The Janitor by Adam Decker - HTML preview

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Chapter 1

Lunch Geek

I

The first day of school was always the worst day of the year for me. All of the freedoms of summer were stolen after eight hours of sleep by the looming threat of books and homework. It honestly made me sick to my stomach. There was only one ray of hope through that drab monotony—when we finally got through to the other side of the calendar, when spring finally decided to spread her wings, she brought with her the greatest game that one could ever hope to be a part of.

My name is Tony Falcone and back in those days I was the starting catcher for the Collingston High School Silver Streaks. That first year at the high school I beat out two seniors for the starting spot. They were not happy, let me tell you. I think Coach Demera gave me the job because he liked my work ethic. I had a decent arm as a freshman, but my greatest asset was my bat. I had hit over four hundred for the last three seasons, and if everything went right I’d do it again. No big time colleges were after me for one reason: I was only five ten. If I were four inches taller, I’d be telling them where I was going.

Coach Demera had led the Silver Streaks to the state playoffs for the last ten years. He has never won the big one though. Even though he hits the sauce a little too much, he’s the best coach I’ve ever been around. There wasn’t anything the man couldn’t teach about the game. Only one thing was keeping us from a state title that year—pitching. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve got guys that can throw, but we just don’t have that one guy that can really go out on the hill and just shove it up the other team’s ass.

My friend Johnny the Killer was our ace. Killer, you say? His last name was really Killman, and the rest will be obvious as the story goes. He threw in the mid-eighties, nice breaking ball, good control. The only problem was—and you can tell this by his name—he doesn’t quite have what you call the pitcher mentality. Example. Last year in the first game of the regional, Johnny got thrown out of the game in the first inning for arguing about balls and strikes. I did my best to befriend the umpire and smooth him over, but when a guy says, “fucking bullshit” on the mound, it’s hard to defend him. After Johnny we didn’t have anybody that stood out. A couple guys threw around eighty, but that’s batting practice when you get to the playoffs. Coach Demera had a knack for developing pitchers. I hoped he’d find a diamond in the rough.

Collingston High was a massive structure, taking up two and a half city blocks lengthwise and a half a block widthwise. The outer walls were made of millions of crimson bricks. A clock tower stood above one of the entrances that joined the main part (containing most of the classrooms) to the second part of the building that housed the gym, pool, weight room, field house, and a few technological classrooms like computer drafting and shop.

The floors in the building were a gray marble, shined to perfection nightly by the janitors. I imagine it had been that way since the building was built in the 3

1930s. There was never any gum or dirt in the hallways, not at the beginning of the day anyway.

The first day of school was the same as it always was. Opening assembly, where we got to hear the new policies of what was and wasn’t allowed. No ball caps during school hours, because the junior gangbangers couldn’t wear them the right way; girls couldn’t have their thongs showing out the back of their jeans because one of us sex-crazed males might decide to rape her; and this one was the best: everyone had to wear a name tag so the prison guards could bust us easier, and somehow it would feel like the Leave It To Beaver days, where everybody knew everybody else’s name. The nametag thing never went over. I threw mine in the garbage one second after it was issued to me, as did half of the student body.

They threatened detentions and suspensions and all that shit. At first they carried through with it; but as time went on, it took up a lot of energy enforcing something that was just plain stupid, so the nametags were scrapped. We inmates finally won a battle.

Was my take on school harsh? You be the judge. My limited understanding of the word “school” was that it was a place where a person went to get educated. To expand his intelligence and to find what he was supposed to do in life. A place to share ideas. The brick building I attended is getting ready to put in metal detectors at the entrances, had two full-time cops present at all times, and a principal that hated teenagers, much less the ideas that fly from their mouths. It had a no-hat policy. It sanctions anyone who shows any kind of physical affection for another. Hats and hugs are deadly these days. It is a place with no religion, no individuality, and no choices. And once you are there, you become part of a system, much like that of another state institution.

II

The cafeteria was in the basement, under the main part of the building. It was very large, holding up to fifteen hundred students a time. In the past, school dances and even large city meetings were held there.

At lunch I sat with Johnny and some other baseball players. Johnny proceeded to tell us how he banged the bejesus out of Heather the night before.

The messed up thing about it was she sat at our table. We would always get there before her, so by the time she sat down, everyone had stupid little grins on their faces. Heather was a real nice girl, and whether Johnny was screwing her or not, she would have been pissed to know he talked about her like that.

Directly caddy-corner from us I noticed a nerd sitting by himself. He didn’t have a pocket protector or greased back hair with one wild strand sticking up, but you could tell he was a nerd. He was timid and skinny. He read a book while he ate. Like we didn’t do enough of that shit during class! He never looked up from his plate. He never responded to the clutter and noise that filled the cafeteria. He never acknowledged people walking by and never made eye contact with anyone.

I guess I wasn’t the only one noticing the new geek. Jack Rollings decided that on his way back from getting a pop, he would pay the new guy a visit. He stopped and said hello. The new guy just looked at him. Jack called him a retard 4

and took the guy’s milk and poured it on his head. Our whole table busted up in laughter except for Heather, of course, who only shook her head in disgust. I watched the guy use his napkins to clean the milk out of his hair. The geek never got angry. He never cried or ran to tell one of the prison guards. His face never turned red out of embarrassment, although it should have. After cleaning his hair and clothing up, he even went and got more napkins to clean the milk that was splattered on the table and floor.

Over the next week I watched as Johnny and the boys would knock his tray off the table, or spit in his food, or blow their noses with his napkin, or take his books and slide them half way across the cafeteria floor. It got to the point where people moved to our side of the lunchroom to see the guy get picked on. People would keep one eye on their food and one eye on the table caddy-corner from us.

