Paulino was whistling by the time he got to work.
He could not remember the name of the song. It had started running through his head as soon as the alarm went off, and then he heard it in the shower and all through breakfast. When Rosalie asked him why he was so happy he told her he didn’t know, but he kept on hearing the song until finally he began to whistle. He had to let it out, like steam.
On the way the streets were jammed and the air was so brown that the sun was only a pale, dirty glint. He kept his window rolled up and tried to think of the words but he could not get the first line.
Ruben was in the driveway of the Palm Vista Car Wash, setting out theYes, We’re Ready for Your Dirt sign. He had a blue towel in the pocket of his clean white jumpsuit and an expression on his face that would not give him away. Paulino rolled the window down.
“Little Paulie,” said Ruben.
“O Rosalinda—she won, right?”
“Yeah, by a nose.”
Paulino grinned and turned up the driveway. He parked his Ford Escort and hurried back to the building, whistling louder than ever. Ruben was inside at the snack machines.
“Twelve-to-one,” said Ruben.
“I had forty…”
“And forty for me.”
“But, see, I got there late. The race already started. They closed the window.”
Ruben fumbled coins into the soda machine, missed the Pepsi button and hit Mr. Pibb instead. “I’ll pay you back.”
“You don’t even have my forty?”
“My kids, they ate a lot of crap. Two-fifty for a hot dog. Plus nachos and Cokes. You know.”
Paulino turned away, went to another machine and waited while a paper cup dropped and filled with coffee. He stirred in some creamer, breathing the steam while it cooled. Then he heard the water come on and the shammies start to move in the car wash tunnel. When he felt the rhythm through the thick soles of his shoes he thought of the song again. He could still make it out over the wet, grinding rhythm.
“Okay, compá,” he said. “Friday for sure…”
But Ruben was already outside, guiding the first car onto the automated track. It was an Isuzu Rodeo so new it glistened before it got to the jets.
Paulino finished the coffee, punched his time card and put on his jumpsuit.
He saw the Rodeo disappear as the wall of shammies closed over the back end. Then foam spurted as the soap hit the rear tires. The sidewalls were black and gleaming and there was still a dealer card in the license plate holder. This one was not ready to be washed. The paint had not even set. It only needed a dusting to take off the pollution from the air.
But at Palm Vista the customer was king.
He looked around to see who owned it. Several people already had receipts from the glass office. He recognized a half-dozen regulars, businessmen and college students and mothers on their way back from the elementary school, ready to start the week off right.
There was Mrs. McLintock, who took such good care of her old Pontiac that it shone even in the overcast. Jason, the kid with the Cabrio and the UCLA parking permit. And Cheryl, who had a smile to match her bright yellow Beetle. She spent a lot of time at the beach, he knew, because there was always sand in the floor mats. And Mr. Travis, who had just traded up his Camry for an Audi A4. Paulino wondered how he liked it.
He would have to ask.
It cost nothing to make conversation with the customers, and besides, Mr. Travis was his friend. They all were. They called him by name, telling him to be careful about the grocery bags in the back seat and could he make sure to get the rearview mirror because it fogged up last night on the way home and they almost had an accident. When he did these special things for them they tipped him extra, and when they forgot he would talk about something else till they remembered, and if they didn’t have any small bills he would tell them to catch him next time and they usually did. It was only fair. He listened to their problems and did his best to make them happy and that was worth something. A clean car gave them another chance at life. They understood that and kept coming back. This morning the sedans and station wagons and sport utility vehicles were backed up into the alley. They could hardly wait.
A new customer was hanging around the tables, a salesman in a short-sleeved dress shirt and polyester tie with blue and white stripes. He kept checking his watch. That’s the one with the Rodeo, Paulino thought. It has to be. He looks like he just started a new job and he’s worried sick about making a good impression. Well, you can relax, vato. I’m ready to straighten your tie and wash behind your ears and polish your chrome before you go out into the world. Leave it to Paulie.
He picked up his detail kit and walked down to the other end of the tunnel to meet the Rodeo when it came out.
