STUPID FUCK: So what line of work are you in?
Would you even be making awkward small-talk if that question didn't happen to weasel its way into the conversation? Of course not. It's a fucking essential, and Americans thrive on belaboring unnecessary conversation, especially when it comes to the region I hail from: the Breadbasket of America, the Cornbelt, the great Midwest. In the spirit of being the Chicagoan I am, this is how I typically proceed:
LEVI: [laughs congenially, absolutely delighted to hear that you pretend to give a shit] I work as a maintenance engineer. You?
Maintenance engineer, in other words: janitor with double the syllables. A pathetic attempt to glorify an otherwise lowly position in the societal work ladder. This usually ends up backfiring, as such:
STUPID FUCK: [blinks in confusion] Ah, that's great! So what kind of things do you have to do?
If I am to actually address Stupid Fuck's question:
LEVI: [feigns patience when in reality stifles a crippling sense of exasperation] Oh, just making sure the school's in working order. For instance, scrubbing toilet rims clean of leftover shit, scraping rotting gum off of the underside of tables, spraying down the baseball dugout that's covered in premature cum, telling kids to stop fucking on school grounds, the typical stuff.
But usually, I go for the truncated answer:
LEVI: [takes a long swig] Basically, I'm a janitor.
The bell rings.
I glance over at Mike, and nodding, we both plug in our earphones and crank up the grunge music. Pearl Jam blasting into our ears at full volume, we camp out in the custodial office for the next twenty minutes, waiting out the storm. Out in the trenches, along the fluorescent-lit hallways, the scourges flood out, dragging along their mindless conversations and Jansport backpacks. The freshmen, too immature to hold driver's licenses, meander to the main entrance, where rows of buses, belching and groaning like drunken yellow elephants, await to deposit them back home. Shoving one another into lockers, jocks bumble through, parting the after-school traffic with their gargantuan figures. Girls travel in unbreakable clusters, forming traffic-clogging tumors in the crowds.
When the last few shitheads trickle out the exit, off to their own adolescent devices, Mike and I march into the trenches, wheel out the vacuum cleaners, and it's showtime. Vacuuming is the worst part. My first two weeks on the job, I'd drag myself home, head throbbing with a noise-induced headache. Advil was my salvation. But once that part's out of the way, the wiping and mopping is a hundred times more tolerable. With the company of a good album, the process is far less agonizing than it otherwise would be. I usually cycle through various Nirvana tracks, sometimes some classic Soundgarden, occasionally a venture into Alice in Chains.
Contact with the students is minimal, save for when kids walk through the hallways from after-school activities. Typically, they ignore me, and I'm fine with that. Sometimes, if they happened to be somewhat decent, they say hi. I nod in acknowledgement. Again, nothing too painful. What's painful is witnessing inexperienced teens bent over, slaves to their own raging hormones, but as long as I steer clear of the band room after marching band wraps up, I'm good to go.
Mike enters the custodial "office," a dingy room with mop buckets lined against the walls, fully equipped with a non-functioning mini-fridge. He collapses in the chair across from me at our plastic fold-up table. I toss him his Red Bull, our post-bathroom tradition. When you encounter the unspeakable in those stalls, taking the edge off is crucial.
A pop, a carbonated fizz, and Mike is well on his way to preserving his sanity. He downs the drink in three gulps, crushes the can in his huge hands, and wrings it towards one of the rolling garbage cans lining the walls of our office. In it goes.
"Has it ever occurred to you," Mike says, chewing on a piece of jerky, "that we haven't bitched about our job together, not once?"
Mike likes conversation. He tells me about his current girlfriend, the neighbor's kids who idolize him, the new grill he got for summer barbecues (even though it's currently the dead of winter). Being in the same room together is permission for him to start going off on some recent anecdote. Surprisingly, he doesn't annoy me. I don't have to pretend to be interested around him. He fills in the holes of silence himself with that deep, scratchy voice of his, chuckling and shrugging at his own fuck-ups.
I sip from my own Red Bull. "That so?"
"Yeah," he says. The jerky has already disappeared, and a crumpled up wrapper sails over my head, landing into a trash bin behind me. "I'm not saying that we need to start bitching and moaning nonstop, but man, we've never had a heart-to-heart roast of this job. I mean, for fuck's sake, we just cleaned about twenty toilets."
"You asking for a heart-to-heart roast right now?"
"Not particularly, I just wanna ask you something. Your honest opinion." Mike leans back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head, and he yawns. "How long are you gonna be here for?"
Mike shakes his head and gestures to our surroundings.
"Until I get laid off." Again.
"Interesting." He muses for a moment, tapping his stubbly chin. "You don't seem like the kinda guy to end up, well, like this."
"Huh," I respond, taking another sip of my Red Bull. "So there's a janitor stereotype?"
"That's not what I mean, man. I can't really explain it, but like, just look at that thing in front of you—" He reaches over for my old copy of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He flips through the highlighter-ridden pages, notes scrawled in the margins. "Typically, we don't go near this stuff."
"Are you saying that janitors are too far gone to read Tolstoy?"
