Excerpt from No More Us for You
So there I was sitting on my folding chair, my first day as a guard
at the Long Beach Contemporary Museum, when a man walked in and stood
with his back turned to me, arms dangling at his sides. At first I didn’t
know what he was doing, why he was looking down. I thought there was
something on the floor that held his attention—a plaque that I
hadn’t noticed, an air vent, some strange insect crawling silently
across the hardwood. He spread his feet apart and lifted his head toward
the ceiling, at the industrial pipes snaking up there, the light fixture
angled at a large pile of bright green sand in the corner of the museum.
He sighed. Then the urine came.
“Hey!” I shouted. I stood
up from my chair and walked toward the man, half confused, half afraid.
Maybe he had a knife. “What are you doing?” I said, which
was stupid. I mean, it was pretty obvious.
The man ignored me. Urine splashed on
the floor, his puddle growing bigger before him.
“You can’t do that,”
The man looked over his shoulder and continued
relieving himself. He was in his early thirties, with a goatee and a
long, slender nose. His eyes were self-assured, sleepy, as if he’d
been urinating in public all his life and was now bored with the act.
“Who says I can't?” the man
“And who are you?”
“I’m the museum guard.”
It was the last day Sunday in January,
and up until that moment I was thinking what an easy gig this was, how
little foot traffic there was, that people were probably at home reading
the paper, mowing their lawns, or at church listening to a sermon.
And then this jackass walks into the museum.
“Nice jacket,” he said.
I had thought my suit and tie made me
look professional, older and confident, someone who was doing things
right. But after his remark I felt foolish, like I was playing dress-up.
The man wiggled his hips. The scent of
his piss was pungent, slamming into my nose like the breath of a Dumpster.
“You’re going to have to clean
that up,” I told him.
“I’m sorry,” the man
said, “who are you again?”
“The museum guard!”
“Oh, right, right,” the man
said, zipping up. He tucked his shirt in and flicked my nametag that
was pinned to my jacket. He patted my shoulder. “Good work,”
Ms. Otto, my boss, came running from the
east wing of the museum, her heels clicking fast across the floor. She
had a platinum blond bob and her bangs were snipped perfectly above
her brows, ruler-straight. She was a small woman, petite, but her voice
added weight to her presence. “What’s all this yelling about?”
The man turned around, surveying the museum.
“Terrific exhibit,” he said, nodding. “That one right
there is my favorite.” He motioned toward the giant rag doll Jesus
sprawled on the floor. The artist had used brown yarn for hair, a heavy
black thread to stitch two Xs for eyes. A pair of scuffed boxing gloves
were fitted over the hands.
“What’s going on here, Carlos?”
Ms. Otto’s eyes darted to me, to the man walking away, to me again,
to the puddle on the floor, then back to me. There was something accusatory
about her gaze.
“He did it!” I said, pointing
at the man, who was now walking leisurely toward the exit.
“Sir,” she called
out. “Sir, come back here!” The automatic sliding doors
glided open, and the man stepped outside into the bright sunlight. Ms.
Otto made a grunting noise like there was a bear inside her throat as
she headed toward the front desk, her bob quivering with each step.
“I told him he couldn't do that,"
I said to her back.
Ms. Otto began questioning the receptionist,
who lifted the handset of the telephone and turned in my direction.
I held my hands out and shook my head slowly as if to say, There
wasn’t anything I could’ve done to stop that man from urinating.
Ms. Otto stormed off, furious, her heels
echoing throughout the museum.
I put my hand against my jacket pocket
where I kept my bag of Red Vines. Now wasn’t a good time. I was
addicted to the red licorice, its sweet flavor and gummy texture, but
it also kept me from biting my fingernails, a nervous habit I had as
far back as I could remember. I was probably biting my nails inside
my mother’s womb.
Seconds later Ms. Otto returned with a
roll of paper towels and aerosol can. “We’re going to have
to clean this up.” She handed me the paper towels while she sprayed
the area with Glade. Now the museum smelled like Tropical Mist and
“Do you have any rubber gloves?”
I asked her. “And a trash bag?”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be right back.”
She set down the aerosol can and marched off.
I unspooled the paper towels like a giant
scroll, tore off about ten sheets, and let them fall on the puddle.
I imagined myself in a commercial, testing the durability of one brand
of paper towels over another. What’s this? I heard the
narrator say. The camera slowly zoomed to the urine pond on the floor
of the museum. Nothing Brawny can’t handle. So strong. So
soft. Then there’s a shot of me in my museum guard uniform,
on my knees, wiping. That’s triple-action performance. That’s
Ms. Otto came back with a plastic trash
bag and a pair of rubber gloves that were taxicab yellow. “Here
you go, Carlos,” she said. “I need to make some phone calls.
Can you take care of this?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to
conceal my irritation.
“Great. Thanks,” she said,
then trotted back to her office.
