by Matthew Derby

A new story from Matthew Derby, the author of Super Flat Times: Stories (2003 Back Bay Books).  Derby’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, Fence, and The Believer, where he has served as an editor.

“It’s hot,” Dombal said, and it was the truth, but Murphy just kept looking at the yellow dumpsters and ate his sandwich, which was lettuce and pickles folded into a single slice of bread because that was all Murphy had left in his apartment.  Murphy was a person who didn’t answer your questions; he didn’t respond to your requests.  He did what he did and sometimes it coincided with the thing you wanted him to do and those were the lucky days.  Like, Murphy’s job was to remove the grilles from the heating units that ran along the back wall in each dorm room, and Dombal would follow behind with the vacuum, clear out the decades of balled hair, dander, condom rot, and animal bones from between the blades, and replace the grille.  Some days Dombal would enter a dorm room to find the grilles removed with precision, carefully laid out on the floor next to the heating unit, screws collected in a paper cup on the windowsill.  Other days, the grilles would be buckled, wrecked, twisted in an upward arc from the heating unit as if yanked by a powerful monster.  There were days when Murphy slept all day in the top bunk of one of the dorm rooms and leave the grilles untouched, and Dombal would have to remove them himself, which was bull because he was the cleanup guy and Murphy was the takedown guy, but Dombal didn’t want to have to explain to Bill, the Physical Plant shift manager, why there were so many dorm rooms with untouched heating units.  It was a summer thing and Bill never checked on their progress so none of it mattered but the job weighed on Dombal anyway. So, by mid-July, he was doing all the takedown and the cleanup while Murphy slept.

But even on the level of a simple conversation, Murphy would not just do the conversation.  Dombal would say something, ask a question or make an observation or just anything, and Murphy might respond, but what he said so rarely corresponded with the initial remark that Dombal often settled for silence.  “What is that song?” Dombal had asked that morning when Murphy put a tape in the tape deck of the Physical Plant van they used to haul the shop vac from dorm to dorm.  “You don’t get to know,” Murphy said and that was it, just a hot, whistling silence for the rest of the trip across campus.  But it was hot by the dumpsters and Dombal couldn’t resist saying, ‘It’s hot,’ and Murphy just looked on at the trash eating his sandwich, the same way he would if there was no Dombal there at all.

“Look at that yeti,” Murphy said instead, gesturing with his sandwich at The Yeti, who was assembling a window-washing nozzle on the soccer field at the bottom of the hill.  The Yeti’s real name was Laura, but on the first day, when all the summer workers got put into teams, Murphy had called her The Yeti and that was the end of the name Laura for her.  She was The Yeti because she was an enormous person, just truly a walking marvel.  Not in a fat way, though she was thick.  It was more of a freakish dialing up of the proportions – hands larger than hands should be, a face broader and squarer than a face should rightfully be.  Only her feet were sized for a normal person, and she wore white canvas slippers that brought her body to a sharp, precarious point.

“Yeah, heh,” Dombal said, looking at The Yeti.

“I’m going to do something to that yeti,” Murphy said.

“Yeah?”  The Yeti made Dombal sick in his gut.  He watched her massive red hands assembling the window washing apparatus and something low and spastic foamed in his heart, like his blood was ice-cold cola.  There were people Dombal didn’t like because of what they’d done to him and then there were people he didn’t like just because of the postures they struck in the world, and The Yeti was in the latter group.  Her very presence in a room stirred up a crazy rage.

“That yeti has something coming to it,” Murphy said.

“Yeah.  Like what are you thinking?”

Murphy forced the last of the sandwich into his mouth, making a sick hump of his cheek, and chewed.

Oki, the janitor at Massassoit House, let Dombal into the building at the start of his shift.  She was an ancient, stooped woman with a silver bowl cut who seemed always to be knitting in front of a small black and white television while water slowly boiled on a hot plate in the Janitors’ Lounge.  Dombal liked Oki because she smiled at him and didn’t ask him questions and didn’t in her countenance make him feel guilty that his life still lay before him like bare parchment before the map is drawn while hers was, in almost every way, already done.

“You on third floor today?” she said.

“I think so.”

Dombal shouldered his vacuum and his tool bag and took the elevator to the third floor.  He found Murphy in the first dorm room, already asleep.  Dombal took the elevator to the fourth floor because removing the grilles from the heating units was a loud and messy process and he didn’t want to wake Murphy.  He entered the room that faced the elevator.  The walls were yellowed and smudged, lit by the twin slim windows that let out onto the quad empty quad.  Squares of tape and corkboard riddled the surface of the walls, furred with loose drafts of carpet pile, human hair, stray ash. Dombal put his tool kit on the bare mattress and removed a screwdriver and a rubber mallet.  The grille had been painted over several times – He could barely make out where the screws were.  He centered the tool over the area where he guessed the center of the first screw head was and pounded with the mallet until he broke through and gained purchase.  Sometimes this process damaged the grille, sometimes irreparably.  But he was already doing another person’s job and he wasn’t happy about it, so if the grille broke it was not his fault.

