"Clean Dishes"

The road glistened from the dew, giving it a metallic sheen. A storm had passed through the night before, leaving behind the fog. Quietly unfolding itself and blanketing the city, the fog hung thick and still in the air, leaving street lights floating like luminescent cotton balls. Frank looked up every time he arrived at an intersection, peering through the gloom. When he made it to Sixth Street he turned onto it and then made his way into the alley.

The fog rested in the alley as well, and Frank could only see the base of an emergency exit staircase. The wet, black rails blended into the fog as they ascended. The silhouette of a garbage container, pregnant and full, could be discerned resting against the corner walls of the alley. Leaning against a wall was a man with a leather jacket wrapped tight around him.

“Hey Frank,” the man said, pushing himself off the wall and moving towards Frank.

“Hey, Joe. How goes it?” Frank said, taking a small step backwards.

“You tell me. You ready? You got the equipment?”

“Joe, I've been thinking,” Frank said and paused, expecting Joe to interrupt. He looked up and tried to see Joe's face, but in the dark he could only make out the whites of Joe's eyes. “I've been thinking that this isn’t a good idea.”

“Why?”

“What if-”

“What if nothing, Frankie. Look at me,” Joe said grabbing Frank's arm and pulling him close. “No risks, no problems. We've been through this before. It's regular. It’s easier than the Third Street job. This is routine. What the hell are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid” and yanking his arm he moved forward and looked down at Joe. “Don't tell me I'm afraid.”

Joe did not move. “Then what is it?”

“It's, it's this.” Frank reached inside the breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew an envelope. Peeling away the flap he pulled out a granular, black and white photo. Balancing it on his palm he showed it to Joe.

“I can't even see the damned thing in this light,” Joe said pulling out his lighter.

“Careful.”

Flicking the light on the two huddled together and looked at it.

“What? What's this?” Joe said. He coughed and chuckled and looked up at Frank. “How long?”

“Six weeks. Jenny found out a couple of days back. Came flapping about yelling that she had missed her thing. Anyway, day before we went and got this.” Frank said. He couldn't look away from the picture as he talked and could feel his heart beating faster.

“This,” Frank said as he pointed at the grainy picture, “is it.”

“How the hell can you tell?”

“I can't.” Frank said and laughed, coughing out air and swallowing. He smiled and said, “Neither could Jenny. She just lay there bawling and sobbing, 'I can't see it'. Some guy who worked there pointed it out for us.”

“Jenny; she doesn't even look different” Joe said, scratching the stubble on his face and flicking the lighter out. He was nodding his head and gazing across the alley. “You keeping it?”

“Yeah. Of course we are.”

Frank looked at Joe and then slid the object back into the envelope. Pressing the flap down he eased the envelope back into his jacket before zipping up. The fog eased its way around them as Frank, his hands stuffed in his jacket's pockets, stood waiting for Joe.

“It doesn't make a difference,” Joe said, still looking across the alley.

“It does. Why wouldn't it?”

“Look at it this way, Frankie. With that parcel coming in you're gonna need some cash and fast. You're gonna need some security. With this job done, you're set. No problems. No worries, and best of all, everyone's happy.”

“Jenny won’t be. She knows, Joe,” Frank said, scraping his feet and looking down.

“She knows? How? Did she find the tools?”

“No. Well, she – she doesn't know. I just, I just think she might know. She always is asking me where I'm going and how come once a month I'm always back late in the night.”

“Ha. Maybe she thinks you're having an affair?”

“That isn’t better, Joe.”

Joe turned and looked up at Frank. In the dark he couldn't see Frank's face, only the shape of his nose, but he reached out and grabbed Frank's shoulders. Squeezing, he said, “We need this. We've spent six stinking months watching The Family. We know everything we need to, and this job: it's gonna be worth it, not like the other ones. After this we can stop. We'll be done.”

Frank avoided looking at Joe's face. His right hand, despite being in his jacket pocket, could feel the hard and protective edge of the envelope. It pinched his hand.

“Frank, listen to me. Never have we had problems. This is not a new thing for us. After The Family, we're going to be fine. You can even buy Jenny that dish-washer that she's been wanting for so long. Think about it,” Joe said and chuckled, “clean dishes.”

