The Ministry of Brooms
a Children’s Story
by Patrick Moser
Brad Totenberg will tell you that his title, Minister of Brooms, has no religious significance. His job is to administer. But somewhere along the line the ad dropped out, and now he’s just Minister. He’s fine with it. He has no religious convictions save the usual ones (the Ministry more or less expects them). Brad doesn’t pretend to be a devout man—there’s no special collar or hand signals or anything—but if people believe him to be some kind of religious figure, he doesn’t disabuse them. That’s their right. At any rate, the title makes his job easier.
He travels to areas where people have been swept. They call them “dust-ups.” He offers sincere condolences to the community and monitors reactions. The dust-ups are awful. People get lost. His job as Minister is to remind the people who are not lost that buying brooms is the best way to protect themselves from being swept.
Brad and I have settled into our seats on a commuter jet. We’re flying to Kansas City, an airline hub. From there Brad will take a connecting flight out to the desert where there’s been another dust-up. Fifty-eight people were swept. Our flight to KC is less than an hour, so I don’t have much time to interview him.
“Good morning, Mr. Totenberg,” says the flight attendant. “How’s business?”
“Business is broomin’,” Brad replies.
The flight attendant grins at the line and passes on. Brad takes this hop frequently, so the crew has gotten to know him well. Brad himself doesn’t smile when he uses the slogan. He understands the play on words, of course—he used to get quite a kick out of it when he first started at the Ministry. It’s not that the line has become so commonplace among people outside of the Ministry these days. It’s simply that Business is broomin’ is an accurate description of his job now.
“You say you’re writing a children’s story?” Brad asks me.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You mean it’s for children.”
I shake my head. “No, not really.”
“But there’s children in it, right? I mean, it’s about children.”
“Well, you might say they’re the inspiration.” I reflect a moment. “But there’s not any children in the story, at least not yet.”
Brad nods politely. My explanation makes no sense to him. I imagine his water-cooler conversation back at the Ministry: How the hell can it be a children’s story if it’s not for children and they’re not in it?
The flight attendant walks by again, and I make sure my seat belt is securely fastened. If we hit turbulence, I don’t want to bang my head off the overhead bin or fly into the lavatory. “It’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “I’m not quite sure I understand it myself. That’s why I wanted to talk with you.”
“As long as you’re not one of those broom-banners,” he says leaning toward me confidentially, pushing his shoulder into mine. He’s got the aisle, I’m the window. “We get a lot of crackpots chasing after us.”
I shrug with my right shoulder—he’s got my left pinned. “I can’t vouch for not being a crackpot.”
He laughs. We both settle in now as the crew and plane make final preparations for the flight. I’m not sitting next to an emergency exit so I don’t have to read the special instructions card located by the seat. I don’t have to ask the flight attendant to reseat me because I can’t or won’t perform the functions described on the card in the event of an emergency. I’ve made sure my portable electronic devices are set to “airplane” mode until an announcement is made upon arrival.
The flight attendant begins the safety demonstration. She doesn’t talk or make eye contact with the passengers. A recording provides information as she pulls out various props and goes through the motions of what to do in the event of an emergency. I can’t tell if anyone is paying attention to her. Her face is neutral as she demonstrates how to fasten a seat belt. Mine is already fastened. She indicates the emergency exits (behind me), the oxygen mask (above me), and the life vest (beneath me). I don’t think I’ll need a life vest on this flight since we’re flying over land, but there are some deep lakes between here and KC. In that scenario, I’d be glad to have a life vest and know how to deploy it. I would not inflate the vest before evacuating the plane. Once the emergencies are covered, I’m encouraged to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Before we know it, we’re taxiing over to the runway. We’re at a small airport, so the whole process doesn’t take long.
“You sweep yourself?” Brad asks me.
I confessed that I didn’t. It’s silly, but I’m a little afraid of brooms. I’d probably brush myself first thing if I ever picked one up. I’m sure it’s me and not the broom. To ease Brad’s mind I say, “I got my broom safety training pretty young. At camp in the eighth grade.”
He wags his index finger at me. “You see there, that’s the key.”
We zoom up the runway and lift into the air. I ask over the rattle of my tray table, “How young?”
