Oppressive and Certain Decay
by Maria Elena
“There’s a stain on the rug.”
“So clean it,” Alex said, his eyes glued to Rust, our latest video game obsession.
“Your cat probably peed there,” I said, poking the dark spot with my big toe. It was slightly damp. Like it had been there for a few hours.
“Could have been your dog, too.” He turned back to the screen and screamed “Fuck!” as another player blasted him with a shotgun and stole his loot.
“Sorry,” I said, and went to fetch the carpet cleaner and a rag from under the kitchen sink.
Bella was potty-trained, but then, so was his cat, who was usually outside anyway. Back in the living room, I got on my hands and knees by the couch and sniffed at the spot, which was about a foot in diameter. I smelled nothing, so I got closer and sniffed again. Still nothing. I pushed my nose to within an inch from the rug. I sniffed, and sniffed, and I smelled something . . . not quite right, but I couldn’t place it.
“Come take a whiff,” I said. “I can’t tell what it is, but I don’t think it’s pee.”
“Pilar,” Alex said. “Just clean it. I’m busy.” With that, he got an arrow in the head. “Shit fucking fuck!” he screamed.
I frowned and sprayed the foamy, white carpet cleaner onto the rug. I let it sit for a few minutes before scrubbing the stain away.
The next morning, I made coffee in my ancient Mr. Coffee, which Alex said looked like it was from the seventies. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been. You had to smack the side of it to get it to sputter to life. He wanted a Keurig. But we couldn’t afford such a luxury, especially after I lost my job.
I grabbed my laptop from the kitchen table where I’d left it to charge, and when I got back to the couch, the area on the rug where I’d cleaned the stain was still damp. I was surprised it hadn’t dried overnight, but, then again, I had sprayed quite a bit of cleaner. I opened my email.
No emails from any of the companies I had sent résumés to. Nothing from my mom, or my friends. Not even a promotional email from Target, or Domino’s. To be fair, I had unsubscribed from a lot of emails, not only because they were annoying but to prevent that false hope, that excitement of an email alert and subsequent disappointment. Yet without those superfluous marketing messages, my inbox felt empty and sad.
I’d interviewed for a remote production editor job with a decent salary at a respected publishing company two weeks earlier. It was the perfect job.
But the interview had been less than perfect. The recruiter barely made eye contact and kept looking at her notes, typing away the entire time. It threw me off and I um’d and uh’d my way through a painful thirty minutes.
And yet, stupidly, I kept holding out hope for a follow-up interview request.
I spent the rest of the day applying for jobs that I wanted, jobs that I didn’t want, jobs that seemed so boring they might kill me. I pored through Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, Bookjobs. I perused job boards of any and every publisher I could think of.
At noon, Alex shuffled out of the bedroom and kissed me on the head before shuffling to Mr. Coffee, which he smacked on the side to get it to produce a cup. Coffee in hand, he mumbled “Goodbye, love you,” and shuffled out the door, to the small office he rented where he ran a civil engineering startup.
I continued my job hunt, scouring Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, and even Craigslist, not only for editor positions, but also for administrative work. I didn’t apply for any retail jobs. Not yet, at least. And hopefully, I thought, never again.
Except I was staring down the barrel of a year’s unemployment and countless rejections, and the chances of ending up back in the land of hateful, ungrateful customers was starting to look greater and greater.
I spent the rest of the day refining my résumé and agonizing over cover letters.
When Alex came home at seven, we got high off the devil’s lettuce and stared at the ceiling, pointing out shapes in the popcorn, for the rest of the evening.
What a wonderful feeling.
The next morning, I found myself standing over another stain. It was a different stain—or, at least, it was in a different place. This one was at the foot of the chaise piece of the sectional. I got down on my hands and knees and sniffed at this new stain, but it was so very similar to the first one. I still couldn’t tell what that faint whiff of something was.
