“For beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can barely endure, and what we so admire is its calm disdaining to destroy us. Every Angel brings terror. So I withhold myself and keep back the lure of my dark sobbing. Oh, who is there to prevail upon? Neither Angels nor men, and already the ingenious beasts are aware that we are not reliably at home in our interpreted world.”
~R. M. Rilke, ‘The Duino Elegies’
The Challenger blew up in the bleak year between college and graduate school when he worked a paper route to raise money toward tuition. The next morning, while he folded newspapers in his car, he occasionally stopped to study the tragic pictures, and could not help but think back a few years from that date to when all the planets aligned one March night, and he, with a pair of binoculars and a telescope, stayed up to see the last of them, Mercury, rise minutes before the Sun.
The carrier looked past the bundle of inked pages, through the windshield and seeming haze of an ashy pyre, and tried to recall something of that kinder stellar geometry. Had the hopeful future he imagined pinned to the night sky merely been a young man’s misreading of pinholes in a box lid?
By the time the Columbia broke up on reentry two decades later, the romantic was back buried in darkness, toiling with his hands under a different set of circumstances, and thankful the sodium-vapor glow of streetlights discouraged him from further celestial speculation.
Aloysius Archibald Gauge did not like his job working part-time as a night janitor for a surgical equipment manufacturer, but it was an occupation that gave him time alone with little supervision. The staff was skeletal on the graveyard shift, and oblivious to his comings and goings. Still, he was a conscientious worker, and became self-conscious if there was not enough work to keep him busy. The college graduate did not mind the unglamorous nature of his profession, and being left to himself was a key draw. Consequently he spent his downtime sitting on a drum of industrial floor polish in the supply closet writing in his journal.
He was poking in his bag of discount cheese puffs when the closet door opened. Eddy, the other night janitor, came in and pulled out a stashed can of lukewarm beer from behind several bottles of window cleaner. Nosey, he peeked at Aloysius’ scribble, prompting the writer to shut the cover on his presonal venture.
“Heard you’re pulling up stakes?” plained the coworker.
The colleague reliably trimmed his expressions to dissuade probing questions.
Eddy took out a crinkled, half-used-up cigar from his shirt pocket. Lighting it, he blew smoke over shrink-wrapped rolls of paper towels. His words followed the plaited swirl with disinterest. “So where’s it you’re going?”
“College town, right? Lots of cute coeds. Those girls will drop their pants for the price of a dime beer. Or for free if you have a camcorder!”
The fellow janitor weakly acknowledged the humorous remark.
Eddy was glummer after his second puff. “By the time they hang up their gowns and mortarboards, they’ll be a little more selective about who they part their pretty painted toenails for. And more discreet.” He pulled something from another pocket. “See this?”
Aloysius looked over the unassuming bobby pin in the man’s hand; a strand of hair (presumably female) dangled from it.
The custodian boasted, “Found this in the men’s room. The one the suits use upstairs. Looks like a bit of hanky-panky to me.” He shoved the hair accessory back out of sight. “I know the personal effects of every employee in this place: every stick of fruit gum and every pricey bottle of cologne. For all the dirt I dig up, I should go into blackmail and give up mowing yards on the weekends with my brother-in-law.”
Aloysius did not keep track of interoffice intrigues.
“Did I ever tell you about the weirdest thing I found in the trash upstairs…?” Eddy nudged gleefully. “Photocopies from the copier room. Too dark to keep apparently, but not too dark to make out what was on the paper.” A wiry grin sprang to his face. “They were copies of nine photo ID tags taken from the front office. There’s a hundred tags on that pegboard, but these were tags of the nine hottest women who work here.” He leaned in with a piece of deduction. “Some sicko was starting a little fantasy picture gallery. I bet once he got the contrast adjusted, he raced down to Kinko’s to get his masterpiece laminated!”
The reticent janitor hooked the last of his cheese puffs from the foil bag.
Eddy stubbed his cigar against the utility cabinet, punctuating the story with a postscript. “Those photocopies were spooky, though, like those spooky photographs of the nine student nurses. You know, the ones that Richard Speck guy killed. The guy who got a boob job in prison.”
It was difficult for Aloysius not to correct others on facts of his acquaintance. “Eight,” he interjected. “Eight student nurses.”
“But it was nine.”
“Eight,” the coworker reiterated. "Gerhard Richter created eight portraits. One for each nurse.”
Eddy had no idea to whom he referred, but begrudgingly accepted the correction on clearing away his contraband. He turned to the door and, with as much sincerity as could be mustered, said, “Anyway, good luck. Wherever it is you’re going.”
On putting away his dust mop, Aloysius made one last tour of the building. He never exhibited much curiosity about the medical equipment made there, although the titanium scalpels possessed a nacreous allure. Sometimes he found bits of fiber optic thread used in endoscopes when he swept up, which he ardently collected.
A few morning people were beginning to trickle in. One or two greeted him in passing, though none bade him farewell.
Belinda, who worked in accounting, was about to speed by when she caught him at the door and pouted. “I hear you’re leaving?”
The janitor could always find one or two words for her. “Yes.”
“We are going to miss you.”
“We?” he echoed.
She grinned. “I mean me.”
His eyes darted over hers before settling on the door behind her.
The secretary was plainspoken. “Why didn’t you ever ask me out?”
Her words came on him too suddenly to compose his response. He blurted, “I’m sorry.” The reply fell somewhere between heartfelt regret and a forced apology.
