Flash Fiction: The Janitor

William’s tattered mop slapped the ground with a splash, a pool of soapy water and dirt from the linoleum floor mixed with the sharp smell of Clorox. Wrinkled hands pushed the handle forward and backward in perpetual motion. Worn leather shoes shoved the bucket along the halls of the over-priced health club. Echoes of fast paced music and chatter drifted past this lonely section of the building, one rarely visited but needed cleaned all the same. He stopped to run an arm across his brow, thankful this place had air conditioning, at least.

Two instructors emerged from the office to his left, the one with motivating posters which lined the walls. The woman had short cropped hair and more muscles than he’d had even in his younger days; the guy looked like he belonged in a Muscle Man contest.

“Afternoon,” William said.

Neither of the employees heard him, deep in conversation and short on time. The corner of his mouth twitched up and he lowered his head to get back to work. They were young yet, just as he was, once. His children had grown, with families of their own. Five years departed since his high school bride moved on to another world, promises to see him again when his time had come.

His mop led him to the end of the hall, an intersection of pathways where the ‘Caution’ sign took residence, to be sure the fitness center didn’t incur unnecessary law suits. An older gentleman just his age walked past with a racket set against his shoulder.

“Have a nice day.” William raised a hand as the stranger passed, even though the man with the gold plated watch and carefully manicured nails didn’t even glance his way.

William held his chin a notch higher, a soft nod of his head. That’s just how he’d felt at one point in his life. He tossed the mop back in the grungy bucket and pushed it toward the Janitor’s closet. Classes were finished for the morning, which meant it was time for the bathrooms. He grabbed his carton of sprays and cloths and headed to the Men’s Changing Room.

The place held one young soul, a guy in the corner who tied his new athletic shoes. He’d be gone in a moment. William set to work on the mirrors.

Spray. Wipe. Streak. Wipe. Spray. Wipe. Streak. Wipe. Across the monstrosity of reflective glass, the one far too large to be justified for a recreational center. Spray. Wipe. Streak. Wipe. A shadow fell behind him. He continued right, so as not to disturb the man and his routine. Spray. Wipe. Streak. Wipe. After a moment, he straightened, a much needed stretch for his back which carried more aches these days than he’d like to admit.

His eyes flicked left to find the young man watching him. William gave a smile and refolded his rag, ready to finish the task. “Good day.”

“How long have you worked here?”

William stopped and cleared his throat. “Five years.”

The man narrowed his brown eyes, tilted his head just an inch. “Where did you work before that?”

“Harvard University.”

“You were a janitor at Harvard?” Eyebrows shot high.

Another smile ghosted across William’s lips. “No. Not a janitor.” He dropped the cleaner back into the carton, in search of a scrub brush.

The shadow of the man remained. “So, you worked at Harvard but you weren’t a janitor?”

“No, sir.”

“Go on, then. Aren’t you going to tell me what you did?” The man shifted on his feet.

This got a full out chuckle from William. “Sure, I can. But, would you believe me if I did?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

William shrugged. “I was a professor in the Biomedical Engineering department.”

The young man flipped the keys in his hand. “You were a professor at Harvard? Doesn’t that mean you need to be a doctor or something?”

A nod and a wink, followed by another chuckle. “Yep. They generally like to see those little letters after your name. Helps draw in the best students, ya know.”

An exasperated gasp slipped from the kid. “But I don’t understand.”

“What’s to understand?”

The guy lifted a hand and waved it up and down. “You. I don’t understand you.” He took a step closer. “You have a Ph.D. and you work as a janitor? I don’t get it. Why would you do that?”

William slid his hands in his pockets and set his shoulders back, a slip into posture from his golden years. Muscle memory he’d long forgotten he owned. “Why not? When all is said and done, families raised, money made… When you think you’ve figured out the meaning of life only to discover at the age of 62 you knew nothing… I ask you…

“Why not?”

The young man swallowed, his eyes averted to the floor, as he adjusted his gym bag on his shoulder, stepped toward the door. He lingered near the exit, hesitation in direction. One final glance at the janitor, then he was gone.

William grinned larger than he had in days. Someday that boy would find his Why not.

Then, maybe he would do something great.

 

©Laura L. Zimmerman 2016

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