The girl janitor got a text on Sunday from her boss named Merry. Ron Merry. It’s hard to be nervous about a message from someone named Merry—who must be merry all the time—but she was. The janitor cared about what people thought of her and didn’t like getting in trouble. She read the message: Dave the janitor had died and they needed her to fill in for him at the elementary school. The girl janitor wrote back to Merry. I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll be there tomorrow at two.
The girl janitor had cleaned the elementary school once before. It was a warm day in September and the classrooms were pleasant. They each had a long line of windows, which the cement-walled classrooms at the high school did not, and the light that shined across the floor made it pleasant to sweep. In fact, she enjoyed cleaning the elementary school’s friendly, colorful rooms so much that she hoped Dave would get sick again so she could come back.
Now it was a cold and dark November, Dave was dead and his closet was still full of his stuff. He had Harley Davidson posters, stained carryout menus, a plastic cup full of markers and pens, a boombox covered in dust and a blue janitor’s shirt hanging on the door with a sewed-on patch that said DAVE. The other night janitor came around the corner with keys. “You can use these,” he said, handing the keys to the girl janitor. Then he looked at Dave’s stuff. The posters, the menus, the wall calendar full of puppy dogs with the X marks going up to last Friday—Dave’s last day at the school. He thought he’d be here today, the girl janitor thought, he thought he’d be here, crossing off Monday with one of his pens. The other night janitor looked glumly at the stuff and said nothing because he was a burly man in his forties or fifties with a modest beer belly and a raggedy plaid shirt. So the girl janitor spoke up. “I’m sorry about Dave,” she said. The night janitor nodded while tiny heads passed them in the hallway, rushing out the side door to get in the back of their moms’ minivans.
The girl janitor was alone by four, when the last teacher left for the night. All the teachers were women and in a way it made sense. There was something about their femininity that made women seem well-suited for the task of nurturing 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old kids. Even the taped-up sign in the girls’ bathroom, urging kids to wash their hands, starred a small princess standing on her tiptoes to reach the sink. It made the girl janitor wonder what the teachers thought of her. A roaming girl-woman with baggy pants and chewed-up nails and a cart that rumbled, busy with sprays and brooms. At least I have an iPhone, she thought. The girl janitor used it to listen to music or audiobooks and her white earbuds were like a sign, signaling to the teachers, I might be a dykey piece of shit but at least I have a nice phone.
At nine, the girl janitor got picked up by her girlfriend, who had a car. It was a nice hybrid car, half-gas and half-organic. The girlfriend stayed home all day and did home projects. Or she went to the hardware store to get things for her home projects. The home projects were expensive and never-ending. This week she was trying to install a wall-mount for the TV. The TV had legs and it sat nicely on the girlfriend’s vintage credenza but the girlfriend wanted the TV to hang on the wall. The janitor didn’t ask why. “I had to drill into the drywall. It was glued to cement. The screw was too big. So I need a carbon hole and a pilot cup . . .” The girlfriend talked for a long time about the wall mount and other projects the girl janitor didn’t quite understand. On the drive home, while taking off their shoes, as they cooked a frozen dinner. The girlfriend talked over all these things while the janitor ate microwaved spaghetti. “It’s so frustrating!” the girlfriend said, having worked herself into a flurry. “One problem leads to another and I can’t fix anything.”
“You’re learning,” the girl janitor said, raising her bowl to lick the last noodle off the rim. “All your problems are really just lessons.”
“But still,” the girlfriend grumbled. “It shouldn’t be this hard to hang a TV.”
The girl janitor pushed her cart down a dark and empty hallway, waiting for the motion-sensor lights to turn on. On! she thought, willing the lights to come. On! They didn’t turn on and of course she thought of Dave, lurking behind a doorway or standing behind her cart. When the overhead lights finally sensed the girl janitor’s body rolling down the hall and came on, the girl janitor noticed writing on the rim of her cart. In black permanent marker someone had written 1992 – 2021 – 29 years – DONE. Dave wrote that, like a wishful prayer, because he was retiring in 2021. It was November 2020 so 2021 wasn’t far away but still, he didn’t make it to DONE. He made it to his couch on Saturday night where he laid down and didn’t get up.
The girl janitor had been cleaning at the elementary school for days. Possibly weeks. It was hard to tell how long it had been. And now the teachers had turned on her. It happened overnight. But why? What did she do wrong? At first they just ignored her. One of them even said to another when the girl walked into the school, “Oh that’s the janitor,” because the second woman had expressed mild panic. And even though the girl janitor knew she was a janitor and liked being a janitor, it still hurt to be called “the janitor.” To be called something by someone else and then ignored was a strangely dehumanizing experience. Maybe it had been up to the girl janitor to say “Hi!” and show the women what a janitor could be. Smart. Kind. Confident. But she wasn’t that. Not anymore. It was dark and cold outside and sometimes the girl janitor was tired of wanting to be liked. But now the teachers were going too far. One of them addressed her by stopping her in the hallway and saying, “Hi. Why did you close the blinds?” The girl janitor hated this teacher instantly. Why had she started a conversation with a question that felt like a trick? The truth was that the girl janitor closed the blinds because of her mom. Her mom liked it when the blinds at home were all the way up or all the way down because anything else looked messy, but the girl janitor couldn’t tell the teacher this. It wasn’t logical. It wasn’t right.
