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art by Void lon iXaarii

The Mitten Inspector

The woman appeared on our block early in the afternoon the day before yesterday. She was dressed all in white and carried a clipboard. Nobody saw where she had come from; we first noticed her when she was standing on the north corner of the street, but she could have arrived there from any direction (except south, of course.) She said she was a mitten inspector, but then some people will call themselves anything.
The kid who lives in the basement two houses up and had been playing kick-the-ball-against-the-wall since dawn, or nearly, began to cry, the cauldron-bellied guy who always has coffee stains on his t-shirt stood by his mailbox with his mouth hanging open, and Rian, who'd been sitting next to me on the stoop for a long time, trying to catch an errant ray or two of sunlight through the eternal overcast and chatting about nothing worth remembering, said, "I think it must be a translation problem."
I sighed. It had already been a long day, what with the kid and his solo kickball practice, and no hot water in the building again, and one can of peas and one can of sliced beets left in the larder. I was saving those for later. I might have said something to Rian about my food situation when he first sat down and started going on about the dream he'd had, and a joke his cousin told him, and how he'd lost his glasses again but found them I'd never guess where, but I knew he didn't have any more money than I did. He was holding a flower, some yellow thing he'd probably filched from a respectable person's garden. The flower had a long stem, and he kept twirling it as he told me his pointless anecdotes.
The washtub-bellied guy shouted for his wife.
The mitten inspector made a note on her clipboard. That beeping sound is one of the most annoying things in the world, I swear to crap. Drives me nuts.
Within seconds, some folks from further down the street came out to check on the commotion (the kid was bawling his head off, and the fat man was hollering for his mother as well as his wife.) I'm sure plenty of other individuals were peeking out of windows by then, too.
The white-clad woman walked to the south corner, pivoted, and strode back to the north end. "Mitten inspector," she said, in that tone of voice everybody with a clipboard seems to use: sort of bored and mechanical, but at the same time authoritative. "Mitten inspector."
The kid's older sister, who'd run outside pretty fast, considering how hung over she must've been given the state she'd been in the night before, yelled, "It's summer. We haven't got any mittens!"
"It has to be a language problem," Rian said.
I said, "What do you think she wants to inspect, kittens?"
"You know what I mean."
The tub-bellied guy's wife leaned out of her window. "Who sent you? Giorje, get inside."
"Loss prevention," the mitten inspector said. She ticked something on her clipboard. Buzz.
"See?" Rian said. "I told you."
The kid had stopped crying, but he'd wrapped his arms around his sister's leg. "I lost my hamster," he said.
His sister slapped his shoulder. "Don't talk to her."
The mitten inspector fixed the boy with a dead-eye stare. "Please describe the event."
"It was nothing," the sister said. "Leave him alone."
A beaky woman from down the street said, "I lost my silver brooch."
"I lost my wind-up flashlight," offered another south-end resident, the skinny old grump who never says hello to anyone.
"I think I'm losing my mind," I muttered.
"I lost my best backscratcher," Giorje said.
"You did not," his wife shouted. "I threw it away. That thing was disgusting."
"Please describe the hamster incident."
The boy hugged his sister's leg tighter. The girl touched the top of his head, not roughly. "Don't be afraid. The hamster ran away. This whitie-woman is just some City Hall busybody. This is nothing."
"This is a mitten inspection."
"I don't think you're using the right word," Rian called.
"Why did you do that?" I said. "Why did you go and stick yourself into it?"
He looked at me, then fiddled with his stupid flower. "Um, I just want to make sure it really is nothing. You know. To be safe."
"You don't even live on this block."
"This is a very important mitten inspection," the woman said. "There have been reports."
"You do," Rian said.
"What?"
"Live on this block."
"What sort of reports?" the skinny grump asked.
The mitten inspector glanced at her clipboard. "Solvents."
"Solvents? What the hell does that mean?" some idiot bellowed.
"See?" Rian said. "There's a communication glitch."
"Yeah. Nothing new. And what does the fact that I live on this block have to do with anything? I've lived here for eight years."
The mitten inspector looked at her clipboard again. Frowning, she tapped a key. Bleep.
"Giorje," his wife yelled again. "Get inside!"
Giorje--it was only then, the day before yesterday, that I learned his name--frowned harder than the mitten inspector. "Wait a minute," he said.
And the beaky woman also said, "Wait a minute."
And the hamster kid's big sister said, "No, it's not what you're thinking. It just ran away."
"He didn't," the kid whispered.