I sprayed it with cleaner and then inspected the first carpet blemish, at the corner of the rug where the loveseat portion of the couch met the chaise. With horror I saw that not only was the original stain still there, but it seemed to—somehow—have gotten bigger. I felt around it with my toe, and it felt damp, but only slightly. I sprayed it with cleaner again and scrubbed for a good ten minutes before vacuuming the entire rug.
Alex emerged from the bedroom to complain about the early wakeup call. I apologized and explained about the latest stain, and he stormed through his morning routine without looking at me, as if it was somehow my fault. I stuck my tongue out at him as he was leaving, and he slammed the door.
I opened my computer to see one unread email with the subject line, “Production Editor Position.”
It was from the indifferent recruiter who’d interviewed me.
I held my breath and clicked on it.
A boilerplate message, letting me know what a pleasure it was to learn about me. Also, I’m not a good fit for them at this time.
I closed my laptop and opened a drawer in the coffee table. I pulled out a pipe, a lighter, and the tv remote. I smoked a bowl—or five—and watched plastic housewives yell at each other about whose slippers were more expensive.
After a week of feeling sorry for myself and pretending to look for a job so Alex wouldn’t get mad, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an interview request for a technical and educational publisher. Not my first choice, but the pay was good. It was more than my current income, which was zero.
I replied in the affirmative, and even more surprisingly I got an immediate response back from Brian, who had time later that morning for a video call.
“See you soon,” I wrote, and hopped in the shower to wash away the grease from my hair and a week’s worth of grime from my body. Not washing my face for so long had not been good for my skin. There was a volcano of a pimple on my chin and a cluster of acne on my left cheek.
I sighed at my reflection. That’s what full coverage foundation was for.
After getting dressed and applying my face, I realized I needed to clean up the living room, where I’d be sitting during the interview. I had twenty minutes. I ran around throwing away water bottles and soda cans and gum wrappers and chip bags. I wiped away a thick layer of pipe ash and dog hair from the coffee table and end tables.
I pushed the coffee table off the rug to vacuum, and in its place was a coffee table-sized stain. I gawked at it. I had about five minutes until the interview.
I slid the coffee table back over the soiled area, but now that I knew the stain was there, expanding, burrowing deeper into the fibers, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What if it grew beyond the table during the intervew? I couldn’t let myself be distracted by a dirty carpet while trying to impress a potential employer, right? So I rushed to grab the carpet cleaner and quickly sprayed as much cleaner as I dared, and attacked the stain with a rag.
As I was scrubbing, though, I noticed the first two stains had grown. How was that possible? How much carpet cleaner did it take? So I went from stain to stain to stain, cleaning with fury.
My phone chirped. Two minutes since the interview had started, and I was already late.
I jumped over to the couch and found the link to the video and entered the meeting.
“Hi!” I squeaked, and cleared my throat.
Brian introduced himself as the managing production editor and described the technical editor position I applied for. As he spoke, I saw beads of sweat on my upper lip and along my hairline in the self-view window. When Brian looked down, I swiped away my sweat, creating streaks in my makeup.
But he didn’t seem to notice—or he didn’t let on if he did—and we had a nice back and forth for the rest of the interview. I could tell I was giving all the right answers to Brian’s questions.
Before clicking “END CALL,” he told me they were looking to fill the position quickly, and he liked what I could bring to the company. Someone from human resources would be in touch by the end of the week, he said.
I called Alex and told him the promising news, that soon I’d be out of the unemployment line.
“That’s great,” he said, sounding distracted. He hung up after only a minute or two.
But I didn’t let it faze me.
On Friday afternoon, I got a call from the company’s HR manager.
“Brian says it was wonderful to meet you,” she said. “You have some really great experience.”
“When do I start?” I said.
My heart was thumping in my chest with excitement. “Nothing,” I said. “Sorry. Go on.”
“At this time we’re going to go in a different direction,” she continued.
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you for letting me know. It was a pleasure getting to meet everyone.” My voice was too chipper, too high. “Please keep me in mind for any future opportunities.”
She didn’t reply. The line went dead.
I stared at the phone for a beat, then chucked it across the room. It smacked against the bathroom door and bounced a couple of times on the floor.
