by Phillip E. Dixon
Oleksandra emerged from Room 209 to sneering laughter. The other cleaning women flocked before the open, heavy door to Room 213. “We saved this one for you,” Magda said in English, her Polish accent thick. Oleksandra pushed her cart toward the gaggle, oiled wheels silent. The magpies turned away, still laughing, carts making a racket as they retreated to their nests, Polish squawks following tunelessly behind.
“She is so nasty.”
“She will still be cleaning it tomorrow.”
“She likes it.”
Oleksandra understood every word but never let on, never uttered a sentence. She spoke five languages, but the forgettable women were tiny, undeserving of knowledge. The youngest one, Magda’s nameless niece, was a decent girl. Oleksandra saw the discomfort in her eyes when callous agreements fell awkwardly from her mouth, but that would soon pass and the girl would grow ugly feathers like the rest.
The acrid scent of vomit mingled with beer wrinkled Oleksandra’s brow. Marijuana hung in the air. The crooked, stripped mattresses revealed still-wet stains. Crumpled cans, shot glasses, plastic baggies, and empty jelly tubes decorated tables and stands. Moist towels littered the carpet. An errant camera lens cover and cable tie sat behind the TV.
She started in the bathroom where the essence was strongest, collecting chestnut pubic hairs and black eyelashes, discarding any without a promising follicle. The toilet offered semi-dry pools of urine from middle-aged boys, but she didn’t need more and scrubbed the porcelain clean, the violent flush misting the air. The flecks of feces in the tub were similarly useless.
Her reflection glanced at her while she worked, assessing the deepening lines in her neck, the drawn jowls, the sleepless eyes, struggling to find a trace of the once-happy girl celebrating her bat mitzvah. Ignoring the woman’s unsettling glare, Oleksandra scraped acne spatter from the mirror to keep, then quickly scrubbed the sink clean.
Her watch beeped and she quickly sat on the floor. An air-raid siren cried from the convention hall, signaling the start of a new event. Oleksandra buried her head in her arms to muffle the wails, but sweat and tremors still took hold. Ten seconds were ten years, the following silence a comfort. Cursing the foolish choice of alert, she stood, dabbing her brow, slipping the damp handkerchief into her apron for safekeeping. No amount of customer complaints to management seemed to matter, and she didn’t dare speak up and risk her job.
Oleksandra parted the heavy curtains and slid the two large windows open, the early afternoon light a balm. On the ledge sat a clean molar with a tag of gums still attached. Her dentist’s eye probed. Second upper molar, left side. No filling. Grinds in sleep. Parked just inside her left nostril revealed a trace of vodka and borscht. She tongued the molar’s roots. The man’s essence still lingered. A jealous fist or prurient pursuit—she didn’t care why. The lone tooth’s power was the treasure.
More than enough. But she still searched while cleaning, never one to waste. Vomit on the carpet and flakes of dried ejaculate on the wall, essence already escaped from both. She soaked still-damp discharge from the mattresses, then called maintenance from the room phone to replace them. She wiped the receiver clean first.
The television remote glistened with grease. She brought it to her nose.
Disappointed, Oleksandra wiped the worn buttons and left the remote beside the television. She retrieved the comforter from the balcony, discovering a woman’s pair of panties beneath. They were hardly more than a hint of fabric, but the essence was strong. She tucked the lace inside her apron.
Room soon complete, Oleksandra went to the front desk to volunteer for a second shift. The harried manager said yes before she could speak, completing their routine. With each room, she added to her collection. A strip of sunburned boy from a bathtub’s edge. Nail clippings, both finger and toe. Various secretions. Blood mingled with heroin inside a used needle. The day was lucrative, the tooth a rare and most special find.
Past midnight, she shared the tram with a pair of inebriated youth donning University of Warsaw sweatshirts, laughing at their phones. A homeless man sat, eyes lost out a rear window. The conductor, Oskar, slaughtered Chopin with his crow’s toneless whistling.
Excited, Oleksandra tried not to fidget with the tooth, holding it tightly instead, afraid it would somehow escape from her bag. She didn’t open her fist until after inside the windowless single room afforded by her meager pay. Rusted hot plate, miniscule fridge, fold-out bed made of back pain. The only photograph her daughter, Nina, hanging above the sink. A beautiful, awkward nightingale with a soft song Magda could never sing. Flowing light-brown hair and a promising, full smile trapped in the crumbled nest of their apartment building, silent.
Stomach begging, Oleksandra answered with a small paska roll. She’d baked them for Easter, but eating a day early would not offend God. A resurrection was still being celebrated.
Opposite the bed sat a scavenged dentist’s chair, reclined and occupied. Oleksandra flicked on an overhead work lamp that recalled the harsh lights of an impromptu subway station bomb shelter. She sat on the accompanying stool, the rest fitting perfectly with the small of her back. On the tray sat a mouth mirror, scaler, forceps, and other dental tools, all cleaned and sanitized from habit despite no need. In the chair waited a human-shaped figure, hair and skin and distilled juices molded into limbs and torso and head. Oleksandra mixed the day’s haul with her own collected menses and daubed the slurry around his eyes, caulking the cracks, whispering the letters of God’s secret name to focus the collected essence. She worked for hours, adding final touches, cleaning her tools after each step. The Sefer Yetzirah lied open on the tray beside her, instructions ignored—she’d long memorized the ritual. The open mouth beckoned, inviting the molar. She kissed the lips tenderly, adding saliva, then licked the tooth and nestled it between three baby bicuspids and a cracked incisor.
She leaned back, exhausted from the day’s work and the night’s precision, and studied the finally complete figure. Lumpen face and mottled complexion interspersed with wax and mucous and pus. Strong feet for walking. Thick hands for choking. She’d set a kidney stone in his forehead like a bindi, simply pleased with the aesthetic.
He was beautiful.
Nervous, she consulted the book a final time, then drew a scalpel and scored the figure’s head with both hands.
The air shifted, otherworldly.
A presence filled the room.
Thrice marked, the presence embraced the essence, turning it to life. Oleksandra rolled her stool backward and the figure stood, crackling but sturdy. Whole. She thought of her homeland, of her nightingale. The people who couldn’t be saved, and the people who could.
“Protect,” Oleksandra instructed, opening the door.
The figure lumbered into the night.
* * *