Alfredo is one hell of a big guy. He’s at least 6’5” and has a body like an upside-down triangle—all beef at the top and nothing in the hips. To be honest, he kind of looks like a Street Shark, if you remember that show.
I say all this because Alfredo is the boss of the window washers, and I cannot for the life of me imagine a dude his size up fifteen stories balancing on a swing-stage.
“You ever clean windows?” he asks me, crossing his arms over his barrel chest.
“Si, yes, but from the inside. I did janitorial at ChronoCorp?”
“So you cleaned windows with two feet on the ground,” he humphs, unimpressed.
“I get the job done. And I’m not scared of heights.”
“Washing windows takes upper body strength, balance—“ he says, looking me up and down. “Trial basis.”
I’ll take it. I heard you can earn up to twenty-five bucks an hour if you made it to skyscrapers. That’s almost three times what I was making at ChronoCorp, and with fewer—complications.
That’s what I tell Dusty, my new coworker, when he asks me why I left my last job. He’s fitting me for a safety harness—“OSHA compliant,” he says.
“You got to interview me, too?”
“Nah, man, just curious. You got to watch people who want to get into this line of work, you know? Some people—kind of like reality shows—in it for the wrong reasons.”
“How do you mean?” I ask him.
“Well, take this one guy we had last year. Thrill seeker. Tried to drop down the building too fast, just to see if he could. Fredo fired him quick. And then, there’s the funny guys.” Dusty shakes his head.
“Not ha-ha funny?”
“You know,” he says. “Funny in the head. They think if something happens up there, everybody’ll guess it’s an accident. Let your family off easy, you know? So they don’t think you’re in hell for killing yourself.”
“Si, partner. Your dios. Or somebody’s. So I take it that’s not what you’re after—but why leave the time machine? That’s some high tech shit they got over there.”
I shrug and give the straps on my new harness an experimental tug. I consider griping to Dusty about The Man, but decide not to. He watches reality shows, after all. He wouldn’t get it—pushing a broom is bad enough, but it’s worse when you’re cleaning up after ChronoCorp’s customers: perfectly normal-looking middle-aged people hemorrhaging money to get their skin tightened and their fat blasted. And I’m eating off the dollar menu for dinner. Again.
All the commercials call it “the Time Machine.” Take you back to the you of your youth. But every day in that place, I could feel myself getting older and older. And then I stumbled down a restricted hallway one night, looking for the good floor buffer. Some things, once you see them, you can’t un-see them.
“Bills, man,” I say.
Life dangling from a rope turns out to be chill, once you get past the terror. I think maybe this is why people like surfing. The balance. The rocking. The wind in your face. And the view, if you’re into that.
Alfredo chews out one of the younger guys for taking selfies on the scaffold.
“You screw around, you get killed! You get killed, I’m out of business!”
“But man, did you see that sunset?”
Alfredo is not amused. Alfredo is not a man impressed by nature blushing all over itself or some shit. Alfredo puts Mr. Instagram on bucket duty for three whole days.
I’m a quick learner. Dusty only has to show me a few times before I get the rhythm of things. I swipe the mop and squeegee at the windows, down and across, across and down.
“Okay,” Alfredo says. “I guess you’ll do.”
We do office buildings, mostly. Sometimes hotels. One day we do a building at a college, and all the students gawk at us like we’re magical acrobats.
“You see that video of that Spiderman window washer?” Dusty says. “They think we’re Spiderman!”
I saw the video. It was at a hospital for sick kids. I think Dusty kind of missed the point. But I don’t care if the people on the inside stare. I’d rather be on the outside than trapped in a fishbowl. It’s alright out here. Best of all, even with the blinds open to the inside, there’s nothing happening. Nothing to un-see.
What I’m dreading finally happens: we’re doing the windows at the Time Machine.
“I’ve got that thing—I think it’s called vertigo,” I tell Alfredo.
“And I’ve got that thing—I think it’s called we’re understaffed and have a job to do. Don’t give me this crap, Ramos.”
We take the elevator to the fifteenth floor, then climb the stairs to the roof, where Dusty and I secure the ropes. We’re using the two-man swing-stage today.
The blinds are closed and shut in the fifteenth-floor windows. Dusty’s singing the jingle for some car title loan place—“Get cash fast with Zippy Cash!”
“It should be ‘Get hash fast with Zippy Cash,’” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“Why else do you need a title loan?”
Dusty looks a little confused, but laughs, faking understanding.
The fourteenth floor is corporate office space. Through the few uncovered windows, I can see a meeting in progress and a fancy waiting area.
Then there’s the thirteenth floor. The blinds, as I feared, are wide open. Even though the windows are tinted, you can see inside—row after row of metal doors.
When we reach the last window, I see a man—the head janitor—opening one of the doors. He presses a few buttons on a panel on the wall. And then a man steps into the room.
“Look at that! Dude in there could be your twin,” Dusty laughs.
“Huh,” I say, hoping that’s all he notices. We’re about to finish this floor, and then we’re onto twelve and eleven, where all the rich people have their evaluations for experimental rejuvenation treatments.
“Wait a second—do you see that? There’s people in there. Lots of them—Ramos, what the hell?”
And I know then that Dusty, dim as he is, will never un-see. To ChronoCorp, to the rest of the world, it’s an endless supply of uncomplaining laborers. They could be programmed to have any number of fake memories—or maybe no memories at all. But to me, all I see is my face, Maria’s face, the face of the teenage kid who did the bathrooms—over and over and over again. What they told us was a simple test for drugs was really a free genetic sample to clone for their secret inventory. Their experiments.
But I am not them. I am the original, and I got out. And nothing is going to mess that up.
“I’m sorry, man,” I tell Dusty. I pull the knife from my belt and slash his rope. I give him a shove.
Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal