The Black Bag Gang

The Black Bag Gang(A short story by Ned B. Johnson)

Louis Cabrillo was a world class slob and proud of it. He had spent his entire adult life perfecting the art of slovenliness and his time had not been wasted. He had never owned a vacuum cleaner, nor mop, nor broom. His uninterrupted years of bachelorhood had allowed him to practice diligently the art of untidiness and he devoted himself to that task with the ardent enthusiasm of a child at play. While he did make occasional contributions to the cause of cleanliness–after all, even he had his limits–they were minimal; he almost invariably carried out the garbage within a few days after it began to irritate his nostrils and washed dirty dishes fairly soon after he had run out of clean ones. Other than that, his record was spotless.

There were many advantages to this lifestyle, according to Louie. Being a solitary man by temperament, he eschewed visitors whenever possible. This was not difficult when one lived in the kind of filth and squalor that permeated Chez Louis. If they were persistent enough, he even allowed the odd person to visit, resting safely in the knowledge that, having seen (and smelled) his domicile, they would not insist on a return engagement.

Only once had a burglar broken a window and entered his home. The footprints in the living room dust cover showed that the intruder had taken only a few steps before stopping. The exaggerated length of the steps returning to the broken window revealed the haste of his retreat. Upon returning home, Louie laughed as he read this account of the break-in. His only regret was that he hadn’t been there watching from the shadows. He would have given anything to have seen the expression of revulsion on the would-be thief’s face as he scanned the surroundings with his flashlight. This image so amused Louie that he didn’t even mind paying to have the window replaced. He really would have to get around to sweeping up the remaining shards of glass some day, as soon as he got a broom.

The irony of his domestic delinquency was that he was by profession a janitor. Certain details of Louie’s formative years may be helpful in resolving this paradox. He was raised by a grandmother who gave new meaning to the terms obsessive and compulsive. In the decade before her death, when Louie was 18, failing health forced her to rely on her grandson to express her compulsiveness. During that entire decade, she hounded Louie relentlessly about all manner of cleaning duties. Her perfectionism being without bound, Louie graduated Magna Cum Laundry from her private school of household drudgery. He was her finest and only student.

Louie, on the other hand, endured her constant badgering for only two reasons: when he was younger, he was afraid she would put him out on the streets if he did not do precisely as she wished, a not entirely unwarranted fear; later, as her health gradually deteriorated, he came to realize that she would not last forever and that when she finally went to her eternal reward (which he sincerely hoped would be spent in a celestial land fill) she would leave her only surviving relative, one Louis B. Cabrillo, all her earthly possessions. He was never quite certain just how much that was, but he was sure it was plenty. After all, his grandfather had left her a comfortable home completely paid for and she never seemed to want for cash. And then, of course, there was her porcelain collection which he had discovered, quite by accident one day, was insured for over $100,000.

Yes, Louie was confident that when the old mop-monger finally punched out, he would be sitting pretty. Once he even considered giving her a little boost but realized, much to his surprise, that he was actually quite fond of the old girl in spite of himself. After all, when he was abandoned by his mother after his father died, no one else had offered to take him in, and he was still grateful to her for interceding on his behalf, thus sparing him many hideous years in orphanages and foster homes. He had decided to just put up with her for as long as it took. It was certain to be worth it.

Well, you can imagine his dismay when, after waiting so long and at such a price, she left him only the house and furnishings but bequeathed the prized porcelain collection to the A.S.P.C.A. for research into feline AIDS (no case of which had ever been reported). Immediately after the reading of the will he pawned a number of items, including all five vacuum cleaners, to finance a week long Tokay orgy.

In the years since then, he had reveled in the utter absence of anything that resembled household maintenance. It was his way of getting even with her. Actually, he would have preferred to live in a modicum of orderliness but he just couldn’t bring himself to lift a finger. Not in this house. He had long since decided that if it ever got so bad he simply couldn’t stand it, he would just sell the house and move on.

Once she died, however, Louie had to find work in order to support himself and, being virtually unequipped for anything else, he had reluctantly allowed himself to market his only asset: his not inconsiderable prowess as a cleaner of human environs. He had been a janitor ever since and was considered the Matisse of Maintenance by employers and peers alike. In some odd way Louie enjoyed the prestige of his professional stature.

