A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings
Presenting a new original science fiction story, “A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings,” by author James Alan Gardner, a Damon Runyon-esque tale of courteous guys, bulletproof dolls, and the fedora-clad spacemen that bring them together.
This week marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of American writer Damon Runyon, best known for his delightful, distinctive prose style and for the series of post-Prohibition New York stories that eventually inspired the musical Guys and Dolls.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
Madame Rosa says it is a mess and I agree. There is candy all over the floor, and it is very good candy, all the way from France if you believe the box, and there are also little white cupcakes, and red and pink roses, and those new stockings they call nylons, and a whole shelf of champagne bottles that also say they come from France, although that is harder to believe. The last thing on the floor is a dead guy with a large hole in his stomach, and smaller holes here and there.
The small holes come from bullets, and the large one from both barrels of a shotgun. This is enough to discourage most citizens in a permanent way, but Madame Rosa says this guy keeps firing his own pair of pistols even after making the shotgun’s acquaintance. The shooting does not stop until one of the dolls from upstairs comes down with a tommy gun she receives as a gift from an admirer, and the tommy gun goes rat-a-tat-tat. This ends the guy’s business, and he falls down thanks to all his new holes.
Then wires come spilling out of his stomach.
I kneel beside the guy and look at the wires. Each wire is as black and as thick as the one that goes from your radio set to the wall. Dozens of these wires snarl around each other, and they drip something green I do not touch. I think the green drips must be the dead guy’s blood, and this raises serious questions about the guy’s place of origin. I have seen several persons with holes of this nature, so I know what most citizens have in their stomachs. It is not black wires and green blood.
Madame Rosa stands by my shoulder. She says, “He is a spaceman.”
I say, “Madame Rosa, I believe you are right.” But without seeing inside his stomach, it is easy to think this guy is human. Citizens with faces and clothes just like his walk down Broadway every day. Why, Shiv-Eye Sam wears the same green fedora. But Shiv-Eye Sam is not a spaceman. Shiv-Eye Sam comes from Philly, and he never shows up in Madame Rosa’s with John Roscoes under his jacket, or the idea of shooting all the dolls in the house. Only spacemen do that. They have been doing it for two months now, in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Atlantic City. In those places, the spacemen are known to gun down a lot of sweet little dolls who work in establishments like Madame Rosa’s. It is getting to the point that something ought to be done.
Therefore, Madame Rosa decides to hire six guys to sit in her back room and to come out and handle things if finally a spaceman arrives in New York City. Tonight, these hired guys do their jobs. Now the spaceman is scragged, although as Madame Rosa says, the gunfight has turned the place into a mess. She keeps a store in the lobby that sells this and that to guys who visit the dolls, which is why there is candy and roses and maybe champagne all over the floor.
It is also why Madame Rosa invites me to visit. I run a type of cleaning business where I remove articles that people no longer desire in their establishments. Madame Rosa wants me to remove the spaceman.
“Here is the problem,” I tell her. “Mr. J. Edgar Hoover is interested in spacemen, because he thinks they may be Reds. He offers large rewards for information, and maybe your dolls or their ever-loving guys will not mind talking to G‑men if there are enough greenbacks on the table.”
Madame Rosa says, “You think someone will tell Mr. Hoover about this spaceman?”
“Yes,” I say, “that is exactly what I think. And even if the spaceman’s body disappears, Mr. Hoover will come to your establishment in the company of bloodhounds and scientists who will find green blood on your candy rack. That will be bad for business, Madame Rosa, and I think Mr. Hoover will have ideas where you belong for the next ten to fifteen years.”
Madame Rosa says, “You are right.” She is well informed on the thoughts of G‑men, since she talks to them every night while they decide whether to buy their dolls candy or cupcakes. Madame Rosa knows that G-men will overlook some activities, but other things give them the hot foot. She says, “Then I want a clean sweep with all the trimmings. The girls are already out of the house, and they have taken their valuables with them. I am going now too, and I will not come back. There is a man who will be surprised when I show up in the middle of the night, but he is a man who likes certain types of surprises which I can supply in spades. Good-bye. I will see you at the opera.”
I do not go to the opera and I do not think Madame Rosa goes either, but maybe this guy who likes surprises does. That means he is a guy who can afford the articles that citizens wear to the opera, which for Madame Rosa will be diamonds and sables and one thing and another. This is just the type of guy Madame Rosa will be happy with when she retires, so I wish her my best and find out where to send my bill. Then Madame Rosa goes on her way, except she is only Rosa now, which will bring tears to eyes from Broadway to City Hall.
I make phone calls to arrange this and that which a clean sweep needs, and I have to call in markers to get supplies in a speedy fashion. I do not know how long Mr. J. Edgar Hoover will take to catch wind of the spaceman’s visit, but by the time he does I wish to be gone from these premises. I make my calls from Rosa’s back room, and am hanging up the telephone when someone in the lobby says, “This is an A-1 mess indeed.”
It is Clean-Up Carl, who is a janitor at Macy’s who helps out on my jobs. No one knows more than Carl about removing stains. He is like a professor of cleanology who knows all the chemicals, especially when it comes to blood spills and powder burns and other unpleasant smudges one encounters in a night’s work. He is like one of those guys who goes to the Hot Box and sits in the front row and stares at the dolls without blinking, except that Carl does not stare that way at dolls, he stares that way at messes, because he wants to get his hands on them.
