He came into the school, and he could not understand anything they were saying. They weren't speaking a foreign language. He recognized the words, but he couldn't make sense of them. They came to him and left as quickly, without making an imprint on his consciousness. He had had a cold and he thought maybe his ears were stopped up and that was upsetting his equilibrium. He went into the bathroom and blew his nose and splashed water on his face. He could hear the splash of it on his hands and in the sink, a sound as recognizable and familiar as ever. He went back out into the hallway.
The kids were going into classrooms amid a clatter of squeaks of rubber soles on waxed tile and banging door bars. He heard and understood those sounds, and he heard the words they were saying to one another, and the tone of them, light and joking, too loud in that high-school way, but he did not know what they were saying.
He sat on a bench and watched the hallway clear. In the classrooms, behind the closed doors, he could hear teachers and students speaking. The sound was muffled and far away so that he wouldn't be expected to understand what was being said. It was comforting to hear and not understand when he was not meant to understand. He thought that when the doors opened and the kids came back out, as they got closer, he would be able to understand them again, as anyone would in such circumstances.
He heard the sharp footsteps and looked down the hall and saw the woman approaching. He just watched her. She came to where he sat and stood looking down at him, as if deciding whether to offer him a dollar or two, the way you would a homeless person.
"Are you hear about the janitorial job?" she said.
He was so surprised to know what she said that he did not answer. He might as well not have understood. Perhaps he didn't. He decided to wait to see if she would speak again.
"The job?" she said, quite clearly.
"Yes, ma'am. That's right."
He tried not to let the relief show on his face. She would ask him what had been the matter. If he told her, he surely wouldn't get the job. She would think there was something wrong with him. Or maybe that he was crazy.
She showed him the janitor's closet and told him that the principal would tell him more about the job later but for now could he clean up around the picnic tables in the courtyard. The kids had left it a mess after lunch. She'd told them and told them to pick up after themselves, but they were a bunch of spoiled rich kids and thought they didn't have to do anything they didn't want to. He got the broom and mop and she took him outside and left him.
It wasn't too bad. There were a few sandwich wrappers and napkins up against the fence and some soda cans on the tables. Someone had left an apple. He put it in his pocket for later. In a spreading oak tree a gang of blackbirds was making a racket. They sounded just like the kids. He recognized their sounds but could not understand their meaning.
He got the area cleaned up and sat at one of the tables. The woman had not told him what else he was to do. The class bell rang and he could hear the kids inside the hallway. The door to the patio banged open and a half dozen came out and sat at the tables nearby. He did not get up. He felt invisible.
"Can you believe it?" one boy said to another.
Oh, thank god! He could understand him. Whatever it was had passed. He watched the boy gratefully.
"That old fool assigned a term paper the same day we have our AP mid-term. He acts like his is our only class. They all do."
He felt uncomfortable listening to them complain, even though his presence did not seem to bother them. They didn't even seem to notice him. He thought he'd better find the woman and find out what was expected of him. It wouldn't do to be sitting down on the job on his first day. He went back inside and found the principal's office.
"I've come to see what I should do next," he told the woman behind the desk. She had a heavy face a red eyeglasses. She said something he did not catch.
She spoke again. He thought he heard the word “work.” The others words were there and then they weren't, as if blown away by a wind as they came to him. He couldn't very well say he didn't understand her. She would think he was stupid.
"Can you tell me where I can use the bathroom?” he said.
He knew where it was, but he thought if he paid close attention to how she told him he could learn to decode her speech. She said something he did not understand and pointed back out into the hallway. He nodded as if he had understood and bowed his head and said he would be right back. The way she watched him as he left made him uncomfortable, but he could hardly blame her.
There were two boys in the bathroom. One said something to the other. He could not make it out. He pretended to use the urinal and waited for them to leave. He looked the same in the mirror. His eyes did not look cloudy. There was no swelling in his face. His ears were not filled with wax. There was nothing to say he could hear but not understand. He returned to the principal's office.
"The principal will see you now," the woman with the heavy face and red eyeglasses said.
This time it did not shock him that he could understand her. He went into the principal's office. She was talking to a man dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He wasn't even dressed well enough to be a janitor. He must be a teacher, the janitor thought, surprising himself. Only a teacher could get away with looking like that. Teachers couldn't be fired. He'd heard that and he believed it, especially looking at this one.