It became the lunch hour entertainment. Even underclassmen were starting to join in on the antics, young punks that would never have thought about picking on someone. I sat down everyday wishing that this guy would move to the other side of the cafeteria away from us, or better yet, not show up at all. You heard people in class talk about what happened to the lunch geek today. Some people felt sorry for him. Some people thought it was a matter of time before he either exploded against this torture (and believe me, as a teenager the worst thing that can happen to you is have your ego damaged or destroyed), or he would be the guy you always heard about killing himself just before prom or graduation. I’m sure the masses would mourn, but only for a day or so, and then it would be on to someone else.

I’m also not sure what I thought about him. He was just some fragile little book geek. You never saw him out, or anything. I knew he worked after school being a janitor’s helper or some shit, but that was it. That was all I knew about him. But there was something about the guy that I couldn’t put my finger on.

There was something about the way he carried himself. He had what my grandpa would have called “the spark” .

The guy would always get the healthy meal—salads, applesauce, fruit, stuff like that. He would always eat one thing at a time before he touched the next. I remember my mom saying something when I was younger about that being a sign of a genius.

The day came in the cafeteria—the day I knew would come—that Johnny and the boys would want me to pitch in with their antics.

“I think you're up, Falcone,” Johnny the Killer said.

“Whatta ya mean, I’m up?” I said.

Johnny pointed with his fork as he chewed his food. “The faggot janitor over there. I think you’re the only one that hasn’t got a piece of the action.”

The other guys at our table gave me some words of encouragement, or peer pressure, whichever you want to call it. I picked up my tray and walked over to his table. I watched the crowd as they watched me. They stopped eating and drinking. Some people were pointing, others were already laughing. I looked down at my tray at the lasagna, can of pop, and garlic bread. I felt a little drop of sweat run from my temple down the side of my cheek. I got to his table, right next to him, holding the tray level with the top of his tray. He knew I was there, but didn’t look up. I looked at my lasagna again, thinking it would be easy enough to 5

smash it in the geek’s face. I knew everybody in the cafeteria was looking at me, I could feel the stares bearing down on me. The geek continued to eat without acknowledging me. I started for the lasagna with my right hand and then stopped.

Something popped into my head, a story we’ve all heard in one form or another.

Mine came in the way of one of those sappy ass emails you get from time to time.

As the story goes, some nerd freshman is carrying home all of his books, walking and struggling with the weight. A popular person (we’ll call him the jock) goes and offers to help the poor nerd. The nerd accepts, and the two throughout their high school years become good friends, even though one is a nerd and the other is a jock. At graduation, the nerd has to give a speech because he ends up being Valedictorian. The nerd tells the story of how his good friend the jock helped him carry his books home four years earlier. Only there’s a twist. The nerd was taking home his books because he didn’t want his mom to have to clean out his locker after he killed himself over the weekend. The moral of the story: We never know just how much our actions will affect someone in the long run. And no matter how untruthful or cheesy I thought the story was, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

I looked at the lasagna.

Then at the nerd.

Then at the crowd.

“You mind if I sit down?” I said.

“Go ahead,” he said back.

His voice was very soft; not afraid, but soft. Some people when you talk to them have that crack in their voice, like they’re so nervous to talk their brain short circuits and messes up their voice. That wasn’t the case with this guy. He had a quiet way about him for sure, but he also had a presence. I mean when I walked over to the guy, he had to be thinking the same old shit was coming. But he didn’t flinch. His composure didn’t change. Either he didn’t care or he was that secure.

The first couple of minutes I sat there, there was nothing but silence between us. The crowd’s eyes were still anxious, waiting for me to do something.

Several minutes passed and when the crowd saw I wasn’t going to humiliate the guy, boos began to sprout throughout the cafeteria. Someone even threw an empty milk carton and hit me in the head.

The guy just kept eating, never looking up at me. I started to think this was a bad idea until I saw him do something that I hadn’t noticed before. A girl walked by and he looked up. He watched her go all the way to the pop machines and back to her table. Maybe this guy wasn’t as abnormal as I thought.

“That’s Heather Hawthorne,” I said to him. “She’s the captain of the cheerleading squad. Real good looking, obviously. She’s Johnny the Killer’s girlfriend.”

“Why do they call him the Killer?” the guy asked as he finally looked up from his plate.

“Because if you so much as look at Heather, Johnnyll kill ya.” When I said that, he cracked a smile. We were making progress now. In the days I’d been watching him, I had never seen him smile. He had a good smile. Not that I’m 6

queer or anything like that, but his smile made other people smile. I was getting ready to give him the old twenty questions when the bell rang.

“Nice talkin’ to ya, man,” I said. “By the way, ya got a name?”

“Roman,” he replied.

I shook his hand. He had a nice firm grip. I heard boos in the background again.

As I watched him walk away, never did I think that that conversation would be the start of something that would change a lot of people’s lives forever.

III

The next day was no surprise. The same old shit. First hour I had PE.

Second hour was Government. Third hour was English and so on. High school was nothing more than repetition. It was a lot like prison in that regard. I guess the only difference was that in high school you got to go home at the end of the day.

When I watched Roman at lunch, this time was no different. Same healthy meal. Never looking up as he ate. Except for when Heather got up to get her pop.

The one thing at lunch that day that was different I guess, was that nobody went and picked on him

After school I was having some severe problems getting my car—a nineteen eighty-seven Ford Pinto, painted baby blue—started.

“You stupid piece of shit. God damn this thing. Start, you son of a bitch.”

As I slammed my head into the steering wheel, I saw Roman walking down the sidewalk next to the parking lot. All of the sudden my cursing stopped. I just watched him.

“Knock the floorboard out so you can be like Fred Flintstone,” someone yelled as they passed by.

“Screw you, asshole!” I yelled back.

