BY: JAMES KELLY

“Delbert was a straight one percent man,” Mister Spiffy told me. “But, he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And don’t forget to call that order in to Dezzy’s the night before. Dezzy’s Doughnut Kastle. Number’s on the visor. Tell her you want a dozen for Delbert. That you’ll be there right at seven when she opens to pick them up. And remember, just hand him the box of jelly doughnuts and shut up. Don’t say a word. Delbert speaks when he’s good and ready, not before.” Mister Spiffy ran a one-van, two-man carpet-cleaning business. I worked for him one summer and part of that fall. He paid a guy to paint the number 18 real big on both sides. But, like I say, he only had the one van. “Client sees that,” he explained, “it makes a good impression. They think we got eighteen vans instead of just the one. Gives them confidence. Means they can count on Mister Spiffy to handle any volume of business they throw his way. Guaranteed.”

Once he’d trained me up, Mister Spiffy hired my buddy Richard to be my assistant. Richard was an artist, a painter, and he could sew. Both skills came in handy that summer. After that, Mister Spiffy quit the work end of the business and just drove around hustling up jobs, shooting the breeze and cutting deals with guys like Delbert. His pitch was simple. It took less than three minutes from wink to handshake. “Tenant moves out. You charge them what for cleaning the carpet, eighty, ninety bucks for a one bedroom? Hundred, hundred and ten for a two? I charge twelve bucks to clean a one, fourteen for a two. My crews work fast. In and out. Call me today and they’re here tomorrow. Difference between what you charge a tenant and what you pay me, well, the way I figure it, that’s just gravy. We got a deal?”

We worked a lot at King’s Arms that summer. That’s the dump Delbert managed. It was the same routine every time. Dezzy knew to make sure and give Delbert’s doughnuts a double fill of jelly and extra thick icing on top. She also threw in one for free. For Delbert being such a good customer. A five-days-a-week regular. So a dozen for Delbert was actually thirteen jelly doughnuts. His office was small but Delbert wasn’t. His belly hung over the sides of his swivel chair and spread out, covering up the whole front half of his desk. He was, as far as I could see, wedged in tight. But then he had little reason to get up and move around. We’d knock, walk in, hand him the box of doughnuts, and wait. He’d open the box and survey, count the contents, then close his eyes and have at them.

Before he ever said a word to us, he made three jelly doughnuts, three extra-fill, extra-icing jelly doughnuts, disappear. He had a big mouth, bad teeth, and he took his doughnuts whole. Stuffed one in, smashed it round and round, swallowed, gulped loud and hard a time or two, then stuffed in another one. Eating, he sounded like a broke dishwasher with a sprung seal, all squish and slap, slap and squish. Breathless, after the third, he’d pause, wipe the jelly and crumbs, the bits of icing off his lips and chin, off the front of his shirt, blink the world back into shape, look us over, then throw us some keys. Tell us which apartments we were supposed to clean that day.

We worked fast, Richard and me. We had to. The air in the places we cleaned was rotten. Trapped. Musty. Chain-smoked cigarette stink, buckets of spilled beer, fish fry, hamburger fry, anything fry funk in all the walls. That and puke. Mix and match combination in every place we walked into that summer. After finishing one we’d bolt outside and breathe fresh air. Release the poisons. Sometimes, and I never knew when he was going to do it, Richard would break into song. Head back, full voice singing. “Maria” from West Side Story, “Wooly Bully,” “She’s About a Mover,” anything to make us laugh. Stop, look around, and laugh at the nonsense work we were doing. We invented, that summer, a futility scale. A one to ten determination of how pointless it was for us to try cleaning something that wasn’t even close to being a carpet anymore.

The carpets at King’s Arms had no pile left sticking up for our machine to scrub. To suds up, knock around, and clean. They’d been walked flat, with wide, ground-in dirt tracks leading from room to room. Dirt tracks that nothing would ever lighten or change. Patches of jute mesh backing showed through, flat, frayed, and stained. It was like washing cement. I’d run the machine in circles, releasing the hot water and suds, with Richard following right behind me with a wet vac, hosing it all right back up.

We had a product called Scram Blood we used from time to time. It came in a small squeeze bottle and worked just fine for dissolving, or at least lightening, small bloodstains. This time though, the one time we hit a perfect ten on the futility scale, we never even got it out of the van. Husband and wife went at each other with kitchen knives in the middle of the living room. He wound up in the morgue, and she ended up in jail. Delbert wanted the place cleaned up and all traces of blood gone, but he had us swear a secrecy oath before he’d give us the key.

“Talk to nobody,” he said. “And don’t let nobody in for a look-see. Somebody asks you what happened in there, say nothing. Nothing to nobody. Bad for business. Who wants to rent a place where there’s been a murder?” He told us to park out back so nobody would see our van. The apartment was on the first floor, facing the alley. Coming and going, we had to bring our equipment in, then take it back out on the sly, through the bedroom window. “Don’t worry about all that blood on the walls and the ceiling,” he said. “I got a painter can make that go away. What I want you to do is cut out every piece of carpet with blood on it. Put that shit in bags and throw them in somebody else’s Dumpster. Not, I repeat, not in one of ours.”

He told us to “piece” the places we cut out with carpet from the closets. “Take it all if you have to,” he said. “Who gives a shit if they have carpet in their closets anyway?” Trouble was, the strips of carpet from the closets had pile. Full, upright pile. Sewn into the walked-flat living room, each piece, each separate shape, would look like a tree-covered island in a sea of cement.

Richard, being an artist, laid newspapers over all the bloodstains, traced them, then cut out templates. When we were done stitching them in place, the room looked worse than we imagined. Where the guy’s back had been, there was a single long patch of fully upright carpet surrounded by flat nothing. A gray and empty, dingy expanse with no elevation. Where blood had sprayed and spotted, there were now big and little full-pile constellations looping this way and that. Where his neck and the back of his head had been, well, you get the drift.

Delbert, pleased when we were done quicker than expected, that we had spoken to nobody, been seen by nobody, and dumped the bloody carpet pieces in a Dumpster down the road behind Duke’s Bar and Grill, offered us words to live by. His personal philosophy. “Everybody is on the take. Everybody. No exceptions. Do whatever you gotta do to take care of you and yours. You don’t, who will? Think about it. It’s dog eat dog out there. Everybody lies. Nobody gives you a break. Somebody leaves something on the table, looks the other way, take it. Take it and laugh about it. Who says this person or that person got more right to a thing than you just because they been to some school, or drive some shiny big car, or live in some fancy-ass house? Think about it.”

Over beers later that summer, Mister Spiffy filled us in on Delbert’s back story. “He ran the parts department at Hokebogan Chevy for twenty-seven years. Almost twenty-eight. Back then, Hokebogan was the biggest, biggest and busiest Chevy dealership in east Detroit. Told me he was a straight one percent man. He wrote an order, big or small, you gave him one percent of the total, up front, in cash. No bottles of booze on holidays expected. No lunches out. Just a straight one percent kickback. Until, that is, a sales rep from Kustom Kut Tool and Die, a guy didn’t like having to pony up Delbert’s one percent out of his own pocket, spilled the beans. Told old man Hokebogan what was what. So, Delbert was out on his ear. Off the Hokebogan gravy train just like that. And that’s how he come to manage King’s Arms. On the rebound.”

Jim Kelly, a retired traveling salesman, has been writing for over fifty years. His work has been in War Literature & the Arts, Harvard Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Switchback and now, for the second time, The Coachella Review. He recently won The George Garrett Fiction Prize and Texas Review Press will publish his book of stories, “Pitchman’s Blues” later this year.