One evening Louie was called upon to stand in for an entire crew who had been marooned by a landslide on their way from Oak Ridge School to the Flannery Building downtown. The boss called Louie at 10:30 on Wednesday, his regular night off, and begged him to test himself by attempting to clean the entire Flannery Building single-handedly by start of business Thursday. There was a big bonus in it for him even if he failed and a larger one if he succeeded. Louie couldn’t resist the chance to flaunt his talent and said that he would be on the job in half an hour.

He worked feverishly throughout the night and escaped detection the next morning only by taking the stairs down from the third floor as the first wave of workers were riding the elevator up. He was exhausted but strangely elated. No one else could have pulled it off, he boasted to himself on the way home. No one in all the civilized world. He had cleaned the impossible clean and lived to tell the tale.

When he arrived home, he was a little groggy and failed to notice, as he turned the key in the front door, that it was already unlocked. It was not until he had walked halfway down the entry hall toward the kitchen, not until he felt his steps slowing involuntarily, not until he raised his eyes by inches that he realized something was terribly wrong. Suddenly he was wide awake, Orphan Annie eyes flickering about incredulously, jaw hanging limp as a wet dish rag.

“I must be in the wrong house,” he mumbled to himself unconsciously. “This can’t be my house.” But as he gazed about him there was little doubt that this was indeed his house. Everything was just as he had left it, everything that is except his precious filth. No matter how hard he looked–and for the first half hour that’s all he did–he could find nothing in the entire house that was not appallingly spotless. Every time he entered a new room he expected to interrupt Dr. Welby in mid-brain-surgery.

To say that Louie was stunned would be like saying a man up to his waist in boiling oil was uncomfortable. His life, not to mention his life-style, was shattered. A decade of filth, grime, scum and all manner of corruption was gone not just from this house, but to all appearances from the earth herself. It was a catastrophe of biblical proportions and it had Louie on the ropes.

Finally he collapsed on a chair in the kitchen completely exhausted and desolate. It was then that he noticed a note stuck to the dazzlingly white door of the refrigerator. He staggered over and pulled it off. After making his way back to the chair, he sat at the table and read.

Dear Homeowner:

Your home has been selected for cleaning (or in your case perhaps decontamination is a better word). We have taken the liberty of straightening up a bit while you were out. We are tired of living in a city where dirt, filth, and clutter are allowed to prevail in so many homes and have determined to take action to fight this disgusting blight.

Your home was chosen randomly and it was obvious the moment we walked in that it was the very kind of situation that our group was formed to wipe out. We will tolerate no more of this kind of slovenliness and will be back to check-up on you periodically. If we find that you have allowed things to fall into disrepair, we will set them right and remove such articles from your home as may be necessary to provide our workers a fair wage for their efforts. Please do not force us to do this as we have a terrible backlog already and would just a soon not have to bother.

We had to call in a full crew to accomplish the prodigious feat of servicing your house. For that reason our fee is unusually high (actually it is the highest we have ever charged). We can only hope that you will appreciate our efforts and trust that you will do what is necessary to prevent us from making another trip.

You will notice that one of the solid silver candlesticks formerly stored in the hall closet is missing. We feel that this will barely cover our expenses but then we aren’t in it for the money. We hope never to have to deal with you again, that is unless you insist.

Best Regards,

The Black Bag Gang

P.S. As you may have discovered already, there are 14 garbage bags stacked outside the back door. These we expect you to dispose of appropriately. We would have done it ourselves but we simply had neither the time nor the rolling stock needed to haul all the refuse we collected. Sorry for the inconvenience, but we hope you will appreciate the uniqueness of your particular situation.

“Jeezus,” moaned Louie, “Jeezus H. Christ! What the hell is going on here? Has that old sadist returned from the grave to haunt me? Naw, couldn’t be. Not after all this time.”

He sat in dazed silence for several minutes before his brain waves abandoned the Flat-Line Asana. It was then he realized that his favorite indoor sport was in all likelihood at an end. No more empty pizza boxes stacked on the kitchen counter; no more dirty socks artfully strewn up and down the hallways; it was the end of scummy toilets, tubs, and sinks; or was it?

