For the first time in my life since he’d passed, I felt like Walter was with me. This was outrageous what I was doing. Completely reckless. I had had the situation perfectly resolved, and now I was leaving my house. Leaving safety to venture directly into the lair of these – these things. The Diane I knew would never have left the safety and comfort of her own peace to go fight somebody else’s war, but only a few days after the visit from Henry I saw his picture on the mantle before the urn of his ashes. Walter was dressed in military regalia tall, handsome, fierce, so young. I went to his picture and lifted it. I had a vivid memory of grabbing Walter by the collar and kissing him, knowing that no amount of begging would keep him from going, fearing he would never come back. Fearing rightly.
After I let him go, my memory went off the rails. Instead of walking away to the convoy that had arrived for him, Walter grabbed me by the collar of my blouse. “Diane,” he said. I could hear him clearly. I wasn’t sure where I was, or what year it was. I felt twenty five again. His hands gripped my shirt tightly, then let go and wrapped his arms around my waist. He pressed me close to him, and tears came to my eyes. I felt him, warm next to me. “Walt,” I managed, “you’re keeping them waiting.” “Diane,” he said again, looking down into my eyes. His eyes were copper, reddish brown near the pupil then rusting to green as they approached the whites. I lost myself in them like I used to, wondering if – knowing – I never would again. “Diane, your country needs you.”
“My… country?” I asked. Then, “Walter, don’t leave! Don’t leave me! You’ll die! No one else can replace you! You have to listen to me!” Before Walter could answer, I was distracted by the squeaking call of a blue jay behind me. I looked behind me for an instant, but when I looked back, Walter was gone. The convoy as well. Instead, down the street, I saw William, wearing his brightest smile :D, ambling down the sidewalk towards my house. I stumbled backward to close the door, but there was no door. As blind panic threatened to overwhelm me, I saw Walter’s ashes in the urn on the mantle. I fought to catch my breath and looked around me. It was Thursday, not Monday. I was in the living room, not at the door. I was not tearfully wishing my lover farewell or in any danger of running into another Cleaner today.
“Oh, Walter.” I sobbed. I was dizzy. I needed to sit down. I moved towards the couch, but something stung my foot. Walter’s picture was on the ground, surrounded by broken glass. How had that gotten there? I carefully swept aside what broken pieces I could find with my foot and made my way to my slippers and then to the couch. “Your country needs you” whirled in my head as I sat down. I moved to a reclined position. Was that something Henry had said? “What can I do?” I whispered to Walter, “I’m an old woman.” Henry had already told me what I could do. What would Walter do? He had never reached old age, he didn’t know what it was like. I felt a surge of anger. He didn’t know what it was like.
Henry knew what it was like. He had seen me fall, almost hurt myself, risk ending my life of independence on a whim. “You’re the hero now, Diane.” I couldn’t tell Walter’s voice from Henry’s – it had been so long. It was clearly in my head, though. It felt remembered, not a vision. I sat up and went to the dining table. I hadn’t bothered to do anything with the business card so it was still there, backside up. The address was right there.
Before I knew it I was on the road. I didn’t realize I was hungry until I was halfway to Youngstown, so I stopped at a McDonald’s. As I made to start my meal I saw a female Cleaner model wiping down tables. I couldn’t eat a bite. I just stared at her – it. It was progressively dressed, the only thing different about the outfit was that it was fitted to the shape of the body underneath. Not an outrageous shape like they showed in ads, but clearly a woman’s shape. I shuddered to think of the disgusting acts a wanton man might commit with something like that. Why even have male and female models? Eventually the Cleaner disappeared into the women’s restroom and I rushed through my food to get out before I would be forced to look at it again.
The Corporate Headquarters of The Cleaners was a vast building with walls mostly of glass. “Ok, I saw it.” I whispered, but my duty was not fulfilled. I parked the car in a space marked “visitor.” The lot seemed surprisingly sparse for the middle of a workday. Stepping out, I pulled out my cane. It would be impossible to walk through this whole office without help. I would have preferred a walker, but I couldn’t bring myself to look weak in front of whoever was running this awful company. The cane was the middle ground.
As anyone would have expected, the Cleaner corporate lobby was impeccable. Everything was bright white, as if deliberately fashioned to show off how clean it was. A young lady, a human lady, dressed in white greeted me. Her name tag was black text on a white background, “Celine :).” She smiled at me with blinding white teeth. “Hello, welcome to The Cleaners! How may I help you today?”
