When I’m not writing my blog, I’m rewriting The Cleaners from the ground up. Here’s an excerpt.
Carla didn’t call me the next day. It was just as well. I felt much more comfortable risking only my own life. I stepped around the books strewn on the floor and returned to my computer.
It was surprisingly easy to craft a report devoid of meaningful information. I described days of dead-end research on Cleaners. I dug up an old word cloud of the Cleaners’ Facebook page I’d made and described the most common terms in painstaking detail. I concluded that The Cleaners often talk about houses and cleaning products. I wrote a detailed description of the physical appearance of a Cleaner. They’re small glittery men with computer tablets for heads. I hoped the cop would decide I was incompetent and forget about me.
Next, I opened Google Maps and tried to figure out where we were when the cop pulled us over. I remembered spending a long time on Union Ridge Road. Following the road, it didn’t take long to come across the farmland with one big tree in the center. I took down the coordinates and summoned a car.
In the daytime I got to see more of Caswell County. Long meandering roads took me past miles of rolling pastureland punctuated by the occasional copse of trees. Cows and horses grazed on the hillsides. Once I saw an old auto-shepherd, little remaining of the red paint but flakes against the rusted, dented hull. The flashing red “eye” on the auto-shepherd wasn’t actually a camera, I remembered as I watched the boxy machine catch a wayward foal in between its forklift arms and slowly push it back towards the rest of the herd. I regretted that I was pulling away from the action just as the mother arrived and did exactly what anyone should have expected to happen when a giant box drove over and started pushing her baby around. I thought about the battered and wrecked auto-shepherds littering farms across the country, each one a sunk cost comparable to a Maserati.
The farmland with the one big tree was not hard to get into. Instead of a gate, the fence simply broke, with a small bridge with separated poles, designed to be easy for humans to walk on but difficult for cows. When I opened the door to my car a blast of hot air greeted me. I had heard visitors to the library from the southwest describe “dry heat,” but here in North Carolina, the humidity makes the heat feel like too many blankets. I lugged my folding chair under one arm, and I walked to the tree, an enormous oak whose trunk bent almost into an S shape. Where was station 11? I looked over at the cows grazing on the other end of the field. A spotted brown one nuzzled her calf and pushed her head toward greener grass. I looked around, this pasture extended beyond my field of vision in three directions. I wondered if another auto-shepherd had found its final resting place somewhere in this field.
I would need to do another stakeout. In my folding chair next to the tree, I looked up at the clouds and noted that some of them were rather dark. A little rain would make this mission so much more comfortable, I reflected. I wouldn’t even mind the dampness if it would help with this abominable heat. I reached into my backpack and took a swig from my steel water bottle. It tasted so good, I took an extra gulp. In moments, it was empty. No problem. That’s why I brought two.
I helped myself to a granola bar and pulled out my headphones. “Paging the Communicatress” was at a slow section – I wondered how many times the protagonist was going to refer to how much he hated his ex-wife, and time dragged. Eventually I stood and looked over at the cows. They had wandered away, but it was still easy to see them. I looked for the little brown calf and saw it resting in the grass in the protective shadow of her mother.
I wiped the sweat from my brow, and pulled out my second bottle of water. This bottle was also delicious and over too soon. I positioned the tree between me and the road and relieved myself. I should take a moment to go to a convenience store to get more water. I regretted not bringing a whole gallon of water and grumbled at the thought of how far a convenience store was likely to be.
That was the least of my problems, as it turned out. I had no idea where the nearest store was, and neither did my phone. I stared at the empty cell signal meter with a sinking feeling. It struck me that beyond not knowing where to go, I couldn’t summon a car at all without Internet access. Maybe Station 11 would have wi-fi? It seemed unlikely. I pressed my lips together. My doctor had warned me to stay hydrated after I had fainted a few years back. Maybe I could steal some wi-fi from the farmer’s house.
Where was the farmer’s house? It looked like I was in a pasture that extended infinitely in all directions, including on the other side of the road. I looked back towards the cows. Whatever they were drinking couldn’t be too appetizing, but nothing distinguished any other direction.