What if they were bluffing? What if they were just trying to con him? He would have to find out. Yes, they might beat him but they weren’t going to do it so easily, not a on a bluff at least. They’d have to put their mop where their mouth was and he would see to it that they worked their pristine little butts off in the process.

Then and there he got up and rushed out the back door. Well, at least they weren’t bluffing about one thing; there were 14 garbage bags stacked neatly in a three tiered pyramid. He carried them two at a time into the kitchen and when there was no more room there, he put the rest in the living room. By the time he had brought them all into the house, Louie was feeling quite exhilarated. He had not only recovered from the initial shock, but he knew exactly what he was going to do about it.

He dragged two bags upstairs and began dumping them with glee on the floor, bathroom counters and furniture. He developed his own techniques as he went about his work. He tried various grips on the bags in combination with assorted motions trying to achieve the desired effect. In the end, he had learned to replace the trash with such skill, such loving craftsmanship that it looked almost as if it had been there for years rather than minutes.

By the time the last bag was emptied and the last corner desecrated, Louie was barely able to stagger up the stairs to the bedroom. He sank into bed with a sigh so eloquent, so heart felt, so deep that it may still be warbling on. In seconds he was sound asleep with the vestiges of a contended smile still lingering on his thin lips.

For over a week Louie returned home anxiously after his nightly endeavors only to find no trace of the Black Bag Gang. He had almost forgotten them by the end of the second week. It wasn’t until the third week that he returned home bone weary after a particularly hard night of spit and polish to find the front door slightly ajar. He knew that they’d been back.

He rushed in and sure enough, Dr. Welby was back, this time with an entourage of interns trailing behind him like frosty white goslings. He tried to ignore the appalling sanitation as he made his way down the entry hall into the kitchen and directly to the refrigerator. There on the door he found the expected note.

Dear Mr. Cabrillo:

We are deeply disturbed at your recalcitrant attitude as demonstrated by your utter lack of appreciation for our initial efforts. As you can plainly see, we are quite earnest about our crusade for a cleaner American home, and we implore you to take us more seriously. We mean business and are not the least discouraged by your contempt for our efforts to improve your living situation.

You will notice that the mate to the candlestick we collected on our last visit is now also missing. Next time, if there is one, we will feel entitled to a bonus of no inconsiderable value to fairly compensate us for the extraordinary demands of rendering your little sewer again inhabitable. For now, a word to the wise….

The Black Bag Gang

P.S. You will find no garbage bags out back this time. Since all you seem interested in doing is replacing all that pollution, we came prepared and have carted it all away. We are ready and able to continue this war as long as you are, and even to escalate it if necessary. You will learn to honor our requests and your own best interests.

This time, more because of the note than the cleaning, Louie was incensed. “How dare they hold me ransom in my own house? Just who the hell do they think they are? Who do they think they’re dealing with? I’ll make them sorry they ever darkened [or was it lightened?] my door.”

He stayed up all the next day and his night off formulating a plan to defeat them once and for all. He decided to draw on his years of experience in the janitorial arts to contrive the most disgusting and difficult cleaning jobs ever devised with which to fill his house. Since he no longer had his years of accumulated trash and grit, he would have to improvise.

Louie was determined to make this a masterpiece of slime, stain and clutter. Every closet and cupboard was emptied and its contents scattered about. Bubble gum and candle wax was ground into every carpet in the house; stains of indelible ink decorated every piece of upholstered furniture; the kitchen sink was filled with broken eggs which, though it would take a few days, would have buzzards fleeing the North American continent by the thousands; he saved the coupe de gras for last–he spent one entire day writing, “A neat house is the sign of a sick mind,” in blood-red lipstick hundreds of times on the ceilings of every room in the house.

A week later, when it was all done, every vile, gut wrenching, nauseating bit of it, Louie fell gleefully into bed and laughed himself to sleep, for he was sure they would be back the next night. And as he slept like a corpse he dreamed of buzzards flying in tight formation over Capistrano, casting fond longing glances downward and thinking better of the temptation, for even scavengers have their priorities.

