Central Coast California Writers Club Fiction Contest Winners: Second Prize: Hope Janitorial by G.M. Weger

Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem about hope being a bird that perches in the soul and sings a tune with no words and never stops at all. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Hope Janitorial is the cleaning service in the old army hospital building where I work. They’re all what you might call “special people” with this sort of perpetual kindness gene, like meanness was just plain missing in them and was replaced with nice DNA. It makes them all seem a bit different from most everyone else I know.

Every day the large, hulking man, Mark, ambles in a duck-like waddle saying, whew, it’s hot, hot, and shakes his head from side to side, even though the temperature is a brisk, tit-stiffening 60 degrees inside the tall cement building. You can identify him blindfolded from the sound he makes as he shuffles his feet. His fat, round face is always sweaty, and his thick owl-eye glasses fogged up. What little hair he has is on the sides of his head, raked across his forehead like a low-brimmed hat. He says those words about a hundred times a day - whew, it’s hot, hot. No one ever replies.

Donna has Down syndrome. She's short, sassy, slightly obnoxious really, with wide, slanted eyes. She's sweet. They all are once you get to know them. All big kids, or puppy dogs, just innocent, sloppy, happy, and completely unconscious of anything negative about themselves.
Today, as I stare at Emily Dickinson’s immortal words about hope, they've come to mean something dark and sinister. It happens more every day. The thing with feathers perching in the soul is no longer a beautiful little bird sitting on a snow-covered branch; it’s a monster about to crawl out of a mammoth wooden crate in the hallway.

The other day it occurred to me that the only people I actually try to talk with in the elevator or the whole damn horrible building are the Hope people, and they…aren't all there. Actually, to be honest, people who work here tend to favor Mark and Donna over me. I started off late in life, a late bloomer you might say. I didn’t graduate college until I was 35. That’s when I came to work here. It’s my first real job. I work for the Feds. Got my 10 year pin. My boss handed it to me one day in my office on the eighth floor.

“Here. Forgot to give this to you, Jodi. Happy late birthday.” That was four years ago. I’m 49. And still single.

When I started here I was outgoing. I was voted most likely to succeed in high school. I dated the popular guys. Mark Anderson, captain of the football team, was my boyfriend, for Chrisake! Most times after I got tired of a boy and dumped him, he’d be waiting outside my door or phoning me up a trillion times a day. But now, after the federal building got a hold of me and sucked the living daylights out of me, I’m a walking pariah, a mole, a vampire, hiding from the light in my little cubbyhole of an office. I cringe when anyone actually has the nerve to come into my cave and ask me something. I slink around the halls with my head down, avoiding all eye contact. Usually I try to crawl in at the crack of dawn and get whatever printouts I need from the public printer before crowds surge into the building and begin their daily buzz like good little worker bees.

You're probably wondering what I do. Outside my door are the letters SA and my name, Jodi Atterson; I’m a secret agent. No kidding. I’m one of a handful of spooks in the building on the floor that used to be the mental ward. Mainly what I do is surf the Internet all day and play solitaire on the computer. Pray no one has the audacity to ask me to do anything. I’ve paid my dues here. Now leave me alone, fuck you. When I am asked to do something, it usually involves spying on people, though I have no real power to actually do anything. That’s the federal cops’ job, but they’re never around when you need them. The few times I’ve needed their services, they plead it’s not their job. Everyone’s always passing the buck, or pointing fingers. We have a bunch of cameras and programs that watch computer and building activity. That’s basically what I do since I messed up one time and let that guy into the building. How could I have known he was planning target practice at the 8 am rush hour? I swear, if there was an award for shitty luck, I'd get it.

It all sounds interesting, I know, but it’s not. Pretty much it’s routine, boring crap that a monkey could do with both hands tied. The first few months I learned this job and even then it was rote to me. I only stayed because it’s the best paying job in town. I’ve grown complacent. And then the damn building trapped me as sure as a junkie on morphine. The thing with feathers that Emily Dickinson wrote about is silent, but insidious.

I still don’t know how it happened. One day I came in like business as usual and I’d become invisible. Not like The Invisible Man or something on TV. What I mean is new blood moved into the office and all the young, available men no longer saw me. They wanted a date with her – not me. I wanted to be noticed so badly, I tried hard not to see that the guy I had the hots for, had a hard on for her; he was listening to her stories, not mine. I couldn’t even bribe him with a ride in my new sports car. I even offered to let him drive the fucking thing. Nothing worked. It was worse than becoming invisible, actually. I had become unattractive. Old. I shrank into that role like a well-worn suit.

I developed a strange stoop. It was like a weight on my neck was are swollen. It’s like I’ve aged twenty years. I’ve become an office slug, leaving a slimy trail wherever I go. And it happened overnight. It scares people, how old I’ve become. Age is a beast most folks try to ignore. I tell newbies that come here right out of college this is not a place to start out, it’s a place to retire to, but they always laugh it off like it’s some joke. It’s not. Just look at me.