As Roman got closer to me, he started to slow down. He held his head slightly tilted upward. It was a warm day and the wind blew right in his face. It was like he had nothing more to care about than the breeze in his face. That might have been the point at which I started admiring this guy. He was so different from me, yet at the same time I felt I had so much in common with him. Roman got directly beside my car and glanced over at the situation as I spat out a few more choice words for the heap I called a car.

“Turn your lights on,” Roman said.

“Lights?”

“Your headlights; turn them on and then wait a minute or so,” he replied.

I really didn’t know what the hell Roman was trying to do, but I didn’t have anything to lose so I humored him. Of course I didn’t wait a minute. But I guess I waited long enough. When I turned the key, my angel started right up.

“Well I’ll be damned. How the hell’d you do that? That’s outstanding,” I said.

“Turning your lights on will some times get the electricity running through. You probably need a new battery or a new alternator,” he said and then walked away. I pulled up beside him as he got to the end of the parking lot.

7

“Hey, can I give ya a lift?”

“No thank you.”

I just sat there for a while and watched him walk down Stephenson Street until he got so far away there was nothing left of him but a dot on the horizon. I turned the opposite direction and headed for home.

IV

Later that night Roman mopped the floor of the hallway next to a row of lockers as Heather walked by. She politely went around the place where he already mopped. Roman glanced up but did not make eye contact with her. As he got to the row of lockers she went down, his mop started to slow. Roman couldn’t help but stare down the long row of pale colored lockers at her.

As she opened her locker, an object fell out and crashed to the floor scattering chaos through the lonesome hallways of the high school. She knelt down and picked up one of the ceramic pieces, rubbing it with her hands. Roman stopped mopping and put his full attention on her. She picked up several of the pieces trying to put them back together, like an infant trying to put a square into the shape of a circle. She stood back up slowly and looked at Roman.

“My grandmother gave me it when I was four years old. It was a Precious Moments cheerleader. They don’t even make this one anymore. I never used to bring it to school. But when she passed away I brought it here because it me made me feel closer to her. That probably sounds stupid.”

“Not at all,” Roman said.

Johnny the Killer walked up.

“What are you doing? I’ve been waiting out there for ten minutes,” he said.

“I just broke the cheerleader my grandma gave me,” she answered looking down at the shattered pieces.

Johnny looked down at the mess on the floor. “Well don’t worry about it, the janitor will clean it up. I’ll buy you a new one; let’s go, the Vette is out there running.” Johnny didn’t realize that the janitor he spoke of was the one he had been picking on for the last eleven days.

Heather looked at the broken pieces of the cheerleader not wanting to leave them. Another minute went by and she grabbed her jacket out of the locker and slowly shut the door. “I’m sorry for the mess, but he’s my only way home.”

Roman just nodded and out she went to the silver Corvette.

V

Friday. All of the cheerleaders were dressed in their outfits and the football players with their jerseys. Fridays were different than the rest of the week.

Especially on game days. Especially when it was the first home game day. People weren’t so lethargic. Even the prison guards were in a better mood. It also helped that we were on a shortened schedule because of the first pep rally.

Ten minutes before the first bell rang Heather walked to her locker, unlike her other cheerleader friends who were skipping around the joint. She opened her locker but didn’t notice it at first. She reached in to put one of her books on the top shelf of the locker and there it was. She took the book back down and stared in 8

amazement. The cheerleader she had smashed into a million pieces was standing eye level right in front of her. A tiny string was tied around its waist and the other end of the string was tied to the back of the locker. She undid the string and put the cheerleader in her hand, turning it over and over. The missing little fragments she thought she would see or feel were not to be found. The little statue looked as if it had just come out of the box. A smile brightened her face. And as the bell rang, she wrapped the little string around the cheerleader’s waist and stood it gently back in her locker.

By this time I was spending the last half of the lunch period sitting at Roman’s table. It was curiosity that kept me coming back. We would talk about numerous things. Actually I did most of the talking, and Roman would comment here or there. He made me feel so stupid sometimes ’cause anything I would bring up, he would know a lot more about it than I did. Sometimes he’d get to talking so far over my head that I couldn’t even converse with him. I couldn’t really tell if he enjoyed my company or if he was just humoring a dumb ass. He never told me to leave. So I guess that was a good sign

Anyway, I started that day at lunch as I always did sitting at the table with my friends, caddy-corner from Roman’s table. We were already seated and eating when Heather came up. Johnny would always turn his head toward her and make some stupid kissy face. Every time, without fail, Heather would stop briefly and give him a quick kiss on the cheek. It had been that way for as long as I could remember. But not this time. This time she didn’t even look at Johnny. She passed him by like he was invisible and went over to Roman’s table. The guys at the table looked at each other and then at Johnny. You have to understand that in four years of high school she had sat at this very table every day. So when something as little as this happened everyone was on edge, even maybe a little excited. School is so boring that people just look for something to break the monotony.

As Heather sat down next to Roman, Johnny’s face went from kissy-kissy to pissy-pissy. He was obviously not happy. I had seen the stare he was giving Roman all too many times; some blows usually accompanied it to the head and stomach of the person it was aimed at. This was not good. I’d seen Johnny beat the ever-living dog shit out of countless victims in the past. You don’t earn the rank of Killer just because your last name is Killman. Nobody ever came close to whippin’ him. I can’t even remember a time when somebody got a good lick in on him. I started to feel a little bit scared for Roman, but at the same time something told me that he would be all right.

Roman looked at Heather as she took the seat next to him, which was more than he ever did for me. I guess you really couldn’t blame the guy; I mean here was a girl that every person in the school with a penis thought about at least ten times a day. She was the real deal. Guys never really talked to her though, on account of what could happen to them if Johnny found out.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit next to you. That was a very nice thing you did for me. It must have taken you hours to put it back together. I don’t have the words to thank you. How did you get it back together?”