Some people think Carl is daffy, but I consider him a valuable citizen. I will tell anyone who asks that Carl does half my work for me. However, Carl will never do the other half, because he does not like talking to customers, and once he sweeps something up, he does not care where it goes. Carl will put body parts and Roscoes out with the normal trash, when in fact it is best to dump such articles elsewhere, either where they will not be seen again, or where they will be found by people in need of a message.
“Carl,” I say, “our city has a spaceman.”
Carl looks as surprised as a man who discovers his thirty-to-one shot really is a thirty-to-one shot.
I point to the floor. “The spaceman is this guy with wires.”
Carl says, “Oh,” and calms down. After a moment, his face brightens. “Boss, I believe I can clean up a spaceman.”
“I believe you can too. Please find every drop of green blood, and clean it so it cannot be smelled by bloodhounds or scientists.”
“I can do that,” says Carl, looking like a hungry man who hears he can eat the whole ham.
“But this is a clean sweep with all the trimmings,” I tell him, “so you must work quickly and leave nothing to interest Mr. J. Edgar Hoover.”
“The walls are full of bullets and buckshot,” he says. “I can pull out the lead, and plaster the holes, but a bloodhound will notice the patches. Possibly the scientists will too.”
“In a place like Madame Rosa’s,” I say, “bullet holes only show high spirits. Remove all the spaceman parts and there will be nothing to hold a G-man’s interest.”
Carl fetches a load of brown-glass bottles and commences to pour their contents here and there, sometimes with rubbing, sometimes not. Many nights, I like the smell of cleaning fluids, because it means I am on a job and when I finish there will be a nice score, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. This time, however, Carl uses his strongest chemicals and it is a real stinkeroo. I decide to go upstairs to the dolls’ rooms, where the smells are just as strong, but they come from French perfumes. Or at least perfumes that say they come from France.
I climb the stairs and the steps go creak-creak-creak, because they are made of old tired wood. I feel sad for these stairs, for they bear a lot of feet and soon they will retire like Madame Rosa. It is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Then I decide the tears come from inhaling Carl’s chemicals, because it is not natural to consider a stairway’s feelings. I think it is time to go into an upstairs room and open the window. That is where I am, taking the air, when a doll comes in.
She is a cute little doll, more than somewhat. If she goes into show business, she can be the lead singer at the Hot Box and not even have to sing if she does not wish to. She can just stand onstage, and every guy will applaud. This is a doll who can walk down Wall Street and get twenty proposals of marriage, even on a Sunday. She is the type of doll who can marry a banker, run off with a saxophone player, and if she returns, the banker will take her back. This is the Babe Ruth of dolls, the Empire State Building, though she is short and weighs maybe ninety pounds with her hat on.
I cannot remember ever seeing this doll, and she is not the type of doll I forget. But I hear talk of a new doll at Madame Rosa’s, and many guys say she is the cat’s meow. I pay no attention because every new doll at Madame Rosa’s is called the cat’s meow. This time, however, it seems more than just talk, and more than just meowing.
The only reason for this doll to be here is that she runs when the spaceman starts shooting, but now she is back for some article she leaves behind. I guess she comes up the rear stairway because I hear no creak-creak-creak, and anyhow, if she meets Carl in the front lobby, he will tell her to keep out and not to walk across his fresh-mopped floor.
“Hello,” I say and introduce myself. She says hello too and tells me to call her Kitty.
Usually when I meet such a doll, I will shoot the breeze with her as long as I can. Tonight, however, Mr. J. Edgar Hoover may already be riding a train from Washington, D.C. to Penn Station, and the train may have one car for bloodhounds and another for scientists or the other way around. I also cannot forget that guys will soon deliver certain materials that I need for all the trimmings, and these are not the type of materials to leave unguarded. I tell Kitty, “If you are here to pick up something, it is best you get it and go. This is not a place to be an hour from now.”
She says, “Where can I go? I am new in town. I have no friends I can stay with.”
I nearly say if she walks down Wall Street, she will have twenty friends to choose from. But on second thought, I do not want her to leave. I spend time with dolls off and on, but more off than on, since many guys have better clothes and fuller pockets than me. My last doll leaves me for a shoe salesman, and it is a hard blow when a doll decides you are lower than a guy who spends all day on his knees. Kitty, however, gives me a hopeful smile as if I am the guy to solve her problems. She is not the only doll at Madame Rosa’s who uses such smiles, but I can almost believe it is her natural face and not something she practices in the mirror. “All right,” I say, “stick around. I have a little work to do, but when I finish, we will go to Jack Fogarty’s for a sip of the old grape and you can tell me your life story.”
She gives me another smile and I decide I will go downstairs to gather all the roses and cupcakes, and I will bring them to Kitty so she will smile at me again. However, when I get downstairs, everything is gone and Carl says it is in trashcans. Usually, I am glad Carl works fast, but tonight it is more irksome than somewhat.
Carl tells me the trashcans are in my truck parked out front. I think maybe I can check the cans to see if the wrapped-up nylons and bottled-up champagne are still good after a visit to the trash. But the spaceman is in one of the trashcans too, and he will drip green blood on everything. A doll like Kitty may be offended by gifts with space blood on them, so I will have to wait and find something she appreciates.
Carl says a delivery came for me and it is waiting behind the candy counter. When I look, I see two wooden crates. One is stuffed with feather pillows and one is not. The one without pillows holds twenty sticks of dynamite. The other holds four bottles of nitro, which are put to bed on nice soft pillows because nitro gets sore if someone wakes it accidentally.
