workers (other interns) looked about her with narrowed eyes and disgust. One of them, a smiling bald man with glasses mouthed the words, you’re a little loud.

She shook her head and rolled closer to the screen and typed away often taking out a spray bottle of air freshener from underneath her desk to spritz the air. The world little more than that, a computer screen and the muted sounds of typing from underneath her headphones. She day dreamed too much of a better life, not a particularly good life, but better. Because at her age settling seemed best; having a studio apartment, having money for food and perhaps a few bucks for everything else. Barely living on the razors edge of the poverty line. No room mates, preferably. But if so, hopefully quiet ones. And somewhere far from Havenbrook – far from the mountains and the sun and the optimistic suffering she saw on the streets every day, homeless sunscarred into pygmies smiling and playing guitar for pennies to survive for another day. Caffein-high (coke high too) venture capitalists walking clumsy through the streets, screaming at their phones. Anything and everything far away from the suffering of the city.

Her phone beeped. It rattled along the surface of the desk and waddled off near the edge. She was managing five web pages, running forms and notes to turn into the editor. Going through line by line and checking on the website. Making sure not to plagiarize, checking, checking. Published. How to finesse a first date!…if she knew she wouldn’t be looking into corruption or interviewing dictators and murderers, she never would have become a journalist. If – strong if – that was even what she agreed what she was. Internship was being more like a postal service worker. A package deliverer. A therapist, sometimes.

She sniffed her arm. Hours had passed, half the seats in the room were empty and the day had dimmed to overcast behind her, stood at the height she could see down the streets. She stretched out her arms and approached the glass window, a luxury she was at the corner desk. Behind her at the front of the room was the line of interns coming into the late shift and bumping into each other. Some eating early dinners or late lunches while clicking away, the blue reflected off their face and glasses.

Outside the streets were loud, though she couldn’t hear them, she could feel the busyness of those ant-people wandering about on the dirtied sidewalks. Trashes of bags piled into green tincans, people pissing in the alleys. A large parking lot, somewhere within that parking lot her car with a slip. Did I pay for parking? The city was maddening. Like all cities, but this one something else altogether. The glass sky rises and the dilapidated warehouses next to them in that upper-lower class patchwork did something to her. To people.

She tapped her bicep.

She would be out. She breathed heavy, said it to herself then thought it. She paced about the edge of the room and giant fern plants to her side brushed against her arms. She checked her phone for the first time in what was five hours.

‘Clean up tonight, we’re having dinner with your sister.’ Of all days, of all nights. She put her phone in her purse and kicked her feet into her sneakers and walked out with the hoodie particularly low on her forehead. She would have loved to have said no, but she couldn’t. She lived with her mother after all.


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