A picture of a gleaming, large steel box flashed into Frank's mind. Jenny and Frank used to stare at the box, lying behind the display glass, and they would leave with him whispering promises in her ear, his arm wrapped around her shoulder.

“Now,” Joe said as Frank turned and looked at him, “you got the equipment?”

“I don't need this, Joe,” Frank said. Shaking his head he turned away, but Joe grabbed him by the shoulder again.

“Where you gonna get the money, Frank? Huh? How the hell you gonna afford that?”

“We'll have cash, Joe. We got it all figured out. Jenny's thinking of getting another job somewhere. Her friend knows somebody. Me – I got the construction gig and Jenny is trying to get me something else. Oh,” Frank inhaled and then said, “We're also moving in. I'm leaving my place.”

“What?”

“Jenny. Jenny and I. We decided we're gonna live together. More money, and it makes sense. We've put this off for so long. Six years and we still live apart.” Frank smiled. “My socks in her house and her gloves in mine. I'm doing this because it's time, Joe. It's time we did things right. This job – I'm not just risking myself, I'm risking her too.” The sound of Joe's watch could be heard ticking as Frank tried to look at Joe. The fog and the dark hid Joe's face. Frank turned around and started moving away from Joe, out from the alley. His shoulders were tensed and ears pricked. He was at the mouth of the alley when he heard Joe say, “You're risking her by not doing it.”

The blood rushed to his head and turning around, Frank ran back into the depths of the alley. Despite the dark he could see Joe leaning against the wall, and grabbing him by his jacket he yanked Joe towards himself. “You threatening her, Joe? I'll kill you!”

“I’m not threatening her,” Joe said as Frank shook him vigorously like a rag-doll. “You don't do this then you're threatening her.” Hurling him against the wall, Frank waited, cracking his knuckles and pacing back and forth.

“Sure, you're moving in – that saves money. But what about education, clothing, and food? Huh? You thought about that?” Joe said. Frank stopped moving. Joe continued, “Furniture? Doctors? Toys? It goes on Frankie. Yeah, things have changed. This job, it would have helped you before. Now,” Joe said staring at Frank, “it'll save you.” Joe adjusted his jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Flicking on his lighter he glanced at Frank's face – suddenly illuminated by the light – and was surprised to see Frank clean-shaven. The smoke curled around Joe's face, burning his nostrils, before mingling with the fog. “Well, Frank? The equipment?”

Frank scratched his forehead before plunging his left hand into his jacket. Joe dropped the cigarette and moved closer to Frank. The sound of metallic objects clinking against one another like spoons in a drawer came from Frank's jacket, before Frank pulled out several thin, shiny, and long instruments.

“Good. Wait – where are the tension wrenches?” Joe asked.

“I – well. Jenny found them, and I told her they were from my construction gig. She didn't buy it and threw them away. She said they looked ‘suspicious’.”

“Dammit. You gotta be more careful, Frankie.”

“It happened while we were packing my stuff up, okay? I didn't throw them at her. They were in my damned sock drawer and she thought, hell, I don't know what she thought.”

“Alright, alright. It's no problem. We'll just use the 'feelers' then. Those babies will know their way about.”

Frank's palm lay open, and on it rested six tools. Joe leaned close and peered at them, as though they were on display. “If the 'feelers' don't work, I'm sure the half diamond will, or maybe the snakes.” Joe whispered. “Shall we go through the plan again, Frank, or you remember it?”

“'Course I remember it, Joe. I’m not a fool.”

“Good. No one will see us in this weather, and -”

A clinking noise began from above both of them and Joe retreated into the corner of the alley, hiding near the garbage container. Frank remained where he was and looked up. Despite the fog, he could see a square-shaped area of yellow light, and from that window the noises grew. The sound of water hissing out of a tap, skidding off dishes, and bubbling in a bowl filled the alleyway. As Frank stared up at the window he pictured Jenny standing next to him as they did the dishes. Her blond hair resting on her shoulders as she scrubbed the bowls first, and then the plates. Frank smiled. She always did the dishes at his place, and her hands would always smell of dish cleaner afterwards, but he didn't mind. He would hold her hands until his hands smelt of dish-cleaner as well. She said she didn't mind either.