Dombal drove out the screws one by one, leaning into the handle of the screwdriver with all his strength as he twisted.  When he finished, his hands tingled as if being pelted with sparks.  The blades of the heating unit were draped with a mat of gray dust.  He sucked this away with the vacuum, exposing the delicate copper apparatus which was like the spine of a prehistoric snake.  Something went into the vacuum that was not dust and the vacuum clogged.  He looked into the nozzle of the vacuum and saw a lump of red fabric.  He used the screwdriver to tease it back out through the mouth of the nozzle.  It was a woman’s silk panty, red with orange stripes.  He unfolded the underwear on the floor.  It was still relatively clean.  It must have fallen behind the heating unit only recently.  Dombal picked the underwear up and held it in his palms.  It seemed impossibly small.  He thought about the person who wore the underwear, and how she might have inhabited them, how much space she took up in the world.  There was a dimensionality to bodies that didn’t translate well from the photographs and illustrations he used for masturbation.  He saw something move out of the corner of his eye and turned.  It was his reflection in the floor-length mirror that was bolted to the dorm room’s door.  He saw himself kneeling on the floor, holding the underwear.  He stuffed the garment beneath the mattress and continued to the next room.

At lunch Dombal went to the vending machine to get Million Dollar Bash, which was a plastic bag filled with nuts and dried fruit and chocolate drops.  It was the only thing left in the vending machine, but this was no big deal because Dombal happened to like Million Dollar Bash.  He usually found enough loose change in the heating units to buy one bag a day, which he ate silently on the bottom bunk in one of the empty dorm rooms, handful by handful.  He put the change in the machine and pressed the buttons and the corkscrew that held the bags of Million Dollar Bash turned, moving them forward in graceful orchestration.  As the corkscrew turned, Dombal saw Murphy reflected in the vending machine’s glass surface.  He was sitting on a table in the lobby, talking to The Yeti.  The frontmost bag of Million Dollar Bash dropped into the receptacle and Dombal reached through the spring-loaded door to retrieve it.

“This is just what Bill told me.  All the mattresses, down to the lobby,” The Yeti said as Dombal approached the table.  She gave off a dense, yeasty smell.

“Down here, in the lobby.” Dombal said.

“All of them.”

Dombal looked at Murphy, who just stared out the window at the abstract steel sculpture in the quad, baseball cap pulled down over his brow.


“They’re getting replaced.” The Yeti whipped a sash of her straight colorless hair over her shoulder and then stroked it as if to apologize.  “We bring them down to the lobby and next week they bring dumpsters.  Then later, the new ones come.”

“What about the vents?”

“They said the vents can wait,” The Yeti said.  “The mattresses need to be down.”

“Who said this?  About the mattresses.”

“I told you.  This was Bill.  Speaking directly to me.”

“Bill?  He came here?”  Dombal had not seen Bill since the start of summer session, when he gave a brusque demo of the shop vac in a full University-themed track suit.  Dombal had stopped thinking about the Physical Plant staff altogether except as a sort of ghostly cabal, hovering invisibly and shapelessly above the dormitories.

“Let’s get this over with,” The Yeti said, clapping her hands together and rubbing them.  Dombal and The Yeti started across the lobby but Murphy continued to sit on the table.

“Come on,” The Yeti said.  Murphy did not respond.  “Are you seriously not going to help?” she said with a sense of naïve wonderment that seemed momentarily to shake Murphy.  He pulled at the brim of his cap and slid down off the table, deliberately looking away from Dombal and The Yeti as he approached.

The mattresses were gray and slick, threadbare ellipses worried into their midsections, the mark of semester after semester of muted couplings and studied, repetitive groinwork.  Faint impressions of menstrual spotting, Rorschach pissmarks.  Dombal and The Yeti worked as a team, each taking hold of one end and scuttling down the halls like crabs.  When they reached the stairwell they would hoist the mattresses over the guardrail and let them fall. Murphy worked alone on the first floor, thrashing and pounding the mattresses down the hall.

After two hours they’d only managed to move nine out of two hundred and forty mattresses into the lobby.  Murphy spread out on one and shut his eyes.

“Lazy,” The Yeti said.  Murphy opened one eye and then shut it again.

“Let’s get the rest,” Dombal said, heading toward the stairwell.

“Are you always this lazy?” The Yeti called out to Murphy.  He smacked his lips and rolled over onto his stomach.  His basketball shorts came down a little when he moved so that his crack was showing, but it somehow looked okay.