"I know how long you've lived here," Rian said. He looked a little peculiar, like he was embarrassed or something. He made a gesture toward me with the hand he was holding the flower with, then drew it back.
"Describe the hamster event," the mitten inspector repeated.
I didn't know what was wrong with Rian, but for damn sure I knew what was wrong with the folks on the street and the rest of them hanging out their windows. They were on the verge of bounding to the most disastrous conclusion lurking in their collective panicky brains. "I should've stayed in bed," I muttered.
"What?"
"Something my mother used to say."
They were just about to do it. One of them was going to yell out the word--my money was on the beaky woman, actually--and then the rest of them would run, screaming, for the hills--if we had any hills. As we didn't, they would run up and down the street, screaming like arachnophobes who'd just had spiders tossed in their faces.
Any second now.
"I know what mitten means," I said. "Think about it, guys. Mittens keep your hands warm, yeah? When it's cold. Like in the wintertime. Right? Now, what this nice City Hall busybody is here to do, with her scary-clean suit and her buzzy, blippy clipboard, is to check on heating systems and insulation, weather-proofing, all that kind of stuff our elected officials are so keen on robo-calling us about and sticking flyers in our doorjambs over. Okay, so--"
"But it's June," the beaky woman objected.
"Are you saying the hamster froze to death?" the skinny grump said.
"He did not!" the kid howled.
Giorje said, "Dissolvings. That's what this--this person is talking about."
And everybody started yelling. At the mitten inspector, at the kid, at the kid's sister, at each other.
Rian leaned closer to me and said in my ear, "That was a nice try."
"Didn't work."
"It was never going to work, though, was it?"
No, it wasn't. I'd just been trying to buy some time. I didn't know why I'd bothered. "Would you mind not breathing on my neck?"
"Sorry." Rian edged away.
Dissolvings. Dissolvings. Dissolvings. Gasps and screams and moans. It was depressing.
"The hamster just ran away!" the kid's sister yelled, but nobody paid a speck of heed. Some were already dashing back home, shrieking for their loved ones, or just shrieking. Others poured out of their buildings, because of course nothing draws a crowd like a disaster, even if the eye of the catastrophe is staring straight at them. It was the middle of the day, so most of the people milling about, shoving each other, crowding the mitten inspector, shouting questions, shouting opinions, shouting demands, were older folks and the unemployed, but as that made up most of the block, it was most of the block.
"This has turned into a loud day," I said, rubbing my eyes. A weariness gripped me; I felt like I could crawl into bed and sleep for a week.
Next to me, Rian was vibrating, sort of unable to keep still, yet unable or unwilling to get up. "Do you think the hamster really ran away?"
"Probably not."
"They should let her do her job." He started shredding the flower he'd been holding for so long, littering the steps below us with bits of green and yellow.
"Which is what, exactly?"
"Well, to... well, I guess to check our defenses?"
"Our?"
"I mean your. Your shields and wards and things like that." His fingers were smeared with pollen and stem-juice.
"It wasn't a dissolving," I said.
Perhaps he didn't hear me, what with all the screaming and the shouting going on. He said, "They should train these inspectors better. Communication skills. People skills. You know. The right things to say."
"'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you.'"
"What?"
"It wasn't a dissolving."
He looked at me, and then looked down at his hands, and suddenly a dismayed expression spread over his face. "Oh... I didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry."
"I don't think the flower cares at this point."
"I wasn't--never mind." He wiped his hands on the knees of his jeans. "How do you know? The inspector said there were reports."
"I'm sure there were. But people don't always recognize what they see. They make their best guesses, or just follow their fears."
"You saw something." He blurted it out, as if it were a surprise to him.
I always see everything. This isn't fun.
The mitten inspector was lost now in the throng of concerned citizens, who were totally losing their grip, as people do. Once in a while I caught a flash of white.
"Come on, tell me." Rian put his hand on my arm.
I jerked back and gave him a look that would have set water ablaze. Rian was a nice enough guy, half-homeless and nearly hopeless as he was; I had nothing against him, other than the fact that he dropped by too often and liked to blather on about nothing. However, I did expect people who had known me for more than five minutes not to touch me without my permission.
He did not remove his hand from my arm. "Tell me what you saw. What you know." His eyes were liquid; his body was still quivering.
I wanted to kill him.
Instead, I punched him in the throat. As we were sitting very close, I couldn't get much force behind my swing. He let out a croak, tried to communicate something with his free hand, then tumbled off the stoop.
That got the attention of a few of the people in the panicky crowd. About ten or twelve eyes jerked toward me.