He raises his voice over the engines: “Teachers should be sporting brooms at Daycare. There should be broomories in every elementary school, middle school, high school, and college in the country.” He points his index finger straight up to emphasize his point: “If the first thing a preemie sees from his glass bunker in the ICU is broom bristles, then at least he knows he’s got a fighting chance of getting out alive should some nut job bust in.”
We reach altitude in a matter of minutes and level off. When the flight attendant starts the drink service, Brad orders a soda. I ask for water with no ice. I’ve taken out a notebook and written down “nut job.”
Brad glances down at my pad of paper. “Know what they call a crackpot who works in a big grocery store?”
I lift my head. “No.”
I smile. “Know what they call a nut job in California?”
Brad lifts his eyebrows. “What’s that?”
He wrinkles his brow a moment, then says, “Good one.” He’s being nice. I know my nut-job humor needs work. I wouldn’t have Brad’s facility, given his occupation and constant traveling. He takes me under his wing a bit and recites others he’s heard on his latest trips—to Florida, California, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Connecticut. Apparently the jokes are all well known. I’ll just give the punchlines: pea-nut, chest-nut, hazel-nut; and of course, the funniest one: donut.
“The nuts sure add up,” I say.
There’s a pause in our conversation that tells me the chit-chat period has come to an end. Brad’s a patient man. He has to deal with dust-ups, after all. And crackpot broom-banners. He waits for me to begin the interview.
I dither with my pen. It feels too soon to ask him my real questions. We haven’t even gotten our snacks yet. I’m not a professional journalist. I don’t interview people for a living. I’m just a writer with an idea for a story that I’m not sure is going anywhere. When you write a story, the reader expects you to have a point and get to it quickly. If I bumble my question to Brad, offend him in some way, it could be a very long short flight. And we’re sitting so close together, as airline space goes these days. If a nut job broke from the galley with an electric broom, we’d all be swept in about five seconds.
I pick up the thread of our conversation before the jokes. “So you want to see brooms everywhere.”
“That’s the goal. A broom in every room. Normalize them.”
“Planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, mopeds, tandem bikes, baby strollers.” He ducks his head slightly, looks down the aisle behind us. “I’d feel a lot less naked, believe me.”
As Brad straightens up to take his soda and bag of peanuts from the flight attendant, his coat pops opens and I see a dark handle sticking out of a shoulder holster.
I’m alarmed. My armpits suddenly feel like someone is pricking them with pins. I lower my tray table carefully, not making any sudden movements. I accept my own plastic cup of water and peanuts. When the flight attendant has left, I nod discreetly at Brad’s holster. In a low voice I say, “Is that what I think it is?” I don’t know what the rules are for Ministers—maybe they’re allowed pack-a-brooms on planes when the rest of us aren’t.
Brad half-grins, the way Harrison Ford does in some but not all of his movies. He slips his right hand inside his coat and whips out a pint-sized lint roller. “I wish,” he says. He runs the roller down his sleeve a couple of times. “Optics are everything. I can’t ever have people seeing dust on me, not even a spec. That’s not going to be easy with this latest deal in the desert.” He eyes his sleeve, scans the front of his coat. Satisfied, he returns the roller to its holster. “Whisk brooms are where the kids need to start. As they get older, you graduate to the mid-range jobs. With the upgrades and converters nowadays, they practically sweep themselves. But all of them, big or small, will protect kids from being swept.”
“Will they?” I ask.
“Absolutely. And they need to know it’s their right to sweep. At the appropriate age, of course. Until then”—he jabs his thumb toward his chest for emphasis—“we’ve got their back.” The gesture is very effective. It gives me confidence in what Brad is saying.
I write down notes, mostly for something to do. I decide there is no good time for me to ask him what I want to ask. I just have to jump in and feel it out as I go.
“The dust-up in Connecticut,” I begin.
Brad nods. “Now that was a real tragedy, pure and simple. My heart goes out to those folks.” He pulls on his bag of peanuts and it explodes. Whole nuts and tiny halves fly into the air. They land on our clothing and down in the seats. Some hit the floor in the aisle where they bounce and scatter.
“Goddamn it!” he gripes. He checks his coat and pants, assessing the damage. “That really chaps my hide. Why the hell can’t they make a bag of peanuts that opens without raining nuts all over the damn cabin. Jesus, is that possible? Just lower the broom on me right now.”
I set my bag of peanuts on his tray table to calm him. “I already ate lunch,” I say.
