Dishes

“It’s not the end of the world,” said Clifford, tugging at his small, neatly trimmed mustache.

“That’s because you don’t really care how they come out,” replied Camille. She pulled off spotless glasses, cleaned them, and put them back on.

“I’m convinced they come out just as clean when I load them as when you do. There is more than one way to do this. They look nicer when you load them, but they are no cleaner,” he said.

“You can’t just cram them in. They won’t get clean that way. The instructions for the dishwasher are very specific about the direction the plates need to face. I’ve shown you a dozen times,” she said.

Clifford stood aside as Camille began to rearrange the dishes, moving the plates and bowls so they all faced in one direction. The motion of her long, thin fingers was methodical. He stood back and smoothed his tweed vest, glowering over the top of his reading glasses.

“You want me to help in the kitchen, but I don’t have any say about how things are done. It just takes too long to do it your way. Is there any evidence at all that the dishes are dirty after I load them?” he said.

“I’ve found some dirty bowls,” she said.

“That I loaded?” he said.

“They wouldn’t be dirty if I loaded them,” she said.

“This entire discussion is absurd. Your work in the laboratory is important. This is not important. These are dishes!” he said.

“The issue is not the dishes. It’s your attitude about the whole thing. You know it’s important to me, but you won’t spend a few extra minutes to do it right. It’s simply disrespect.” Camille took a dish from the pocket of her lab-coat and placed it carefully on the top shelf next to the coffee cups.

“I try to do things the way you want, but I can’t always. Everything I do in here, I think ‘How would Camille want this done?’ Occasionally, I make a mistake and you can’t wait to point it out,” he said.

“You’ve made mistakes plenty of times in twenty-seven years of marriage and I rarely say a word. This time I’d had enough,” she said.

“That sounds just like your mother. Your father is the most oppressed man that I know. He may be the most patient man alive, but I’m not; I won’t stand for it!” he said.

“Won’t stand for what? You can’t listen to the simplest criticism,” she said, shaking a spoon at him. “Clifford, if you won’t do it right, I’ll just do it myself!”

Camille finished arranging the dishes to her satisfaction and then stomped down the stairs to the small laboratory they had built for her when the University fired her last spring. She still wondered why the Dean reacted so negatively to her trying her vaccine on her students. It seemed like a simple misunderstanding and no one had been hurt. She thought it was especially rude of the Dean to shout the way he did.

Clifford knew that she would be in her laboratory for the rest of the evening, trying to save the world from one disease or another. As soon as she was gone, he opened the dishwasher and began to rearrange the dishes. When they were back to the pleasant jumble he had before she interfered, he poured in cleaning powder, closed the door, and started the dishwasher.

He selected his favorite Vivaldi concerto and read a brief in his study while the dishwasher ran. When the beep signaled the end of the cycle, he opened the door and inspected each of the dishes. They looked perfectly clean. There were a few streaks on the glasses, but that was normal. He dried the dishes and put them away.

When Camille finished her work and came upstairs to bed, she opened the dishwasher. She was pleased to find it empty. It was clear to her that putting the dishes away was an act of contrition for Clifford; he was sorry and had admitted defeat. He was still careless and often thoughtless, but she had always known he meant to do right. She would not forgive him tonight, but tomorrow for sure.

The next evening, Clifford retired to his study while Camille loaded the dishwasher. She fixed herself a cup of herbal tea and took it to the basement lab without starting the cycle. It was a small courtesy so that the noise from the machine did not disturb Clifford while he read.

Once again, Clifford waited until she closed the basement door and then rearranged the dishes to suit him. When they were done, he dried them and put them away, noting again that they were clean. She kissed him smartly on the forehead when she found the dishwasher empty again. Clifford smiled indulgently thinking that Camille was not the only one that understood empirical methods.

After a week, Camille stopped checking the dishwasher before she went to bed. She knew that it would be empty. Each night, Clifford made a mental note of how he had rearranged the dishes, what dishes were present, and how clean they looked. Usually, it was only the bowls, plates, spoons, forks, and knives from breakfast and dinner. Occasionally, there would be a plastic container used to store food or measuring cups used for cooking. Less often, Camille would put Petri dishes and test tubes from her laboratory in with the other dishes.

Clifford considered how long to wait before proclaiming the results of his experiment. The evidence was already clear; his method of arranging the dishes produced superlative results. It was true that he had found peanut butter on a knife once, but he was certain that one knife was an acceptable statistical anomaly. He decided to wait. Each night he enjoyed sweet righteousness and he wanted to prolong the feeling.

It was about three days later that Clifford noticed that birds in the area were dying. He picked up six sparrows, a robin, and a mockingbird and brought them to Camille in a bucket. She inspected them carefully, shaking her head, and then took them down to her laboratory.

By the time the cats and dogs in the neighborhood started to die, the strange virus was mentioned in the news. There were very few symptoms before the virus was terminal; antibiotics had no effect. Camille insisted that Clifford stay home from work. She worked in her laboratory and Clifford watched the news and listened to music. Experts tried to determine the cause of the animal deaths until priority shifted to the people that started to die.

There was panic, but there was nowhere to escape. Every mammal, bird, reptile, and fish was a carrier and all were dying within a day of infection. The newspaper stopped two days after the first person died. Local television coverage ended after a week. National television news lasted a few days longer and showed the expanding circle of the virus’ spread. It was centered in their little suburb of Chicago. In a month, Clifford could not raise anyone on his short-wave radio.

Clifford and Camille walked the streets of their neighborhood and heard only the wind and their own voices. Nothing larger than a cockroach was alive.

“It’s really terrible. All of our little conflicts seem petty now, don’t they?” said Camille.

“Very sad, really. There’s plenty of food and fuel, of course. With the generator, things are almost normal at the house. Do you think anyone survived?” said Clifford.

“No. I think everyone is dead. Everywhere. All the animals too. I really miss the birds, but at least that dog next door doesn’t bark at night,” she said.

“It’s strange that the virus didn’t affect us,” he said.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” she said with her head very low. “There’s really only one possible explanation. Do you remember the inoculation I give us a month ago?” she said.

“Yes,” he answered, rubbing his left shoulder where the needle had entered his skin.

“That must be why we are alive. The shot was a vaccine for Henry,” she said.

“Henry?” he said. “I’ve heard you talking to a Henry. I thought he was a lab rat.”

“He’s a very naughty mutated virus I use for testing. It takes about a month to make the antigen so there really wasn’t much I could do when he started to spread,” she said frowning. “There must have been a little of Henry left in one of the Petri dishes I use to feed the birds. I don’t know how it could have happened; I was very careful to sterilize everything in the dishwasher.”

“Where?” he said.

“The dishwasher. It gets quite hot you know,” she said.

“Oh, dear.” Clifford paused and rubbed his forehead. “I’m afraid I have a confession to make.” He described his experiment with the dishwasher.

“Oh, Clifford! They looked clean when you dried them, but Henry was alive. If the plates get in the way, the hot water won’t destroy him. I told you it was important how they were arranged.” She paused a moment and then her face brightened. “Well, there’s no point in worrying about it now. I really should have mentioned Henry. You couldn’t have known.”

Clifford took Camille’s hand. “Yes, but I’m really very sorry. I’m man enough to admit that you were right and I was wrong. It was the end of the world.” He walked into a neighbor’s yard and cut roses from their bushes with his pocket knife. When he handed the bunch to Camille she savored the fragrance for a moment and then linked her arm in his, directing their steps toward home.

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