I was so close to landing that job.
Or was I? I raised my fists and turned to wall next to me, and pounded the sheetrock over and over.
Sixty grand in debt to get not one, but two, useless degrees. Degrees that no one gave a shit about. No one cared how hard I studied, no one cared about the hours I put in or the sweat and tears it took to get where I was in my career (back when I still had a job). No one cared about my passion.
No. One. Cared. Because I didn’t have fifteen years of experience. Because I didn’t perfectly fit every single requirement of a thirty-point list on a job posting. Because I checked the Hispanic box on the optional Ethnicity Questions, probably, which I had told myself to stop doing, but it wouldn’t matter anyway with a name like Pilar Suárez.
I was just so tired of it all. The publishing industry had chewed me up and spit me out and padlocked the gates, and I didn’t see a way back in.
A dull ache formed in the fleshy parts of my fists. With one final burst of anger, I sent my knuckles into the wall.
My skin ripped open and red blood splashed against the paint, but not a single indentation marred the plaster.
I leaned against the wall, cradling my hand, and let out a sob as I slid down. My butt hit the floor with a soft thump and I wanted to laugh at myself. I couldn’t punch a hole in a thirty-five-year-old wall, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t even clean a goddamn rug. But I didn’t laugh. I cried.
I cried until Alex got home an hour later. I cried when he said, after an awkward side hug and a light, insultingly-platonic kiss on the cheek, that I needed to get over it because we were running out of money and he needed support to keep his startup going. Just another year, he said, and he’d be making a profit.
I cried when he said it might be time to apply to some of the stores in town. I cried when he said Walmart was hiring.
My mind is quiet for once. I go for a morning jog. Fresh air, warm sun.
Ten minutes in, I’m huffing and puffing and over this physical fitness business.
Back inside, I roll my tired body over the top of the couch and plop onto the cushions. My arm hangs over the side and my fingers brush rough rug fibers and something both sticky and wet.
On my hand is a black, viscous substance rolling languidly from the tips of my fingers toward my elbow. A dollop of it leaps from my arm to my shirt, gaining speed as it defies gravity to make its way toward my head.
I shake my arm vigorously, but the tar-like blobs hold fast to my skin. The more I shake, the more it sticks. It feels like its burrowing into my pores as I send more energy that way.
I change tactics and flick a dot off the tip of my elbow, and it flies and splats against the wall. Bella, alerted by my frenzied movement, rises and pushes her nose against the wall where it splattered. Suddenly, the black dot leaps onto her nose, and the tickle causes her to swat at it with her paw.
The dot falls to the floor, and in quick succession, I flick all the tar-like splotches away, and they hit the wall with wet sounds. When I’m sure all the stuff—whatever it is—is off my arm, I run to look at myself in the bathroom mirror. It seems like I’m clear of all the mystery goo, thank god.
Then I see a black line snaking up from under my chin. It advances, determined, toward my mouth. I squeal and wipe at it with my hand, but I only manage to smear it across my chin. I watch as the black slithers back into a thin line and crests my bottom lip. I grab a towel and rub my chin and lip until the skin is raw and my lip is chapped.
But with relief, when I look back at the mirror, my face is clear. The towel has a black smear stained into it. I sniff it and recoil at the sweet stench of decay.
A quiet growling wafts in from the living room.
Bella is baring her teeth at the rug. The stain is pulsing and bubbling with this god-awful tar.
Unsure what to do, I spray it with the entire can of carpet cleaner, but by the time I return with a rag, there is no trace of the white foam. I throw the rag down on top of the stain and watch as the red rag gets sucked into its depths.
My blood feels like electricity. I don’t know whether to scream or cry. With shaking hands, I pull the pipe out of the coffee table drawer and take a long drag. And then another. I stare at the spot, take a drag, cough, stare at the spot, take a drag, cough, stare at the spot.
A bark from Bella snaps me out of it. I grab the vacuum from the utility closet, but the vacuum just smears the goo around more when it sticks to the bristles. I remove the hose attachment and point it at the offending mess. The vacuum hose successfully begins sucking up the black, and I feel like a champion, like a fucking genius, having solved the mystery.