The dynamite and nitro will be the trimmings at the end of the sweep. First, Carl cleans everything he can, so there is almost nothing Mr. Hoover can find. Then I add the finishing touch, for in the Great War, Uncle Sam teaches me how to clean things the army way. This is why Carl and I can beat the bloodhounds and scientists: first we clean nicely, then we clean hard. If you do not believe me, ask Shiv-Eye Sam, who is a free man thanks to my services.
So I pile the explosives in the middle of the lobby, while Carl wipes up the last smears of icing and rose petals. I once ask Carl if he cares that he makes things spick-and-span, then I make them explode. He says he does not mind because cleaning never lasts, no matter what. In fact, Carl says when something gets dirty after he cleans it, he is happy because he can clean it again. Then, after he cleans some building a zillion times, it finally falls down, if not from nitro, then from termites or wrecking balls. This does not make Carl blue, because there is always something to clean somewhere else.
From this, you can see Carl is a philosopher of cleanology. I like listening to his ideas but I can never repeat them, for the guys at Mindy’s do not welcome discussions of philosophy. However, being in the cleaning business myself, I am glad that the profession has depths.
I get the explosives ready, then I have a thought. Maybe Kitty will enjoy being the one to set off the blast. I know several dolls who ask, “Can I fire your equalizer?” and we go down to the dump and I help hold their arms steady and they shoot at tin cans or even rats. Some dolls laugh, all nutty with excitement. I imagine Kitty laughing and going nutty, and that will indeed be something to see. Furthermore, blasting a building may excite a doll even more than blasting a can of tomatoes. So I make a few changes to my setup, and when I am done I have a very long fuse such as Kitty can light from a safe distance.
“Are you finished?” I ask Carl.
He says he still has things to do, but I know they will not matter. Carl swings a broom faster than any man alive, but when everything is as clean as my pockets after a poker game, Carl keeps finding dust that only he can see. He will spend hours swabbing woodwork with a toothbrush. I always tell Carl when he is through, because he never admits enough is enough. I look around Madame Rosa’s lobby and see everything shining like a dancer’s tiara. “This is jake,” I say to Carl. “You can go back to Macy’s. But stay ready in case we get another call. In other cities, spacemen shoot up many establishments like Madame Rosa’s, so we may soon get more business.”
Carl asks, “Does anyone know what these spacemen are up to?”
“Many guys will give you answers,” I say, “but they are talking through their hats. Nobody knows why spacemen come all the way from Mars or Jupiter just to kill dolls who are friendly for cupcakes. Maybe a spaceman boss loses his doll to a busboy, and it drives him screwy. He shoots all the dolls on Jupiter, but it does not make him feel better, so he sends his spacemen here to shoot some more.”
“That is bad,” Carl says, looking grim. I never see Carl look this way. He never laughs, but never frowns either. Philosophers do not get worked up. But now Carl turns as sober as an undertaker and says, “This spaceman boss must stop. He is breaking rules.”
I say, “Do not worry, Carl, I am talking through my hat like everyone else. I just invent this spaceman boss. Go back to your job and if we get another call, I will send NineToes Jackie to fetch you.”
Carl still looks down in the mouth, but he packs up and leaves. I wait for him to go, then I head upstairs creak-creak-creak. I have the fuse in my hand because I want to say to Kitty, “Guess what this is.” When she cannot guess, we will follow the fuse all the way downstairs and when we get to the bottom I will put my hands over her eyes. I will lead her into the middle of the lobby and she will keep guessing until I take my hands away and she sees the pile of dynamite. I will say, “Surprise!,” and maybe she will be scared, but I think she will get excited once she understands. She will light the fuse, then we will drive a safe distance away in my truck and watch the fireworks.
That is my plan. The fuse is long enough to reach Kitty’s room, but when I get there, I do not say, “Guess what this is.” I say nothing because it is like I forget how Kitty looks, and I see her again for the first time. I do not remember how big her eyes are. I do not remember how well she fits under her hat. I remember she is cute and a dish and an eyeful, but I do not recall that the sight of her makes me stop breathing. It is a good thing the fuse does not light in my hand without a match.
I can gawp at her forever, except I hear a creak-creak-creak coming up the stairs. I look down the corridor, and who do I see but a guy wearing a green fedora like Shiv-Eye Sam’s and a face no different from the spaceman outside in a trashcan. This is not the same guy because he has no bullet holes, but maybe spacemen all are twins, or turned out on assembly lines like Mr. Ford’s Model Ts.
The spaceman walks with his hands out, palms forward, as if he is blind and worries he will bump into a wall. His palms glow red like the tip of a cigarette. I only see the glow for a second, because as soon as the guy turns my direction, he stops holding out his palms and instead reaches fast under his jacket. I know what he is reaching for because I am reaching for the same thing. I am also ducking inside Kitty’s room so that when the spaceman goes bangity-bang-bang-bang, I do not inhale any bullets.
Some guys might say I have an edge in this situation, because I am inside a room and shooting around the doorway, while the spaceman is in an open corridor. Furthermore, the spaceman does not take cover, but runs down the hall towards me without even dodging side to side. On the other hand, I plug the spaceman with all my shots, and he is not even somewhat impressed. In fact, it is like I am shooting a railway train, which keeps rolling down the track despite the little holes I make in it. When my Roscoe is empty, I just have time to slam the door and turn the bolt before the spaceman begins pounding on it with the butt of his pistol.
