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The High, the Low, the Essential

By James Callan

A mop and bucket. Warm, soapy water. Even as an advanced, extraterrestrial life form, a member of an elite, illustrious race of spacefaring beings, Friand was a plain-and-simple janitor, a wielder of cleaning products as modest and mundane as the paraphernalia used by humans who scrub toilets and empty garbage canisters down on Earth: Floral-scented bin liners, bleach and window cleaner, skin-tight, latex gloves. Friand wheeled his wastebasket down the sleek and sterile corridor. He carted his inventory of simple tools and many-colored cleaning fluids across the white, gleaming tiles and contemplated the panic that accompanied his early-onset midlife crisis. Yes, space aliens have these too.

He eyeballed the abrasives that he would need for scrubbing clean the men’s unfathomably poor-aimed urine. Green and thick as Earth molasses, it would need a good, wiry scrubber and no shortage of elbow grease. Friand sighed. Then, noticing he was alone, let his outward breath evolve into a disparaging moan.

His was not a decorated profession. His task was by no means among the cream of the cosmos. While his job was basic, demanding a demonstrative lack of any solid skill set, he found pride in the notion that his labor was necessary, if simple. Friand was low, but he was also essential.

True, he did not holster a laser cannon. He did not sport a telekinesis rod or an anti-grav wand. He did not possess a dematerializer which, in point of fact, had yet to be invented, but had been conjured up in a daydream that helped pass the time while plunging blocked toilets and retrieving scarlet sanitary pads. He did not wield these items, but he did possess a wild imagination. Even among a race of beings who routinely breaststroke in polished ships across the cosmos, science fiction is a popular pastime. The dematerializer, a fictional commodity dreamed up by a bored custodian, is one of many ideas plucked from the realm of the imaginative genre. A fabricated tool to make Friand’s job oh-so-simple.

Alien janitors daydreaming of science fiction in space… Who would have thought?

Friand’s wheeled cart screeched to a stop as he walked past a porthole window overlooking the beautiful blue and green planet. Some careless passerby, perhaps a child, had left a tally of their webbed, four-digit handprint across the many-layered, laminated glass. Shaking his head, cursing so only he could hear, then cursing louder when he realized, yet again, he was alone, Friand sprayed the glass with a sapphire concoction and wiped the porthole clean. Through a perfect orb, unblemished and unmarred, he studied the likewise perfect orb that was Earth, the planet his people had come to conquer.

He dreamed of the men and women who lived their lives in peace, who would wake to news that would rattle their foundations –their very planet– to the core. He considered the high, the low, the decorated, and the simple, yet essential. He thought of late-night janitors pausing to look up at the stars, wondering what they have made of their life, weighing the severity of their early-onset midlife crisis. He thought of how Kings and Queens would be brought to their knees, just as the custodians may, and how they would not even notice that their robes remain clean, that the floors had been adequately scrubbed.

Friand sighed, then looked to verify he was alone. He threw down his mop and cursed out loud. He was always alone. Even in a crowd. If he only had a dematerializer, he thought. He would erase the imperfections of this and every other world.


About the Author

James Callan grew up in Minnesota and currently lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand. His writing has appeared in Bridge EightWhite Wall ReviewMaudlin HouseMystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, Neon Dreams (Atmosphere Press, 2021) and A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023).


Fiction, The River

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