Andrew sat outside the sanitation building in the cold December morning for fifteen minutes, rubbing his hands together and wondering whether it was too early for him to go inside. He didn’t officially start work until six; that’s what it said on his contract. It was his first day with the sanitation department, having been transferred as a result of downsizing in the wastewater division. From liquid waste to solid waste. Things were definitely looking up for him.
At the stroke of six, Andrew heard chimes ringing inside the drab gray building on the street-level corner of Manchaca and Congress. Moments later, a gaggle of men in stained overalls filed out of the building, holding their hands up at the first rays of the morning sun. They walked like newborn zombies, shuffling from side to side, practically dead from exhaustion. As they filed out, another group of men filed in. These were looking much more chipper, almost to the point of smiling. Some of them were talking loudly amongst themselves; sounds that hurt the ears of the walking dead around them.
Andrew picked up his lunch pail from the bench beside him and started towards the door. He nodded to the men he passed, but they barely acknowledged him. Once inside, he stood awkwardly by the door, trying to pick out the supervisor among the rabble. Everyone was dressed the same; blue overalls and a tan t-shirt. One man was wearing a blue baseball cap and carrying a clipboard. He noticed Andrew and approached him.
“You Andy?” he asked.
“Andrew, yes.” He offered his hand, then dropped it.
“I’m Silva, but you can call me Mr. Silva or Boss, whichever you prefer.” He made a note on his clipboard. “You’re working with Paul’s group.” Then, turning and yelling, “Hey, Ford, this rookie’s on your team.”
On the other side of the room, Paul looked up, nodded, and beckoned to Andrew.
“Go on,” said Silva, already walking away.
Andrew crossed the room, nodding to the men that had stopped to ogle the new guy. They all seemed friendly enough, just men trying to make their way. When he reached Paul, he introduced himself and extended his hand again. This time, the gesture was returned.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Paul, motioning with his head to Mr. Silva, “he’s a hardass, but for the most part, he leaves us alone. You probably won’t have to talk to him again anytime soon.” Paul pointed at the locker next to his, “You can put your stuff in here.”
“Thanks,” said Andrew. He opened the locker and placed his lunch inside, then his jacket. Behind him, he heard someone approach.
“Bets, bets, place your bets! New month, new bets!”
Andrew turned around to see Paul handing another guy a twenty dollar bill. After the bookie deposited the money in his pocket, he turned to Andrew and said, “You want in?”
“What is it?” asked Andrew.
“Bingo!” said the bookie, smiling. “It costs twenty dollars a number, each winner takes an equal split of the monthly plot, excuse me, pot.”
“Is it worth it?” asked Andrew, looking to Paul.
“Oh sure,” he replied, “I won four hundred bucks last year. Plus, we haven’t had any winners in like, what, three or four months, so the pot is…” Paul trailed off.
“A little over seventy-eight hundred,” said the bookie, “and the way things are going, one person might win it all.” Something in his own head struck him as funny and he sneered involuntarily.
“Alright,” said Andrew, “I’ll take two numbers.” He pulled his wallet from his pocket and extracted two crisp twenty dollars bills.
The bookie took the bills and stuffed them in his pocket, then made a note in his little book. From a little bag in his hand, he pulled out two folded pieces of paper and handed them to Andrew, who opened them and read them aloud.
“B-7 and F-14,” said Andrew.
The bookie consulted his map. “Ah, very nice. That puts you on Sixth Street between Red River and San Jan, and F-14 is…” He ran his finger down F spaces and fourteen to the right. “… oooh, tough break, Riverside and Pleasant Valley.”
“I’ve never seen an East Side square hit,” said Paul, closing his locker and zipping up his jumpsuit.
“I don’t know, there might be a strong wind. You could get lucky.” The bookie smiled at Andrew and turned away, off to solicit more bets for the coming month.
“Shall we?” asked Paul, motioning to the door.
Several minutes later, they were cruising the level two skyway above Austin, searching the street-level for any possible sanitation needs. As usual, the streets were free and clear and lightly populated with pedestrian traffic. Above their heads, the combined roar of six levels of skyways rained down on them. At the corner of Fifteenth and Guadalupe, they engaged the hazard lights and hovered between levels two and three. Andrew looked up at the traffic crisscrossing above his head.
“Amazing isn’t it?” asked Paul. “Of all the skyway intersections in the city, this one is the busiest. On average, this sector sustains the most losses.” He turned to Andrew. “Since we started playing Bingo, this square has paid off eighteen times.”
Andrew nodded in agreement, not really listening, distracted by the cars flying by above and below him. He wasn’t new to the skyways, but he had only been in them at full speed, going with the flow. At a complete stop, and so close, everything seemed to be going by a lot faster. Cars zoomed around each other, sometimes over and under, jockeying for position. All run by computers, but all basically mechanical at their core. Mechanical and prone to failure.
“Let’s go up a bit,” said Paul, punching a button in front of him. The van climbed higher into the sky, passing through levels three, four, and five, finally settling just under level six, Skyway 290, which provided an expressway between Houston and El Paso.