9

“I used ceramic glue,” Roman said. “It didn’t take as long you would think. Besides I like puzzles.”

“Why would you do something like that for me?” she asked.

“The look in your eyes when it broke. I know the feeling,” Roman replied.

“I finished with my mopping ahead of schedule, and had some time to kill.”

“You don’t even know me,” she said.

“I know you. Your name is Heather,” Roman said.

“What’s yours?’

“Roman.”

“That’s it, just Roman?”

“Swivel,” he responded.

“That’s a very unique name, Roman Swivel.”

Johnny watched their conversation for several minutes but finally saw enough and jetted out of his chair on a straight line for Roman’s table. He grabbed Heather under her arm and lifted her up out of the chair. His knuckles turned white from grabbing her so hard. Roman looked at The Killer’s hand but remained seated. Heather wiggled her way free and WHAP! The cafeteria turned into a morgue. You could have heard a mouse fart on the other side the room. Heather slapped him so hard the gum he was chewing flew out of his mouth and landed on my lap.

“Asshole!” she yelled as she picked her bag up and walked away.

Johnny just stood there staring at Roman. Roman looked back at him but at the same time took a bite of his applesauce. It was almost like Roman dared him to do something. I’ll tell you this: if it were any other guy in that chair, he would be cleaning his pants out instead of shoveling applesauce into his mouth.

“I’ll deal with you later janitor boy,” Johnny said.

With that, the cafeteria turned back into a beehive. I sat there stunned for a second or two and then picked the gum off my crotch. It was like nothing had ever happened when I next talked to Roman. I didn’t bring it up and neither did he. I asked him if he was going to the football game. He said he had to work, but told me to go to room 339 if I wanted. That room was on the third floor right behind the football field. I had a feeling that Roman would be watching the game from there.

I sat in the pep rally thinking about how mad Johnny was and how Roman never lost his demeanor when Johnny came over to him. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but believe me it was. You just don’t fuck with Johnny the Killer. He would get even with Roman. Somebody had to pay for embarrassing him and it wasn’t going to be Heather.

VI

Game night.

The sun had just set about forty-five minutes ago. The air was crisp and clean. If it hadn’t been for the bright lights overlooking the field, you could have counted every star in the night sky. I got there about an hour before game time.

You had to if you wanted a good seat. I sat where I always did in the front row of the north end zone with the rest of the baseball players. Coach Demera made it 10

mandatory that we attend all home games and sit together. It had been that way even before I got to high school.

By halftime we were up a touchdown. Johnny and a couple of the other guys went to sip on a whiskey bottle out in the parking lot. I, on the other hand, was going to talk to Roman. I could see a couple of rooms on the third floor of the school had their lights on. Room 339 was one of them I imagined.

When I entered the room I saw Roman on his hands and knees. He wore dingy gray pants and a shirt that matched. There was a nametag on his chest that read: Roman Student Janitor. One of the desks was overturned and Roman scraped gum off of the bottom side with a putty knife. He worked fast. Once one desk was done he went directly to the next without hesitation.

“Christ man, do they make you do this kind of work all the time?” I asked.

“When you’re low man on the totem pole you really don’t have a choice.

Besides this is great work. You should see some of the toilets I’ve cleaned in the past.”

“Why in the hell don’t you get a job waiting tables or something? This work sucks!”

“The money is good and I like the hours,” Roman responded.

“What are your hours?”

“Seven to midnight.”

To tell you the truth, I don’t think Roman really liked the hours or the pay for that matter. I think he liked what he did. Cleaning things up. Turning chaos into order. Another sign of a genius my mom used to say. Roman was a neat freak, and this kind of work, believe it or not, was a stress reliever for him. Not that Roman ever showed any signs of stress, but that was my take on the situation.

Later I would find out that was not the only reason he worked that god-forsaken job.

“Pretty good game huh?” I asked.

“I haven’t been watching but I’ve been listening. It sounds like our defense is playing better than they have been,” Roman said as he continued to scrape.

It kind of surprised me that he said that about the game. If I had guessed, I would have told you that Roman wasn’t into sports. But he was right on the money about our defense. If our “D” played well, we were in every game.

The PA announcer came on during halftime and told the crowd that the cheerleaders would now be performing their routine at mid-field. When Roman heard this, the scraping stopped. He went over to the window and watched.

“You need to forget about her, man,” I said, looking on with Roman.

“Why?” he asked back, still caught up in the routine.

“She’s taken first of all. If Johnny thinks you are after her, he’ll kick your ass up and down that hallway and use your head for a mop. Believe me I know.

I’ve been friends with him since first grade and he’s the baddest son of a bitch there is, in this school anyway.”

“I’m not after his girl. I just think she’s nice,” Roman replied.

“Nice? She’s the most popular girl at Collingston High. Every guy wants her and every girl wants to be her. You don’t get that status by being fucking nice, Roman,” I said.

11

Roman’s eyes were still locked on her. “I think it’s just fancy wrapping paper.”

“Anyway, Scott Jakowski’s parents are out of town and he’s throwing one hell of a bash after the game.”

Roman went back to his scraping.

“You should come. Everybody’s going to be there. He’ll have food and shit, even a keg if that’s your thing.”

“I have to work.”

I grabbed a pen and paper off the desk in the front of the room. “Only ’til midnight, right? The party will just be getting started. Look, I’ll write down his address and you can decide later. He lives on the lake, so you might want to throw on a sweatshirt or something.”

I set the piece of paper down next to where Roman was working. He didn’t look up, but continued to scrape the gum off another desk. I headed back down to the field to catch the second half.

We ended up winning the game by a touch down and just like Roman said our defense was the reason. They ran two interceptions back for touchdowns.

