by: R.E Hengsterman ((Header art by the incredibly talented ISOZAKI Michiyoshi.))
When your social contract with society fractures wholly, and it’s time to take dead aim at the lingering stains on your soul…
My days consist of spaces. Empty, smoke-filled spaces absorbing hours upon hours of nothingness like an infinite sponge. Sometimes the nothingness rubs against itself like raw flint, and it sparks. I can’t explain why. It just happens. That unexplained something happened to me recently and I awoke with a spark. Because of that spark, I’ve decided to seek redemption. But it’s elusive, as the feral cat. I am aware of this, as I walk with renewed purpose, the street lights above tossing shadows. I find myself smiling as if I know something no one else does. And the very idea of this knowledge snaps me upright with confidence, causing my trudge to transition into more of a stroll. Under my arms, I hold my purchase; sleek and full of promise. Things are going to be different I tell myself.
The dictionary defines redemption as: “the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.” We find one’s such quest for redemption in the usual places that transform vulnerability and desperation into something salvageable with hot coffee and a twelve step program. But for me, I tend to lean towards the unconventional. In the past, this mindset has not served me well. But I am determined to change my path. I want to feel alive again. I need to remember what it’s like to feel alive. Because for the last several months I have lived with the sickest sound I know, the sound of silence.
But before we get too deep into the emotional weeds, you may be asking yourself why I seek redemption. Well, the reasons are sordid, to say the least. And motivation is a wildly complex animal. So the zero sum of my existence is this; I don’t want to be judged by my worst acts. No one does. For the sake of time let’s just acknowledge my past, by all reasonable standards, is a tome of mitigated disasters. But with a spark and a touch of motivation, I’m on a mission to gain a foothold in the world of normalcy. I need this to work because I’m so afraid of tumbling backward. But regardless of my fears, I’m starting fresh in the morning. You’ll see.
For you to understand, I need to scuff the surface a bit. The bottom line is this; I have no excuse for failure. I was not born in an unfortunate place. Nor was I cared for by burdened people. Nevertheless, my life has been flawed and dirty for as long as I can remember. Not grease under your nails dirty, or digging in the soil dirty. I’m talking about the kind of dirt that stains your soul. I’ve been discolored by the accumulation of flawed choices; so many that even a fleeting recollection of those disasters sends the hairs at the back of my neck rigid. I’ll admit there is a definite fracture in my social contract with society, and I’m not sure where it all began.
For now, I’ll put my vulnerability aside and allow you a look inside my head. The truth is, it’s time for me to gain some traction in my life and exchange my gram a day hash habit for something less destructive. I ran through the potential options for redemption and decided on a mop. Yeah, a mop. I hear your laughter, and it’s not going unnoticed. But understand that my demands are different, and that every single tiny little act of redemption spackles a small portion of the massive crack in my existence. To embrace this, I must surrender myself. And surrendering is something I do all too well.
My plan is simple, bordering on ridiculous. I’m going to spend the week with my new mop alone in my apartment, and I’m going to clean my life. This shouldn’t be hard; I have little money and fewer friends. What I do have is a several grams of my remaining Afghan hash and I am fully aware that once my supply is gone, I’m done with it.
So it begins. And the first time is utterly fantastic. Under my grip, the new steam mop puffs and sputters like an elegant cigarette as it cleans out the darkened corners of my soul and my apartment. The feel of its smooth molded plastic is reassuring. With a little effort, the mop glides effortlessly. And in no time I can actually see change. This small victory overwhelms me with accomplishment. It’s always the little things. So I push, again and again, stripping more and more dirt from the floor. I slowly feel myself inching one step closer to redemption. And for the briefest of moments, I think I can almost see the faint hint of my reflection in the marked linoleum. This is real progress, I think to myself, and it carries forward. That night I clean the floors not once, not twice, but three times. I clean all the linoleum in my shitty apartment, and when I finish, I sit and admire my work. In celebration, I smoke a huge bowl of Afghan with the help of a leftover straw from my last takeout order. I even blow out the dried saliva beforehand. It seems only fitting, considering my newfound ambition. I heat the foil and watch the vapors swirl magically above the flame. In the corner, under a layer of haze, the steam mops stands silent and regal. A broken lamp casts a halo of light that draws my escaping focus. I sit and smile as my entire body goes numb, mesmerized by the dancing smoke. I drift away.
In the afternoon I awaken to the sound of the air conditioning sputtering out its last bits of functionality. I hear a gasp and hiss before the unit fails completely. I’m two weeks late on the rent, so complaining to the office is pointless. So I move on to more pressing matters.
I smoke a small hit of hash, eat a bowl of stale cereal with water, and stare at the steam mop perched in the corner. I gleam with pride. Today I’m wearing the same clothes, so I skip the shower again and head straight for the kitchen. I attack the floor with the same revivalist energy. I take multiple passes until I’m pleased with my efforts. However, that’s not the only change today. Along with clean floors, the sink is now empty of dirty dishes. This sends the roaches frantic, and I watch them scramble across the table top that I just cleared of a month’s worth of shit. Exhausted, I sit around and watch some mindless television for a few hours before I convince myself another hit of the Afghan is required. I am certain that today I have smoked less hash than yesterday and that progress is slow but coming. Regardless of the justification, my supply continues to evaporate as my confidence grows.