A squeaking noise and the water turned off. A girl could be heard hiccoughing and talking to someone. A moment later the light turned off and the sounds of water and hiccoughs were no more. Silence filled the alley again, and Joe walked back to Frank. “Close one. God, for a second I thought they might have heard us. You see anything?” Joe said.

“I don't need a dishwasher,” Frank replied.

“What?”

“I don't need a dishwasher.”

Joe shook his head. “No, Frank. We decided. Let's go. Let's go,” he said and grabbing Frank's arm tried to pull him. Frank jerked his hand out of Joe's grip.

“I'm leaving Joe. I'm sorry.” Frank started walking out of the alley, his hands in his jacket and his right hand feeling the edges of the envelope in his jacket.

“No, you selfish fool!” Joe yelled.

Frank turned, but before he could pull his hands out of his jacket, Joe had grabbed Frank by the collar and slammed him against the wall. Loose bricks dug into Frank's back. Pain shot up his arms from his elbows. Grunting, Frank wrenched his hands out from his jacket. He punched Joe hard in the stomach. Joe groaned before launching forward and slamming Frank into the wall again. Writhing in pain, Frank swung out. Joe dodged and stood up. He kicked Frank. He kicked until he couldn't breathe.

“You selfish fool,” Joe whispered as he collapsed next to Frank. His head reeled, and glancing at Frank he saw the tools glimmering on the floor, spread across the alley like the remains of a broken glass.“Frank, I need this. He's threatening to kick me out,” Joe said.

Frank lay on the floor, leaning over his right side. His chest's left side hurt and he was having difficulty breathing. Opening his eyes, he inhaled and, using his right arm, sat himself up. Having done that he rubbed his face with his right hand to make sure there were no cuts and no blood.

“Your brother?” Frank said, staring towards the road and the mouth of the alley.

“Yeah. Says he needs his own place; can't handle an elder brother being his roommate. I need this, Frank, because I can kiss all that goodbye. With this job, I don't even have to go back to that coffee shop anymore. No college kids, no coffee. I hate coffee,” and with a vehemence that surprised Frank, Joe yanked Frank by the collar and pulled him towards his own belly. “Frank,” Joe said, as Frank's head lay on his belly, “Smell me. Smell my shirt.”

“What?”

“Do it,” Joe said, although he stopped holding onto Frank and looked away.

Frank sniffed and frowned. It was a pleasant smell, and reminded him of a thermos. “You smell like coffee.”

“Wrong. I smell like Hazelnut Coffee with cream and three Splendas. Some idiot kid wanted five of them and I ended up spilling the muck all over me. You can’t see the stain, but the damn stuff sure as hell can be smelt on me. That smell,” Joe said and winced, “is so painful to me. I get sick in the coffee shop. I get sick when my brother makes it. I get sick when I wear my clothes. I get sick all the time.” Joe pounded his fist on the floor. Inhaling and shifting his weight so that he cradled Frank's head, which still lay on his stomach, Joe said, “Frank, I need this job so I can wash myself clean.”

“Joe, I can't,” Frank said and glancing up was surprised to see tears roll out of Joe's eyes and disappear in his stubble. Looking up, Frank was able to see Joe's face for the first time that night. There was a cut on Joe's forehead, and Joe's hair and blood had clotted up the opening, almost obscuring it from sight. “You're bleeding, Joe – it must have been the 'feelers' or the snake pick,” Frank said as he stood up and began walking across the alley, picking up the fallen tools.

Joe sighed and then rubbed his forehead with his jacket's sleeve. “Will you come with me Frankie? Will you help me?” He looked up and tried to see Frank's face, but from his angle, Joe could not see Frank's face. He heard Frank walk back to him, gravel crunching under boots. Frank stood above Joe offering his hand.

“No, Joe. I will not help you. Not for this.”

Joe looked down and nodded. Frank nodded as well and bending down laid the tools on the floor of the alley, next to Joe’s legs.

“Be careful, Joe. Come by our place for dinner tomorrow. I'll tell Jenny you're coming,” Frank said and then got up and walked out the alley. Pausing, he looked behind, but the alley was soaked in darkness.

“Bye, Joe,” Frank whispered and then headed back to Sixth Street. Reaching the road, Frank could see the lights of buildings in the distance.