Ah, hell, I thought.
I stood up. Rian was writhing and choking on the pavement, but that was only what he deserved. He should have been paying better attention, just like the jackasses who were swamping the mitten inspector. "People," I called, though I really wanted to say fools, idiots, cretins. "All right, people, listen. It wasn't a dissolving. There were never any dissolvings."
They heard me, or enough of them did, anyway. I made sure of that. My voice can carry over mountains and across time zones, if I want it to. The morons had turned into a mob quickly; it took a little more time for the concept that they should shut up and listen to seize hold. Rian was sitting up and coughing by the time half of them turned around to face me.
I did not repeat myself. I waited for word and mood to reach the rest of the crowd. The mitten inspector came into view, more than a little disheveled, but maintaining a stiff countenance. I wondered, not for the first time, where the municipal authorities found these people. None of them I'd ever seen was worth spit at their jobs. As soon as the imbecilic residents of the block gave her a few centimeters of space, she started tapping on her clipboard.
Yeah, that was going to help.
And now the crowd-throng-mob was looking at me. A dozen eyes? More like three score. Plus Rian, who was still wheezing and twitching, but staring at me with truly the most peculiar expression. I couldn't really put a word to it, but it was certainly not the way I'd be looking at someone who'd just hit me.
"What was it then?" the tub-bellied guy asked.
"What is it?" someone else, from down the street, said nearly simultaneously.
"It was just a stupid hole."
"What?"
"What kind of hole?"
"Where?"
They shouted that, or the equivalent, all at the same time. The weariness on me pressed down, a slowly but steadily descending boulder. I pointed, and all their eyes jerked in that direction. I took a breath, but for a second I couldn't let it out.
"There?"
"There?"
"Oh, I see it!"
And of course some of the imbeciles moved toward it.
"For the love of chocolate and coffee, stay put!"
Now I was shouting. Great.
The mitten inspector made a note on her clipboard, then glanced at me. "I have no record of a report of a hole."
"It's a hole. Even you should be able to see that."
"But you did not report it."
I could have fallen asleep, just standing there on the stoop. So tired, so extraordinarily tired. I should have kept my mouth shut. Should have let the block residents tear the mitten inspector apart, should have gone inside and locked the door, should have minded my own business. "I dealt with it," I said.
She walked over to the hole. It wasn't a very big one, only about the length of a hand, and narrow--more like a slice than a hole, really. It was hard to notice, unless you saw it from exactly the right slant. I didn't know if it had eaten the hamster, but I had seen it take a couple of other things, including an unwary pigeon, along with some empty pop cans and fast-food wrappers, so anything was possible.
"You are not authorized personnel," the mitten inspector said.
"Not even close," I muttered.
Again with the clipboard, tap-tap-tap, beep.
"What did you do?" Rian asked. His voice was hoarse, but he didn't seem very upset. He was still gazing at me in an odd way.
"Made it sleep," I said.
"Anomalies must be reported to the proper department," the mitten inspector said.
"Well, it sounds to me like somebody did, but they got it wrong."
The neighbors and such were getting antsy again. The sister of the kid who had been kicking the ball all day had managed to get him inside the basement where she and he and six or seven other people lived, so at least he wasn't howling his head off about his hamster. His ball was still outside, though. I knew somebody was going to do something, even with the mitten inspector standing there. Or probably because the mitten inspector was standing there. Giorje's wife had that look of wanting to start shit about her, as did half a dozen others.
It rather surprised me that it was Rian who got up, limped over to the ball, and booted it toward the hole. The mitten inspector held her ground and watched it bumpity-roll toward her. The crowd watched, too, but not in silence. Folks emitted gasps and curses, and a couple of people yelled at Rian, who just grinned.
"It's asleep," I said.
"Then why did you tell us to stay away from it?" the skinny grump called.
"Better safe that sorry."
"We don't have hole-shields, do we?" Giorje asked his wife.
The ball skipped and slowed and came to a stop just over the hole. Rian had a lot better aim than I ever would have guessed.
The mitten inspector made a note.
"I don't think so," Giorje's wife said, which started the crowd buzzing again.
"Stop fooling around with that clipboard!" somebody yelled. I think it was one of the night workers that lived above the basement family. We usually didn't see much of them during the day. "If you're supposed to inspect our protections, then get to it!"
"Where are our shields?"
"We don't have any shields!"
"They never installed any shields!"
"How many holes are there?"
"Oh my god, they're all over the place, aren't they? Where are they? Where are the rest of them?"
