By Samuel Hernandez
He mops and sweeps the floor and the time passes. His thoughts are initially for getting through the morning.
Classroom 1A is empty so he goes in there and starts stacking chairs on top of the tables. They tell the students to do this job. After class, the teachers stand up front and tell the students to put their chairs on top of their tables. Depending on the grade, these children lug heavy chairs above their heads, always in danger of concussion and heavy fracture, and they slide them on top of the chairs.
Mr. Martinez slips his head in while he cracks his neck and wipes his head from the accumulating sweat. It’s a year where spring lasts three days and then moves on, overcrowded by zealous winter and threatening summer. There is heat from the laughing sun, and from the tiny bodies of so many children packed into a school. “Do your fucking job,” Martinez says.
Martinez is a hard boss. In a couple years, the Janitor will suffer kidney failure and need to go to a dialysis center three times a week. At the dialysis center they will recycle his blood and steal what little energy his body has. He has children and an intact family. During the first couple months he tries to work. His body is like those first graders struggling to get the chairs above their head, the threat of collapse is every second.
“Oye,” Martinez will shout, “you can’t do the fucking job anymore don’t do it.”
Then later, Martinez will tell the Janitor that he understands that life has dealt him a terrible hand, and that if he needs to take it slow, he can take it slow.
When the Janitor slows down the teachers whisper and it takes him longer and longer to clean the classrooms.
“I don’t think you can do this anymore,” Martinez says, no compassion. “You have to quit.”
Now though the Janitor is sweeping through classroom 1A, which a couple of years ago held 6th graders and now just sits empty all morning. The school is failing too. Nestled in a small community that once held white affluence, an increase of less desirables have led to a decrease in the education. His own two sons go to this school, but the district is convinced that things are going downhill.
“Maybe,” he thinks, “that’s what happens when the head security guard is only in his position because he is the brother of the mayor. And a drug addict brother at that.”
A teacher strolls in and watches him mopping. The smell of ammonia, intoxicating, bringing a light headed clearness to his job, wafts to the teacher and she wrinkles her nose. First she looks at him with a question on her lips, and then she hesitates. She brings her hand to her mouth to cover up the smell further. Her hair is short and modish, on her face sits a pair of glasses that are working towards the end of their life—a little bent, a little chipped—and a cardigan hugs her gently. She is the same as he is though.
“Do you speak English,” she asks, already annoyed.
He shakes his head.
“Of course I do,” he thinks, “when they hit you if you speak anything else but English in classrooms, you speak English.”
He shakes his head again to make it seem less of a response and more a part of his character’s behavior.
Here: watch the Janitor as he mops the floor and is unable to master the English language well enough to converse with the college educated teacher. She is cute and dependable, carrying herself with a confidence that borders on condescension. And why shouldn’t she, her daily role is to tell others what to do. She has the command of an entire little group of children, those who both can and cannot speak English. The Janitor though, takes orders, and performs them without saying a word.
She repeats, more loudly, “Do you speak English?”
He turns to her and drops the mop loudly on the floor. She shudders and takes a step back.
“Que,” he asks her in his best Spanish, “Que quieres?”
She shakes her head, in disappointment, and goes off to find another Janitor to clean up the mess that her children have made.
“They aren’t all like that,” he imagines telling his son, after telling him this story, “but you have to stick up for yourself. No one can tell you what you are or are not.”
The morning goes by quickly because his son is in pre-kindergarten and they only go in for half days. At noon, he grabs his little boy around the waist and hoists him to the car to take him home. They laugh and neither wonders what will happen to them in twenty years, or even in ten. The life that is shared between a father and his son, when there’s so much searching still in both, is right here in this walk to the car. One day the boy will keep this moment a secret, he won’t tell anyone that his father was the Janitor, or about the illness that followed, or about anything that mattered to him about his family. First it will be out of shame, then out of a simple desire and need to be normal.
Like walking to the car after taking a nap in Pre-K. Running to the car to beat his father to the door and then waiting for him to unlock the door so he can actually get in. Laughing and complaining half- heartedly that his father unlocks his own door first and then lets his son in, so that he can say that he won. Stopping at the local deli/grocery to grab a root beer and lunch with his father and singing along to classic rock songs on the radio. The resonance of Joe Walsh talking about the hedonistic lifestyle of being rich and famous and this little boy entertaining his father, a man who wakes up early and goes to sleep late cleaning up messes and being questioned about his intelligence by teachers, by singing loudly along.
The Janitor drops his son off and kisses his wife, if even only in his head, and then he heads back to work where there is another classroom waiting to be mopped and swept.
Samuel Hernandez is originally from Texas. He clutches his increasingly unpopular print books and wonders at their coming destruction. Find him on Twitter at @samtoastable.
Michael Shaeffer is a Nebraska born Illustrator, Menswear designer and Musician. He resides in Bushwick, likes bike rides and hates brunch. You can see more of his work at http://michaelshaeffer.com/
Sunday Read is a weekly literary feature curated and edited by Wesley Salazar. We accept submissions of short stories, poetry, essays, script excerpts, comics, etc. (max: 1000 words) on a rolling basis. We are also looking for artists who would like to illustrate for Sunday Read. Please send submissions to wesleyATbushwickdaily.com.