Today, instead of it being hot, hot, Mark says, it’s cold, cold, which must mean that it’s going to be a scorcher. I think of Mark as our local weatherman contrarian. As I creep past him on my way to get water for my tea, I suddenly notice how each eye points out, so you can never tell if he’s looking at you or not as he waddles by. And his hair is always disheveled like he just rolled out of bed. He has the perfect camouflage, the way he and his Hope Janitorial buddies hang around the halls all the time, watching your every move. There’s one of them by the elevator door no matter what floor you’re on. There’s one out by the dumpster going through the trash. Just what is he looking for? Should be a crime to look through people’s trash that way.

The other day my boss came in and asked me to keep an eye on a clerk down in Defense Finance and Accounting who's acting questionable. They’ve been sensitive to any outward signs of oddness since that shooting incident. Coworkers smelled him light one up when there are clear rules against smoking in the building. He denies everything, of course. Says it wasn’t him.

I can relate. It’s hard to nail someone you sympathize with. This building does strange things to people. But it’s my job, so I put a camera on him. When he makes a move I tail him to the john. He’s wearing loose-fitting black Dockers and a white polo shirt and doesn’t go to the public restroom; he uses the private one. I listen at the door, hear a crinkling, the click sound of a lighter and at the same time a whistling kind of sucking noise, and vigorous exhaling. The sound of a spray bottle. A cough. I sniff. Nothing. I keep hearing the same sounds: click, whistle, suck, blow, spray, cough, like that. Then I hear, clink clink, flush, more spraying. Pretty good case to bust the guy. Seems like forever until the door opens. I smell citrus as the guy rushes by me with his eyes averted. I cough, go into the bathroom. The smell of Glade Orange Fragrance assaults my nose and throat. I gasp, buckle over, stagger back to my hole where I turn on my fan and air purifier. Back where I can sit at my desk and watch the camera pinned on Mr. Smoker, who’s at his computer. Looks like he’s surfing the net, looking for some waves on ebay.

I call my boss. He answers on the first ring. I say, “Yep, looks like he’s smoking in the east wing’s private bathroom on the 8th floor. Directly adjacent to room 8060.” I add, “Next to the paper shredder.”

“Did he deny it?” my boss asks.

“Well, no, I didn’t actually….”

“You didn’t? What? Confront him?”

“I was going to but he, he…” I stopped, trying to formulate my thoughts into words. It seemed an impossible task. Time stood still. I was mortified staring at the white wall in front of me. I was drawing a complete blank. Like I had fucking Alzheimer's or something.

“Jodi? You still there?”

I stuttered, “I-I-I-I started coughing from the smell…”

“Smoke was that thick?”

“No. It was the Glade air freshener.”

“You mean to tell me you didn’t even smell smoke?”

He sounded pissed. I paused. “Well, I listened at the door...” I whined, slouching lower in my chair. So low that my knees were practically up to my chest. The building had given me brain fog. I couldn’t talk anymore. I couldn’t think. It was pathetic. Bad enough the building had taken my youth. Now it wanted my mind too. I turned off the light at my desk and sat in the dark. “I heard a click, like a lighter and some sucking noises,” I mumbled.

“What’s the matter with you? You know the cops need more than that! Either get it or confront him directly. See what he says.”

My heart started beating fast and hard as a small rodent in my chest. The thought of confrontation always made me want to puke. I like the set up, not the follow through. “Yes sir. Right away,” I said with a hint of sarcasm and no intention of moving. I hung up the phone. My hand strayed over the magic eight ball on my desk. Maybe if I could find something in the bathroom that I could link to Mr. Smoker. Ashes, an empty package of Cools, something. I consult the magic eight ball. It says signs point to yes.

I go back to the restroom. Nose around. Tissues are stuffed loosely in the garbage can. I pull them out. Nothing but a bloody sanitary pad wrapped in a tissue and an empty can of diet coke. I trudge back to my desk and deflate in my well-worn blue vinyl chair. Hours later I still haven’t moved from my space. I watch the clock tick nearer the hour of release from this prison. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick…If I wait till tomorrow, maybe he will forget. Leave me alone in my cell. Ask no more of me. I have become like Bartleby the Scrivener, and would prefer not to do anything. Short the direct threat of loss of my job, that is.

Mark shuffles in and goes immediately to the bathroom. He complains that the weather is cold, cold, as sweat drips down his fat red cheeks.

“Yeah, it’s freezing,” I say and take off my shawl. A thought occurs to me. I grab the magic eight ball, hold it in my left palm. It doesn’t work if you don’t do it correctly. I put my right hand over the eight ball, close my eyes, and focus my attention entirely on a single question in my mind. A solitary thought that I will ask the magic eight ball. It will tell me the truth, without any bullshit, in simple black and white statements of yes or no.

“What you doing?” Mark asks. His eyes are pointed at the walls as usual, but then they suddenly pull into focus. His thick eyeglasses are smudged with a greasy film; I see intelligent clear blue eyes staring at me. I ask him the question.

“Like you always say agent Atterson, it’s the buildin’s fault,” he answers with a wink, and shuffles out of my office.