The Figure of Authority | Thomas King

The Babyland Diaper Service van drives past me again, slowly circling the roundabout, and what bothers me again today like every day—what makes me sick, really—isn’t the first image blasted onto the van’s broad side, the image of two human babies tangled up on a play blanket, scattered toys enclosing them, simple white cotton diapers on their pink bodies, it’s the companion image, the dancing elderly couple clothed in outfits ironed stiff and clean but with slight bulges in their pants to indicate, I imagine, their connection to Babyland Diaper Service’s service: their discomfort, their incontinence; and the effect that van has on me, which I don’t appreciate so early in the morning all these days our paths cross—the driver on his rounds with two piles of cloth diapers in the back: one stack soiled with mashed peas, boiled chicken, martinis and chewed olives, the forgotten foods long hidden in ninety-year-old colons finally knocked loose and released forever from their ailing host; and the second stack, white as a baby’s teeth, clean, smelling of cotton and chemical flowers or some perfume called “Mountain Glade” or “Sunshine”—the effect that has on me so early is I start thinking denominators and numbers of visits to the commode I have left before I’m pissing directly into cotton that’s wrapped and pinned around my midsection, or worse, till my piss doesn’t even reach the air but gets vacuumed straight out and into a bag somewhere, catheterized, and no matter what that image suggests you won’t find me dancing in a green field with a lump of piss-logged undergarment pasted to my spider-veined and liver-marked thighs. That’s false advertising. The whole idea of that van and the driver and the nurses wiping your ass clean with a wet rag, it harms me, in the morning, when all I’m trying to do is drop off these letters in the blue mailbox at the corner and turn back around without the Babyland van brushing past and reminding me of where my days are headed, and for a moment while turning around I catch the driver’s eyes looking at me, eyes that should be scanning the street for potential kids or old ladies who might just pop out from between two parked cars, but instead of the street he’s looking at me and thinking, “Who’s this guy mailing letters at the same time every morning like clockwork?” He’s headed back to home base, where he can switch out the old diapers and pick up a new stack of bleached ones tied together like they’ve been extracted from the earth in some diaper quarry where everything’s perfectly white and soft and easy on the skin and comes out gleaming, ready for dispersal, but first he’s off to the old folks’ home down the street where he’s gotten to know a few customers, the stoop sitters he calls them, even though there’s no stoop and most of the time it’s not sitting but slumping catatonic in a wheelchair with food sliding into their bodies through one tube and the results sliding out through another, but he turns his head away from the strange man at the corner mailbox and refocuses on the street, only a few stops left before he can call it a day, or a morning, since he’s been making rounds since way before the sun came up and he’ll be done before most everybody else breaks for lunch. That’s one joy he gets from this line of work, sitting at Café Domini eating a sandwich after work when the assholes in suits file in for a midday meal and talk over little paper plates of popcorn and cans of Coke that have them burping sideways or into their hands every sip, sometimes four of them together around a circular table all burping to the right and talking into the middle, laughing and slapping their thighs, checking their watches until they stop eating in unison and the conversation lapses until they wad their napkins and roll them into the center of their plates and stand up brushing crumbs from their laps, burping into their chests, and scattering a few bills on the table before they leave in file and never once realize the Babyland driver’s been watching from a corner over a thick roast beef sandwich, thinking about what he’ll do with the balance of his afternoon. That’s one good part. Also, prepping his van in the morning. The a.m. ritual has become his art. Packing perfect cubes of cloud-white garments three rows across, three rows deep, three columns high of marshmallow bricks. He is a master. His construction never topples, his cubes never come apart. He has to fight the urge to jump into the pile the way an exhausted kid jumps into bed. He does not love how his truck fills, throughout the day, with product that comes back stuffed into the plastic return bags that have gotten thinner since he started working for Babyland, when the company switched suppliers and discovered it could save considerable overhead by using cheap bags, so that now the plastic, when distended by soiled diapers, gets transparent and everything inside is made visible, and the one time—one morning he tries to not think about too often, which he pushes away whenever his mind forces the image on him—the one time he got a bag from the old folks’ home so embarrassingly stuffed the custodian apologized as he lifted it from the metal out container, that when the driver tossed it into the back of the van the thing split open like an overripe cantaloupe and staring him right in the face was an otherwise white diaper with a crimson splotch in the center, that’s when the joy dries up and the reality comes rushing in and he feels the doddering bodies on every story of that building and sees them as old monkeys being wheeled around until they expire and shit their guts into the Death Diaper, the swan song soil, the final expulsion. Fecal bookends of existence: the newborn’s first ineffable relief, that tarry meconium, moving relentlessly toward the culminating digestive moment. When the Driver pulls into his spot in the half-circle drive at Crest Apartments Senior Accommodations and Clubhouse, which cannot really boast a clubhouse but rather a buffet-style dining hall for mobile residents, Anthony Carsoli waits for him in the doorway tapping his foot on the Welcome mat, anxious to tell our Driver a news story he read that morning about a family visiting the Capital that had huddled together on the steps of the Supreme Court building, mapping out their plans for the day, when, above the father, who’s holding a map of DC unwieldy and unfurled in his outstretched arms, a chunk of 172 pounds-per-cubic-foot Vermont marble works loose from the decorative molding near the frieze of The Figure of Authority and falls forty feet or so directly onto the unsuspecting patriarch’s crown and kills him instantly in front of his wife, her brother, her brother’s wife, the twin twelve-year-old nieces, and his own son: eight, timid: a bed-wetter and generally anxious child, not to mention countless other tourists and a busload of teenage girls from a private school in Virginia, three of whom are later punished, according to the report, for pocketing shards of marble that had spun off the original piece. It was a good story, Anthony thought, despite the tragedy. All those people watching. And if our Driver were to show interest in the first story Anthony had a similar one to back it up, a story that had been bumping around in his head, of a Baptist minister who’d electrocuted himself dead in front of 2,000 when, baptizing a line of new believers in a large tub of water, he reached up for the microphone and created an electrical circuit powerful enough to propel his body twelve feet out of the bath and into the third row of onlookers. Imagine, Anthony wanted to say, imagine you’re an impressionable boy standing in the throng, the minister limp and smoking at your feet moments after warning you that evil acts will secure you a one-way ticket to lands of eternal fire. Some story, Anthony thought, tapping his foot and waiting.
        You watched him from the third-floor Women’s Room bathroom window as you scrubbed your hands for the seventh time that hour, goading yourself, “Ask him, ask him, ask him.” What could possibly go wrong? You’d never seen him with another woman. You’d never heard him talk about a date. He told you stories every meal break, long stories that lasted for weeks and starred women very much like you in appearance and demeanor and outfiture, nurses most of them, professional women of promise. He brought two tapioca snack packs in his lunch those days, one for him, one for you. And two plastic spoons. You watched him laugh with the Driver who walked toward the building with a fresh delivery slung over his shoulder and a good smile on his face, and a minute later you watched them walk to the truck together, small plastic bags held out from their sides so they didn’t brush up against their pant legs. You watched them part by touching elbows instead of shaking hands because, you guess, well, because of germs. As if they didn’t have exactly the same germs anyway. You scrubbed your hands well. The water was scalding hot but felt like it was killing everything just right, and the soap felt so cool and smooth in your palms.
        The letters fall from my hands as I dodge the Babyland Diaper Service bus again and I bend down to save them from the moisture that’s simultaneously part of the sidewalk and part of everything else around. The van continues down the street. Watch it go.

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The Figure of Authority | Thomas King
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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | summer 2007