VII

When I got to Scotty’s house, there were already people there. He had a decent-sized back yard that sloped down toward the lake. At the far end of the yard were stairs that led down to the dock.

By midnight the back yard was packed. There must have been two hundred people and at least half of them were girls. Tonight might be my lucky night.

Sally was in attendance—the one I almost had in the pool—and if things went my way, we would finish where we left off.

Scotty was passed out at his own party. Not shocking though, he could never hold his liquor. Most everybody was outside, but there were a few guys in Scotty’s kitchen playing the Century Club—a drinking game in which you took a shot of beer every minute for a hundred minutes. It doesn’t sound that bad because it’s beer you’re shooting, but it adds up to almost nine beers in an hour and forty minutes. The majority of people get so wasted they can’t finish. Like our friend Billy over there. They were on their seventieth shot, but Billy wasn’t going to make it to eighty. He kept cussing at the timekeeper because he couldn’t believe the next minute was up. I’ve been there. After about an hour of playing, what at first seems like a long minute turns into a millisecond between shots.

Billy, on his seventy-seventh shot, fell backward out of his chair and slammed to the kitchen floor. As he went he knocked a bottle of whiskey off the table and needless to say it shattered all over. Billy was out cold. The guys he was playing with laughed so hard they started to cry. Sam Peterman took a pitcher of beer and started to pour it on Billy’s head. This really broke up the table, and even I started to laugh.

Outside the music was blaring. People were dancing. Johnny was making some under-classmen do keg stands. Heather was over talking to her friends,

ignoring him. Evidently they still had not made up from the incident at lunch.

Johnny was more drunk than usual because of it.

12

Around 2 AM I ran over to the bushes next to the stairs that went down to the dock. The last Jack and Coke I had didn’t go down real smooth and I was ralphing it up with what felt like my intestines. I must have been bent over those bushes for a good twenty minutes or so. I could hear people laughing and shit behind me. As I looked up in between vomits, I glanced down at the dock

“I’ll be damned.”

Roman sat Indian style at the end of the dock with his head tilted back and the September breeze blowing against his face. He was little against the size of the lake and even smaller against the star-filled sky. As I collected myself from puking and wiping my face off with a couple of leaves, I started down the stairs.

There were a lot of those goddamn stairs, and I must have missed the last two because all of a sudden I was hurtling through the air heading face first for the lake. Without breaking his Native American sitting posture Roman stuck out his arm and stopped my fall. I did slam hard against the dock though.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Thanks for grabbing me.”

“No problem,” Roman replied.

“How long have you been here?” I asked, catching my breath.

“About an hour I suppose,” Roman answered.

“Why didn’t you come up with everyone else?” I asked back.

“And leave all this?” Roman said as he waved his hand toward the lake.

“No offense to nature Roman, but I’ve got a piece of ass waiting for me up there. Are you gonna stay down here or what?”

Roman nodded. “Here, you might need this.” He pulled out a stick of gum and placed it in my hand.

“Thanks, I’ll tell Heather you’re down here.” I started up the stairs not knowing why I was going to tell Heather that Roman was on the dock. I still thought he should stay away from her, but I guess I felt sorry for him being down there all by himself. Then again it might have just been Jack Daniel’s filling my head with stupid ideas.

When I got back up to Scotty’s back yard, the party was still going. The music was still blaring, but it didn’t have the attention it once did. Some people had left by this time. Others were just passed out in the yard. It was like somebody came through with a machine gun and just leveled half the people at the party. Johnny was passed out too, with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his hand, and his head using a rock for pillow. Most important though my piece of ass was still coherent. Well maybe not coherent, but she wasn’t asleep.

Sally was over talking to Heather and the rest of them. Man was she wasted. Swaying back and forth and shit. I had to hurry before she bit the dust.

As I grabbed her arm, she fell to her knees laughing.

“Come on let’s go,” I said as I picked her up off the ground. Her legs were jello.

“Where we goin’?” she asked as she tried to look at me. You know what I mean? That look drunk people give you. They’re looking right at you but their eyes aren’t focusing or something. Anyway I told her we were going home (which if home was to Scotty’s basement then I guess I was telling the truth). I picked her up over my shoulder and turned to face Heather.

13

“By the way, Roman’s down on the dock”

“He is?”

I started to carry Sally off but stopped. “Yeah, he’s down there counting stars or some shit.”

Heather immediately headed for the dock. She made it down a little easier than I did. Roman was in his own little world looking up at the stars.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Heather asked as she already started to sit.

“Please,”Roman said as he looked up at her.

She sat down next to him Indian style as well. Her leg lay next to his.

Roman continued to look up at the stars. Heather wrapped both of her arms around her chest like she needed a hug to stay warm. Roman noticed, took off his flannel, and put it over her shoulders.

“It’s a little chilly isn’t it?”

“A little, but I’m so warm blooded the cold doesn’t really bother me.

You’re only as cold as you tell yourself anyway.”

“Is that so? What are you doing down here by yourself anyway?”

“Trying to look back in time,” Roman said.

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t believe in time travel?”

Heather said nothing, looking more confused.

“The greatest thinker of our time thought it might be possible. Time is relative.”

“You’re losing me, Roman.”

Roman put his arm on her shoulder and pointed with his free hand toward the sky, moving his face close to hers. Heather flinched, surprised at first at the closeness, but then welcomed it when he began to speak.

“You see that star right there? That’s Sirius. It’s the closest star to us besides the sun, which we can see in the northern hemisphere. It’s only fifty-one trillion miles away. How you see that star right this instant is how it existed over eight years ago. How it actually looks now at this very instant we won’t know for another eight years, because that’s how long it takes for light to travel from it. So,

relatively that star is on a different time plane than us. If you could travel at speeds approaching the speed of light to that star, you would have traveled eight years into the future.”

