After they went home at night, my mother brought me with her to the factory to clean up after the Big Wigs, not to teach me how to clean, but to teach me how not to spend my life cleaning.
All her lessons were backward lessons. Here’s how you avoid calloused, bleach-dried hands (baby oil). Here’s why you don’t drop out of school (the mop she was holding). Here’s why you don’t meet men in bars (her bruised cheekbone). Here’s what happens when you don’t listen to your mother (my report card).
I pictured them with my limited eight-year-old’s mind, these Big Wigs. Were they even human? They ran the factory and they did it from the comfort of a desk chair. I wondered what made them so different from my mother. Why did they get to sit in the daylight while my mom stood cleaning up after them at night like a ghost?
Maybe if you listen to me, you’ll be one of them someday.
Their jobs were mysterious and could not be understood, not by us. The papers on their desks had graphs and numbers, notes in the margins. How would I ever know the language they used? We were “us.” They were “them.”
They all graduated from high school. This is why you have to stay in school. Don’t drop out like me, worst mistake I ever made.
I held the plastic dusting wand with the rainbow top and swept it over the phones, the lamps, the bookshelves. She squished the mop over the linoleum and emptied the trash from under the desks, shaking her head like the Big Wigs disgusted her.
Must be nice to sit at a desk all day. Lazy assholes.
I was confused about whether we hated the Big Wigs or wanted to be them.
I’d get in trouble if they knew you were here but I wanted you to see it. I wanted you to see what could be.
All I could see was that there was a space between us and the Big Wigs and it was incomprehensibly large, like a universe. I saw that it was a distance my mother would never cross and I didn’t know if I could go, or even wanted to go, without her.
We worked side by side and spoke in whispers so we wouldn’t disturb the quiet of their desks.
I want you to be something.
Her words trembled with wanting, a wanting so strong it was more closely related to pain. She stooped to pick up and empty another bin and left me standing behind her, unable to see her face.
Now, sitting at a desk in both daylight and darkness, handing my bin and smiling apologetically to the evening cleaning crew, I think of her. She must have known then what I did not, that if she succeeded, if she pushed me far enough, I would be lost to her, no longer legible.