Belinda, not sure what to make of it, slipped by with a less confident smile. The man felt the warmth in his blood blow off with her turning, so stepped briskly out the door to draw the graying dark around him.
It was an hour before daybreak. The janitor drove past the plate glass storefronts along his well-beaten path and pondered whether his impending change of address would make any difference. Too many choices in life made him indecisive, and indecisiveness left him with no choices at all. Regardless, he wanted to believe he was more than a loose affiliation of molecules, and somewhere down in the middle of the soup was one unswerving conviction that, entirely selfless or entirely self-serving, would settle his course in the world of men.
First light did little to pretty up the rickety tenant house, but aesthetics were never the deciding factor in where the custodian lived. He hated his efficiency apartment, and had hated it for all the years he lived there. Moving never failed to be a traumatic experience, so when he was duty-bound to relocate, he consistently chose the shortest distance between two points. This meant his destinations were often as undesirable as they were convenient. In his current situation he was obliged to suffer indoor carpeting, a faulty kitchen faucet, and pest insects. He was fiercely private and reluctant to call the property manager with a complaint that required repairmen showing up on his doorstep.
That morning Aloysius was exhausted on entering the common hallway, but while stopping by the bathroom he heard something alarming in the wall. It resembled a gnawing rat, though he knew it must be his neighbor laboring to create a peephole.
The man in question, with whom he shared the bathroom, was the one thing that made this house unqualified in its misery. He stole his hall mate’s mail, and played malicious pranks. The janitor was infrequently sociable as it was, yet despised the voyeuristic, foul-smelling neighbor to such a degree that he timed trips in and out of his apartment to avoid contact with him. He even cleaned the man’s excrement off the toilet seat without protest.
From the acoustics, it was clear the odious tenant was not trying to bore his way into the bathroom but into an adjacent apartment, one vacant for months. Perhaps someone was moving in. If so, it was undoubtedly a woman to elicit such industry from the depraved man. Aloysius had confronted the neighbor only twice about his behavior, and with a show of clinched lip emotion that betrayed his contempt; both times he endured increased harassment as a result. He nonetheless went around to the corner apartment to leave a note.
The door to the residence was ajar, and in peering through the crack, Aloysius saw nothing to indicate imminent occupancy. He stepped over the darkened threshold and up to an inoperable nailed-to door. A pinprick of light flickered in the puttied-over keyhole: The sealed door marked a barrier between two apartments.
While drawing a bead on the tip of the flittering tool, the floorboard under his foot cracked loudly. The shadow of an eye covered the pinhole, and the custodian doubled over his tracks. He reached his apartment door before the peeping tom stuck his head out, and was safely behind his latch chain by the time the man made a sweep of the common hall. Still, ponderous footsteps stopped outside his door; the evil neighbor was letting the meddler know he had him dead to rights.
Once the bully returned to his burrow, Aloysius looked over the boxes in his floor. He was at least relieved the packing part of his moving ordeal was behind him. Unsettledness was an apt description of his life in the small apartment, even without the current upheaval. Yet it was always more camouflage than true chaos. Things got done, if by circuitous means.
A potpie was placed in the microwave, and the six minutes of cooking time were used to doctor a piece of duct tape masking a hole in his shoe. Some years the indigent man made as little as seven thousand dollars, but he had become wily over the years in hiding his destitution. In this instance he employed Chaplinesque ingenuity in painting a piece of taped-over cardboard to match the tread on his sole. He could perhaps work more and afford better footwear, and even better groceries, but preferred working as little as possible and at jobs that required little intelligence and few interactions with others. He constantly reminded himself that he suffered because he was an artist, not because he was a masochist.
His CD player was still unpacked, and after finishing dinner Schubert’s D887 String Quartet was inserted into its retractable tray. With headphones on, the audiophile began pitching back and forth from his waist at a steady clip. This was the most persistent of his tics, and with or without music, it was the one activity he did each day that completed him as a person.
He was a creature of many repetitions, and executed his days according to rigid schedules that varied little. From eating the same TV dinners to listening to the same music to wearing the same clothes, he believed removing unpredictability from his day freed his mind for other pursuits. On this occasion, he wanted the tranquil second theme of Schubert’s scherzo to purge his thoughts of the evil neighbor, and of Belinda.
The secretary and he had exchanged a few glances, but the shy janitor was always remorseful when his across-the-room stares turned into up-close-and-personal encounters. Poverty was his ready excuse for why he did not date—for why he did not do many things. Still, this reason was never enough to offset another round of self-recrimination when it came to women.
The headphones were removed at the scherzo’s conclusion, and he paced up and down between boxes in a delayed conversation with the secretary. “I am a coward,” he lamented. “A coward. There’s nothing to say in my defense. Nothing you would understand. Nothing…” He retrieved what was left of a two-liter bottle of Big K diet soda from his refrigerator. Four Valerian root pills to help him sleep were taken with measured-out gulps of drink, whereupon he resumed his apology. “There’s nothing I can say. Nothing at all.” A Ranitidine tablet for his acid reflux was popped in his mouth with the last chug of soda. “The next time will be different,” he assured himself. “The next time.”
The noise-muffling fan in the floor was switched on and he crawled into bed. His nervous body threaded the slipstream of whirling blades, leaving his regrets to peel away from his cooling skin like hinges of singed paper. “The next time,” went the groove-worn mantra. “The next time… the next time…”
Chapter One, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.