“That’s amazing, a little over my head, but amazing nonetheless. It is beautiful, all those stars so bright against the void.” Heather looked over, noticing the new face had not retreated from hers. “I’ve always wanted to see a shooting star but never have.”

“What you’re looking for is a meteor and you’ve come to the right spot,”

Roman responded.

“What, you can control the sky as well as magically bring ceramic dolls back to life?”

Roman smiled.

“Most people haven’t seen a shooting star because they haven’t looked up at the sky for more than a couple seconds. They’re too busy driving or talking; too 14

busy to stop and live their life; instead they run through it. The truth is, if you look for a couple of minutes on a clear night like tonight, chances are you’ll see one.”

Roman had a way of convincing you of things. I think it was the honesty in his voice. So there they sat for more than ten minutes, looking and waiting. Not saying a word. And sure enough there was a shooting star. And then another. And then several in a row.

“It’s like fireworks,” Heather said as she continued to watch.

“It’s a meteor shower. You just have to be patient,” Roman said.

“I should do this more often. It’s very peaceful. I can see why you like it so much. How rude of me; do you want something to drink?”

“No thanks, I’m not thirsty.”

“I mean do you want something to drink as in liquor?” Heather said back.

“No thanks, I had a bad experience with liquor one time. Where’s Johnny?”

“He’s up there passed out in the yard like some sort of ape. Isn’t the first time and won’t be the last I’m sure. I can’t remember the last time he and I actually went on a date. By ourselves I mean. He cares more about being with these drunks than he does me,” Heather replied.

“Can I ask you something, Heather?”

Heather nodded.

“Why are you with him?”

Heather paused a moment. “He’s really not a bad guy. I see a different side of him when it’s just us. I’ve been with him for so long. It’s just habit now I guess. I do care for him even though he is an ass a lot of the time.”

VIII

Me and Sally were going at it pretty good down in the laundry room in Scotty’s basement. Her kissing was as sloppy as hell, although I didn’t mind in my drunken stupor. Besides that, I had just finished puking so I was probably getting the better end of the deal. I had her shirt and bra off and was working my way south when she started to talk.

“Do you have something?” She couldn’t even open her eyes.

“Yeah honey of course I do.”

“Put it on, I don’t need any accidents.” I think that’s what she said anyway. Her mumbling was getting worse.

I grabbed my pants off the floor next to me and picked them up. Shuffling through the first pocket and then the second, I remembered I left the damn things in my glove box. I threw my jeans on and zipped up making sure not catch myself in the zipper. I raced up the stairs stepping on an arm belonging to one of the passed-out drunks. Bob Franklin maybe, hell I don’t know, and neither did he at that point.

“Hurry!” came the voice from down the stairs.

I wasn’t used to hearing that from a chic. The sound of it gave me an adrenaline boost as I ran through the kitchen. I was like an Olympic hurdler jumping over bodies and broken bottles, not for a medal but for something much sweeter. Hurry was right.

15

I got to the Pinto, got the protection, and as quick as I was out, I was back down in the basement. As I turned the corner to the laundry room, the happy smile on both my faces melted away. There she was, fully clothed and fully passed out.

The story of my life. Not giving up all hope I gently shook her and said her name.

Nothing. It was over and yet another condom goes back in the pocket. Just at that moment I heard some drunk yelling something from outside. I went to check it out.

“Hey janitor boy!” came a yell from the top of the hill. “I thought I told you to stay the hell away from her.”

Roman just looked at Johnny without responding. Heather looked at Roman, then at Johnny, then back at Roman. “We are just talking, Johnny.”

“That ain’t good enough, Heather. I’m going to show this scamp when I say something I mean it,” Johnny garbled as he headed down the steps.

Heather tried to reason with him on his way down, but this made Johnny more enraged. He was very careful on hitting every step on the way down, but it was still apparent he was wasted. When he got to the dock, he jumped toward Roman like a wrestler coming off the ropes. Roman was too quick and moved out of the way. Johnny went flying into the lake. When he hit the water he swallowed a sizable amount. He tried to swim but started coughing and gasping for air. Then there was silence, the helpless splashes stopped, and Johnny’s head disappeared under the water, turning the waves into a smooth mirror again.

“He’s drowning!” Heather screamed.

By this time a crowd of people were at the top of the stairs looking down at the chaos below. Roman dove off the dock into the cold fall water and went under to get him. Twenty seconds passed and up came Roman with Johnny’s arm around his shoulder. He swam carrying the seemingly lifeless corpse with him. Heather helped Roman pull Johnny onto the dock. The crowd including myself was now rushing down the stairs.

“He’s not breathing, Roman!” Heather said.

Roman put his ear to Johnny’s nose and mouth and then felt for his pulse.

“He’s still got a pulse.” Roman said calmly.

Roman tilted Johnny’s head back and squeezed his nostrils shut with the other hand. He blew into Johnny’s mouth, paused and then again. He did this three times and on the fourth Johnny spit up some water and began to cough. The coughing turned into puking. Roman turned him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. The crowd gathered around and as quickly as it started it was finished. Heather was bent down holding Johnny’s head making sure he was all right. The confusion started to diminish and before long Johnny was on his feet. I looked around for Roman, but there was no sign of him. He left the same way he came, without anyone noticing him.

IX

Dreadful Monday came and as I sat in algebra class I stared into the nowhere that was everywhere but Algebra. I was a senior in high school and should have been in trig or calculus, but instead I was in a class with a bunch of 16

stupid freshman. Who’s the stupid one really? I spent three years of my life doing just enough to get by. Why should I be shocked at the result? The kicker of it all is that I was barely passing the class. X equals five, y squared is 16, I don’t know what the hell any of it means. Don’t care to either. It’s my senior year, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to worry about anything.