"I'm just saying that people who read this shit tend to end up other places. Like, yakking away in front of a lecture hall at, well, UChicago or Northwestern."
I laugh at this.
"You look like shit," Hanji tells me when I sit into my usual spot at the bar. A mad scientist by day; a deranged bartender by night. She claims she strikes an ideal balance in life. Translation: I'm neck-deep in student loans, and I suck at getting grants. SOS.
"The usual," I respond, turning my attention to the Friday game. The Blackhawks are playing our arch-rivals, the St. Louis Blues.
She slides a gin-and-tonic over and presses further. "Okay, you need to stop being so anal about the dugouts. Here, how 'bout this: take me there, and I'll take some samples, and with the powers of DNA analysis invested in me, I'll prove to you that the white-crusty stuff is mold. My guess is some species of Cladosporium."
"Save your nonexistent research funds. It's teenage hormones."
"C'mon, Levi. Ten samples are all I'm asking for. Ten measly little samples!"
"No wonder they're not giving you any grants," I grumble, taking a sip of my drink, grimacing. "The ratio's off again."
"Listen," she tells me, pouring more gin into my glass. "It's been a year, and you're still haven't quit yet."
Hanji adjusts her glasses and points at me with the uncapped gin bottle. "Get your ass over to the Tribune, sit down at a random desk, and vomit something out. Like, it doesn't even have to be anything remotely close to that hardcore stuff you used to do. Hell, get yourself into the Fluff Piece Department, or whatever you media folks call it, and write about dog kennels and obscure holidays like National Pancake Day. Most importantly, get your head out of the toilet. Literally."
"Such a department doesn't exist," I inform her.
"Okay, fine. Go into the Science and Tech Department and give me a shameless plug. I'm thinking like a New Yorker style profile of my beginnings, my struggles, and my triumphs."
"One, there's this thing called ethical journalism, and two, there's no story here."
"Levi, you need to get writing again. You haven't been making your rent payments every month because that goddamned job is cheating you in every way possible. I mean, wages, hours, nature of work, it's ridiculous."
"Give it a rest. I'm fine where I am."
"You're anything but. You're an Ivy-educated writer who went to one of the best goddamned journalism schools in this country, and you're cleaning toilets for a living, hardly making minimum wage. The solution to all of your problems, Levi, is right there. Three blocks down." She points outside.
Three blocks down is the Tribune Tower.
I shrug. "I actually earn $13.50 an hour. Not too shabby, if you ask me."
"That's beside the point. Tell me," she insists. She pours herself a mojito with disproportionate amounts of tonic water and rum. "What exactly do you get out of working as a janitor?"
"Benefits. Health insurance."
"You also get that three blocks down. Along with double the salary. Try again."
"I create an environment conducive to the advancement of our youth."
"Bullshit. You don't give a rat's ass about privileged teenagers. Try again."
"Teachers talk shit about janitors. Kids spit on janitors. Janitors are at rock-bottom of the pecking order, social pariahs even. School wants kids to go to college to work more dignified jobs. Yet my coworkers are some of the most decent people I've ever met, compared to the white-collar fuckers on Wall Street I've interviewed. It's a neat perspective."
"You've always been good with talking bullshit on your feet."
Hanji sighs. "Is that really why you're working this job? That would be convincing if I wasn't aware that you're not actually writing a piece from the point-of-view of a blue-collar worker."
"Fine, the truth's out," I concede, throwing up my hands in surrender. "I like cleaning."
"Jesus, why didn't you tell me earlier? You can just clean my place every day, if that's the case!" Hanji retorts. "Levi, you really need to see help. Someone who gets how minds and brains and feelings work. Look, I can hook you up with a friend from—"
"No need, I'm perfectly fine." I slap a few bills on the counter. "See ya, I'm gonna clock out early tonight."
"Levi, seriously," she sighs, tossing me her apartment keys. "We need to have a real talk about this."
But I've already exited the bar and entered the Chicago winter outside. I gaze three blocks down. A barrier of white flurries obscures my view of the once-familiar street I walked nearly every single day. I basically lived at the Tribune Tower: bulk-sized packages of instant noodles in the corner of my office, the coffee station stocked with the strongest stuff just a five-second walk away, and a blanket filed away in a cabinet for a brief break during the early AM hours.
In journalism, you can't help but feel useless. You're just an observer. You watch shitstorms whirl, growing and growing in force, destroying lives, one by one, tearing the fabric of society into unsalvageable fibers. You can't play Superman and fly into the eye of the storm and reverse its course. That's not your job. Instead, you just watch from the sidelines—yet the world wants you to do more. You're the world's watchdog. You sniff out bullshit, you call it out, and you help fix the problem. That's what everyone wants you to do, but the reality is: most of the time, you can't do shit.
But in, dare I say, maintenance engineering, you are empowered. In your hands are the tools to fix and clean things. You can see your results, in fact immediately. Don't get me wrong. I hate toilet rims. I hate discarded gum. I hate the baseball dugout. And, so help me, I hate teenagers. But what I live for now is the ability I have to clear those messes—well, aside from the teenagers. No longer am I a sideliner.