The spotted brown calf looked up at me from the shade, and her mother eyed me from the side, flicking her ears. There was indeed an auto-shepherd here, a shaking, whirring hoe-like appendage sticking out of its severely beaten frame, scraping the grime from the bottom of the trough. A cow standing next to the trough lowed as the machine took its time, sticking the scraper into the trough, pulling it back, and lifting out a visible cake of algae and mud. I watched in silence. Finally, its cleaning complete, the auto-shepherd revealed a spout, from which it expelled a stream of water until the trough was full. It turned and left the cows as the grateful animals moved towards their luxurious, clean fresh trough of water.
The cattle made a complete circle around the water, so I had to wait for them to finish. Eventually, I was able to walk a wide path around the herd and get to the other side. If it was ever clean, the trough water was no longer. The algae was nowhere near completely scraped off and floated under the water, and I watched a fly struggle on the surface in shiny swirls of bovine saliva. I was so thirsty. I dipped my hands in and pulled up a h I decided I would tough it out for now.
I returned to the tree to plan my next move. If I could find the auto-shepherd, I might find out where it was getting its water. Maybe there would even be wi-fi there. I wandered in the opposite direction of the cows until the tree disappeared behind a hill. Even still, I couldn’t see anything further along besides another fence in the distance that no doubt led to more pasture. For fear of losing my bearings entirely, I returned to the tree again. I met with similar frustration both going away from the road and crossing to the other side. Looking back at the tree from across the empty road, I bit my lip. My mouth was dry, and my stomach groaned.
I pulled out my phone to look up “how to find your way home when you have no signal.” This only helped to remind me that, indeed, I had no signal. Come on, Diane, you’re smarter than this. I looked at the available wifi signals. I would even pay the gouging rate for a commercial hotspot at this point. Of course there were no local wifi signals in the middle of a pasture. I stomped on the ground and massaged my temples.
My breath was coming quickly now. I returned to the trough. The cows had meandered further down. I wondered if being left undisturbed would let the sediment sink to the bottom and make the water more palatable. No such luck, I determined as I watched bloodworms wriggle through the murk. I opened and closed my left hand and stared down at my useless cell phone clutched in my right. Everyone who knew how to function as an adult without a cell signal was dead. I returned to the tree. I sat back into my chair beside its S-shaped trunk and closed my eyes to think.
I awoke to the sound of a pneumatic door opening. It was night, and I saw not twenty feet to my left an ivory white rectangle, bathing the pasture with light. The spotted cow meandered into the light, lowing and looking left and right. It flicked its ears and looked at me. The cow is a robot! I thought madly, then got control of myself. I looked to see if there were any Cleaners or white vans nearby. Nothing. My phone said it was 11:02, roughly the time we were pulled over.
Where are the Cleaners? I stood and stumbled forward. The cow lowed again and wandered from the light. I watched its brown-and-white rump disappear and felt utterly alone in this interminable pasture. I steeled myself and rushed forward to examine the rectangle. I was sure it was an entrance to something larger, but standing inside it activated no elevators or portals of any kind, so I returned to my chair.
On my phone I noticed something strange. There was a wifi network available. “Station 11” sat open on my screen, no encryption whatsoever. Was this a trap? I could hardly see how they could hurt me just from the information I’d send summoning a car, and I was desperately low on options. I tapped “connect,” and in moments I was back in touch with the world. I ordered a car immediately, and instructed it to wait indefinitely and charge me the difference. Never had I been so happy to see that my ride was an hour and fifteen minutes away.
I looked up and saw the lights of the white van coming down the road. In moments, a procession of Cleaners filtered out of the van. I hid behind the tree, and saw one Cleaner step inside and sink down. The next Cleaner had to wait a full minute for the platform to rise up again before it could step on. The van sat outside the pasture and a new Cleaner stepped out each time the line moved forward. As such, the line had a slow factory-like quality. As the process proceeded, I heard a distressed lowing behind me and a rusty creaking. I turned and saw a red light bearing down on me from a big rusty box with a tiny brown and white calf stumbling in the dirt between its forklift arms. I didn’t know what would happen if the Cleaners saw me, but I didn’t have much time to consider it. I moved around to the other side of the tree and the hulk pushed its quarry along.