I glanced around the room noticing my other co-genius, Johnny, was nowhere to be found. Not surprising really. He might still be hung over from the party Friday. Or maybe he’s still getting his lungs pumped from almost drowning.

Probably the best explanation, and we’ll never hear the truth from Johnny the Killer, was that he was embarrassed. Embarrassed that Heather slapped him in front of the entire cafeteria. Embarrassed that he charged and missed Roman.

Embarrassed that he fell into the water and was too drunk to swim. Most of all though, he was embarrassed that the man he called the geek janitor saved his sorry hide. Most people would be happy to just be alive, but Johnny would rather have drowned in that lake than have to face the crowd and especially the guy who saved him. I’m quite sure that Roman was slowly moving up the long totem pole of Johnny’s shit list; in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he was already at the top. The time was coming that I would have to stand up and take a side. My father was always preaching at me from what Jesus said. Something along the lines about a person shouldn’t be lukewarm. Eventually I got the drift. A person has to choose one side or the other; there is no such thing as in between.

“Tony,” I heard a voice in the room say.

Without hesitation I said, “Sorry, I don’t know the answer.” That was my standard answer in a classroom and it wasn’t a lie; I really didn’t know. It probably would have helped though if I were paying attention.

The teacher, Mr. Buttworst, moved on to the next unsuspecting victim without getting in my shit. He knew it was a waste of time. I really liked the guy though; he was a student body favorite probably for several reasons. He was burly with gray hair and an even grayer beard. He always wore a dress shirt and tie but at the same time wore jeans and cowboy boots. His little beer gut hung out over the front of his belt. He had real thick glasses and his breath smelled like an ashtray mixed with coffee grounds. Very nice though, he never raised his voice or gave people detentions for not paying attention. There were pictures of deer and ducks hanging on the wall. Behind his desk toward the ceiling there was a banner that read: If guns cause crime, then matches cause arson. He always brought a thermos to school and filled that thing up between every class. The man could drink some coffee.

The best thing about Mr. Buttworst was getting him off the subject. He would give us the first few minutes of every class period to talk about whatever we wanted. He was the mediator and the antagonist at the same time. We would talk about everything from politics to cartoons and a lot of the time the bell would ring before we so much as opened our books. If you got him real fired up, he’d drop a

“hell” or “damn” during our discussions. I’m sure the rest of the prison guards wouldn’t have approved, but that’s the reason students liked him the best. He was real.

17

It was common knowledge that his wife and daughter were killed in a car wreck some years ago. You couldn’t tell it now. I really think he liked what he did and was pretty good at it. He was one of those people that liked to get up in the morning, just the opposite of me I guess.

Roman had Mr. Buttworst for 6th hour. Not for Algebra, but for Calculus.

I couldn’t even dream of what that would be about, but Roman was really good at it. In fact I found out later that Roman never missed a single question on a quiz or test or final. No one had ever done that in one of Mr. Buttworst’s classes and he had been teaching for damn near twenty years. It goes without saying that Roman was definitely one of his favorites. Mr. Buttworst caught up with him one day after class

“Roman?” Mr. Buttworst asked.

“Yes, sir?” Roman replied.

“I just wanted to congratulate you on the fine work you’ve been doing in this class. Right now you’re on pace to be the brightest student I’ve ever had and there’s been some mighty fine young men and women to have came out of here. I was looking over some of your work, and it occurred to me that you haven’t missed a single point on any problem. I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken a class like this before?”

“No, sir,” Roman replied.

“I notice that during class you never open your book or take a single note down. I checked with some of your other teachers and they all say the same thing.

Your schedule is as tough as they come but you have straight A’s. Do you spend hours studying at home?”

Roman broke eye contact with Mr. Buttworst and stared out the window.

“No sir, I don’t. I’ve got what some people would call a photographic memory.”

Mr. Buttworst stared at Roman for a minute and then smiled. “ A photographic memory is one thing when you’re memorizing vocabulary or spelling but this class is about comprehension, and you also do that very well.”

Roman looked back at him, his mouth locking away secrets in his head.

“There’s a competition in Chicago next Saturday for the top students in Illinois. It’s sort of a scholastic bowl, if you will. The winning school gets the high honor of being named champion. The individual with the highest score gets a five thousand dollar scholarship for college, his or her picture in the paper, and gets to meet the governor. What colleges have you applied to.

Roman took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. “None sir.”

Mr. Buttworst took his glasses off and stared again at Roman.

“You don’t have to give me an answer today Roman, but I would like you to compete. You should look into applying to some colleges also. The mind is a terrible thing to waste you know.”

“Yes sir, I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

X

The next day at lunch me and Roman sat at our usual spot. I noticed Johnny was not at lunch for the second day in a row. I went over and asked Sam 18

Peterman if he had heard from Johnny. Come to find out Johnny had come down with the flu, at least that was what he was telling people. I think it was bullshit.

I brought up the fact that Homecoming was coming up and Roman should ask somebody to go. He informed me that he had to work on the cleanup crew and dancing wasn’t his thing anyway. That had to suck. I was taking Sally—the one I had in the basement that night—and this time I was going to finish the deal. At least I hoped.

Heather came over and I knew I was now playing second fiddle. As I listened to them talk I noticed the guys at the table were giving Roman dirty looks.

A few fingers pointed in our direction and whispers went in and out of ears.

Johnny had probably rallied the troops against Roman. I knew the day wasn’t far off when the shit would finally hit the fan.

XI

Every Friday in Mr. Buttworst’s class, the bearded teacher would put problems on the board and the first person to raise their hand and complete the problem would get extra credit points. Basically, although Mr. Buttworst would never have said it, it was a way for dumb asses like myself to not quite redeem ourselves, but we could avoid flunking if we could answer even a few of the problems.