“Check this out, you’ve got to see this.” Paul put the van in hover and undid his seatbelt. He climbed into the back of the van and pressed a button next to the sliding door.
“Oh no,” said Andrew, shaking his head, “I’m afraid of heights.”
Paul chuckled. “I would expect everyone to be afraid of this height. I’m not saying we do anything stupid.” Paul kneeled down in the middle of the van and then went flat on his stomach. Slowly, he crawled to the edge of the door and stuck his head out just enough to see below. He whistled.
Curiosity got the better of Andrew and a moment later he was stretched out on the van floor next to Paul with his head hanging over the edge. They looked down on the mess of traffic below them, on the artificial streets in the sky, marked by the pollution being generated by the cars. The city looked almost artificial, too far away to be real. Andrew’s head swam with visions of falling; how long it would take to finally hit the bottom.
The radio crackled from the driver’s seat and they heard the bookie’s voice come through.
“Close call for Rodriguez on crew sixteen. You may have noticed the fourteen car smash-up on Skyway 45, which unfortunately, didn’t score a single point! Too bad, Roddy. Maybe next time.”
Andrew gave Paul an inquisitive look.
Paul just shrugged. “Bad for him, good for me. My wife needs a new kidney.”
“Did I say kidney? I meant television. One of those new eighty-two inch jobs.” He snickered, then paused in thought. “Did I put the hazards on?” Paul got up quickly and returned to the driver’s seat.
Andrew tried to make out the streets below, but they were too far away. “What sector are we over?” he asked.
Paul’s hand froze over the steering wheel and his heart began to race. “I think this is J-16, why?”
“Just wondering. I snuck a look at the number list, just wanted to make sure we weren’t over one of yours.”
Paul smiled and slowly secured his seatbelt. He laughed to cover the sound of the lock clicking into place. “You um, you thought I’d knock you off to win at Bingo?”
“Well,” said Andrew, pushing himself away from the edge, “I’ve seen those eighty-two inch televisions. They’re very nice.”
Paul laughed again and flipped the stabilizer controls into manual. He felt Andrew’s eyes on the back of his head and wondered if the man knew what was coming.
But before either could say another word, the radio crackled again.
“It’s all over folks! Massive, massive casualties on Skyway 183. Get this, a busload of nuns overturned on level four. Some of them only got as low as ped-level three, but twelve, count ‘em twelve, made it to street-level. And the lucky winner of twelve shares is none other than…” A faux drum roll filled the van. “… Hector Toscano from crew eight! Congratulations! And to everyone else, it’s not much, but you still could win enough to buy Hector a cup of coffee.” The bookie’s laugh hissed and popped until Paul angrily flipped off the radio.
“Dammit!” he yelled, “Twelve hits in one day for one guy!”
After a minute of silence, Andrew asked, “So, you’re not going to tip me out of the van?”
Paul laughed and took his hands off the controls. “No,” he said, looking back at Andrew, “not today.”
The busload of nuns was the only catastrophe of the day, which was filled with Paul’s constant cursing of the number twelve. They both had to help in the cleanup and Andrew began to doubt whether the move to sanitation had been a wise one or not. From the height of level four, bodies don’t just hit the ground and stay there; they liquefy. Each nun covered almost ten square feet of concrete, a huge misshapen circle of blood and flesh. For most of the day, Andrew didn’t know what he was scooping into a medical waste bag. And really, he didn’t want to know.
By quitting time, Andrew was dead tired. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was reminded of the men he had seen coming out of the building that morning. He couldn’t believe how quickly he had transitioned from normal to zombie, how easily cleaning up the remains of splattered people had sucked the life right out of him. He forgot about his momentary suspicion with Paul, about how he had felt like he was going to be killed just so Paul could win at Bingo. He shuddered at the thought.
The realization of what Bingo was didn’t come to Andrew until he was hovering over level five with Paul and noticed how the skyways were dissecting the city into neat little squares. If someone bisected each of the streets, they’d find intersections at the center of each square. There had been no time to feel sickened, since he was inches away from making someone a winner. All that was needed was a quick little dip in the right direction and someone would have walked away with the pot. Though, all nuns considered, it would have been a small reward for such a heinous murder.
Andrew waved goodbye to Paul and some of the other guys he had met at the cleanup and walked out the door. The sun was setting and the chimes were sounding and the refreshed zombies were returning for their night of service.
Behind him, Paul stood at the door, watching him go. After Andrew was out of sight, he shut the door and walked across the room to Mr. Silva’s office, who was inside shuffling papers around his desk. He entered without knocking and closed the door behind him. He took a seat in front of the large oak desk, folded his hands in his lap, and waited.
Mr. Silva grunted after a few minutes and mumbled to himself. The only word that Paul understood was twelve.
“It’s unreal!” said Mr. Silva. “Twelve in one day and in one sector!”
“I’m just glad it happened before…” said Paul.
Mr. Silva looked up, daring him to continue.
“I mean, it would have been such a waste.”
Mr. Silva nodded and sat back in his chair. He shook his head angrily. “Dammit! I’m never gonna get J-16 again!”