The Yeti stood at the threshold of the foyer, waiting for Murphy to respond.  Dombal started to climb the stairs.

When Dombal got to Massassoit House the next morning the mattresses were rearranged.  They had been stacked into a kind of fort.  Six mattresses on their side and three draped on top.  Dombal walked around the perimeter of the structure.  It looked sturdy.  It looked like someone had put some amount of time and effort into its construction.  The mattresses were slightly parted on one side and Dombal approached to have a look but as he crouched at the opening he heard a sound.  A rough, scattered breath, issued from high in the throat, choked off in mid-exhalation.  Dombal rocked forward slowly, pressing his knuckles into the stiff carpet pile for balance.  The breathing stopped.  Dombal went rigid.  He could actually feel the blood rushing through his ears, sloshing like a riptide.  The breath was gone for a long time, and then it erupted again in earnest, rhythmic and fierce.  He crawled silently toward the aperture, which glowed faintly from the inside.  The breathing took on a raw whistling overtone.  Dombal put his cheek against the wall of the cavity and peered in.  He saw the thickset curve of The Yeti’s right buttock, clutched in a percussive spasm against Murphy’s prone leg.  Dombal knew it was Murphy because of his green striped athletic socks and blown-out Keds. Stretched impossibly across The Yeti’s pinched behind, strapped there like a tourniquet, was the pair of red and orange underpants that Dombal had found behind the heating unit.  The pair that he’d held in his hands.

Dombal pivoted slowly and sat on his haunches to wait it out.  There was nobody in the hall and nobody in the quad.

“Hey.” It was Murphy, calling from inside the hut when they were finally done with the thing.  Dombal turned and saw Murphy’s naked arm extended through the opening.  He held a five-dollar bill between his index and middle fingers.  “Go get two Cokes and a Million Dollar Bash.”

Dombal took the bill and walked down the hallway to the recessed vending area.  He made change for the five.  Coins spilled into the pebbled metal dish.  Dombal scooped up the coins and approached the machine that had Million Dollar Bash.  He saw his reflection in the glass.  There was more flesh on his head than he remembered or wished to remember.  He put the coins in the machine and pressed the keys and the corkscrew turned, moving the cellophane bags along the track.

“You made a nice house,” Oki said, looking away from Dombal so that he knew she did not think it was a nice house at all.  She was frying something on the hot plate, a sort of egg with red sauce.

Dombal took his tool bag from the utility closet. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Bill came here.  He didn’t like it.”


“Bill.  The manager.”

“What did he say?”

“He say he didn’t like it.  You need to take it down.”

Oki looked up at Dombal.  Her face was old and theatrical.  She went back to her task, batting the pale mashed egg around in the saucepan.  Dombal looked in his tool bag to make sure everything was there.  He closed the bag and took the elevator up to the first floor lobby.

There were more mattresses, maybe seventy-five of them, piled high in the space in an intricate pattern.  The structure had the feel of a Sumerian ziggurat, its peak grazing the acoustic tile of the drop ceiling.  It seemed to have at least two levels, the higher of which could be accessed by a graded staircase made from mattresses that were stacked and staggered with an architect’s precision. The structure had a look of real permanence, as though it had been built thousands of years in the past.

Dombal just stood and looked at the structure for a long time.  His heart was beating so fast that he almost fainted.  He wanted to jump up and give a flying roundhouse kick to one of the towers.  He waited to hear a sound but there was nothing.  He moved closer to the staircase.  There wasn’t any person or any sound.  He put his foot on the first step.

“Hey.”  It was Murphy’s voice.  Dombal looked down the hall. Murphy was struggling with a mattress that had doubled over on the landing of the central stairs.  “A little help?”

Dombal put down the tool bag and walked over to Murphy.



“Fuckwad.  What I said.”

Dombal grasped the white twine handles sewn to the sides of the mattress and the two of them lifted it just high enough so that it grazed the surface of the rug.

“Where’s that Yeti,” Dombal said as they scuttled down the hallway toward the temple.

Murphy looked up and nodded toward the entrance.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Dombal said.

“I’ll show you.”  They got to the temple and Murphy dropped his end.  He climbed the stairs and, halfway up, made a little sweeping gesture with his hand that meant Dombal was to follow him.  They went in and padded down a dark corridor.  At the end of the corridor there was a small open space.  The Yeti lay inside, on her side, unconscious, wearing only an enormous pair of emerald, silken underpants and a white cotton bra.  Her feet were bound at the ankle.  In the opposite corner of the room there was a heap of empty candy wrappers, crushed Million Dollar Bash bags, Coke bottles, a half-eaten bag of carrots, a jar of mayonnaise, and a shallow bowl of water.