“Thanks.” He’s gruff, but it’s not directed at me. He flicks the nuts off his lap with his hands, then gives himself a quick once-over with the lint roller. When he’s satisfied there’s no peanut crumbs clinging to him, he returns the roller once again to its holster. The second bag of peanuts he opens more carefully. Once he’s got a couple of them in his mouth, with a swig of soda, he’s back to his friendly self.
A woman walks by, headed for the lavatory. Her heels grind the tiny peanuts into the carpet. The little jobbers look oily, so it won’t be easy to get the stains out. I imagine this happens frequently enough nowadays so the airlines take it into consideration when they design the carpet. It’s probably easier than changing our whole approach to bags of snacks. You never know when one’s going to explode on you, so you simply manage the fallout. If it were me, I’d go with a camouflage design: forest-floor, or maybe hoedown-bar.
I ask Brad, “Do you ever think that we might . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . .” I run my eyes over his jacket. It really is very clean. “That we might be over-brooming?”
Brad chomps a nut. “How’d you mean?”
I let out a breath. “Well, we have so many of them. You’d think the streets would be, I don’t know. Cleaner, I guess. Do more brooms really keep the dust down? Or do they stir it up more? I guess that’s part of my question.”
Brad nods. He points his index finger at his mouth. I give him a few seconds to finish chomping. “I see what you’re getting at,” he says finally. He brushes his hands together a couple of times to clean them. “You have to understand the basic principles.” His voice is calm and clear, a professor at the podium. “You’re mistaking brooms for what they stand for. That’s freedom, which you can never have enough of. Without brooms, there is no freedom. We’d all be swept. So that’s the first thing.”
I’m taking notes, trying to get his exact wording down so that I understand the basic principles.
“The second thing, don’t confuse sweeping with being swept. That’s absolutely the worst greenhorn maneuver there is. They’re two completely different planets. It’s like Venus and Timbuktu.”
I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a planet. Then again, we lost Pluto awhile back, so maybe there’s been a discovery.
“Sweeping is for normal people,” Brad explains. “Guys like you and me. It’s our God-given right. Being swept is for the nut jobs. And since there’s always gonna be nut jobs in this world—What are you gonna do?—you have to protect yourself against them. Mr. G-man can’t help you. It’s swept or be sweeped.” Brad stops, shakes his head. “It’s sweep or be swept.” He nods to himself, getting it right. “I hate to say that, and I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the reality.”
I write silently for a minute. “You don’t sell brooms to people on your trips, do you?”
“Me?” Brad shakes his head. “Not me personally. That’s a different section of the Ministry. I just minister. Make sure, as I say, that everyone knows their rights.”
“How is that?” I ask. “I mean, whenever I hear about these dust-ups, I’m shocked. I’m horrified. Afterward I feel numb. I don’t know what to do. I think that’s why I’m writing this story. Somehow it makes me feel less helpless to put words down on paper. It helps me sort out my feelings.”
“Feelings about what?”
“I’m not sure. The people it happened to, I suppose. People sweeping, people swept. I imagine myself in their shoes, losing someone I love.” I turn to Brad. “But you, you actually go to all those places. You see the sites and speak with the people. How does that feel?”
“Feel?” Brad shakes his head. “I don’t meet with the actual people. I’m there post-op. For the clean-up.”
“Making sure people know their rights,” I say.
Brad cocks his wrist and pistols me with his thumb and forefinger. He also winks and makes a clicking sound out of the side of his mouth like he’s calling his favorite horse. The finger, the wink, and the clicking sound all pop simultaneously. Brad’s timing is perfect. The combination is impressive yet folksy, a reassuring gesture.
“Do you ever want to speak with them?” I ask.
The plane bounces roughly a couple of times, and the seat belt light blinks on. A voice over the intercom tells me to return to my seat and keep my seat belt fastened. I’m already in my seat. My seat belt is already securely fastened. I pull my cup of water off the indented circle on the tray table, which is a smart convenience. It’s a very effective use of space, which the airlines are tops at.
“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” Brad says.
I spell out appropriate on my pad of paper. I hope I remember to look the word up later in the dictionary to get all of the meanings. I don’t want to short-change Brad. I know one of the meanings is fitting, which is appropriate in itself given my last observation about the cup holder. Though I suppose there wouldn’t be a connection between Brad’s verbiage and how the airlines go about their business. That would be like two completely different planets.