If someone had told me the week before
that in seven days I would be wearing a navy blue suit and rubber gloves,
mopping up another man’s piss beside an eight-foot stuffed Jesus
wearing boxing gloves, I would’ve asked him what he was smoking.
“Hey,” a voice said from behind
me. It was the receptionist. She was about my age and had the same hairstyle
as my girlfriend, Mira—straight blond that flipped up at the shoulders.
The receptionist’s eyes were a dull blue, her nose small and pudgy.
Beige freckles spotted her cheekbones.
“Hey,” I said back.
“No kidding.” I lifted a clump
of wet towels and dropped them into the bag.
She scrunched up her face. “God,
“It smells worse down here.”
“I’m Vanessa, by the way.”
“Carlos,” I said. “I’d
shake your hand, but...” I raised my gloved hands.
“Ms. Otto had me call the police,”
she said. “They should be here soon.”
“I hope they catch him.” I
spooled out more towels and wiped again.
“So this is your first day, huh?”
“It could only get better.”
“I hope so.”
“You in school?” she wanted
“Junior at Millikan,” I said.
Vanessa smiled. “I go to
“I don’t think I’ve
ever seen you around.”
“I just transferred a week ago,”
she said. “I was at Wilson. Millikan feels a lot bigger. Like
I’m in college all of a sudden.”
“How come you transferred?”
Her smile dissolved, she dipped her head.
“I had some problems with my last school.” She crossed her
arms and leaned against the wall. “Long story,” she said.
I looked up at Vanessa, her shifting eyes.
“So what do you think about all
this stuff?” She stepped away to the middle of the museum, her
hands at her waist.
“I don’t get some of it,”
“I mean, I could’ve done that.”
I pointed at the giant canvas hanging on one wall. It was completely
black, as far as I could tell. “That’s not painting,”
I said. “That’s covering.”
Vanessa walked over to the pink neon sign
on the opposite wall. In a script font it read:
sign buzzed softly like an old refrigerator and made Vanessa’s
face pink. She tilted her head to one side. “I kinda like this
one,” she said.
too,” I agreed.
phone at the front desk began ringing and Vanessa hurried off. “Nice
meeting you, Carlos.”
lifted my gloved hand. “Same here.”
finished cleaning up and cinched the trash bag closed, then sprayed
some more Tropical Mist around the area. Even though I was wearing rubber
gloves, I washed my hands really well in the museum's bathroom before
returning to my post. I pulled back my coat sleeve and looked at my
watch. I had four hours left in my shift.
my previous job at Ralph’s, bagging groceries and rounding up
shopping carts, this was a pretty easy gig. All I had to do was sit
on my ass and keep my eyes open. It paid a quarter per hour less, sure,
but at least I wasn’t pushing a train of carts under the sun or
running price checks. Besides, I just needed a little cash flow to fill
my gas tank and buy Mira some nice things every now and then. If my
mom and Ms. Otto weren’t in the same book club, had my name not
come up when Ms. Otto mentioned one of her guards quitting without giving
her a two weeks notice, I’d probably still be asking strangers,
“Paper or plastic?”
hour or so later a police officer arrived and I told him everything
about the man that I could remember. His goatee, his slender nose, his
sleepy eyes. “He said the stuffed Jesus was his favorite,”
I said. The officer glanced at the giant rag doll sprawled on the floor
and scratched the side of his face. He flipped through his notes and
thanked me for my cooperation. I headed back to my post.
in the afternoon a family of four came into the museum. They seemed
out of place, disoriented. I expected the father to pull out a tourist
map from his back pocket at any minute. He had a belly like a globe
and walked around the museum with his hands deep in his pockets, rattling
his car keys. His daughter was thirteen, maybe fourteen, listening to
her iPod, mouthing the lyrics and bobbing her head slightly while she
wandered aimlessly around the room. The mother was heavyset and wore
a T-shirt with a cartoon honeybee that had red and blue stripes instead
of black and yellow. Above the oblong wings it said: PROUD TO BEE AN
AMERICAN. Her son hovered close to her, timid. As they neared the neon
sign, the boy said, “Mom, what’s coitus?” Except he
didn’t know how to pronounce the word and added another syllable:
co-eye-tis, like it was some kind of disease.
it’s nothing,” the mother said.
does it mean?” the boy pleaded.
you do.” He was practically yelling.
mother looked at me and smiled nervously. “Come on, Blake. Let’s
go see Grandpa Joe.”
pushed a fist against my mouth, stifling my laughter, air wheezing out
of my nostrils.
the family had left, I slipped out my Red Vines and pulled a piece from
the ripped corner of the bag. I took a large bite and chewed and chewed,
the red licorice sticking to the back of my teeth. I wanted to be home
already and out of my uniform and on the phone with Mira. I wanted to
tell her about my first day.
neon sign continued to buzz.
giant pile of green sand sustained its conical shape.
the boxer stayed put—knocked out, flat on his back, fragile as