The children called him Mario. He was short, stocky and mustachioed, and when spoken to prone to rambling unintelligibly in a voice that seemed to start in the back of his throat and resonate within the deeper regions of his nasal passages. His custodial uniform was a light faded blue, a baby's color. There was a particular mop that he treasured beyond all things, its handle worn smooth and splinterless by his own two hands. He called it "Lucinda," but nobody knew this, though he had whispered her name around the motley crew of mentally handicapped students they sent him for help. They called him Janitor Bob, as did most of the faculty except for Mr. Jameson, who was a child. His daughter, a pale girl named
Regina, had explained why
they called him Mario, showing him the faded illustration on a Nintendo
cartridge. She begged her father to shave his mustache, but he refused. His
chin looked weak and sunken without it, and he missed feeling its bristly hairs
with his tongue, a habit he performed in the dark closets surrounded by disinfectants
and handled tools. He'd sit in his tenebrous abbey, perched on a stool, his
spine curved, tongue slithering out to clean the mustache, a rag dangling from
his back pocket, the only sounds his breathing and the wet smacking of lips.
Meditation, which was what he called it in his head, took place for ten minutes
every period. When he was finished, he'd go out and sweep the floors. The dirt
they tracked in was tremendous. Huge chunks of mud came off of steel-toed
boots; grime and gum were left by their sneakers. He could read their tracks
like a huntsman, identifying the various cliques by their footwear. The
Rednecks were the worst, for they seemed to live in filth. No one could ignore
the mufferless roar of their jacked-up trucks as they pulled into the parking
lot every morning. He had forbidden his daughter to date any one of them, for
what good that did. At home he sank into a bottomless recliner and let the
television sing him to sleep.
The bell rang and he awoke from his meditation. Through the bottom crack of the door he watched and waited as they chattered and stomped into the hallway, their movements as loud and graceless as a pack of wolves. He thought of them as animals, so he tried to keep his distance. After a while he came out of the closet, hauling his cart to the cafeteria where his crew waited. They were a sorry lot. Dirty Gene Wilder, with a face like a pig and no scruples about him, clad in ill-fitting jeans and a ripped shirt and a pair of hand-me-down boots. Michael Bosnick, hopelessly retarded, sometimes found walking about with his pants down around his ankles. Borne Cleaver, thin and tall like a scarecrow, with a silent mouth and silent eyes and long pale hands that always dangled around his waist, as though waiting for something or someone to throttle. Janitor Bob surveyed his crew and gestured toward the cart. They came and took their mops and began their labor. Dirty Gene harassed Michael while he worked, telling him to eat this or eat that, Michael always refusing with a loud laugh and replying no, you eat it, Gene! Borne and Janitor Bob operated quietly, each tending to the large areas the other two neglected. Beneath the tables were all sorts of garbage: half-eaten French fries, plastic wrappers, ketchup stains dripping like congealed blood. Great piles of filth sat beneath one table that he was sure belonged to the rednecks. The smell of bleach took it all away, the odor of the children. The title was worn and patterned with the stains of a lost generation. He swept the filth into a waste basket before letting Lucinda purify what they had dirtied.
The cafeteria had bay windows on its western side that gave a nice view of the pine trees and the track field beyond, and one could just see the edge of the town cemetery that lay behind the school. Janitor Bob stared out those windows at the headstones while his mop wiped clean the stains of careless feet. He'd smoked amongst those stones long ago when he was a child, and his mother and father were buried there somewhere, though that had been ten years ago and he'd have to wander a bit before he located the spot. He didn't feel anything looking at the stones; he only noticed that the glass was smeared from greasy hand prints and noises, so he ambled over and sprayed Windex and began to clean, moving his hand in a circular pattern. Dirty Gene snorted like a horse from somewhere behind him. The Borne kid had been mopping the same small section of tile for fifteen minutes. Time had a habit of getting away from you in this job. Every motion of the hand, every sweep of the broom or mop loosened your traction to the earth, and you saw things through the glass, old things, people, places, long stored images that once brought forth emotion but now only quivered in the disinfectant like false reflections, distorted, unwanted, and soon to be banished once more. Janitor Bob kept his hand on the glass, moving it round and round. In front of him the track looked like a course for rodents. The tips of the headstones were black, mossy, and crumbling.
"There's zombies out there," said Borne Cleaver, appearing by his side. Janitor Bob looked at him and saw nothing but a wan face. Cleaver's right index finger was trailing on the window glass, leaving a long smear pointing toward the graveyard. His fingernail was long and dirty and bruised as though it had been smashed with a hammer. The smell of Windex twitched his nostrils, and half of his mustache quivered upward, forming the closest thing to a snarl Janitor Bob's face was capable of. The dirty finger still touched the glass; he could not look past the finger at the graveyard. Borne Cleaver, fleshless, of unnatural pallor, stinking slightly of body odor and something indecipherable but foul. That finger was little more than a bone, and that bone defied the cleanliness of the place. Janitor Bob had a tile knife in one of his back pockets, its blade curved like the talon of a velociraptor. The air had grown cold suddenly, though it was warm and humid outside. Beneath the pine trees there was a bed of needles, brown, dry, and flammable. Dirty Gene and Michael howled behind him, fighting over some uncovered treasure, Gene yelling about purple panties, but Janitor Bob paid him no mind. The wan face was not looking at him, it was looking past at the horizon or something beyond it. Ten more seconds. He started counting in his head. The finger did not move. We all have a purpose. If that were true, was it the finger's job to remain on that pane, sullying it with its juices and germs? Borne seemed disconnected from his digit; he seemed on another plane altogether as his face stayed expressionless and pale. There were red pimples on this face; some were mauled and capped with dried blood. Five seconds. There was emotion returning to his heart. In performing my duty, it is possible that I will create more filth, which it will then be my job to clean. This thought upset him. He didn't like to put himself in their shoes, for he was apart, he was of another system, and there should be no overlapping of functions. Borne's head turned toward him; the lips parted and the large teeth began to move. They are always saying something that I do not understand. One second. He moved for his back pocket.
Dirty Gene Wilder let out a yell that shook him from his actions. He was hopping up and down like an ape, his finger pointing toward Michael Bosnick, whose pants were around his ankles. Urine flowed forth from his penis onto the tiled floor.
Janitor Bob moved with Lucinda, his heart in his chest, the smeared glass pane behind him.