Ruben was inside with Manny and the others, sponging the hubcaps as the vehicle went by, wiping the grille and the door handles till they shone like liquid silver. The next car was moving up behind it, Cheryl’s Beetle with the happy face front-end. Paulino watched the Rodeo pass under the hot-wax nozzles, then got into the front seat and steered it over the blacktop to the vacuum hoses.
He set the brake, suctioned the new floor mats and polished the mirror and instrument panel while he waited for the water to drain off the hood. He checked the ashtray, saw a few coins and a paperclip there and slid it back in without disturbing them, then sprayed silicone protectant over the dash and rubbed it to a deep luster. That was an extra. The salesman had only paid for a basic wash and hot wax, but Paulino knew he would appreciate it. Cheryl’s car always got the same treatment. She never paid for detailing, either. But if he and Rosalie had a daughter he hoped she would grow up with a smile just like that.
He climbed out of the Rodeo and set to work on the rubber trim before the water spots burned in, and heard music again.
It was not the same song. This time there was a heavy, throbbing bass line, very close by. He glanced up, almost expecting to see a thunderhead on the horizon behind the marquee. The moveable letters spelled out this week’s slogan, No Job’s Too Dirty for Us. Beyond that he saw only the power lines and the signal lights at the corner and the hot disk of the sun about to break through the smog. The pressure in his ears grew stronger.
He looked out at the smear of cars on the street, locked bumper-to-bumper as the traffic inched past. A Buick Regal and a Crown Vic LTD pulled even at the red light, sub-woofers booming, shaking the hoods with each beat like two hearts at war. The radios drowned out the song in his mind. He turned his back on the street and hunkered down behind the Rodeo, sprayed Armor All on the molded bumper, and wondered why Rosalie never woke up with music in her head.
There was no time for that, she had said in the kitchen, especially not on a Monday. What was wrong with him? Did he think she liked spending all day cleaning other people’s houses? The things they left for her were disgusting, things they wouldn’t touch themselves, things she had never thought she’d have to touch when she came here, after he had promised her so much. Well, he said, maybe you should go home and visit your family for a week, two weeks, he didn’t care, and that was what tore it. When she started crying he did not say anything else. She would not even let him kiss her when he dropped her off.
He finished wiping down the Rodeo.
Ruben was working on the yellow Beetle, Manny had the Audi and Craig was about to start on Mrs. McLintock’s cherry Pontiac. She was already opening her purse for a tip that could have been Paulino’s. He hoped she and Mr. Travis and Cheryl did not think he was avoiding them. If he had not spent so much time on the Rodeo he would be ready. The line moved forward and two more cars from the alley were about to enter the tunnel.
The salesman checked his watch nervously and shifted his weight in tight brown shoes. Paulino ran his towel over the windows, brushed out the front seat, waved him over and handed him the keys.
The salesman got in without a word.
“Nice car,” said Paulino.
The salesman inserted his key.
“You want to be careful with that clear-coat, though. It scratches real easy.” Paulino closed the door in slow motion, holding onto it as long as he could. “You put on some sealer and glaze, you won’t have to worry.”
“It’s a lease,” said the salesman.
“Yeah, well, just the same, I’d get a full detail. Say every sixty to ninety days. You need it around here.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“Hey, no problem. Just ask for Paulie.”
The salesman got the message. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill before he turned the key.
“I’ll think about it.”
“I only use Mother’s Gold.” Paulino winked and showed the man his teeth. “One-hundred-percent pure carnauba. Guaranteed.”
The salesman started the engine and drove away.
Paulino saw Craig folding paper money into his pocket and thought, I should get some cards printed up. It wouldn’t cost much. Plain white business cards, with my name, and underneath that The Detailer. And maybe my phone number, too, so I can make house calls on my day off. Why not?
He picked up his kit.
On the way to the glass office he asked Mrs. McLintock how she was doing today. She beamed as if he were her favorite son. He said hello to Mr. Travis, who told him the A4 was the best car he had ever owned. When he came up behind Cheryl she was digging out some loose change for Manny.