I wake up before noon for the first time in six months. And for the first time in six months I become vertical before I smoke. The mop stands stoic in the corner, and as I pass through the kitchen, I feel a bit of superiority leaking from the thin, sleek and flawless plastic. Annoyed, I move through the day by ignoring the mop and tackling a series of simple tasks, even introducing my skin to water, though I put the same soiled clothing back on because my washer doesn’t work. And I haven’t purchased detergent in months so the whole laundry thing is out of the question anyway. I manage to scarf down some pad Thai noodles for dinner that feel stiff and aged. Overall, this was a good day, and I put myself to bed early.
I wake up feeling the best I’ve felt in weeks. But there’s a slow knock in the back of my head and I can’t shake it. I do a half dozen unimportant things: I toss the moldy food from the fridge, I reorganize my dirty laundry by color and even apply for a job. Okay, apply may be an overstatement. I complete the top portion of an application that includes my name and address and then I leave the remainder unfinished on the table. I make it until four o’clock before I dip into my stash. I smoke a bit and then attack the floors again. For some reason, the steam mop feels a bit foreign in my hands, almost resentful of the mundane purpose I have assigned to its existence. As a result, I feel judged. The mop’s design is flawless, and I am the complete opposite, a human disaster. Between the mental floggings, the knock in the back of my head grows louder and my feelings of inadequacy become further entrenched.
I repeat the cleanings I’d done the previous day, but the level of my satisfaction wanes dramatically. So I return the mop to the corner. What does it have that I don’t? Is it the clean lines? Is it the exquisitely shaped handle that tapers to a fine tip before the mop head fans out? Maybe it’s just me. It usually is.
Inside my head, the knock grows even louder. Before I sleep, I dip into my stash again, hoping to silence the noise. The last thing I remember as I drift off into my Afghan-induced slumber is the fading knock, knock, knock off into the distance.
I allow myself to sleep in today – the lingering residuals of a hangover from a heavy smoke clouding my mind. I eye the steam mop from my bed. It stands in the corner, stiff and upright, towering over my torso ever so perfect. I stare back at it for a while. Then, at the height of my annoyance, I toss a shoe in the direction of the arrogant piece of plastic and miss. Today I don’t feel the need to clean. So I set up shop on the couch and prepare some hash. And this is where I spend my entire day. My stash grows smaller and smaller, and the mop stands idle and judgmental as smoke fills my apartment. At one point I watch a thin line of ants march along the baseboard, even getting down on my hands and knees to follow the parade into the kitchen. I find the ants feverously working on a bagel wedged between the cabinet and the fridge. It’s something that I apparently missed. I observe the feast with envy before I locate my bed and allow my eyes to slip into darkness.
In the morning, I smoke while my eyes are still crusty slits. I’ve developed a legitimate resentment for the mop. Every feeling of inadequacy I’ve harbored comes rushing back. I’ve never felt like I was good enough. I don’t deserve the feel of the smooth plastic handle. And I’m not worthy of the satisfaction that comes from the clean, so instead of mopping, I just smoke and drift. I stare at the door. I stare at the windows. I stare of the mop. And I smoke. The stash of Afghan dwindles to a nervous pinch. And the persistent knock is replaced with a growing rage, along with the urge to replenish my stash. Both feelings fester simultaneously. The balance is starting to shift. The floors haven’t been cleaned in days, and the laundry and dishes have reclaimed the previous state of neglect. The roaches rejoice. I’m sliding backward fast.
I didn’t sleep much, and I wake highly irritated. My mind swirls with unappeasable doubt. My relationship with the mop has deteriorated. Only days ago I had a purpose. I bought a mop and held it respectfully. I kept it close. I gave it a home, and I worshiped at its base. But today I sadly realize there will be no return for my efforts. You see, I have learned even dirt has limitations. I pace the floor with feelings of rage in close pursuit. I’ve had enough. Impulsively, I reach out and unplug the mop’s cord. It’s now my sole purpose to strangle this arrogant mother fucker.
I show no mercy, but the steam mop fails to submit. It remains steadfast in its arrogance. It has proven again that I am inferior. I cinch the cord tighter and tighter around the neck of the handle until my knuckles strain white with tension. Then I slam the mop to the floor, snapping bits of plastic off the attachments that slice deep into my skin. I restrain the thing by wrapping my arms tighter, and roll twice across the carpet, arriving at the front door in a heap. Shit is getting real.
With one hand on the cord and the other on the knob, I throw the door open. It slams the outer wall and bounces back in my direction rapidly, but not before I jerk myself upright and twist in a violent motion, releasing the mop high into the arc of my spin. It travels silently through the air, a pigtail of electrical cord dangling pathetically as it reaches for the earth. I immediately feel a twinge of regret, but it’s too late. I watch the mop turn end over end. The absurd spectacle moves in frozen time until the period between the launch and crash narrows, and it all concludes with a loud plastic crunch, the mop shattering on the concrete like a fractured Lego toy, its body spinning frantically until unceremoniously meeting a concrete barrier that divides parking spots.
For a brief moment, my world blinks.
I find myself at the threshold of my apartment door with the morning sun greeting my feet. Its warmth drags my heart rate down, and my heaving chest rises and falls with less emphasis. I hang my head low between my shoulders and let out an enormous sigh, careful to stand motionless and absorb the sun as warmth spurts from my wounded wrist.
For the first time in months, I feel alive. I move beyond the doorway, down the steps, and across the parking lot. I never plan on looking back. I just keep moving, one foot in front of the other. A puddle of blood left behind on the broken asphalt with every step.
That arrogant steam mop taught me something after all, but it wasn’t about redemption, it was about freedom. And freedom has a fatal cost.
R.E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and words. He currently lives and writes in North Carolina. You can see more of his work at REHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.