“Kitty,” I say, “it will please me no end if this room has a fire escape.”
“Why, yes it does,” she says.
She stands beside the window, looking out. The window is up all the way, the way I myself open it earlier. “Out you go,” I tell Kitty. “As fast as you can.” I help her over the sill, but Kitty is not dressed for speedy climbing, owing to tightnesses of clothing with which I formerly have no beef. I wish to make her go more quickly but cannot think of how to do that without being fresh. I do not wish to be fresh because it is important to treat a doll like a lady.
Since I cannot make Kitty hurry, I run back to the door and lean against it to prevent the spaceman from bashing his way in. We are lucky this guy does not think to shoot off the lock, but perhaps they do not have locks on Jupiter. The spaceman just beats on the door, and the door is good and solid, for in Madame Rosa’s it is not unusual for guys to beat on doors, yelling at the dolls inside. Madame Rosa makes sure her doors are strong, but even so, I do not know how long this one will last, as the spaceman hammers the wood with his equalizer. I look around for a chair I can prop under the knob, when I catch sight of something I forget in all the excitement: the fuse. I do not remember dropping it, but there it is on the floor, running under the door and back to the lobby.
There may be reasons not to light this fuse, just as there are reasons to go to church instead of crap games, but I am such a guy as prefers to roll the dice. I pull out my Ronson and flick up a flame which starts the fuse fizzing. Then I run to the window in the hope that Kitty is finally on the ground. She is close enough. As I squirrel down the ladder, I think of the spaceman seeing the fuse come burning under the door. He can put out the fuse if he wants, but maybe this is another thing they do not have on Jupiter, and he will let it burn because he does not know better.
The fire escape puts us down in an alley. I tell Kitty, “We wish to be farther from Madame Rosa’s. Let us get to my truck and drive elsewhere as quickly as we can.”
Kitty does not try to argue or ask questions. She is the best kind of doll. I take her arm and hurry her away, but I keep my ears open because I expect to hear the spaceman clanking down the fire escape any second. The sound does not come, and I no longer hear him banging on the door. Maybe the spaceman finally gets into Kitty’s room and is now standing dumb, trying to puzzle out where we are. It is hard to believe this spaceman does not know we leave through the window, but Shiv-Eye Sam has a guy who cannot outthink a loaf of bread, and still this guy performs all Sam’s errands. New York bosses are often partial to guys with no thoughts in their noggins. Maybe the spaceman boss is like that too.
Kitty and I circle to the front of the building. I see that Carl parks my truck right outside Madame Rosa’s door, and this puts me into a quandary. Having your truck as close as possible is good when you are carrying heavy trashcans, but not when there is a stack of explosives inside the lobby and when you do not know if the fuse is still burning or how much time is left. “Kitty,” I say, “it is best if you walk to the far corner, or maybe a block beyond. I will bring my truck to pick you up.” Once again, Kitty smiles and goes along with what I say. She is truly a peach and a half. She walks up the street to where she will be safe, while I hurry to my truck and get in.
I am just about to start the engine when Madame Rosa’s front door slams open. The spaceman is there and he holds up his hands, palms out like he did before. His palms glow as bright as two stoplights, and he turns in the doorway, aiming himself this way and that as if he is searching for something.
Then comes a light much brighter than stoplights, and a bang accompanies it, loud enough to break an elephant’s eardrums. The fuse has run its eight furlongs, so now the dynamite and nitro provide a big photo finish. They blow the spaceman out the doorway as if he is the man in the circus who gets shot from the cannon, and he sails across the street to smack a building on the other side. I do not actually see him hit, because I am too busy seeing the windows of my truck break into a zillion pieces. The guy who sells me this truck tells me it has safety glass, but if so, it is the same type of safety you get from safe bets with FiveAce McQueen. I am cut more than somewhat and covered with chunks of windshield. On the other hand, although the truck rocks as hard as a cradle swung by Big Butch, it does not actually tip over. It steadies on its wheels, and the engine even starts when I give it a try.
I do a U-turn and am heading to pick up Kitty when I see the spaceman lying in the street. Six bullets from my rod failed to slow him, but twenty sticks of dynamite do not take no for an answer. I hop from the truck and sling the guy’s body in the back, because this is one more thing I do not wish Mr. J. Edgar Hoover to find. Then I go collect Kitty and we leave the vicinity, since cops and firemen will soon arrive, and as a good citizen, I do not wish to get in the way of their duties.
Kitty and I end up in Jack Fogarty’s speakeasy, with the truck parked in Jack’s back alley. A truck missing its windows and burned black on one side is not something to leave on the open street, especially when the truck contains items you prefer to hide from the police. Fortunately, the police never notice anything in Jack’s back alley. It is like Jack’s alley is invisible to them, which is a remarkable phenomenon some professor ought to investigate. Anyway, this is not the first time I put my truck behind Jack’s due to adverse circumstances, and Jack is happy to have it there, in exchange for a parking fee.
My fee also buys me a table, where Kitty and I get to know each other. The table is in a dark corner, but every guy in the club keeps looking at Kitty like she is under a spotlight. At first, this makes me hot under the collar, but soon I forget everyone else except Kitty. I believe her perfume really is French.
We talk about everything. I do not speak easily to persons of a female nature, but with Kitty, words flow like Niagara Falls. Also like Niagara Falls, it only runs in one direction. Every time I say, “So tell me about yourself,” somehow I end up spilling more of my own story and hearing none of hers.
