Scrawny old Bill Jackson worked twenty years as janitor at the mine. He swept the lunchroom, washed and waxed the office floors, operated the snowplough and weed whacked the grass. He liked to see things clean. After the mine closed, he spent most of his time driving up and down the highway and side-roads picking up cans and bottles. “Without me, the garbage would just pile-up” he told anyone who’d listen. He hauled discarded tires, old couches, rotten mattresses into the back of his pickup and drove them to the landfill.
The front of his sunken face resembled a mass of crumpled Egyptian hieroglyphics, all fissures and crossed lines and squares. People in Merritt nicknamed him “The Line Man.”
“One crease for every day in my life,” The Line Man told his nephew Josh. “That makes me a hard man to read.” Then he’d chuckle and Josh would nod “Okay, when I graduate with my degree in archaeology, I should be able to figure you out.””
In July, Bill turned seventy-six. He took his driver’s license renewal test. He almost hit a pedestrian and backed into a parked car. “I can’t pass you,” said the examiner. “Come back in six months and try again.”
Bill drove anyway. How else was he going to clean the ditches and the side roads?
“They’re trying to take away my purpose,” he told Josh. “I only tapped that car with my bumper.”
The young man looked away. “You got short changed the other day,” he said. “In the bar. I saw it. Ten bucks.”
Bill sat for a moment. “That was my tip,” he said. He unbuttoned the top of his shirt, revealing long white chest hairs. “Did you get the cigars?” he asked.
Josh shook his head. “They’re not good for you and they stink up the place.”
“What am I gonna do without my cigars?”
“You can watch TV. Maybe go for a walk.”
“A walk! Who walks nowadays?” Bill grabbed his cane and hit it against the wood stove. “Only losers walk.”
“I walk all the time,” said Josh.
After his nephew left, Bill sat and watched cars go by on the highway up the hill from his trailer. He wondered where everyone was going. “I need a case of beer.” he said. He checked the shelves. “And some cigars.” He scrabbled around and grabbed his spare car keys from inside the fridge’s butter container. Josh had taken the other ones. “Always in my business,” Bill shook his head. “A man’s gotta live. And I live to keep this country clean.”
Bill stepped outside and climbed into his pickup truck. He opened the door and lowered himself carefully into the seat.
“Should’ve cleaned off the windshield,” he said.
He rubbed the inside of the glass a bit with some leftover tissue. Everything still looked blurry. “Oh well. It’ll just be a short trip,” he told himself, rubbing his eyes. He put the key into the ignition and heard the engine roar.
“Driving keeps me alive,” he said aloud.
He kept well to the right side of the road as he rolled along the river road to town. He leaned well into the steering wheel, face pressed close to the windshield glass. At the mall parking lot, there seemed to be a big space to park by a large beige building. He pulled in there.
“Hey!” someone yelled. Bill opened his door and got out. A big man swerved away, hands wrenching the wheel of his motorized wheelchair. “You just about hit me!”
Bill stared at the top of the man’s cowboy hat. “Sorry,” Bill told him. “Those wheelchairs are too darn quiet.” He leaned on the side of the truck for a moment. “Must be tough being in one of those.”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” the man answered. “This is the only thing I’m allowed to drive anymore.” He looked at Bill. “You probably shouldn’t be driving either.”
“Aw, screw you,” Bill said.
He took his cane, hobbled into the liquor store and bought a case of beer.
After, he sat in the car awhile thinking. He thought about people throwing cans along the highway. He thought about his twenty years cleaning up at the mine. He reached for the case of beer, opened one and drank it thinking “No one’s gonna stop me from doing what I want.”
He looked out the windshield and noticed the sign above the business in front of him. The sign said, “Jackson’s Funeral Chapel.” Bill drank another beer and stared at the sign some more. He felt dizzier than he should.
“I’m not drunk. It’s only two beer,” he said.
Below the sign lay a big black one-way window.
“Huh, they can see me, but I can’t see them,” he mused.
He turned to the side and watched the cowboy-hatted man in the motorized wheelchair roll into the liquor store. “What an A-hole,” he said. “He should’ve been watching where he was going.”
He reached for another beer and dropped the can. He picked it up and opened it. Fizz erupted all over Bill’s pants.
“Goddamn it!” He threw the beer on the floor, turned the keys in the ignition, slammed the gearshift into drive and stepped on the gas. The pickup shot forward, crashing through the funeral chapel’s one-way black windowpane. Bits and pieces of wood and metal crashed down. Debris and dust drifted everywhere. Bill put his foot on the brake and looked around.
“What the hell? What the hell?” he said.
A thin blonde woman in a blurry seeming dark brown dress appeared out of the ether and pounded on the driver’s side window. Bill opened it slowly. He found his arm had trouble twisting the handle.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“Get the keys!” came a yell from the back.
“Sir, turn off the engine,” the blonde woman commanded.
A large fellow in a black suit moved in front of the now cracked windshield. Bill took his foot off the brake. The truck jerked forward again. The big fellow jumped back.
“Give me your goddamn keys!” he screamed, moving for the driver’s door.
Bill didn’t want any altercations, especially with this maniac. He looked behind him, rammed the transmission into reverse, and stepped on the accelerator. He saw a blurry wall and turned the wheel. The vehicle bounced out of the funeral home window and smashed into a parked car. Again, glass smashed, and debris flew. Bill reached for his dropped beer. His arm didn’t work right, but he finally grasped the can and raised it to his lips. The blonde woman leaned through the driver’s side window, reached over Bill’s stained cowboy shirt, turned off the ignition and took the keys. Bill watched her arm withdraw from beneath his chin and threw his beer can on the back seat.
“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the woman.
“About to pick up some cans,” Bill said. The lady’s face was blurry and hard to see. “You know, I was a janitor in the mine for twenty years,” he continued, but his voice came out slurred and too slow. He stepped out of the car but couldn’t stand up. He sat back down in the car seat.
“All I want to do,” he said to the woman in the blue suit, “Is make everything clean again.”
From across the window of debris, within the funeral home, Bill perceived a couple of fuzzy-looking boxes sat against one wall. “Coffins,” Bill thought. “I hope they’re not damaged.”
He saw the outline of the big man in the distance. Bill heard him talking to someone on the phone. The Line Man heaved himself off the truck seat, managing to stand this time. So much mess everywhere! The blonde woman said, “Do you need some help?”
Bill moved towards her, but felt his legs sink. He folded down onto his knees and began to pick up pieces of the broken glass.
“I’m going to make sure these sharp edges don’t hurt anyone,” he told her, as he fumblingly piled jagged bits into a small heap. “I’m going to clean this place up good.”