The Cleaners Part 18: Built upon the Boxes

In the harsh LED lighting, it took me a moment to realize that Joseph Hyland’s office contained anything more than boxes. After some contemplation, though, I could see that the boxes, which ranged from tiny cardboard containers to huge wooden crates, had been expertly arranged to form a platform, easily eight feet tall, on which Mr. Hyland’s desk stood. Mr. Hyland had even managed to arrange a gently spiraling staircase that led to the top of his little mesa. The lawyer was bent at nearly a ninety-degree angle over his desk, typing madly on what must have been a tablet computer, although I couldn’t see it from this angle. What I could see was the light gleaming off the bald spot that covered most of his head, leaving only a ring of hair that covered his temples. The gleam hit me in the eyes, blurring my vision. I had to shake my head to get my bearing again. I felt heavy on my cane, but I stayed upright.

After a minute of polite waiting, Itzal cleared a throat she didn’t have and Mr. Hyland straightened abruptly, violently, standing up in the same motion to his full height, which, combined with the platform, put him over fourteen feet above us. “Get out!” He thundered, flailing his arms wildly, “Damn you Cleaners! I just got it how I want it! This room doesn’t need cleaned! Get out! Don’t you know I have a -”

“Mr. Hyland,” said Itzal patiently, and Mr. Hyland stopped for a moment to take stock of the situation and see me for the first time.

“Ah, Diane,” he shouted, “So you’ve come to tell me why the mighty Cleaner corporation should bow to the will of an irritable old woman?”

This immediate hostility took me off guard, “I- uh, no, not, uh. No.” Then after an awkward silence, I shouted “Maybe I could come up there and talk to you.”

Mr. Hyland bared his teeth in what he may have thought was supposed to be a smile. “Oh? Well, now, if I say no, it won’t make you angry will it?” He emphasized the angry, clearly mocking meI ignored him.

“I’m here to reason with the Cleaners,” I said as calmly as one can say something at the top of one’s lungs.

“Oh, wonderful,” Mr. Hyland boomed down at me, “The representative of the mindless masses, whose claim to fame is an irrational expression of emotion, has called an audience with the beings of pure logic in the name of reason. We have made our decision.”

I felt Angry Grandma stir, but it was clearly what he wanted. I didn’t know why, but if he was trying so hard to get me angry, it must be in my best interest to stay calm. “You invited me all the way here just to say that? I understood that I would be speaking with you and The Cleaners.”

“You are speaking to all of the Helpers. That Tour Guide behind you is recording our conversation and will serve as representative to The Helpers.”

I looked back at Itzal, who :) at me and curtsied. “We are all listening, Diane,” she said evenly.

Oh. My throat went dry. No pressure. I steadied my nerves, wishing for a gin and wine cooler. Then I turned around again and shouted up at the figure above me. “Mr. Hyland, what do you expect to gain by harassing people who don’t want your service?”

“It’s called ‘advertising,’ sweetheart, look it up.”

I exhaled and grit my teeth. This guy…“You can’t really believe that. Nobody the Cleaners respect could be that stupid.”

Mr. Hyland’s brow furrowed, and I bit my lip. Two can play this game, you foolish boy.

Finally Hyland responded, “I’m waiting for you to back that claim up, Mrs. Wallace.”

“What, that the Cleaners can’t respect a moron? You’re certainly putting it to the test, I’ll give you that.”

The room was silent. What was I expecting, the emotionless robot behind me to burst into laughter? I decided to go ahead and answer the question before Hyland got another chance to speak. “Advertising isn’t a war of attrition. You don’t sell products when your customers just can’t stand to see the ads anymore. You’re already selling so much to customers that want your service – ”

“Oh-ho!” Hyland slammed his hand on his desk, sending a pen clattering off his tower onto the floor, “So that’s it, huh? We make so much money already, why should we keep trying to make more? Surely Mr. Rearden, you can spare some money for the less fortunate!”

“What?” I shouted, perplexed, not sure I had heard correctly, “Who is Mr. Rearden?”

“I suppose you’ll start telling me that ‘money isn’t everything,’ Then it’ll be ‘to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.'”

Hyland’s train of thought had switched tracks from mine and was quickly receding in the distance, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about!” I shouted at him in desperation.

Hyland slammed his desk again, making his whole platform wobble precariously, “This is what I’m talking about, Grandma, give the Devil an inch and he’ll take a mile. Once we start letting you peasants dictate our policy, it’s curtains for industry. Sure, you’ll say we should consider the ‘public good,’ but let me tell you something…” Hyland slipped out of focus again. The lights seemed to grow brighter and obscure his silhouette. His speech sounded like it was being made through several inches of concrete. With an effort I kept my attention on him, breathing deeply, and in a few seconds my senses came back to me.

“…Do you find that so hard to believe, Diane? Is it impossible to imagine that it is the people who work hard, not the people who beg and demand, that make this country great?”

I figured these were rhetorical questions and remained silent.

“Diane, money is the root of all good. The market solves everything. As long as your goal is money, uncorrupted by other influences, the public good will naturally follow.”

The public good will naturally follow. I swallowed my anger. Surely this was not part of the plan to make me irrational. Surely Mr. Hyland didn’t know about Walter. I felt myself going again. I started to shake uncontrollably, reaching out behind me for support, any kind of support, and I found a hand. Cold metal. No, warm, and strong. Strong but gentle. It was Walter’s hand. I looked up into Walter’s face, smiling at me. Not a :) but a real, human smile. Just as he was the last time I saw him. Suddenly I knew. Hyland didn’t know about Walter. I was going to tell him.

I gripped Walter’s hand tightly. Hyland’s voice came into distinction again, “A is A, Diane, I- what are you doing?”

What was I doing? I saw that I was at the steps to Hyland’s platform. “I’m coming up,” I said, for lack of anything better to say. I looked back and Walter nodded me on. Hyland stared silently as I climbed up the steps towards him. He was tall, but he wasn’t gigantic. He was just a man, and he couldn’t argue with my husband. The warmth against my hand steadied me. Ordinarily even this many steps would take the wind out of me, but I felt like I was floating. In a moment, Hyland was right in front of me. He tried to back away, but his desk was in the way.

I wished Walter would speak to me. I couldn’t waste time on self-pity now, though. “What are you doing?” Hyland repeated, eyes darting between Walter and me, “You can’t come up here.”

How old was this person? Forty? A child. He wasn’t even born when Walter went off to war, he certainly wasn’t cognizant when I learned he’d never come back. How old could he have been when we all found out what that war was really about? “Sit down, boy.” I ordered Hyland.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“Fine, I’ll sit down.” I sat in his chair. A moment of euphoria after so long on my feet.Walter stood beside me. I looked at Joseph Hyland. Little Joey. The poor thing was baffled. Things were not going as he had planned. He looked at me and at Walter and at our linked hands, but said nothing. He could see Walter? I wasn’t so far gone as not to find this odd, but I couldn’t dwell on it.

“Joey,” I said, “You don’t have to sit down, but you’d better get comfortable. Grandma’s going to tell you a story.”

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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