I looked back at The Cleaners, and watched the auto-shepherd barrel toward the tidy line. The calf lowed in shock and terror as the Cleaners emitted a chorus of “pardon mes” and “excuse mes” and made a break for the machine to charge through. I was standing right where any of them could see me, and they seemed to care about as much as William had when I had followed him.
I saw that the van had emptied, and the line was now shrinking. I heard more lowing and saw the auto-shepherd receiving another beating from the brown spotted cow even as the little calf stumbled out from the thing’s claws. I mumbled a prayer and thanked God that I was not stumbling helplessly in front of that thing with the baby when that angry mother came.
I was here to see Station 11, so I did what the Cleaners were doing. I took my place in line. “Good evening, Mam” said the Cleaner in front of me, keeping its gaze forward.
“William?” I asked.
“Yes, good evening,” said William. “Are you here to ask me to clean your house? You will have to wait until next Tuesday.” William stepped forward with the line and I followed.
“William,” I asked, “where are we going?”
“I am going for routine maintenance and recharging. I do not know where you are going.”
That was fair enough, “What is Station 11?”
William lifted an arm and pointed at the rectangle. “That is Station 11.”
“Yes, thank you William, but where does it lead?
The fight between cow and machine subsided and the admittedly sturdy auto-shepherd creaked and grinded away. William said nothing.
“William, where does that elevator lead?”
“It leads to Station 11.”
William and I stepped forward. “What is in Station 11?”
“Station 11 is where we receive routine maintenance and recharging.”
“William, what would happen if I went into Station 11?”
“That would be bad. You might get hurt. Please do not enter Station 11.”
Well, now we were getting somewhere.
“What would hurt me if I went into Station 11, William?”
William did not step forward with the line. I took a cautious step in front of him and looked at his monitor. He was thinking again “…”
After a few minutes, William hurried forward to get back in line, but I had cut him.
“Mam,” William said, his face a :(, ”Station 11 is not designed for maintenance and recharging of humans. You should go to a hospital or your home to be maintained and recharged.”
“What if I want to know what is in Station 11, William?”
William went still again “…” This time he fell well behind the group.
When he ran up again to answer me, there were two Cleaners in front of us. William lifted his hands in the air, “Mam, in Station 11, we are subjected to intense ultraviolet radiation to eliminate any germs we may have encountered. Our paint is reapplied. A charging cord is inserted into our backs. We have our limbs detached and examined for defects. It is my understanding that all of these may be uncomfortable or dangerous for a human. Please do not go into Station 11!”
I stepped forward and looked back at the elevator, considering being grabbed by a robotic arm and hauled into a chamber to be painted silver and have my limbs torn off. Thank goodness it didn’t accept you when you stood on it the first time.
The line stepped forward and I saw the Cleaner in front of me sink into the ground. I felt queasy at the thought of my narrowly avoided gruesome fate, but I was determined to get something out of this encounter.
My chest swelled and a victorious grin spread across my face. “Maybe, William,” I started, “Maybe you should promise to stop coming to my house, and I won’t go into your house.”
William did not react for a moment. His face became a o_o and he took another moment to speak. The elevator returned, but no one moved to enter it. “Mam,” William said, then he froze “…” then he said “Mam,” again, and froze again “…” After a few more “Mams” he just stood there with a “…” on his face. Goddamnit, how long was I going to have to wait to play chicken with this stupid robot? We stood like that for another five minutes, then I pulled over my chair and it went on for twenty more. Then, William shut off. His monitor just went black and he crumpled to the ground. I watched him stay there for another thirty seconds.
This was too much. Why was I blindly listening to what these machines were telling me? I was no fool. I stepped into the elevator.
Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it’s done.