“How’s the Vee-Dub?”
“Great! Hi, Paulie. I missed you!”
“You oughta let me get those wheels.”
Paulino frowned. “See, they’re alloy. All that nitrous from the diesels, it wrecks the aluminum. If you don’t do nothing about it, you got a problem. I can put on some Wheel Brite…”
“I’m late for class. Will you be here, um, Thursday?”
“Sure. Any time.”
“Cool. See you then!”
She grinned and gave a little wave with her fingers.
At the office he held his kit up so Linda the cashier could see the cans of wax and polish through the glass and shrugged at her. She pointed to the job board and shook her head. No one had signed up for detailing so far, just washes and spray wax.
It was going to be a slow morning.
He took a copy of the Times from the counter and went back to see who else was waiting. Mr. Nolan was at the tables, sipping black coffee and eating a donut from the Winchell’s on the corner. His Geo Metro had not been hand-waxed all year. Paulino was about to bring him the newspaper, when he spotted a metallic grey Lexus LX420 in the driveway. It had just moved forward from the alley and was next in line.
That would be Mrs. Ellsworth.
He smiled and gave her the high sign.
When there was no response he went to the driveway and stood before the tinted windshield, motioning for her to get out so he could take it the rest of the way. 4SUZIE, said the license plate on the front bumper. He knew whose it was without looking. The vehicle came in once a week like clockwork.
The door opened and a man with dark glasses climbed down.
“Oh,” said Paulino. “Morning, Mr. Ellsworth. The usual?”
“Not this time.”
“You don’t want the wash and hot wax?”
“Give me the works.”
Paulino was confused. “You mean a full detail?”
The man nodded and pushed his glasses farther up his nose so that no part of his eyes showed. “Get this baby clean, inside and out.”
Paulino had given the Lexus a complete detail only last Monday, when Mrs. Ellsworth brought it in right on schedule. A perfect layer of wax still showed through the mud spatters on the fenders. There was some dirt clinging to the sidewalls that would come off as soon as the spray hit them. But the customer was king.
“It’ll take about an hour…”
Mr. Ellsworth had never waited around for the detailing. When he first got the Lexus he used to drop it off on Mondays and his wife would drive him the rest of the way to his office in the LS400, but after a while he started taking the sedan so that she could use the sport utility. She brought the LX420 in every week for a wash and one Monday a month for a detail. It was her responsibility now, not his.
“Okay,” said Paulino, to be sure he understood. “Wheels, trim, upholstery, hand-wax…”
“Forget the wax.”
“Steam-clean the engine?”
Mr. Ellsworth shook his head impatiently. “I don’t give a damn. Just make everything look fresh as a daisy. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” said Paulino.
“You’ll take care of it for me.” The man slipped a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet. “Won’t you.”
“Sure, Mr. Ellsworth.” Without the hand-wax and steam-clean, that was more than enough. A lot more. Paulino took the bill and started for the office. “I’ll get your change.”
“The car, first.”
“No problem.” It was too early for Paulino to break a large bill. He would take it in to Linda when he finished. “Did you have a nice vacation?”
“How do you know about that?”
“Mrs. Ellsworth…” Paulino faltered. “She said you were going on a trip. For the weekend.”
“We didn’t go anywhere.”
“Oh, too bad. I hear it’s really great up there. All those trees and everything. Some other time, huh?”
The man pushed his glasses up his nose again, so hard that his hand trembled.
“There was no trip.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Ellsworth.”
Paulino put his kit in the back seat and got behind the wheel.
As he steered the car forward the front wheels made contact with the track and the strips of wet cloth begin to sway from side to side. Then the rollers tripped the sensor and the first nozzles sprayed foam at the tires.
