Drainmen - Ch.3

by RW Spryszak

The gatekeeper, wrapped carefully in linen bandages around her torso, sat on the other side of the portcullis peeling an orange. It was always a difficult process for her because of her deformities. One hand had but two fingers, and these were thick and resembled a lobster claw, wide and fat,  more than a human hand. And the other hand was correctly formed but seemed reddish and crippled with some kind of condition like spurs or arthritis. Her work with these hands made her otherwise somewhat comely face squeeze its features together in hungry concentration, just on the verge of impatience and rage, as if she hated that piece of fruit. As if eating it would be a justified act of torture on it for all its petulance. I see her like this all the time. Though sometimes, when she is merely eating a peach, she is much calmer.

Because of her struggle she didn't notice me waiting for her to open the gate. I waited on my hands and knees until such time as I felt that getting her attention wouldn't enrage her further because I am cursed, after all, with this sense of consideration for others, sometimes to my detriment. I feel most everything much too deeply and find it a simple thing to put myself in someone else's shoes - as it were - and I hesitate to run over that understanding with my own petty needs. I wasn't late for work, after all. And yet, if I am to be honest, I can be guilty of deep inconsiderations now and again, especially when recalling the days when I was a child. I still remember altering the entire life trajectory of someone by childishly taunting someone, another child, for being "fat." I am embarrassed and proud of this incident by turns, depending on the day, though I know that person has led a tragic life ever since. One doesn't always realize when one is being the cause of such a thing. It is both wonderful and terrible to cause things.

I watched her and waited, knowing that oranges were hard to come by and shouldn't be taken for granted. A part of me wanted to offer her assistance. But this seemed more like a cunning ruse to get attention than an honest offer to help. Not to mention these days we are so polarized in this country that often innocent things make people angry. It isn't always a good idea to offer someone help. They could take it as sarcasm. It could be taken as an insult.. So I waited and I watched for those reasons as well.

The task was so difficult for her I felt physically drained on her behalf. And just when, with reddened face and slits for eyes, it looked as though she was going to throw the offending fruit onto the slag heaps, a small rip in the orange came open. Instead of using this opportunity to continue to peel it, however, she pushed the rip against her mouth and began to suck at it, making a tremendous mess on her face, strange hands, and shirt. And sucking noises a mouth makes, being something that made my skin crawl, were all I heard as I closed my eyes, unwilling to see more.

Her name was Agatha, so she devoured the orange much as a small animal would, pushing her lips and tongue and teeth inside the thing to bite and rip and suck the meat out of it, spitting the seeds toward the pile of those men who died on the night shift, stacked against the chain link fence waiting to be taken away.

You always argued with me that they shouldn't allow crews to work at night. That it was too dangerous for so little being accomplished in those work hours. I'd stopped arguing with you about it at some point, I remember. I learned not to argue with you when you were that determined to make your point and felt so strongly that you were right no matter the evidence or the truth. You would, in such cases, argue forever and never give on any point no matter how minor. Whenever you got like that I became exhausted and, in time, knew enough not to engage. Nevertheless there they were, men who would never return to their families. Working the night shift was why they made the big money. So it was a chance they took, and knew they were taking, all along. They knew full well what might happen.

Then the sirens went off. Late, but expected. Coming to fetch the dead and cart them away. When their far away wail started, Agatha finally saw me waiting and angrily lifted the portcullis for me and the others who were waiting in line behind me. Only then did I notice there were two brown smudges of dried blood on her bandages. I would have asked what happened. I should have, out of common human decency. I would have wanted to know if she was alright. But I only crawled out of the tunnel, stood up, and went on my way. Perhaps my concern would have been taken as an intrusion. Or an unwanted advance.

I knew Agatha all too well after all these years on the job.