"We can't be expected to do this," the badly dressed man said to the principal. “That goddamned website is a nightmare. The extra work isn't in our contract."
"It's for the kids," the principal said. "Give it a try, please."
"No promises," the man said.
He walked past the janitor as if he weren't there.
When they were alone, the principal sat behind her desk. She did not say anything.
"I'm here to see about what you want me to do," the janitor said.
She just looked at him. Maybe she couldn't understand him. Maybe his words were coming out like gibberish.
"There's a teachers’ union meeting down the hall. I want you to go run them out of here?"
Well, he heard that.
"I could sweep them up," he said.
He thought it was nice little joke. She smiled.
“You ever know someone who won’t listen?" she said. "No matter what you say, no matter how reasonable you are?”
“I had a dog like that once.”
She smiled again.
“What did you do with him?”
“I just left him alone. He was no good, but he didn’t hurt anything.”
“What if he’d been pretty good, but every once in a while he bit you? What if he was a little lazy and when you tried to get him to do what he should do he sometimes growled at you and you thought he might bite you again.”
“I might take a dog like that for a long ride and let him out to sniff new territory. If he didn’t get back in the car right away, well…”
She had closed her eyes and was either about to go to sleep or cry. He felt sorry for her, although he wasn’t quite sure why. He didn’t know her. Maybe she was the problem. Maybe those teachers were meeting down the hall about her. Maybe she was the dog who bites you once in a while.
She opened her eyes and said something, but she did not get up.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, although he had not understood what she’d said. Not a word.
Some of the kids were in the hallway again. In front of a row of lockers, one girl was getting out her books. Her pale cheeks were splotchy and the skin around eyes was red. A friend had hold of her arm, as if to help her stay on her feet.
“It’s okay,” the friend said. “We’ll talk to Mr. Travis.”
The girl just shook her head. “I can’t do both. I’ll do bad on one of them.”
“No you won’t.”
The janitor was feeling self-conscious standing there eavesdropping. He went to the janitor’s closet and got the mop and brought it back to close to where the girls were standing and made out like he was mopping up a spill.
The girl who had been crying was leaning back against the lockers now. She looked like she was about to slide down to the ground. The janitor had half a Snickers bar in his pocket. He wondered if she would like it. Everything looked better after a Snicker’s bar.
“Wasn’t it on the assignment website?” the friend said. “Didn’t he see it. He knows you can’t do both.”
“He told us he doesn’t have time for that. He says our schedules are our own problems.”
The janitor heard himself speaking before he even realized he was formulating the thought. “You can’t work for two bosses,” he said.
The friend looked at him. She seemed a little annoyed.
“When that happens,” he said, “it ain’t your problem, it’s theirs. You got to tell them to make up their minds what they want you to do. Then you’ll do it. But nobody can do two things at once.”
The friend took the crying girl’s arm and led her away, as if to get her out of danger. The girl who was so upset looked back over her shoulder at him and he nodded to her and she held his gaze as her friend led her away.
He’d been on the basketball team in high-school. The teachers hadn’t cut the team much slack, and neither had the coach. You couldn’t study for a test while you were playing a game in another county and didn’t get back on the bus until after midnight. He did the best he could, which wasn’t good enough. When he left school without graduating, he didn’t have any way to get by that was legal and he ended up in jail. When he got out, he had a rough time, some dark thoughts, but he wasn’t drinking as much now. And he had this job.
He went down the hall to where he thought the teachers the principal had been talking about might be meeting. He didn’t knock. He just opened the door to the classroom where he heard the sounds of their voices. It was the same again. he saw their mouths moving, heard their words, but couldn’t understand them.
“I’ve got something to say,” he said.
They stopped talking and looked at him.
“Ya’ll need to take care of these kids. They’re depending on you. You can’t give them more than they can do. That won’t help nobody learn anything but how to be angry and sad.”
They were staring at him. They were not speaking.
“You understand me?”
A couple of them looked down into their laps, as if they were ashamed to be lectured by a janitor.
“You pay attention to what I’m saying,” he said. “You’ve got those children’s lives in your hands.”
One of the teachers put a cell phone up to his ear.
“You need to send someone over to the high school,” he said in a low voice, almost a whisper. “There’s a man here talking nonsense.”
He paused, looking up at the janitor, then spoke into the phone again.
“No, literally nonsense. We can’t understand a word he’s saying. The sounds make no sense. He’s upset, though. Agitated. I’m worried he might be a danger to the kids.”