Finally, I say, “Kitty, if you are new on our Island of Manhattan, where do you come from?” She says she travels here and there doing this and that, from which I conclude she is maybe no stranger to establishments like Madame Rosa’s and this is something she prefers not to discuss. Looking at her, I do not care how many cupcakes she eats before she meets me and I tell her so. I am just interested in what she does, where she goes, and such. So she tells me she has just come from Atlantic City, and before that Cincinnati, and before that Chicago.
“Oh,” I say. Those are the same cities where spacemen make their calls, and as soon as Kitty gets to New York, the spacemen come too. I remember the spaceman out front at Madame Rosa’s, and how his palms go as red as the light on a police car when it races in pursuit of persons of interest. “Kitty,” I say, “do you think the spacemen are chasing you?”
She says, “That is goofy. I am a perfectly ordinary human and spacemen cannot be interested in me.”
Before you can say, “Speak of the devil,” a guy walks in wearing a green fedora. I do not wish to keep encountering this individual. I am running out of trashcans. Furthermore, there is a limit on the number of shootouts that can happen in public places before someone gets hurt. As if to illustrate this point, the guy in the green fedora pulls out a John Roscoe and fires it, taking off a citizen’s ear. Luckily, it is only a waiter and not a good waiter at that, because once I order a juniper sundae from him and he does not understand what I mean.
Still, letting loose with a Roscoe in Jack Fogarty’s is an impolite thing to do. Jack’s patrons disapprove of bad manners, and those who carry their own Roscoes, which includes everybody, all pull out their pieces and return fire. This makes for a heated atmosphere, because after many hours of imbibing this and that, most citizens do not aim carefully when they shoot. It is good that Kitty and I sit in a corner, for only a few bullets come our way and they are just casual passers-by with no bad temper behind them. Still, accidents happen, so I hurry Kitty out the back door.
When we get to the alley, where Jack has a well-lit loading dock, I see what is definitely a bullet hole in the back of Kitty’s jacket.
“Kitty,” I say, “are you all right?”
She says, “Of course I am.”
“You do not wish to go to the hospital?”
“I will go to the hospital if that is something you enjoy.”
“No,” I say, “the last three times I go to the hospital, I do not enjoy it at all.”
I cannot help putting my finger into the hole in her jacket. I feel a bullet at the bottom, but it is mashed flat against Kitty’s back. When I pick at the slug with my fingernail, it comes loose and falls down elsewhere.
Kitty giggles. “That tickles.” Now my finger feels nothing but Kitty, to which I do not object, but it is a cause for astonishment.
“Kitty,” I say, “you are the first doll I meet who is bulletproof.”
“You do not mind, do you?”
“It is a fine way to be. I often wish it for myself. However, I now suspect you have secrets.”
I wait for an answer, and am still waiting when Jack Fogarty runs out into the alley to join us. He says, “That guy is dead, but his blood is green. He is a spaceman!”
I say I am shocked to hear it.
Jack hands me a sawbuck and says, “Can you take him away before G-men arrive?”
I say, “Yes, but I will have to borrow a trashcan.”
So five minutes later, Kitty and I drive off with a third spaceman in the back. I do not know how many bullets this spaceman contains, but the citizens in Fogarty’s are most generous with lead. The spaceman repays them with green blood all over, so Mr. J. Edgar Hoover will not have trouble finding something to interest him. However, Jack Fogarty does not ask me for a clean sweep with all the trimmings, and for a sawbuck, he does not get one. Besides, my truck is full and I have other things on my mind. After a few minutes of driving, I say, “Kitty, are you from Jupiter?”
She says, “No.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” She takes a deep breath. “I come from far beyond Jupiter.”
“Oh.” I am not aware there is much beyond Jupiter, but I only read the Sports section. “Are the spacemen trying to kill you?”
“They do not wish to kill me, they only wish to find me. I think they are searching for me by process of elimination. If they go into an establishment like Madame Rosa’s and they shoot every doll they see, I am the one who does not fall down.”
“That is a waste of good dolls,” I say. “They ought to find a better way to recognize you.”
“They cannot,” Kitty says. “I change. The longer I stay with you, the more I will become what you want most in a doll. I will get smaller here or larger there. My voice will go up or down. My hair will grow or shrink, and maybe change color. That is how I am built.”
“Built?” I say. “By who?”
“Other spacepeople, long ago. They are extremely smart spacepeople, and they build themselves servants for this and that, such as perfect cooks and bellhops and gardeners.”
“So you are a perfect cupcake doll?”
“Yes,” says Kitty. “If you offer me cupcakes, I turn into the doll you wish for. Even if you are a spaceman with three heads. I will grow three heads myself, and they will all be cute.”
“Do you like having that many noggins?”
“I am not a perfect cupcake doll unless I love the work. So I do. I want cupcakes day and night. This leads to trouble, because many men want me to become theirs alone, which is the one thing I cannot do, no matter how much a guy wishes it. I am a cupcake doll, not an ever-loving wife.”
I am sad to hear that. An hour with Kitty can fill a guy with daydreams. I never picture myself as the man in Man-and-Wife, but I often imagine having a steady doll who asks, “How goes the clean-up business?” when I get home at three in the morning. Ever since I meet Kitty, I want her to be the one who asks that question, all smiling and happy to see me.
But I guess this will not work out.
