Drainmen Ch. 7

by RW Spryszak

A hand touched my arm, the delicate wings of a medieval bird lost in the fields. Barely there. A suggestion of a thing more than a thing itself. A thing I didn't want to acknowledge. I was determined to ignore it. Keep my eyes wooden and unattached. But it touched me again and I wondered how I knew it was a hand in spite of its spectral weight. I wanted to believe I simply looked lost in thought or in some way poorly affected, rather than like some rude boy child on the street with no shoes. But I couldn't sustain it. And when I finally turned my thickened head to see what troubled my arm she looked up at me as if she pitied me, and I instantly hated her for it.

Because of the constant rain a person gets used to what that makes others look like in public. In a way we are made somewhat the same because we are drenched , our clothes in wet crumples on our bodies, and there is no sense in combing one's hair. We are all fishlike pale. But this girl was the worst example of what we look like as a race because of the rain. 

She came up only to my shoulder and so the first thing I noticed was her red hair, smashed down from the weight of its soaking and matted to her head. Some old, long lost doll in a leaky attic. Skinny and hollow-cheeked. A starving waif of the street. But not a child. Not really a girl. Not a woman either. Her clothes clung to her, formless. Only her face and the length of her hair betrayed her gender.

I waited for her to speak, since she was the one who interrupted me and not the other way around. An easily defensible response. A person you don't know, whom you've never seen before, approaches you on the street in the middle of your workday and touches you on the arm. As far as your memory can take you, you are a stranger to her and she to you. She initiated the contact. Not once, but twice. I was minding my own business. Doing my work. A proper, polite gaze down at her, a waiting response, questioning, was fitting. It was the socially correct pose to assume. But she did nothing. She looked straight ahead across the street as if I wasn't there.

I'd heard the old stories. The tales of apparitions in the mountains. A small girl in a dirty white dress unfit for the climb, turns up on the trail, following the hikers. As quick and easy as she appears she is gone just the same. There is the momentary and reasonable question if she'd really been there at all. But everyone in the party swears they saw her. These are famous stories we tell our children. This was the same thing, in a way, except she wasn't a girl but a young woman. Nor was she in a dirty white dress. And she wasn't disappearing, as thin as her image may have looked in the mist about us. She wasn't an apparition.

It would have been logical for me to then ask if she needed something. Directions. Assistance of some kind. I could have asked. The words were formed in my head and were ready to be easily spoken. But the expression on her face seemed to suggest I shouldn't bother her just at that moment. That even an offer of help would have been mistaken for intrusion. And so I kept my attention on the locomotive dangling beside our tower.

The longer we stood like that the more I remembered a passage in an old book I once read where the chance that the proximity of something or someone can seep into a person's dreams while they are asleep. An exhausted traveler, somewhat lost but going in the right direction, lays himself down in a protected field to sleep for the night. In his sleep he is overcome with erotic dreams. Dreams of a beautiful damsel beside him, urging him on to make love to her again and again. The lust and final sensations seem to squeeze his bones to the marrow. And it happens over and over through the night. He has never known such a woman. Never known such a blade of ecstasy. And he finally falls blissfully asleep. But when he wakes the next morning he realizes he is in a graveyard, and beside him is a blanched corpse in an open, unfinished grave, and he wonders. All that day as he travels on, he is bothered with the question. Are dreams, can dreams be, invaded by the mere proximity of such a thing? What was true dream, only dream, and what were fevered truths disguised and suggested by the cloak of partial sleep?

There was no good reason to be reminded of that old book. I had no desire towards this sopping wisp of a woman. There was nothing at all attractive about her. Nature has provided women with strategic curves that will attract the man. But this one beside me seemed straight as any board. Pale and dirty on top of it. So why her proximity reminded me of the traveler's corpse in the story is a mystery.

I'm uncertain how long we stood by the curb this way. I occasionally had to tend to my work, but even this didn't send her off. I did my work, as usual, with care and purpose though we were silent to each other all along. Her rigidity, not once avoiding me as I moved and worked, was willful on her part. I just knew it. She was being in my way, exactly as she intended, for reasons known only to her. Reasons I began to invent on her behalf, without speaking them to her. My imagination trying to fill in the spaces left by our mutual inability to communicate. I invented a dozen reasons for her presence and behavior. None of them satisfying.

It was a great relief when the steam whistle sounded and I could get away from my work station and get a bite to eat. Get away from her. And maybe she would be gone when I got back. There is always hope in the world. I went into the worker's tent. Blissfully out of the rain. I sat in my usual place at one of the long tables where bowls of soup were put in front of us by the immigrants. Everyone sits in the same place every day, and we are all wordlessly careful about it. I never knew for certain, but it always seemed it would be a terrible affront to sit in someone else's place. It has to be truer for those of us who have been here a while and should know better. There's no telling what would happen, even to violence. New men are constantly finding this out the hard way. I have never had to deal with an intruder. And I suppose, because I am only a drain man, I would find another place to sit and hope I don't start a problematic reaction of involuntary seat changing.

As it is I rarely speak to my fellow workers. There's a kind of hierarchy here, with the engineers and the tower men at the rarified top. I don't know why there is such enmity. I spend my lunches in warm isolation. In fact, this is how I spend most of the day. There are simply too many men here to keep them sorted. And the bad ones, the ones who come in angry or bitter before anything has even got started, are people I wish I had the courage to kill.

I expected the girl, the young lady, the urchin, the whatever it was, to be gone when I finished. Gone for lack of anyone to annoy. All entertainment gone. I assumed the rest of the day would be clear of her, and I'd be able to write it off as one of those things that happen on the streets from time to time. Things without rhyme or reason or motive. The oddness of common navigation peculiar to cities. 

I saw her as I emerged from the worker's tent, even at that distance, still standing near my drain. That same smallish, elflike creature, picking up trash floating down the gutter with a bare hand. A clear violation of the rules.