The setting and characters of this story are fictional, but most of the janitor's story is adapted from actual journal entries.
Not Quite Heaven
I don't know what the fight was over. Something stupid. But I don't take crap from nobody. So pulling the knife wasn't a smart move. What did I care? I mean, I wasn't going to use the stupid thing. I got a temper, but I ain't dumb. For all the trouble it caused the fool shoulda been looking down the hole of my piece.
Forty kids started screaming at me. The janitor -- old fool, walked between us cool as an iceberg. He didn't say much. Just held out that big clumsy hand for the knife. Funny thing 'bout that hand I never saw before. It was hard and knobby and looked like it would knock down an elephant. He marched me to the office where the principal worked himself into a red-faced sweat. Finally a cop came and told me a whole lotta lies about jail.
"I know about jail," I said. "They got TV's, weight rooms and gyms, and steak every night. I just let them rant and rave.
The janitor sat without a word through all the hot air from the principal and cop. In his baggy green pants he weren't nothing impressive, even with fists like clubs. I figured he didn't have enough smarts for anything besides pushing brooms.
"Yes," he agreed. They do have TV's and weight rooms. But it might come a little short of your idea of heaven." He paused. "Steak? Well, I guess you can dream in jail."
I sneered at him. What did he know?
"I was younger then. Thought I was pretty tough. Thought I could face anything you could throw at me. But I didn't know!" His voice broke. "I couldn't know -- what it was really like." He didn't have a story-teller's voice. He was a broom-pusher. But the old guy triggered something in me. I listened.
"I can see it still," he said. "Two men in their underwear dancing to a steel band on the radio. A dozen men, most without shirts, spread long a group of steel tables. They watch TV or play card games. Quite a few sit in their underwear, boxer shorts with flies that gape. Two or three openly finger themselves." His face twisted like he had tasted something rotten.
"Thirty-four bunks line three walls. Men sprawl on a number of beds. The whole room is painted a drab pale yellow. It's a dead colour, empty and cold." He shuddered, like he'd just got a surprise look into a coffin.
"The air is thick with tobacco smoke." He stopped and seemed to interrupt himself. "Don't think they allow that now, but they did then." He coughed and then continued. "It was supposed to be one of the better jails. But if you're on the wrong side of the bars, what's better mean?" He stared at me.
I shifted in my chair. I didn't need a staring contest with no bleeding-heart old man. The vertical blinds threw hard shadows, like bars across the floor.
"I thought I had seen the dark side of life." He drew a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "Strip-searches!" He almost spat the word. "Where is there room for pride when you are bent over, naked, while they look at every crack and crevice of your body? Where is there room for pride when you need to go, but the toilet, out in the open, is smeared with excrement, and the only tissue in sight is in a puddle of urin on the floor?" He got up and tried to pace in the crowded office.
He yanked a Kleenex from the box on the principal's desk, blew his nose, then turned and stopped in front of me. "You should know what goes on in there," he burst out. "You're helpless in an unfeeling system. There's the hopelessness of broken lives, the demeaning, belittling nature of a man-made hell." He bit his bottom lip, then continued. "You want a fair fight? Wrong place! They carry the loser out. They drag the winner out under guard. They're afraid of violence, but they love it. If a fight breaks out in a TV hockey game, men shout encouragement. They swing their fists in a kind of visceral involvement. If someone is carried off the ice they crowd around the TV and scream and dance and cheer. In a movie the blood brings laughter." His voice dropped.
He wiped a tear away with a big fist. "Jail is a strange place. The strong prey on the weak, so tears are shed in an awful aloneness in the small hours of the morning, stifled by a pillow."
He clammed up for a long time and I thought the story was over. The cop and the principal sat like somebody had nailed them to their chairs. I couldn't get a handle on what I was feeling.
He stood and stepped to the door. His fist tightened over the doorknob as he turned back to me. "You're a tough guy with a whole life ahead of you. I'm just a janitor, picking up garbage behind 300 kids." He shook his head. "The way those big steel doors sound in a movie is about right. But you hear them different when you're on the wrong side of the bars." He swung the door back.
"I don't have a lot of pull. I can't make any promises. But just maybe, if you'll let me dispose of that bulge in your jacket, it will be one less thing they have to question you about."
The cop got real busy staring at the closet door. The pricipal picked up a paper and studied it. The janitor moved close, screening me with his body. I didn't need no more trouble than I already had. I guessed I wouldn't need the piece no more neither, even though it was just a fake. I pulled it out and handed it to him. His eyes got warm like I'd given him tickets to the Super Bowl. He nodded and the gun disappeared into some pocket on the baggy pants he wore.
"Some of the toughest guys in jail cry in the middle of the night." He spoke just above a whisper. "Not quite heaven, I don't think."
As the slap of his shoes blended with other school noises in the hall, I wanted to scream at him to come back -- to take the knife too -- to not let them take me there. I swallowed hard and rubbed a hand across my eyes -- which were watering -- from dust, I told myself.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Not Quite Heaven - Austin
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