I tell Kitty, “Of course you cannot be an ever-loving wife. Only a complete loogan dreams the wrong type of dreams about cupcake dolls.”
“The universe is full of loogans,” she says. “A few years ago, a rich and powerful spaceman locks me up to keep me all for himself. After a while, I start hurting so bad it is like I am starving to death. I cry oceans of tears and even try to kill myself, but I cannot find a way to do it, for my body is as tough as a bank vault. Eventually, the other perfect servants help me escape, and we all come to Earth where we think the evil spaceman will not follow. Earth is a type of nature preserve where the rules say that spacemen cannot come, and secret park rangers keep watch for anyone who does not belong.”
I say, “But you are not human yourself. These rangers do not kick you out?”
Kitty says, “I change to look human. So do my servant friends. The rangers say it is jake for us to be here, as long as we blend in. But the spaceman who wants me back is nothing like human and cannot change his looks, so he has to stay away. Years go by, and all of us perfect servants settle down one place or another. I move around, meeting guys and so forth, until suddenly in Chicago, a spaceman shoots up the establishment where I work. I barely escape in time. It seems the evil spaceman has found a way past the rangers. He builds machines which look like humans and use human weapons, so the rangers decide these machines are O.K. Now it is only a matter of time before the spaceman imprisons me again.”
She starts to cry just like a human doll. I stop the truck and say, “There, there,” and one thing and another, but I do not think any man alive knows how to deal with persons of a female nature in such situations. When a doll cries, it is about something very small or very big, and both ways, a guy is out of his depth.
This evil spaceman who chases Kitty clearly has a cupboard full of green fedoras. We never see more than one fedora guy at a time, so maybe that is all the spaceman can handle, like a driver who can only sit behind one steering wheel, even when he owns a lot of trucks. But if fedora guys keep coming, and if a single spaceman can ventilate many citizens before he himself is scratched, it is a game with loaded dice that Kitty will eventually lose.
“What can I do?” she says with tears rolling down her face. “I cannot help it if this spaceman is crazy for me.”
Maybe the spaceman cannot help it either. I look at Kitty’s face and even though it is soggy with tears, I might chase her a long way myself. But I say, “What about the other perfect servants? Is one of them maybe a perfect soldier or bodyguard who can protect you?”
“I do not know where the others are.” Kitty cries some more. “The way I am built, I care more about cupcakes than friends. Furthermore, many guys I meet do not like dolls with brains, so when I change to suit them, I become empty-headed. A guy says, ’You think too much, let us just have fun,’ and then it is a month later, I do not remember a thing, and I am speaking Chinese.” She bawls, “I lose track of my friends long ago.”
I say, “Then I will be your friend. Do not cry.” She stops crying as fast as if I turn off a faucet. I say, “Smile,” and she smiles so brightly, it is like she has never shed a tear in her life, even though her cheeks are still drippy. I think of other things I can tell her to do, and she will likely perform those actions too, and once again I feel as sad as a sack, although this time it is for Kitty, not me. She is a book everyone gets to write in except herself.
I say, “I will think of some way to fix everything. First, however, we must dump the trash. It will soon be morning, and we do not wish to be seen with a truck full of spacemen.”
I drive to my favorite place for dumping articles that citizens no longer want. It is a factory in the Bronx which goes bust in the Crash, and goes nowhere else since. It has pigeons in the rafters and rats under the floor, but it also has a furnace which can burn this and that, especially since I know someone in the gas company who will keep the pipes piping even if nobody pays the bills.
This furnace is a key to my business success. There is no better way to clean things off the map, unless maybe you drop them into Mount Vesuvius, which is not handy to Greater New York. The only bad thing about this furnace is that it lies quite some distance from the factory’s loading ramp, so if you have weighty objects you wish to burn, you face a lot of heavy lifting. I have to drag the trashcans one by one across the floor, and it turns out that guys with wires in their stomachs are no lighter than guys with the usual stuffing.
Kitty says, “I can help you.” This proves Kitty is not a real human doll, because I never know a beautiful doll who offers to do a man’s work. For all I know, if I wish Kitty to be as strong as a streetcar she will change to please me, but I tell her I am doing just fine, for I am not one of those guys who expects dolls to fetch and carry. Towards the end, after lugging three spacemen the length of the floor and several other trashcans full of this and that covered in green blood, I find myself thinking I will let Kitty help just a bit if she offers again. But she just follows beside me, saying what a good job I do and how I have big strong muscles. My muscles appreciate the compliment, but they also appreciate when everything is finally in the furnace. I am just about to start the gas when I see a red glow at the opposite end of the factory. I recognize it as the glow of a spaceman’s hands.
I say, “I loathe and despise those spacemen.”
My Roscoe is out of bullets, and anyway, I have established that six shots are not enough to bring a spaceman to grief. This puts Kitty and me in a pickle. More specifically, I am in one type of pickle and Kitty is in another, for the spaceman will likely shoot me dead and then he will kidnap Kitty to live in a harem. Fortunately, the factory is more dark than somewhat because no one has paid the electricity bills since 1929, so there are several years’ worth of shadows which might be thick enough to let Kitty and me sneak away.
I take her hand and we edge towards a side door. I wish most sincerely that Kitty makes no sound, and with Kitty, wishes work. She is as silent as a cat, and maybe she can also see in the dark, because she nudges me away from tripping over objects on the floor. I think maybe we are going to get away safely.