After standing in the shower for thirty minutes trying to regain circulation to my fingers and toes, I crash onto Hanji's couch with a beer, only to find out that Chicago has had a rough day. The Blackhawks lost to the Blues. Not to mention the Bears lost to the fucking Washington Redskins. Deprived of the two things that would've made my day marginally better, I deem it appropriate to drown myself in some miserable literature—kudos to Cormac McCarthy—before slipping into a nightmare-wracked coma.
When I reach for my dog-eared copy of The Road on the coffee table, I notice that my phone has netted two missed calls. For a good twenty seconds, I find myself staring at the footage of distraught Chicago fans, debating whether I should just get the task of answering these calls over with or push it off until tomorrow. Fuck it. Maybe I won the lottery. I tap a button on the machine with the bottom of my beer bottle. A message drones out:
Hello, Mr. Ackerman. My name is Hannes Smith, and I am serving as Michael Ackerman's family attorney. I'm not sure if you have heard the tragic news yet, but your cousin passed away in a car accident this morning.
Michael? It rings a bell. Vaguely. I rack my brain, sorting through the tangled family tree of which I have little-to-no bearings. Bingo, my mind zeroes in on a sandy-haired second-cousin (or possible third-cousin?) I encountered a few times in my childhood.
He left a will, entrusting the majority of his possessions to you until his daughter Mikasa comes of age—
I'm stunned. Beyond occasional Thanksgiving get-togethers, I hardly know the guy, much less the fact that he has a daughter. Michael is one of those fuzzy relations that fade from existence with time and distance.
—and in addition to that, he has listed you as the legal guardian of Mikasa in the event of untimely death. I would like to discuss the details of this arrangement with you as soon as you can. Please call me back at—
The Road drops from my hands.
The lawyer prefers me to call him by his first-name. Hannes. He's about half a generation older than me, presumably happily married with tiny versions of himself wreaking havoc in his house. He seems like a nice guy, someone I actually wouldn't be opposed to getting a beer with—if it weren't the fact that he's trying to shove this astronomical responsibility down my gullet.
"Well, I assumed," he says, leaning back in his chair, clasping his hands together in thought, "that you and Michael would have discussed this matter before he wrote up the will."
"Well, you assumed wrong," I reply. "I don't even know this guy."
I spent the drive from Chicago to this armpit of suburbia mapping out where Michael and I lie on the family tree. After getting cut-off three times and making two coffee stops at the McDonald's chains along the way, I grappled with the concept of a second-cousin. This gave me a headache, so bear with me. First there's Mom, Kuchel. Every summer when she was a kid, she'd head to Ann Arbor to spend a month with their first-cousin, who happens to be Michael's dad. Michael, the kid of my mom's first-cousin, is therefore my second-cousin. And finally, his daughter, Mikasa, is my "second cousin, once removed."
When I was young, Mom would take me to Ann Arbor every three years or so to see her cousin, and if Michael didn't happen to be away at camp, we'd play some soccer together. In fact, I recall us smoking together on the edge of pond at some point in high school. But aside from that one bonding experience, I have little recollection of Michael Ackerman.
"Look," Hannes continues, leaning forward in his chair. He points at a line in the will. "You're the only guardian listed. This girl is sixteen. She can't live independently until she's a legal adult, and even so, her father has stated in his will that he wants someone to look after her until she's twenty-one. Levi, you're her only surviving relation."
"Relation," I repeat. "That's a stretch, don't you think? Second cousin, once removed? Tell me, Hannes. Tell me about your second cousin, once removed. I wanna know their passions. Do they have kids? Are they married yet?"
Sighing, Hannes opens his desk drawer and produces a white envelope. In an unfamiliar scrawl, my name is printed on the front. "Why don't you take a look at this?" Along with a letter opener, he hands me the envelope.
As I position the blade beneath the paper flap, I can't help but think what unwanted surprises and expectations I'm unleashing from this letter. I pause right there, teetering on the threshold between my nice, boring, dependable status quo and the imminent all-hell-shall-and-will-break-loose. Withdraw the blade. Withdraw and I remain the grumpy Chicago janitor who drinks himself to sleep when the Blackhawks lose. Or proceed? Proceed and become… a legal guardian, a rickety camel hoisting another world on his already-cramping back. I know exactly what's coming for me in this envelope. I don't even need to read what Michael wants to say. I can feel Hannes eyes on me, watching and judging, trying to read his client, probing for details.
Fuck him. I slice open the envelope with a flick of the letter opener. I pull out a piece of stationery folded into thirds. When I open it, I see, for the love of God, handwritten script: Michael's attempt to pour his soupy heart and his viscous soul into this, setting up a bog of earnest moral obligation to pull me in, committing me.
"How about this?" Hannes says gently. "Take a few days to think it over. Let me know in forty-eight hours."
A/N: Hey all! Welcome to Washed-Up and Rundown, and I hope you guys liked this first chapter. Please let me know your thoughts about this in the comments below!