When there’s nothing left but a light discoloration of the carpet, I remove the dirt container at the same time Alex comes storming out of the bedroom demanding to know why I’m vacuuming while he’s asleep.
“There was all this black . . . goo on the carpet,” I tell him. “I was cleaning it up.” I offer the dustbin to him. “Look inside. I don’t know what the fuck it is.”
He peers inside the container and tosses it back to me. “Is this a joke?” he says.
I mumble “Ow” as the container bounces off my bottom ribs and into my arms, and then I look inside. There’s nothing but dog hair and dust. I stick my hand in and sift through the rug mess. No black goo and no trace of that red rag.
I yank on the vacuum hose and squint through its dark hole. I sneeze from all the tiny dust particles I sent into the air, and then I wipe my nose with a grey hand, causing me to sneeze again, violently, three times in a row. Streaks of dust dirty my face.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “There was all this tar-like stuff on the rug and it got on my arm and it was crawling on me and I swear it was trying to get into me, like inside of me, like get in through my mouth, and I had to—”
“Stop! Do you hear yourself? You sound like a crazy person!”
I flinch and stand there like a little kid who got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. “Bella saw it, too,” is all I can think to say.
“Oh, I’m sure she did,” he replies. “Let’s ask her. Hey, Bella! Did you see some weird black mystery goo on the rug?”
The dog looks up at him from her doggy bed and thumps her tail a few times. She drops her head back with a resounding sigh.
“Thanks, Bella!” he says, too loudly, his voice a waterfall of sarcasm.
He turns to me. “You’ve got to stop this shit. It’s too much. You need to clean yourself up and get a job. Or we’re going to have a serious problem.”
With that, he leaves.
This time I flip him both birds as he strides out the door, but I’m not sure if he notices.
I spend the rest of the morning researching wet vacs. I’ll get these stains out one way or another, I think, and then I’ll get a job. I’ll show Alex. I just need to find the right tool to get the job done.
That tool turns out to be the Rug Doctor Mighty Pro X3 Commercial Carpet Cleaner. It sprays, it scrubs, it extracts dirt, grime, filth, odors, and pet messes. All in one pass! And it’s CRI Gold Rated. Whatever that means. The first review on Amazon gives it five stars and says simply, “Best rug cleaner we’ve ever had.” Sold!
The price causes my trigger finger to hesitate when I move the mouse to the Buy Now button. $599.99. I don’t have that much in my account.
But I do have just enough left on my credit card. I take a brief pause to consider the wisdom of maxing out a credit card on top of my already abysmal financial situation. But the truth is, I’ll be able to pay it back easily, once I find a job. And so, with the click of a button, the Rug Doctor is mine. I add a little extra for the expedited shipping, too, so I can get it tomorrow.
Tomorrow will be a good day.
I wake up smiling, even though Alex didn’t come home last night. Normally I would be very upset—he’s never not come before—but I’m not, because of the anticipation I feel. Packages are usually delivered in the morning, so the Rug Doctor will be here soon. That damn rug will be spot free today!
I search through Alex’s nightstand for his secret stash. I had smoked the last bit of my weed last night, including all the resin that I could dig out of my pipe. It’s right where I expect it to be, and after I smoke a bowl, I take a shower and get dressed. By the time I emerge from the bedroom, Bella is barking at the door.
I skip on my way to the door but stop cold when I enter the living room and get blasted with the smell of rot. I gag and see that the black gunk is back, and now covers the entirety of the rug, except for the four corners. The black bubbles all over and licks at the coffee table. I rub my eyes so hard that blossoms of discoloration pop across my eyesight. I’m just too high, I think, but when I open my eyes, the rug is still boiling.
Bella lets out another bark. I rush to the door and drag in the box that contains my salvation. I break several nails trying to rip apart the firm cardboard and thick staples. When I finally get it open, I find out that some assembly is required. I should have expected that, but I get right to work, ignoring the instructions booklet and jamming parts into place until it’s time to put it to use. Then I read the instructions, which tells me to vacuum the carpet first.