I take time to formulate my next question, a work-in-progress. “Do you ever feel . . . I don’t know, soiled by it all? I mean, once the dust settles. Do you bring it back with you? Not actual dust, of course, since you have the lint roller. But maybe the cloud of it might be the best way to put it. Because you know there are going to be more dust-ups. More people swept away.”
“There’s always gonna be more dust-ups. That’s a given, God forbid. But you know what?” Brad leans against me again. “The dust-ups energize me. There’s no other way to say it. What your writing does for you? I tell you what, a good broom will do exactly the same thing for people. Makes them feel less helpless. When they grip that handle and know with one little sweep of the arm they can take out a dirtbag, that’s real security of mind. That’s something they can holster and take home with them. Or go shopping, or to the grocery store.” Brad snaps his fingers and points at me. “Your book clubs. People are afraid out there. They’ve got a right to be afraid. That’s what I tell them.”
I write for a minute after Brad finishes. I look over my notes, trying to get the rights sorted out. “People have a right to sweep,” I say slowly. “And they have a right to be afraid. Brooms help them feel less afraid. And you sell them brooms.”
Brad frowns a bit and looks up, like he’s doing math in his head. Only the numbers don’t seem to be adding up for him. He pops another nut in his mouth. “I just let them know their rights.”
It’s hard to argue with Brad’s logic. Brooms carry a lot of power, I admit. Certainly more than my pen. I can’t say I haven’t felt it myself. “You know, I dream of lowering the broom.”
He stops chomping. “On people?”
“But bad ones, right?” He shifts in his seat. “You’re not talking about . . . .”
“Oh, no,” I say. “Of course not. Not me. They’re always bad people.”
Brad looks relieved. “Well, of course they are. And you know what? I hear that a lot. It’s perfectly normal.”
The plane is humming along now. No more bumps. The seat belt light blinks off. Simultaneously a voice tells me the Captain has turned off the Fasten Seat Belts Sign. I may now move around the cabin.
“They’re not really dreams,” I say. “I mean, I’m not asleep. It’s just before I fall asleep. Usually it helps put me to sleep. They’re more like . . . fantasies.” I say the word cautiously, like I’m ready to unsay it, depending on his reaction.
Brad nods. “You and me both, brother. There’s a lot of bad dudes out there. It’s not only normal, it’s your duty to lower the broom on them. You need to protect yourself, and your family.”
I sit a moment, trying to sort out my feelings. “I worry that the dreams make me numb,” I tell him. “Or that I am numb for having them. That I’m kind of a nut job myself.” I say these last words almost in a whisper. “I worry that the bad dudes are thinking exactly the same thoughts as I am. That we’re all numb to one another. That we don’t know how to listen to one another anymore.”
“But you don’t act on those thoughts,” Brad says. “That’s the difference. You understand what’s what between fantasy and reality. The nut job, he’s way out in left field.”
“Sometimes I feel like I could cross into left field pretty easily.”
Brad turns to face me now. “You know what’s going on here, don’t you? You’re preparing. That’s what that’s all about. Should you ever need to actually lower the broom on someone—‘cause the bad dudes are out there, sure as shootin’ and God forbid—you’d be ready. And you know what?” He points his finger at my chest. “You’d be a goddamn hero. Put that in your story.”
I stare at my note pad and recite the Ministry’s official slogan, which I’ve written down: “Our lives are better with brooms.”
“Course they are,” Brad says. “Mine is.”
“What about the people who are swept?”
“You can blame the nut jobs for that.”
“What about their lives?”
“Who? The nut jobs?” Brad almost comes out of his seat. Then he leans back and laughs. “Now that was a good one,” he says, slapping my arm. “You had me going there for a second.”
Brad checks his bag, but all the peanuts are gone. I can feel us descending already. Following the landing announcement, I make sure my seat back and tray table are in their full upright position, my seat belt is still securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin. I actually don’t check this last one since I’d have to climb over Brad to do that, and then my seat belt would not be securely fastened.
“How’s it gonna end?” Brad asks.