Rian looked at me.
"That's the only one. On this block, anyway," I said.
The mitten inspector said, "An official report will be filed."
"Oh, sure! Right! And what are we supposed to do in the meantime?"
"This hole is dormant."
"Says you."
"What about our shields?"
It was exhausting standing up. I sat back down on the stoop. "They want their mittens," I said to the mitten inspector. "You got any on you?" All right, I shouldn't have poked her. She was as lost as the rest of them. I get these impulses now and then. I know I shouldn't give in to them, but most of the time I can't help myself.
"My duty is to inspect and report. Good day, citizens."
That went over real well. The crowd started to move toward her again, even though she was standing at the lip of the hole.
"Wait," Rian said. "Hold on, everybody. You've got shields and wards and everything."
"Where?"
He pointed at me, the bastard.
"Thanks a lot."
"Go ahead, tell them. They're scared. You can see that."
Of course I could. And scared people do desperate, crazy things.
This day had really turned to crap.
If Rian hadn't been there, I probably would have gone inside as soon as the white-clad woman lost control of the situation. But no, he had to be sitting next to me, jabbering. Him and his stupid flower.
"All right," I said. At that point, I just wanted to lie down, but there was no way the crowd was going to let me off the hook. "All right. I've got the mittens. I got loads of them. You want some?"
Naturally they did.
"One at a time! Oh, for pity's sake."
They could push and jostle each other, and they could shout at me all they liked, but I really could do only a single pair at a time. And they could complain all they wanted, too, that the mittens weren't what they were expecting, but what I handed out to my neighbors and fellow residents of the block was all I could give them.
"What the hell is this? It's a rag."
"This is a scrap of an old sock!"
"This is a piece of underwear!"
"Take it or leave it. But they work, so I suggest you take them."
The mitten inspector, who should have snatched the opportunity to make her getaway, instead folded up her clipboard and hooked it on her belt, then folded her arms and hung around spectating. I couldn't figure that. Rian was grinning. Couldn't figure that, either. Maybe he was happy there wasn't going to be a riot.
When I had given out, given away, all I had, and the crowd, unsatisfied but defused, had started to break up, muttering and complaining and shaking their heads, but each one of them holding on tight to the wards I'd distributed, the mitten inspector came up to me.
What now, I thought. I was not in the mood for any more nonsense.
And then she went and handed me a flower. Not a real flower, like the one Rian had plucked from some unobservant homeowner's garden, but a municipal authority floret, the sparkly, musical kind you're supposed to wear in a buttonhole or pin on your shirt, so everybody can see you're somebody.
"What?" I said. "Why? What's this for? I don't want it. I don't deserve this."
"You do," Rian said.
"No, I don't."
"Then you will."
I tried to give it back, but the mitten inspector wouldn't take it. She inclined her head to me, then walked away, heading north.
The crowd had pretty much dispersed by then--panics happen and fade quickly--except for a couple of dumbos who were still looking at the hole.
Rian sat down next to me.
"Don't even start," I said. "I don't know what your game is."
"Game? There's no game." He started to lift his arm, then stopped. "May I hold your hand?"
"Hold my hand? Whyever in the world would you want to do that?"
"Just because," he said, and he had that peculiar expression on his face again.
"I'm going inside," I said. "I've got to take a nap."
"Just for a few minutes. Just for one minute."
"One minute?"
"One minute."
I closed my eyes. "All right. Go ahead."
Rian reached over and clasped my right hand with his left. Good thing for him I'd put the sparkly floret on the step. Those things had sharp edges.
His hand was warm. I suppose he must have enjoyed that minute, because when the sixty seconds were up, he asked if he could hold my hand again the next time he happened to find himself in the neighborhood.
He's an odd one, is Rian. Before he finally left so I could go in and collapse on my bed, he said, "I think you're wonderful."
Honestly, ninety percent of the time, I have no idea what that man is on about. The people on the block want me to wear the idiotic floret, and why they should is a mystery to me as well. At least after I told six or twelve people no way in hell, they quit mentioning it. But I'm pretty sure Rian is going to want to hold my hand again.
I haven't decided yet if I'll let him.
The hole remains dormant, the residents of the block are going about their lives, and I'm slowly starting to feel a little less drained. Those are the important things. They are what count.
For some reason, I feel like washing my hair today.
But not right this minute.
I'll make up my mind later, after lunch. Got half a can of beets left.
It's a nice day today. I might sit out on the stoop again for a while.
After lunch.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 2nd, 2014

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