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by Branden Hart
Anthony woke up with the urge to wash his hands. He felt small creatures traversing the folds of his filthy skin, which was dry and cracked, and bled on occasion. He thought, “I'll douse my hands in soap, lather them up, and get ready to start the day.”
The plastic cover for the mattress crumpled as he rose and placed his right foot on the white carpet. Shaking his head, he lay back down, carefully put his feet back in their original position, pulled sheets to chin and closed his eyes, imitating quiet, peaceful sleep.
Again he rose. With care, he placed his feet on the ground, this time his left one first. A slow sensation of triumph crept from his spine to his head, bathing Anthony’s thoughts in the warmth of seeming perfection.
He walked into the bathroom—always the last to get cleaned, usually the first to get used. Through a quirk of his condition, the filth that lurked there never invaded his conscious awareness. He urinated and left without even flushing.
Through the door, left foot first, in the hallway, counting steps, into the kitchen, left foot leading, to the sink: pristine, shining stainless steel. To the left of the long, slender faucet was the antibacterial soap, and he picked it up carefully with two fingers, touching it as little as possible. Anthony looked around until he saw his cleaning towel, light blue terry cloth, folded neatly where he placed it the night before. After picking up the soft fabric, he began to wipe down the bottle.
Once satisfied with his work, Anthony squirted a half dollar of soap into his palm. He began to rub his hands together, a silky white billow lathering up, and Anthony smiled.
Then he realized that he hadn’t turned the water on; his rare vision of happiness was shattered. Now he would have to touch the faucet, which would ruin everything. He reached out a sea-foam hand, and almost made another mistake by using his right one. Quickly, Anthony pulled it back and extended his left arm, turning the knob slowly until the clear water splashed musically on the metal below.
It was easy to wash the soap off his hands—just don’t let them touch anything but the water—but he had other decisions to make. He hadn’t washed the knobs yet this morning, and what if a bug had landed there during the night? He couldn’t risk dirtying his hands. Plastic salvation dangled from the shiny glove dispenser to his right, and he reached up, careful to touch absolutely nothing, grabbed a pair and put it on. The solution to the faucet problem lay on the counter four steps away. Extending his left foot first, then sliding in the bottle’s direction, Anthony crossed the linoleum floor and retrieved his rubbing alcohol. After retracing his steps, he opened the cabinet above the sink, barely touching the knobs with his fingertips, and reached slowly inside the plastic bag for his cotton balls.
Anthony carefully unscrewed the top of the bottle, placed a cotton ball on top of it, and turned it upside down. The cotton ball contracted, soaked, and a cold sensation overcame the tips of his fingers, the unmistakable smell of isopropyl alcohol filling his nostrils. He had the urge to sneeze. Keeping in mind what a mess that would make, he pushed his tongue hard against the roof of his mouth—a trick he learned as a small boy—to stave off the itching in his nose. Placing the bottle to his left, he began to swab the faucet heads, sure to cover every inch of their surface with alcohol. Once the visible surface was spotless, he turned his attention to the small space between the bottom of the knobs and the cold metal of the sink, which was only vulnerable to Q-tips and the edges of paper towels.
Four cotton balls, two paper towels, and fifteen minutes later, Anthony was somewhat satisfied and closed the cabinet, touching only the parts of the knobs he touched earlier. He then gathered up the balls and walked, left foot first, over to the closet in a corner of his kitchen. Anthony detested the closet; it was the dirtiest part of his small, one bedroom apartment.
Anthony opened the closet door slowly, as if something was waiting in the dark to jump out and grab him. Inside, his trash basket sat silently glaring at him. It was absolutely spotless—a beacon of cleanliness in a world so full of dirt and grime—but a rancid odor filled his nostrils whenever he saw it. He gagged; his face turned up into a grimace of disgust and hatred. But Anthony realized that if he did vomit, he would spend all day cleaning it up. He held in his insides.
Anthony decided to try his best at throwing the cotton balls in from where he was standing, nearly a foot away. His toss was accurate, but for one moment of horror, a ball teetered on the edge of the can until gravity pulled it inside.
Anthony slammed the closet door closed with such a force that he had to open it again to check and make sure it wasn’t broken. Once he was satisfied that it was in good condition, he walked back over to the sink; he needed a glass of water. First he carefully opened the cupboard beneath the sink and picked up a brand new sponge still wrapped in plastic. He decided to leave the wrapper on the counter until he was forced to take another trip to the trash can. After retrieving a glass from the cabinet, he picked up the soap and began scrubbing. In several minutes he was convinced that there was not an inch of glass left untouched and walked to the refrigerator to get his filtered water.