He saw the next line of flaps closing over the Metro ahead of him as the ceiling jets went on. The water was a falling black mist in the tunnel. He felt himself drawn into the darkness, heard the wet ratcheting of the machinery all around and checked to see that the windows were tightly closed, then remembered to get out now before it was too late. Otherwise he would have to ride it out to the end, trapped. This was not Paulino’s job. He was the one who finished up after the heavy dirt had been washed away. Let the others take care of that. His work was to make things pretty again, at least the parts that showed. He opened the door and jumped down before the shammies touched the windshield.
He stepped around Manny, heading for the square of daylight at the end of the tunnel.
“Where’s Suzie Q?”
“The Body!” said Manny. He had to shout over the hissing water. “The one with the headlights!”
“She didn’t come in.”
As the sport utility vehicle crept by, Ruben snapped his rag at a crust of dirt on the tailpipe. “Aw, I been waiting all week!”
“Maybe she’s sick,” said Paulie.
“Or she got a new boyfriend!”
“Too much dick last night!” said Craig.
Paulino made his way through the tunnel and waited for the sport utility to roll off the track. Then he started it up and drove a few feet to the hoses.
He did not like to hear them talk that way. Mrs. Ellsworth had posed for some magazines a few years ago but it stopped when she got married. She was a nice person. She always stood around even in her high heels and talked to him while she waited. They had some good conversations. On the Mondays when he did the detailing he had a chance to learn all about her.
He removed the beads of water with a clean blue towel, then opened the doors and got started with the vacuum.
She probably told him too much. About her marriage, for example. Paulino knew it was not going great. That was easy to understand. Sometimes people want different things. They don’t tell each other before they get married and by the time it comes out it’s too late. Then they just have to do the best they can and hope everything gets better.
Paulino swiped the vacuum between the seats, heard a flapping sound and stopped. A lot of times candy wrappers got stuck there or pieces of paper too big for the hose. He reached down and caught something between his fingers.
It was a credit card receipt from a gas station.
He laid it on the dashboard and got on his knees so he could see if there were any more. He ran his hand under the springs but did not feel anything. When he got up he lifted the floormat and found a crushed dirt clod, some loose pine needles and another receipt under the edge. This one was a hotel bill. He set it on the dashboard, too.
Mr. Ellsworth wanted a trophy wife, someone he could show off to his business friends. The rest of the time she was supposed to be happy with what she had, which was a lot. But she was a smart woman. She needed a life of her own. That was why they started growing apart. At least Mr. Ellsworth had tried to do something about it. Paulino remembered how happy she was last Monday. She could not stop talking about the weekend getaway, just the two of them, like a second honeymoon. When he had to cancel she must have been sad.
Paulino saw the address at the top of the hotel bill.
It was from the Doubletree Lodge at Triangle Lake.
The other receipt was from a Union 76 station on Highway 5, just north of L.A.
That was on the way.
If they took the trip, after all, why didn’t Mr. Ellsworth want him to know?
Paulino tried to put it out of his mind. It was none of his business. He placed the receipts in the glovebox, then went around to the other side.
As he opened the passenger door he noticed some streaks on the inside of the window. He imagined Mrs. Ellsworth falling asleep last night, on the way home from the lake, with her face against the glass. It looked like she had put her hand there, too, to support her head. He placed his fingers over the streaks.
Then he remembered that there had not been a trip.
That was what Mr. Ellsworth said.
Paulino decided to roll the window down into the door before wiping it. That way the rubber seal would do some of the work for him, like a squeegee. He turned the key and hit the button. But when the window came back up one of her lacquered fingernails came with it, wedged halfway under the seal. And the streaks were worse, with a pink rainbow clinging to them, as if the gears inside the door were wet with strawberry soda.
A faint purple residue came off on his blue towel.
Something had spattered or spilled against the window, a soft drink, maybe. And she had tried to wipe it off and broken her nail. The litter bag under the glovebox held a few crumpled tissues. Paulino emptied it and saw stains on the tissues that had dried to a darker color, like dirty lipstick.
He probed under the seat with the vacuum. As soon as he did that something hard started to rattle. It was not a piece of paper. This time there was a long, pointed object, rounded at one end, stuck between the floormat and the door. He plucked it from the nozzle and looked at it.