“That’s what we do at the high school,” the girl janitor said. It wasn’t true. The high school didn’t have blinds. It didn’t even have windows.
“Well,” the teacher paused. She was frustrated because girl janitor’s response prevented the teacher from being right. “Can you not touch them? Can you leave the blinds as they are and make sure to lock the windows? I wouldn’t want someone to break-in and have it be your fault.” The teacher’s narrow, slightly wrinkled face became self-congratulatory, as if wanting to be thanked for saving the girl janitor from legal blame for a break-in. The girl janitor nodded and said, “Yes, of course, I’ll do that,” and in a small way, a battle had begun. The classrooms were no longer on her side. Their paper scraps and overflowing garbage cans and watercolor clouds and dropped crayons were all part of the war against her. All the messes and spills now taunted her, terrorized her, day after day, or really, night after night, because the world outside was dark by three and by the time the girl janitor cleaned anything the only light she had was the bright overhead lights that sometimes didn’t even turn on because Dave was somewhere hiding, holding down the switch.
The TV was on the wall but it was crooked. It hung forward like a drooping head and then, with a push from the girlfriend, it leaned to the side. The girlfriend was behind the credenza, screaming. “It’s busted! It won’t work! It’s the wall. It’s the drywall. It’s the glue the guy who built this house put on the cement.” The girl janitor stood by the couch without touching it because she’d come from work and there was a rule about not touching the couch in work clothes that might be dirty. Because the couch was white and expensive. It was so expensive that the girlfriend had to pay for it with a payment plan: $100 a month.
“Why can’t you be handy?” the girlfriend said to the janitor. “You already look like a carpenter. It’s not fair that you don’t actually do anything.”
“I do things,” the janitor said.
“No you don’t,” the girlfriend said. “I do everything. When was the last time you cleaned anything? The kitchen is covered in your filth. The microwave is sticky. And you’ve never cleaned the cat’s litter box. Not once.”
The girl janitor said nothing because the girlfriend was right. The girl janitor made the bed and wiped the cutting board with a sponge whenever she was done using it, but other than that, she wasn’t useful. She never cooked. She never paid for anything that wasn’t necessary. And she couldn’t fix the TV that was hanging off the wall.
“I don’t even like wall mounts,” the girl janitor said as she turned to leave.
“What?!” The girlfriend was irate. “What did you just say?!”
On the wall outside of Mrs. Petey’s room there were fifteen colored-in signs saying what each student in her class would do if they were the president. The girl janitor read them all and was amused because ten of them said “If I were president I would eat donuts.” Clearly one kid wrote “eat donuts” and nine other kids copied him because hell, who doesn’t want to eat donuts? The rest made the girl janitor mad. Because while Tyler and Zayden said they would “teach everyone to sword fight” and “own the planet,” a girl named Caidence said she would “be helpful.” It made the girl janitor grateful for Caidence and mad at the boys who might have wanted to be helpful too but nobody had put a princess in their bathroom, as if softness and goodness belonged to a realm that had nothing to do with urinals.
The other night janitor lumbered down the hall in his plaid shirt with a wide blue mop. It caught the dust and granola bar wrappers, and the girl janitor, who’d gone to the other side of the school to refill her metal water bottle, pretended to laugh when he said, “Are you bored yet?” Then, unexpectedly, they talked for a while in a way they hadn’t before. He said “Dave was wild. He was in the Hells Angels. He didn’t care what people thought of him. He brought his laptop to school and watched Netflix.” About himself, the other night janitor said he had kids and grandkids and one more girl at home that was adopted. He showed the girl janitor pictures of his dogs, the favorite one named Buckeye, and the orange cat named Punky who liked to sit in the dog’s crate. He also showed her blurry photos of a brown rabbit on his lawn and the girl’s bedroom that he’d painted pink. The girl janitor was glad he didn’t ask her any questions. She didn’t want to have to explain herself. And when he mentioned her ride, coming to get her later, he used the pronoun “he.” He said something like, if it’s still raining, “he can pull right up.” The girl janitor had already mentioned her girlfriend multiple times. “I moved here because of my girlfriend.” “My girlfriend bought a house here.” But he must not have understood and that night, with a mop full of crumbs between them, she was too tired to correct him.
Over the weekend, the girlfriend got a knot in her hair. She had fine brown hair that tangled easily in the wind and in addition to that, one of the cats—the three-legged one—liked to chew the girlfriend’s hair. And when the cat chewed on her hair while she slept, she woke up with terrible knots. It was like the cat’s saliva functioned as kind of glue, weaving the different strands of hair into a semi-permanent ball. On Saturday the girlfriend was too busy to deal with the knot but on Sunday, on the way to Bed Bath and Beyond to return some window curtains, the girlfriend’s knot was bothering her so much that she almost swerved off the road and crashed the car.