This went on in all of his classes, even the higher calculus class that Roman was in. Roman sat in the front row of the class—probably because no one else would—and watched as Mr. Buttworst drew equations on the board. Mr.

Buttworst finished, and the pencils and calculators went to work. Roman looked at the problem a couple seconds and then stared off into space. There was no paper or pencil or calculator in front of him, only the blank desk that he scraped the gum off the night before. His backpack sat on the floor unopened.

Mr. Buttworst looked around the room as the keys of the scientific calculators were pounded over and over, and marks on paper were chiseled down and then erased. People scratched their heads and chewed their gum. Roman stared at the top of his empty desk.

“Has anyone got it yet?” Mr. Buttworst asked.

Roman turned and looked at Kathy a seat next to him. Kathy was bright, and behind Roman the smartest person in the class, but on this occasion she was as lost as the rest of the flock. Sam Peterman snapped his pencil in frustration and quit working on the problem. Mr. Buttworst looked at Sam almost asking if he had got it, but then saw the pencil and thought differently.

Mr. Buttworst looked around the room and saw Roman with his head down.

“Do you have it, Roman?” he asked.

Roman nodded, getting up from his chair. Once at the board, he picked up the chalk and went through the equation without hesitation, circled the answer at the bottom, put the chalk down, and walked back to his seat. Mr. Buttworst looked at Roman’s work and then at his own notes, but before he could say it was right, the rest of the class was already copying what Roman had just written. Satisfied 19

that everyone had copied the solution, Mr. Buttworst erased it and wrote another problem on the board.

Roman looked at it briefly, and then stared at his desk. The calculators began to tap and type and papers rustled again. Mr. Buttworst stared at Roman this time. Roman looked up and made eye contact with him.

“If anyone has the solution please raise your hand as soon as you have it,”

Mr. Buttworst said, his eyes maintaining contact with the reluctant janitor.

Roman raised his hand.

Roman went to the board and quickly solved the problem. The class started copying before he was finished. Mr. Buttworst checked his notes when Roman was finished and nodded his head. Mr. Buttworst flipped to the back of the class’s textbook, as he watched Roman walk back to his seat. He picked out a problem from a chapter that this class would not get to before the end of the school year.

He went to the board and wrote it down. The class looked around at each other in bewilderment. The calculators were even silent.

When Mr. Buttworst turned around Roman already had his hand up. The result was the same. The class started to copy the problem

“Wait, wait, there’s no need to copy this, we might not get to this by the end of the year, I just wanted to see if.... anyone could get it,” Mr. Buttworst said.

The bell rang and the class began to file out. Mr. Buttworst grabbed Roman’s arm as he passed by.

“Did you get your permission slip signed Roman?”

“I have a little problem with that day, sir. My parents have a trip planned to go see relatives back in Iowa. They want me to go as well,” Roman responded, without looking him in the eye.

“That’s too bad, Roman. You are a shoo-in for that scholarship and you give our chances as a team an extraordinary edge. Maybe I could talk to your parents and convince them of what a great opportunity this is for you.”

Roman hesitated. “I don’t think that would be too good of an idea sir. My dad has been planning this trip for a year, and I don’t think he can be swayed.”

“I see,” Mr. Buttworst said. “Let me know if they change their mind.”

Roman began to walk toward the hallway.

“Roman,” Mr. Buttworst said.

Roman turned and looked at him.

“Nice job on the problems today. Next time I’ll let the people that need the credit answer, I just wanted to see if you could answer a problem we have not covered yet,” Mr. Buttworst said.

Roman nodded.

“If you don’t mind me asking, Roman, how do you know about things we haven’t covered in here?”

“I read the book the first day of school, sir,” Roman answered. “I have to go.”

Mr. Buttworst nodded in disbelief.

20

XII

After school I offered Roman a ride home; as usual he declined and started to walk. It was a nice fall day, but I just couldn’t believe that someone liked to walk that much. Roman was headed home, but where was home? I decided that I would find out. Instead of starting my car, I waited and watched Roman as he headed down Stephenson Street. When he got a block away from me I got out of the car and started to follow on the opposite side of the street.

Roman was carefree, walking at a steady pace, looking around at the houses he passed and the cars that passed him. I think if Roman would have looked back to see me walking he would have stopped, but he never looked back.

He stopped for a moment at a newspaper vending machine and got a paper. He read as he walked, not slowing for the cracks and craters in the sidewalk. It was as if he had the obstacles on the route memorized down to the last step. A woman walking her dog headed toward him but Roman moved politely to the side avoiding a collision, not looking up from his paper.

On Vine Street Roman turned left. I hid behind a tree in someone’s yard in case he looked in my direction, but the only thing he looked at was now the third page of the paper. When Roman was safely out of my view I began to jog, making sure not to lose him. When I got to Vine I peeked around the corner. Roman was still walking, heading toward the cemetery. I waited until he went in the entrance and then jogged there myself.

The cemetery was old, filled to capacity with headstones from this age all the way back to the Civil War. Large oaks and maples shaded the sunlight from the tombstones. After the entrance there were two roads paved and well kept that circled the cemetery and met again in the back of it. I looked to my left and then to my right. Roman was on neither of the roads. I squinted and scanned the landscape of the cemetery. I could see the other side and the other entrance. There were people placing flowers on graves, people standing, a young man had his arm around a woman. She was crying. But there was no Roman in sight. I looked frantically again to be sure. Still no Roman. I stood there waiting for him to pop out from behind a tree but it never happened. I wanted to call out his name but didn’t. I would’ve looked like a dick head standing there, babbling excuses of why I was following him. Just like that Roman had walked into a cemetery and vanished like the ghosts that occupied it.

I turned and walked back to my car.

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