Then we are lit by the glow of the spaceman’s hands, and his equalizer says, “Oh no you are not.” I get hit in the leg, which is a better place than many, but it still interferes with a guy’s forward progress. I fall, thinking how appropriate it is that people call bullets “hot lead,” for the hole where I am shot is as heated as a griddle, or perhaps that is just the blood.
Kitty tries to pick me up as if she is going to carry me across a wedding threshold, which is entirely the wrong way around because guys ought to be the ones who do the lifting. As soon as I think that, Kitty up and drops me, which is none too comfortable, especially on top of being shot. Lying there on the floor, I realize that my thoughts stop her from holding my weight. If I think it is not right for her to be strong, she goes weak.
As I watch the glow of the spaceman coming near, I wrestle with the notion of a doll taking care of a tough situation. It does not feel right. However, with the spaceman getting closer to point-blank range, I decide a courteous guy will let dolls do him favors because dolls like to feel useful. “Kitty,” I say, “you are bulletproof. Bop him.”
In the spaceman’s red light, Kitty smiles wider than ever I see. Then she whirls across the floor faster than a greyhound after the rabbit, and she spins on one foot, whipping out the other at the spaceman’s noggin. He shoots her several times, but none of the bullets take. The next thing you know, Kitty has kicked the spaceman’s head clear off his body and the head flies across the room with black wires dangling from the neck. I do not know if it is just an accident, but the head, green fedora and all, sails straight into the furnace as if that is what Kitty aims for.
“Now that,” Kitty says, “is a clean sweep with all the trimmings.”
“Kitty,” I say, “why do you not do that to the other spacemen?”
“Because no man wants me to. Guys have views on many things that dolls ought not to do, and kicking off noggins is high on the list.”
I have to admit she is right. “However,” I say, “I myself do not mind if you kick off a spaceman’s noggin. In fact, I insist you do it whenever you can.” I give her a big smile. “So there, I have solved your problem. If you clobber the spacemen each time they show up, you will never be captured.”
“You still do not understand,” says Kitty. “What if this spaceman shoots you in the heart instead of the leg? Once you are dead, the only guy I see is the spaceman, who does not want me to kick off his noggin. He wants me to go home with him. So that is what I will do, even though I will regret it. I am built to please guys, and if there is only one guy in the room, I do what he says.”
“Oh.” Then if the spacemen keep coming, someday they will succeed in mowing down everyone in Kitty’s vicinity. Kitty will have to say, “Oh yes, I will enjoy going back to Jupiter,” because she cannot help herself.
“Your life is a raw deal,” I tell her. “The people who build you stack the deck most unfairly.”
“But they build me so that I do not mind. Almost always I am happy. How many dolls can say that?”
Now that the spaceman is dead, his red glow is gone and there is no light for me to see Kitty’s face. I wonder if she is truly as happy as she says. I cannot tell, for I am not built to read people’s feelings in the dark. But Kitty is. She whispers, “Do not be sad for me. I cannot stand it when guys are sad. Please let me cheer you up.”
“No,” I say. “No.” Then, because I do not wish to hurt her feelings, I say, “It is hard for a guy to be cheerful with a bullet in his leg.”
“Oh, I can fix that,” Kitty says. “A perfect cupcake doll can play nurse.”
In the dark I cannot see how she gets out the bullet, but I think it is just as well. It is one thing to imagine Kitty’s fingers turning into doctor tools, and another thing if I actually see it happen. I lie back and try to keep my mind off her fingers, and the pain, and this and that. After a while I say, “The spacemen keep finding where you are.”
Kitty says, “I know.”
“But you say they cannot find you exactly. They have to shoot other dolls to see which one is you.”
“The spacemen can narrow down my location, but they cannot pinpoint it.”
“I do not know.”
“Kitty,” I say, “I want you to become smart. Like a scientist. Like a bloodhound. Figure out how the spacemen keep tracking you down, and what we can do about it.”
She says nothing for a long time. I hear cloth rip as Kitty tears a swatch off some part of her clothing to make a bandage. It is too dark to see which part of which article of clothing, which is a shame. She ties the bandage around my leg, then says, “When the evil spaceman first locks me up, he puts something on me like a radio transmitter. I know he does this, and when my friends help me escape, they take the transmitter away. But now I think he puts a second tracker on me too. He knows we will spot the radio, so then we will not look for...” She stops. “It is hard to explain in English. Let us say he puts germs on me. The germs make perfume that the spacemen can detect. If I am close to other people, the perfume clouds around us all, so it is hard to tell me from everyone else. However, most of the germs stay on my skin, which is how the spacemen keep tracking me down.”
“So you need to clean off these germs?”
“Yes. But I do not know how.”
“Neither do I. However, I have a friend who is a professor of cleanology. If you have germs, he can wash them off.”
“It may be harder than you think. Spacemen know tricks that Earth people do not.”
“Carl knows tricks too. He works at Macy’s.”
I do not say it, but Kitty is not so different from a sink or a frying pan that someone has dirtied. I do not know what she is made of because when I hold her hand, she feels like a normal doll, except better. However, a bulletproof doll will not be hurt if Carl scrubs her with bleach and other stinkeroo chemicals. At least it is worth a try.