One of Mrs. Ellsworth’s high heels.
The rubber tip had cut a sharp black line into the mat. The line continued out of the passenger compartment and left a gouge in the paint, just inside the door, before the heel snapped off.
If she was asleep Mr. Ellsworth must have carried her out of the car. But he had not lifted her legs. It was more like he had dragged her. The edge of the mat was curled where her shoe had snagged it.
He pulled on the mat, and the rubberized backing made a sucking sound as it peeled away. The carpet underneath was wet. He dropped the mat on the asphalt and looked at his fingers.
They were red.
Suddenly a breeze came up and blew through the open doors. He felt it in his chest and in his fingers as he waited for them to dry. He tried wiping them on the towel but they were still sticky.
Now there was an emptiness in his stomach, as if he had skipped breakfast and the coffee was ready to pass out of his body in a rush. He wished it were time for lunch but he had hours, long hours, ahead of him. He looked around at the car wash where he worked, where everything was made clean and spotless again and no one had to think about what happened in the world outside. He heard the grinding of the machinery and the hiss of the spray, saw the scum on the water as it ran down to the sewer and the steam rising into the polluted sky, and knew that even this place was not safe anymore.
The street was packed with cars, dirty inside and out, pumping so much filth into the air that the sky might never open again. It was too soon to pick up Rosalie, and if he tried to drive home in the morning rush he could lose his way and be trapped out there forever.
He saw the rest of the crew, wiping and polishing for tips, joking and staying busy so they would not have to look at what was on their towels, as the laundry barrel filled up until it would be too heavy to lift at the end of the day. He saw the customers, reading newspapers and making cell phone calls and staring at nothing, waiting to be born again, fresh and squeaky-clean. And he saw Mr. Ellsworth, watching him.
The man came over and stood next to the mat with its sticky underside turned up.
“What do you want me to do with this?” said Paulino.
“Throw it away.”
“I’ll get new ones.”
“Because they’re ruined.”
Paulino knew he should not say anything else but could not stop himself. “How’s Mrs. Ellsworth?”
The man squinted at him.
“She went away.”
“To visit her relatives. She won’t be back for a long time.” He took out his wallet and handed over another hundred dollar bill. “Here. For the mats.”
“We don’t have any,” said Paulino.
“You have to go to the dealer for that.”
“You do it for me.” He tried to give him fifty more. “Keep the change.”
Paulino got out of the car.
“Where are you going? You’re not finished…”
He went over to Ruben, who was working on a Sportage at the end of the ramp.
“I can pay you twenty today,” Ruben said.
“Forget about it, vato.” Paulino took the first hundred from his pocket and handed him both bills.
“What’s this for?”
“If you don’t want to do it, that’s okay with me. Give some to Craig and Manny. And Linda. She works hard, too.”
Paulie walked on to his Escort at the back of the lot. He took off his jumpsuit as he went, stepped out of it and left it on the asphalt without breaking stride. Then he got behind the wheel and turned the key.
He pulled into the alley and squeezed past the line of waiting cars, hoping to spot a sidestreet that was clear. On the way to find Rosalie he turned on his radio to block out the traffic noise. The first station he came to was playing power oldies. He raised the volume and began to sing along, not paying attention to the words. After a mile or so he realized it was the same tune he had heard when he woke up this morning, a love song that kept circling back on itself and starting again. You make me feel so brand-new, sang Al Green’s high, soulful voice. Let’s stay together, whether times are good or bad or happy or sad…The lyrics sounded so beautiful to Paulino that his eyes burned. He kept singing along even after the record was over. He did not want it to end.
Dennis Etchison is a critically-acclaimed writer (and editor) of fantasy and horror fiction, particularly short stories. He is a three-time winner of both the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award for anthologies he edited. His collections include The Dark Country, The Death Artist and the recently released It Only Comes Out at Night & Other Stories (Centipede Press) and Fine Cuts: The Dark Side of the Silver Screen (Borderlands Press).