I had not the remotest idea how she could help me. “I, uh, I’d like to opt out.”
The lady’s smile did not falter, “There’s no need to opt out. Your trial will automatically end if you choose not to renew.”
I sighed. “May I speak with your manager?”
“May I have your name?”
“Just call me Ma’am.” it was remarkable how many times I’d gotten away with it, and amazingly it worked again.
“He’ll be right out.”
In moments, a door opened in the wall to my left and a man in a white suit strode out to shake my hand, “I’m Jacob Silver, co-founder and CEO of The Cleaners. It is very nice to meet you, Ma’am. How may I help you today? Celine, would you get us something to drink?”
I shook my head and stared. This was the CEO? What kind of company lets a random woman walk in and talk directly to the CEO?
Unsurprised my my bewilderment, Mr. Silver began to lead me to some white plush couches set into an alcove on the other side of the lobby. “We take customer concerns very seriously at the Cleaners,” he explained, “Our Cleaners are so effective on their own at the actual cleaning, I spend most of my time handling the ‘human element,’ Now how can I help you?”
“I would like to opt out of my trial.”
“Yes. Celine mentioned you wanted to opt out. Can you tell me specifically what you don’t like about the Cleaner service?”
“I don’t like that they won’t leave me alone.”
I noted at this point that no one had recognized me as Angry Grandma. I was glad for that, but given how little trouble Henry had had pegging me when he saw my face, it was slightly unnerving. I bit my lip, wondering if the CEO was going to start talking like a Cleaner himself and insist that all I need to do to opt out of the trial is to see it to its completion.
“So, you want to stop receiving our invitations for a free cleaning, but you don’t want to receive a free cleaning.” Silver nodded, “did I get that right?”
I blinked, then my heart started racing. Was it going to be this easy? “Yes, yes,” I said, “that’s exactly what I want! Please, can you make it happen? How can we make sure that everyone has this option?”
“That is a very good question. I will look into it with our tech staff.” Mr. Silver flashed a winning smile and helped me up just as Celine was coming in with bottled water. “Take a water to go?” he asked.
It was the most delicious water I had ever tasted. I headed back to my car, but before I started it, I realized there was someone I wanted to call. I pulled Henry’s business card and my phone out of my purse.
“You what? Henry said.” I beamed and repeated, “I spoke with him. He made very clear he understood my issue and said he was going to work with his tech team to make sure it happened. It’s done. Soon everything will be all right.”
“Ma’am,” Henry said, “you said there was a big corporate building? At the address I gave you?”
There must be some static, “Yes, I went in and the CEO himself came out to greet me. He was a very nice young man, you would like him, I think! He told me -”
“Ma’am, I gave you that address to show you that The Cleaners are a phony organization. There’s nothing at that address but an abandoned laundromat.”
“Henry,” I shouted into the phone, “I don’t think I’m hearing you. Did you say that The Cleaners work out of an abandoned laundromat?”
Before he could respond, I spoke more. “I told you there’s a big glass building here, and everything is white and impeccably clean! He had his assistant give me a bottled water!” I looked down to confirm that a bottled water was sitting in the cupholder of my car.
“Ma’am, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s no Cleaner building.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. I looked out at the building. It was still there, fully real. Vividly real. My heart was racing. I began to feel dizzy.
“Henry, Henry,” I stammered into the phone, “please don’t tell me that. There is a large, fully-staffed building here. I assure you it is real.”
But everything is white. Was it too white? Where were all the cars? I grabbed at the bottled water. This is real. I lifted it in my hand and felt its weight. I took a sip of the water. This is real. Henry was just confused.
“Ma’am?” said Henry’s voice on the other line.
“I’m here, Henry. I’m next to The Cleaners corporate headquarters, which is real.”
“Ma’am,” said Henry, “are you hurt?”
“I’m going to come over there, ok? You just wait. Don’t drive anywhere.”
“Ok.” I heard the familiar beep of an ended call. I emptied the water bottle and forced myself to take deep breaths. The building was consistent. It didn’t vanish when I looked away, I didn’t notice myself appearing in places where I hadn’t been before. I closed my eyes and waited for Henry.