“What is this?” Dombal wanted to back out of the room but the moment to do so came and went and he was still standing there, looking down at the Yeti sleeping on the stained mattress, all tied up.

“You asked where she was.”  Murphy knelt behind the Yeti and put his hand on her thigh.

“Is she okay?”

“She sleeps in.”

“You – you sleep here?”

“I’ve been.  Yeah.”

The Yeti breathed evenly in her sleep.  Her face was as still as a night garden.  There was no other sound in the small room.

“I don’t – What’s happening.”

Murphy stood up.  “Just help me carry some more mattresses.”

“She’s okay, though.”

“Yes, fuckwad.  This is what she wanted.  She asked for this.”  He slid past Dombal and disappeared down the corridor.  “Come the fuck on, twat,” he called out over his shoulder.

Dombal looked at the Yeti.  Her breasts pooled unevenly in the massive brassiere.  Her mouth was slightly open.  He wanted to kick her in the gut.

They went up the stairs to the top floor.  Murphy had yanked all of the remaining mattresses out into the hallway, where they lay slumped like victims of a gas attack.  Without speaking they lifted the mattresses by their handles and hauled them to the stairwell.

“Why are you doing this?” Dombal asked.

“I’m bored.”

“You spend all day with that Yeti.”

“I guess I’m really giving it to her,” he said and it was the first time he had ever agreed with something Dombal had said.  He grinned in the dry aftermath of the sentence like a fox with a quail in its mouth.

“It doesn’t seem like you are,” Dombal said in a wispy voice.


“You’re just spending all your time with the Yeti.  Like, sleeping with the Yeti, the whole day.”

“What’s your point, twatstick?” Murphy dropped his end of the mattress.  It sagged on the landing.

Dombal’s every muscle was taut.  He wasn’t able to say anything.  Time slipped by like the particles of dust briefly illuminated by the tall windows flanking the stairwell.

“What is your point?”

Dombal dropped his end of the mattress and walked down the corridor.  Halfway down, he realized that the only other way off the top floor was the fire exit, so he turned into one of the empty dorm rooms and sat on the steel frame of one of the beds.  The springs grated and snapped under his weight.  Someone had scratched an impossibly long penis into the brown paint along the length of the frame.  Dombal stared at the illustration and waited for Murphy to come in and start whaling on him, but he couldn’t hear anything but the sprinklers jetting rhythmically over the lacrosse field.  He waited for what seemed like a really long time for Murphy’s fist to find his head or his chest or wherever Murphy saw fit to whack him but Murphy did not appear.  Dombal’s face tingled with the anticipation of the blow.  He lay back on the frame and the springs dug into the base of his skull, trapping tufts of his hair in their tight coils, and he stiffened out and waited in the room for as long as he could stand to.

The next morning Dombal went to the Physical Plant building.  Bill’s office assistant let him in and told him to sit in the narrow, walled-in waiting area.  She took a phone call while he paged through a weekly magazine, reading nothing of its contents, his tacky fingers warping the paper.

The assistant placed the receiver in its cradle and called Dombal into Bill’s office, which was an arid, cream-colored room without windows.  Vendor calendars hung on the far wall, grimly designed documents top-heavy with photographs of women in puffed hair breaking up concrete with slick jackhammers.  Bill sat behind a steel desk and listened without blinking as Dombal told him about the mattresses and what went on inside.  Bill’s face lacked dimensionality.  It was as if all of his features were spread out on a single plane like a Mercator map.  He sat in his chair and took in Dombal’s report with the focused earnestness of a deacon.

“Is that all you can think of?” Bill asked when Dombal stopped talking.  “Anything else you want to tell me?”

“I want a cordless screwdriver,” Dombal said in a thin, crackling voice.


“My hands hurt from taking apart all those heating units.  I am awake half the night in pain.  I want a cordless screwdriver.”

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

Dombal got up and walked out of the Physical Plant building.  He flinched in the sunlight, expecting to see Murphy in the quad, running swiftly toward him with a bat.  But there was just the piping heat radiating from the blacktop.  He took the long way around campus but even so he saw the ambulance careen through the narrow paths that led to the dormitory block, escorted by two squad cars.  His gut steamed, so he took the dirt path up the hill to the convenience store and bought a large ice beverage and sat at the lone table by the window to drink it.  The spoon for the beverage doubled as a straw.  He pressed his left fist into his right palm to stanch the dull roaring ache.  He had the striped underpants balled up in his pants pocket but he didn’t know yet what he would do with them.  A customer entered the convenience store and bought a snack stick.  Dombal spooned up a heap of the ice beverage and held it against the roof of his mouth until the customer left.  The day would be stupid and hard, and would take the endurance of a mountain climber just to endure.