Thirst quenched, Anthony decided to start making lunch. It was nearly ten-thirty; he could prepare a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup by noon.
There was a knock at the door.
Anthony tried to ignore it; he really needed to get started on his lunch, and visitors spread germs he wished to avoid thinking about. But it continued and he heard a woman from out in the corridor.
“Hello?” queried the tiny voice. Anthony walked across the linoleum to the living room, but had to stop, retrace his steps exactly, and go back through the doorway, this time crossing the threshold with his left foot first. He walked in metered steps across the green carpet to the peephole, his outlet to the filthy outside world.
With terror he realized he hadn’t cleaned the peephole yet that morning. The voice came again from outside. “Sir or madam, I can hear you in there. I am here to help, that’s all.” She sounded reassuring, but opening the door meant inviting in all sorts of nasty things. After a moment’s thought, Anthony reached out with his bare hand and turned the doorknob, nearly retching at how unclean it was.
There stood a thin, pale woman of small stature, probably right around Anthony’s age. A long skirt with flowers dotting a white background draped what little figure she had, and the cuffs of a long sleeved white blouse bunched around her bony wrists. A long chain cascaded down her steep form; a golden crucifix hung in the crease of her breasts. In her hands, which were folded across her chest, were several pieces of paper and a Bible. The woman smiled hospitably, but Anthony was having a hard time keeping his wits about him; he rarely opened the door unless the delivery boy stood tapping his foot on the other side.
“Hello sir!” She reached out her hand to shake Anthony’s, but pulled it back quickly when she saw the horror on his face. “Do you mind if I come in?”
Before Anthony could say anything to dissuade her entering his apartment, she was in his living room. The woman sighed and turned around as Anthony was closing the door, still trying to hold in the water. He started to put his gloves back on.
“Have you found God?” she asked Anthony quizzically. A feeble ‘No’ was all he could manage, and after a couple of seconds, and stepping past her, left foot first, into the kitchen, he said, “I haven’t really been looking for Him.”
Her lips curled up into a pitiful smile, and she expressed her sympathy. “But God’s been looking for you! And I'm here to show you a new world, with Christ!” The woman walked over to Anthony, who was doing his best to keep her out of the kitchen, and cracked open her Bible to the middle somewhere. Without looking at the page, she handed the book to Anthony, her long index finger pointing to the beginning of a passage. He followed along as she recited.
“‘God gives the desolate a home to live in,’ ” she said with dignity, eyes closed in ecstatic reverence for her lord. “‘He leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.’ ” As Anthony closed the book, she smiled a large, pleasant grin. “Now, isn’t that lovely? And wouldn’t you like to be seated at His feet, so that you may see His glory?” Anthony considered this, and before he could stop her, she was in the kitchen, asking for a bit of water. She turned the knob on the sink and filled a glass from the tap. Anthony watched her drink the filth. She finished drinking, put down her glass on the counter, and grinned deplorably. Anthony saw the light glint off her bottom lip, and before he could do anything, a tiny drop of water fell on to the counter.
Anthony scuttled to try and catch the droplet, but it was too late. He nearly bowled the woman over when he slammed into the sink, grabbed the soap bottle, and squeezed until it squirted noisily.
“Sir,” she said quietly, “are you okay?”
Anthony, now scrubbing the countertop, could control his rage no longer. “No!” he screamed to the woman, now standing over his shoulder, her hot, putrid breath on his neck. “No, I am not okay! Now look at what you’ve done—I have to clean everything dammit! It’ll take me the whole day, did you ever think about that! It’s all so dirty now, it’s all so…”
He noticed that her breath wasn’t on his neck anymore, and turned to see her small frame silhouetted in the doorway to his living room. She was backing out of his apartment, leaflets and Bible in hand. By the time Anthony turned off the sink, she was at the door.
The Good Christian turned around. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I will pray for your soul sir. You need to be prayed for.” She walked out into the hallway and slammed the door.
Anthony slumped down into the chair next to his computer. “Don’t pray for me,” he muttered. “I don’t need a prayer. I need help. Help me.”
Anthony began to sob, the tears a vain attempt at cleansing his face, much less his soul.
by E. Branden Hart