“That’s a good question.” I rest my pen. In a few minutes I’ll be using caution when opening the overhead bins as heavy articles may have shifted around during the flight. A bizarre image pops into my head of chubby A’s, An’s, and The’s rolling around up there, one of them tumbling out when I pop the hatch and hitting me in the face. I try not to be alarmed by my own brain. “Endings are tough,” I admit. “They say it’s supposed to make complete sense, and yet still be surprising.”
Brad finishes his soda. He uses the napkin to wipe off any last crumbs on his hands, then wads the paper up and sticks it in the cup. The flight attendant makes a last pass and collects our trash. If she notices the peanuts ground into the carpet, she doesn’t show it. I imagine there’s a crew coming aboard in KC. They’ll hoover up any stray nuts, or blow them so far into the corners that no one will even notice. The cabin will be all groomed for the next flight.
“What you could do,” Brad says, “if you wanted to work a kid into the story. Have a tyke bust out of the broom closet, as they do, pretending to sweep a bunch of his friends, who are play-acting bad guys. That makes sense. But it’d be surprising too, like a little Jack-in-the-Box. If you did it right, you’d scare people. It’d be like Stephen King.”
“That’s a possibility,” I say.
I press my notebook in my lap. The landing gear doors bang open beneath us. I hear the wheels lever down and lock into place.
It’s always hard for me to talk about my stories. They sound dumb when I try to explain them out loud to people. It’s like listening to someone yap about their dreams. Boring.
But Brad is a friendly ear, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to meet someone from the Ministry again. They’re so busy helping people. Even if my ending doesn’t turn out exactly this way, I try it on him for size. I’m interested in his reaction as a Minister.
“What if I had parents standing in a school parking lot,” I say, “waiting for their kids to come out. A siren suddenly blasts, and a mom sees a group of boys running from the building carrying her son’s body on their shoulders. He’s bloodied, but she recognizes his clothes—his red jacket, the jeans, his white tennis shoes with the rainbow laces. Then his hair and face. He’s on his back, lifeless, arms dangling down as they race him across the playground. He’s heavy. His head and neck jerk up and down as the boys run. They’ve never practiced this before. They’re all screaming, except for her son. Other kids are doing the same thing. Running from the building, carrying the limp bodies of their classmates. This mom has her hands to her face. Just as they reach the parking lot, and the mom is running toward her son—she’s supposed to stay behind the yellow tape with the TV cameras, but she can’t help herself—he suddenly springs off their shoulders with a shout of triumph and lands on his feet.”
“He’s alive?” Brad asks.
I nod. “The mom knows this is just a drill, but she breaks down crying anyway. They’ve scared her to death.”
Brad waits for more. When I stay silent, he says: “Doe she die?”
“No,” I say. “Not literally.”
“Oh.” He nods and rolls his bottom lip out. “Does anyone die?”
“Not in this version. They’re just practicing, but they have to act like it’s real. I don’t want anyone to die, not if I can help it.”
I’m saved by the plane bouncing hard on the runway. “I’ll probably change it,” I add. “Go more with the Stephen King idea.”
“No,” he says over the sound of scraping wheels. “It’s real good. I was surprised.”
We deplane and say our goodbyes in the terminal. Brad strides off. I wish him well in the desert and wherever else his travels take him. He waves back, tells me Good luck with the story.
I find my gate and take a seat. I have a couple of hours before my flight back home, time enough to work on my ending. I look up at a television news program. I’m too far away to hear anything. I just get the visuals, four or five separate shots that are repeated so they run together in a continuous loop. They’re at a small-town church somewhere. The newscasters continue moving their mouths, though there doesn’t appear to be any new information. The story is on-going. A woman’s voice, friendly yet insistent, asks for my attention, please. And not just me, all passengers. She tells me if any unknown person attempts to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight, not to accept it, and to notify airport personnel immediately. The message is so important that she repeats it five minutes later.
I look around the terminal to see if I can spot an unknown person who might attempt to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight. If I do spot one, I’d like to report them.
I wonder if anyone else is listening to the woman’s voice.
Patrick Moser has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and teaches writing and French at Drury University (Springfield, Missouri). He writes mostly nonfiction about the history and culture of surfing, including essays in Gingko Tree Review, Kurungabaa, Sport Literate, and Bamboo Ridge. He is the editor of Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing and has collaborated on two books with world surfing champion Shaun Tomson: Surfer’s Code, and The Code. He is a recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is his first short story.