Before we go, Kitty puts the latest spaceman into the furnace. I turn the heat up as high as it goes, which is plenty high enough to melt an equalizer and reduce human bodies to cinders. I think it will do the same for spacemen, so I set the furnace’s timer to cook for seven hours. In the meantime we head for Macy’s, and whatever Kitty does to patch my leg is a success, for I can hobble along no worse than Madame La Gimp, and it only hurts as bad as a burning match through my thigh, not a blowtorch. Still, I let Kitty help me walk, because who does not wish an arm around the waist from the most beautiful doll north of the south pole? After I try a couple of times to work the truck’s clutch, I even let her drive.
We reach Macy’s without meeting spacemen, for it seems they only appear if we stay in one place too long. Although the sky is brightening over Queens, none of Macy’s day staff will arrive for another hour, and the night watchman knows me. He says we can find Carl in Gentlemen’s Hats. I say, “As long as Carl is not in a green fedora.”
Carl is polishing the mirrors, which is the type of thing he does when everything is already perfect. “Carl,” I say, “this is Kitty. You must give her a bath.” I say that because it will be humorous to see Carl blush, but when he turns to look at us, he goes white instead of red. It is like he sees a ghost, then becomes one himself. I always suspect Carl is uncomfortable around persons of a female nature, especially ones like Kitty, with everything and then some. “Do not worry, Carl,” I say, “I cannot explain the situation, but this is all part of the job at Madame Rosa’s. The last and final trimming.” I lean in and whisper, “Think of Kitty as a store mannequin who needs cleaning. She is pretty but tough, and covered with germs from Jupiter. Use your best chemicals. She can take it.”
Carl says nothing and I think he will need more persuading. But Kitty takes his arm and says, “Let us go someplace private. We will talk.” They head for the dressing rooms in Gentlemen’s Apparel, although I do not know if she is leading Carl or he is leading her.
I cannot say how long they are gone, but long enough for me to try on several dozen hats, including green fedoras which do not look good on me, and anyway, after the ruckus in Fogarty’s, green fedoras may not be popular on Broadway. The time that Kitty and Carl are gone is also long enough for me to worry about another spaceman showing up, which will be inconvenient from a clean-up point of view. In Jack Fogarty’s, .38-caliber fireworks are only a matter of gossip. In Macy’s, they are news, and you cannot clean up news. Besides, I am still out of bullets. I am wondering if Macy’s has a tommy gun department, when finally Kitty and Carl return.
They both look calm. Kitty is as scrubbed as a Rolls-Royce pulling up outside the Waldorf, while Carl is no longer the color of a ghost. In fact, Carl looks as happy as if he gets to clean up after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and maybe a horse stable too.
I say to Kitty, “So you are clean?”
“Definitely,” she says. “I am sure now the spaceman puts germs on me, and I am also sure that Carl kills them dead with special soap.” She holds up a bottle that is full of dirty brown water. “We have a few last germs here which I will use to fool the spacemen. I will take the germs out of New York so the spacemen will think I am on the move again. When I get to a new city, I will pour the germs down a sewer grate. The spacemen may track down the germs but they will never find me.”
“Give me the bottle,” I say. “I can dump it, and you will stay safe.”
She lifts the bottle, and for a moment, I think she will pass it to me. Then Carl gives her a nudge, and Kitty lowers her hand. “No,” she says, “I wish to do this myself. Because of me, many cupcake dolls are dead. This one time, I will clean up my own mess.”
“Oh.” During the bath, Carl must give Kitty a lecture on personal cleanology. It is good that Kitty wants to make amends, but does she consider what the spacemen will do if they think she is living in a new town? They will shoot many of that town’s citizens before they realize there has been a switcheroo. “So,” I tell Kitty, “take the germs to Washington, D.C. Go to the building where Mr. J. Edgar Hoover works and empty your bottle on his stoop.”
She does not understand why I say this, and I do not think she will do it. However, I take her to the station and I put her on a train to Washington anyway. Kitty says she will be back as soon as she can, and there on the platform, she gives me the best lip-smack of my life. I almost fall over, and not because of my wounded leg. I am still as dizzy as a dachshund when the train chugs off.
Beside me, Carl says, “Do not expect to see her again.”
I jump in surprise for I do not know Carl is there. He must leave his job early so he can watch Kitty go. Carl says, “She will meet guys on the train, and more guys in Washington. She may intend to come back to you, but she will keep getting sidetracked. It is not her fault. She cannot change for you or anyone else.”
“I know that,” I say. “Why do you think I put her on the first train out? Kitty is a doll who gives a guy thoughts, even when he does not know what to do with them. It is not a clean sweep till she is gone.”
As I say this, my heart feels scoured with steel wool and maybe doused with Carl’s strongest chemicals. However, I do not change my mind. A guy in my profession ought to steer away from messes, and Kitty is nothing but a mess wearing shoes.
I tell Carl, “It is best to keep things clean. Speaking of which, it is a good job you have done washing Kitty off. I think no one else on Earth knows how to get rid of space germs. You are the perfect cleaner.”
Carl’s eyes go narrow. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean I am lucky to have you. You are also lucky, Carl, because if you stick with me, you will have one tough cleaning job after another. New York has the finest messes in the universe.”
After a moment, Carl smiles. “You are right about that. It is no bad thing to work for someone who understands where you are coming from.”
Just then, a train pulls into the station. It contains a number of citizens in horn-rimmed glasses, as well as hound dogs with mournful dispositions. I put my arm around Carl’s shoulders and we leave as quickly as my wounded leg will go.
(With fond apologies, of course, to Damon Runyon)
“A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings” copyright © 2011 by James Alan Gardner
Art copyright © 2011 by Lars Leetaru