“Why didn’t you comb it before we left?” the girl janitor said, laughing a little cruelly at what was really a blob of brown protruding from the girlfriend’s neck. It looked sculpted. A deliberate work of art.
“I don’t know!” the girlfriend was frantic. She drove on and the hair stayed where it was, sticking out over her coat, and then she said just as panicked as before, “I can feel it! I’m not even touching it and I can feel it!”
Shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond helped the girlfriend forget about the knot. She hadn’t even made it into the store when she picked up a black shoe mat she suddenly realized she needed. Then she bought a thirty-dollar candle that crackled as it burned, some Christmas decorations for the kitchen and new curtains that were better than the darker ones she’d picked out before. The girlfriend and the girl janitor were happy as they left the store. They got in the car and turned up the heat and as the girlfriend drove them home, the girl janitor got a feeling she got on Sunday nights as a kid when it was wintertime and there was nothing to do but stay inside and wait for school to start the next morning. It struck her as both funny and sad that she could not grow out of certain feelings. Would they follow her forever? Even after her parents were dead? Or maybe she should move to a warm place. That way on Sunday nights she might dread work or school the next morning but she would never be forced to feel the cold that was like a weight, a blanket thrown over everyone’s heads.
A storm arrived that night and it was so violent that the girl janitor couldn’t sleep. She’d gone to bed early after falling asleep in front of the TV but now that she’d woken up she couldn’t go back to sleep. The shadows of the naked tree branches were violently shaking against the window curtain. The floodlight by the girlfriend’s car was on for some reason, having detected animal movement, and it cast a scary, alien white light against the ceiling. And the wind—the wind was blowing so hard it was like a giant’s breath, exhaling and inhaling repeatedly over the roof of the house. A tree cracked. Would it fall on the house? On the girl janitor’s head? That happened in her hometown. Big old elm trees often fell during storms, knocking over power lines and smashing through second or third-story windows. Nobody had died, as far as the girl knew, but she did know of a family that had been picnicking in the park who got blown into the lake and drowned. The sweat, the lack of water and the sound of the screaming wind made her kick off the sheets. She couldn’t stand to be alone in the black whistling room for one second longer. She went downstairs and found the girlfriend on the white couch, watching CNN. The girlfriend was calm, even bored. “You’re up?”
“The storm!” The girl janitor went to the window to look out at the chaos. It was all darkness because the girl janitor and her girlfriend lived in the girlfriend’s house, surrounded by trees. “It’s horrible. I can hear branches falling. The wind is so loud.”
The girlfriend got up with her empty bottle of root beer and said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Yes there is. The floodlight is on.”
The girls went upstairs and looked out at the hybrid car partially illuminated in the rain. It was parked fifty feet away, by the shed, but it was there and there didn’t seem to be any people or animals near it.
“There’s nothing there,” the girlfriend said. “It’s just the wind.”
The girlfriend went into the bathroom to check on her knot, to make sure it was gone. She’d spent thirty minutes combing it out after dinner, gasping and wincing over the sink.
“Can you go down and turn off the lights?” she said absent-mindedly, looking into the mirror and not realizing the depth of the janitor’s fear. How did she not know that venturing down the stairs to turn off the lights one by one was as close as anything to the girl janitor’s vision of hell. It was darkness descending. Plus that was the older person’s job. Not the scared one, who hasn’t been the one watching TV.
“No!” The girl janitor said, with an admittedly pathetic tone of voice, and the girlfriend sighed. She went downstairs and turned off the lights and got into bed and even though the wind was still blowing, the floodlight was still glowing and the branches were still waving like anxious heads about to be cut off, the girl janitor felt better. She wasn’t alone anymore. She had the girlfriend, a few feet away. Out of reach but there, like a lump serene, a living witness, a body breathing and covered in blanket from head-to-toe to protect the body’s hair. It made the janitor glad. How well she knew her girlfriend. How funny it was that the cat was like a predator, so cute but hungry for hair.
“I feel like your mother,” the lump said unexpectedly. This grievance released in the dark. “I feel like your mom when she asks you to do something and you say no. It’s annoying. It’s not cute.”
The girl janitor lightly defended herself. She would’ve turned off the lights had there not been a storm. But the girlfriend was too tired to listen and they soon went to sleep without knowing it. It just came over them like a scene slowly ending. A gentle fade to black.
The next morning the girl janitor woke up early and was excited to see the ruins spread across the yard. The sky was blue. The storm was gone. And branches would be everywhere. She could bundle up in one of her girlfriend’s puffy coats and go outside to pick them up and toss them with playful relish into the ravine. But there were no branches. Some twigs and sticks, sure. But the trees were intact. The branches that she’d thought had been falling were really just swaying. Violently, anarchically, loudly, dangerously. But they wouldn’t fall. The trees were strong. They’d last at least until the heavy snow, but by then, the girl janitor thought, without knowing why, I won’t be here. I will be gone.