That night, after a sound sleep, Louie could hardly wait to go to work, just as children can’t wait to go to bed Christmas Eve knowing that it is the sole means by which they can hasten the arrival of Christmas Morning. He knew that the sooner he got to work the sooner it would be morning and he would find, he was convinced, evidence of the final defeat of the dreaded Black Bag Gang. He worked hard in a vain attempt to keep his mind from thinking about the presents he hoped to find under his tree.

You can imagine his surprise when his boss showed up an hour before he was to get off.

“What are you doing here? You never checked up on me before,” said Louie.

“Oh I’m not checking up on you, son. I…I’ve got some terrible news for you. You’d better sit down.”

Seeing that the boss was clearly serious, Louie slowly lowered himself onto a nearby executive chair. “What is it? Tell me.”

“I hate to be the one to have to break this kind of news but, well, the long and short of it is…the fire department called me a little while ago–I guess they found me through one of your neighbors–and, well…Louie, your house has burned to the ground. Nothing left but the foundation and the fireplace. It’s gone and everything in it. I’m sorry, boy. It’s just awful. If there’s anything I can do…you know…we got a spare room you can have for a few days, just till you can find a new place of your own.”

Louie mumbled his thanks and said he wanted to go home and see for himself if that was alright. The boss said that it sure was. A minute later Louie Cabrillo was out the door and on his way.

The boss hadn’t exaggerated about the fire. There was nothing lift of the two-story Victorian but cement, bricks and piles of rubble strewn everywhere. Louie just stood there on the sidewalk for a while staring at the charred remains of the only home he could remember ever having. Finally, he meandered toward where the front door used to be and looked to see if he could find anything salvageable. Nothing visible from the front had eluded absolute destruction.

He worked his way around to the back to see if there was anything at all that had escaped. The only recognizable forms were the stove and refrigerator. He stepped carefully over the blackened refuse toward the center of what had only last night been his kitchen. Absent-mindedly he reached for the door of the refrigerator and pulled it open. There on the top shelf was a familiar-looking piece of paper. Without reading it, he knew what it was. He reached a trembling hand in and retrieved the note which he then read.

Dear Louie:

Sorry we had to get so heavy handed but you are obviously the kind of incorrigible person with whom we will never gain any ground. We are not a wealthy organization and our resources are limited. There is no way we could possibly maintain the intense kind of attention your case requires. Nor could we allow you to continue your irresponsible behavior.

After thoughtful consideration and much confabulation we determined that the only way to end this war was to eliminate the battlefield–to wit: your house and its contents. We genuinely regret having to resort to such measures, but we found it, all things considered, unavoidable. Of course we removed all the valuables needed to reimburse ourselves for our trouble.

Best of luck in your new domicile. We hope that you have once and for all learned your lesson. If not, we’ll be in touch by and by.

The Black Bag Gang

P.S. If you are thinking about moving to another area, feel free to do so but don’t think you can escape our scrutiny. We now have franchises in every major city in the country. Why not simply give in and learn to enjoy cleanliness. After all, you know what that’s next to, don’t you?

As it later turned out, the one decent break Louie got was from the insurance company. His grandmother’s porcelain collection was never removed from the homeowner’s policy and so was fully covered. Louie declined to correct the oversight and received a check for the house and contents just in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. The next day he cashed the check and disappeared.

A variety of rumors immediately surfaced. One had him living in Sri Lanka; one man swore he had seen Louie heading west into the Pacific Ocean on a converted garbage scow rigged for single-handed sailing; yet another story told of his suicide and subsequent resurrection as the primary deity of a small island tribe whose custom it was, when their refuse collection became too great, to burn the entire village and move on. Of course, none of these stories is true. The fact is that Louis B. Cabrillo bought a used trash truck which he made into a rather elegant camper. The day after he drove his camper out of town, the following ad appeared in the personals section of the classifieds:

Dear Black Bag Gang:

Thanks for making me all that money. It’s coming in mighty handy. If you want to continue your harassment, feel free to try, but you’ll have to find me first.

L. B. C.


  1. Loved your story . I laughed all the way.

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