“Ha!” I laugh. It’s a wet vac, after all. I throw the booklet aside before dumping as much of the cleaning solution into the Rug Doctor as I can. Then, I attack.
At first it seems as though the machine is merely pushing the black stuff around, and I begin to grow frustrated. I can feel the rage building.
But finally the powerful cleaner, possibly aided by the insane amount of noise coming from the machine, overtakes the mess. If Alex was here, I think, he’d be super pissed.
But he’s not. And I use the Rug Doctor until all the cleaner is gone.
After enough elbow grease, the rug is clean and clear of any blemishes. Blessedly. Finally. If I weren’t so tired from pushing that heavy thing around, I’d do a victory dance. As it stands, I throw myself onto the couch, and it doesn’t take long before I pass out.
I slowly wake when I feel something wet on my hand. “Stop it, Bella,” I say, certain she’s licking me. But the feeling persists, so I reluctantly open my eyes to see a thin layer of black coating the rug.
“No,” I whisper.
“No,” I say.
“NO!” I scream.
I surge up from the couch and shove the Rug Doctor out of the way. The stupid, useless thing falls on its side. I grab the vacuum from the utility closet, and as I’m dragging it to the rug, the front door opens and Alex appears.
“What’s going on in here?” he demands.
I barely hear him speak, barely notice him staring at my unfairly frizzy hair or stained sweatshirt. I don’t have time to care. I plug in the vacuum and say, “I have to get this stain out.”
I start the vacuum and the noise drowns out whatever he has to say in response. The door slams behind me as the hose starts sucking up this hellish mess.
I’ll clean this rug all day if I have to.
And then I can move on with my life.
I just need to take care of the stain. You know? Get rid of it. Once this stain is gone then everything will be ok. I can focus on the job hunt again and I’ll land my dream job. I’ll have a job! Yes! No more worries. I mean, it’s just a stain, after all. How hard could it be to clean away this stain? A measly, little stain. If I can clean this stain, I can accomplish anything! Just after this stain. You know? This stain? After this stain. It’ll all get better.
Once it’s gone.
But that’s not quite right.
It’s a cackle. I cackle.
And it feels good.
So I cackle and cackle and cackle and it’s a foreign sound, a sound I didn’t think I could make, and I cackle and I cackle this manic cackle that doesn’t sound like me but is me and as I cackle I scrub and I don’t stop
and I scrub
and scrub and scrub and scrub and scrub and scrub and scrub
and my shoulder aches and my bicep burns and my fingers cramp.
But I scrub.
Because this stain is here and shouldn’t be. It’s here and I don’t like it and it’s all I can think about and all I can see in my dreams. All I can see when I open my refrigerator, my pantry, my washing machine, when I pull the shower curtain back. It’s all I can smell now, this smell of decay and it makes me want to gag all the time. All the time—GAG! GAG! GAG! And I hear it too, like magma bubbling just below the surface. It’s everywhere. EVERYWHERE!
and i hate it.
I HATE IT.
I scrub until the rug has a bald spot.
I scrub until a quarter of the rug has been stripped of its fibers,
until all that is left is the rubber backing.
And then I scrub some more
The next day, after destroying the rug and throwing it away, and after spending the last of my money on a new rug, and after sleeping for a dreamless fourteen hours, I get out of bed ready for a new day. Today, I get my life back together. The job search begins again, and I should probably call Alex.
I get my daily routine underway: let Bella out, bathroom, brush teeth, dress, smack Mr. Coffee. The aroma of the Great Value coffee has never smelled so delicious. I make my way to the couch with my coffee and my laptop, ready to enjoy the plush, new rug and find my dream job.
But when I get to the couch, I see a light discoloration on the rug right by my spot on the couch. It’s barely a stain, some might mistake it for a shadow. But I know what it is. I know that it will grow; I know what it will become.
And I have to get it out.