Staying Clean

Of course, I didn’t know he was a cop at first. He was bald and had a white beard that hung to his chest. He wore a lumber jacket, jeans with a hole in one knee, and black leather boots. As he extended his badge toward me, I noticed his fists were overgrown with old tattoos. Before he knocked, I’d been doing dishes and the steam still rose off the water in long silken lines. My own hands, dripping with suds, seemed soft.

He said he was looking for a man named James Sparks and that this was his last known address. I explained that I was new to Vancouver and, as he could see by the basement suite’s scuffed and pocked walls, the apartment saw a constant current of tenants. From his back pocket, he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. As he looked down to unfold it, I saw he had a spider tattoo on the crown of his head.


James’ mugshot was so cliché you’d think it was staged. He was my age, had a fat lip, a cut on the bridge of his nose, tousled hair, and a black eye that was actually black––not purple or blue or yellow, but black. Like deep water. 

“What’d he do?” I asked.

The cop shrugged. “Something with drugs.” When he spoke, I picked up the subtle slur of an Australian accent.

I jotted my landlord’s number on the back of a Chinese takeout menu and handed it to him, saying that she might be able to help. He laid the menu over the mug shot and then folded them both in half and subsequently quarters, then slid them into his side pocket. On the back of the menu were zodiac fortunes. Inside the cop’s pocket, I pictured James’ unflinching eyes pressed up against his misspelled future.

As I closed the door, the cop put a hand against it to stop me. “How long you been in Vancouver?” he asked.

“Two months.” But as I said it, I realized it was now closer to three.

After he’d left, I phoned my landlord. I told her the police were looking for James Sparks and I’d given them her number. She said that James was the tenant here right before me, having moved from Calgary for a fresh start. But after living here alone for a few months, he started using again and had to be evicted. That was the last she’d heard of him.

Once I finished the dishes, I checked my email. There was a Groupon for whitewater rafting. Now back in my routine, I got the broom and dustpan from the corner. No matter how many times I clean this place, I still find new things. The suite came furnished and because it is submarine-small, it’s hard to move the furniture around to get at the floor underneath. It’s like trying to rearrange a traffic jam. I moved the couch three feet out from the wall until it hit the coffee table which was already snug against the opposing chair. In the square of revealed hardwood, I found a three-year-old copy of Châtelaine. It was addressed to Claire Kelly. Claire was a former tenant and I’ve come to know her through her mail.

Each day, the apartment is inundated with junk-mail for old tenants. At first, I collected everything to hand over to my landlord but she didn’t want it. So I wrote “Return to Sender” and left each envelope sticking out of the mailbox but the postman didn’t take them either.

So I started opening them.

I know Claire had a subscription to Chatelaine and Bon Appétit. I know she was a member of the NDP. I know she moved here from Nevada where she’d gone to school and that she adopted a cat from the Burnaby SPCA. She ran in the city marathon and played beach volleyball. I know all this through her mail. You’d think that mail doesn’t matter anymore, but it does; it loiters behind well after you’ve left, gossiping about what you were and what you wanted to be.

It’s not hard to piece a life together, not if you have the time

I then danced the fridge out from the wall. I reached the broom beneath it as far as I could. In the handful of dust I pulled out, there was a nail polish cap. I looked at the brand name and knew that it was Brandy Robertson’s. She still gets the company’s catalogue. Brandy also collects coins and bought a used car from a dealer out in Surrey. She lived here with Marshal Saddler. I know this because a bank statement comes addressed to both of them. Marshal played indoor paintball and his dentist sends form letters urging him to come get his braces adjusted. Two years ago, Marshal proposed to Brandy; a jeweller recently sent a handwritten note of congratulations and a special offer on what he called an “anniversary locket.” For their wedding, they hired a photographer who also does family portraits and passport photos. Three weeks ago, Marshal got a letter from the Belgian government demanding three years of back taxes. I don’t know where Brandy’s from but I’m sure I’ll find out.

Once I finished sweeping, I checked my email again. I opened the oven door, its hinges whining, but remembered I’d cleaned it last week. I ran through my last seven dinners but everything was either boiled or microwaved. So I took out the half-empty garbage along with yesterday’s stack of mail.

It’s not hard to piece a life together, not if you have the time. I know Rob Ambrose, the Jehovah’s Witness with four different credit cards who owes three hundred and sixteen dollars to a travel insurance company. And Jorge Marsano, the man who shaved his head for cancer and had season tickets to Vancouver’s hockey, football, and baseball teams even though he was working at a convenience store. I have his T4. I know all of these people and I am living in the place they used to live, layered overtop of them, worn in with the rain. And there is an odd intimacy in that, one they’ll never know we share.

I came in from the garbage and hit the space bar to wake up my computer so I can check my email. One day,  I thought, my name will be added to the list of people who used to live here but have since moved on. James is the only tenant I know nothing about. And I’m not sure if that’s because he wasn’t here long enough to give out his address or if he never made the effort, like he always knew the bottom was going to give.

And ever since that cop had come, James has become a ghost, someone who follows me around, standing behind me as I scrub the bathtub or rearrange my desk. Someone who creaks the floorboards at night, just to let me think that there’s another heartbeat in the house.

I slept late today, but I wanted to sleep longer. It’s not even noon yet. The mail comes at three. I place the kettle on the stove and as I wait for it to boil I check my email. Maybe I’ll wash the walls or maybe I’ll scour the stovetop, even though it’s only me and James, my invisible roommate––both of us, just trying to stay clean.

Hidden inside the kettle, long lines of bubbles break the surface.

Richard Kelly Kemick’s poetry, prose, and criticism have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada and the United States, most recently in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Fiddlehead. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, was published March 2016 by Goose Lane Editions and was chosen by CBC as one of the season's fifteen best collections. @richardkemick