FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1994

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Graham Touchie (3)
Derrick Higginbotham
Tara J. Hoag (3)
Jason Holt (3)
Nadine Herman

Prose

Otto Lambert
Michael Kohn
Peter J. Taylor
Andrew Mitchell
Andrew MacLeod
Kenneth Gordon
Urs Frei

[PDF]

Kenneth Gordon

 

 

Steeped

     Ol’ Charlie the late-night janitor died on the job. Ol’ Charlie was a cantankerous ol’ type, but his heart was a pearl to those who knew him well. He caused no trouble, he never made a fuss; he’d had enough of that long ago in World War II, when he’d been some sort of Captain or something when the ranks thinned out in the Pacific. After the war, he was quietly retired but still a hero; he got a few jobs bumming around and feeling high, until he landed this little number doing underground work janitoring in a department store.
     Sure, he was a little old-fashioned, but the new Japanese girl they hired at the checkout wasn’t bothered by his stand-offishness. Sure, he’d mumble and bark under his breath for the boys to cut their “improper” hair, but they knew better, and they didn’t worry about Ol’ Charlie, with his impotent mop and broom. They’d just shake their hips and laugh, knowing full well they’d be off to see another lady that night, with a little luck. Charlie was not cheerful or particularly grumpy or anything at all that anyone thought much of. Indeed, most employees seemed to think passively of him as a built­in feature of the store.
     Ol’ Charlie was carefully watched by the new manager. New is relative; he, too had fought, in Korea, years after, but nobody had thought much of that war, and since everybody seemed to fit in well with Ol’ Charlie, this bothered him. The janitor was well past retirement age, but he was still useful, and liked to work, because he could grumble in the empty halls and hear his own voice echo. He preferred the stone-walled breakrooms below to the colour- and shape-bedecked displays of the store for the same reason. He might retire any time, and the management would like to catch him up doing something wrong so they wouldn’t have to pay him pension. On the job, though, they had no worries.
     One qualification that anything must have in being a “built-in feature” is that it is in total sync with its environment, and with its part in that environment’s working. Likewise, the janitor was sensitive to every change in the atmosphere of the department store. Even downstairs he seemed to be able to answer to questions about how busy it was up there, or what the weather was like; maybe they were just educated guesses. He knew, for instance, that the windows being largely on the East side, his job in winter was to turn the radiators on the West side on, hours before opening time. The ventilation system was a dinosaur, but all the activity was in the center, like a frostbitten bee’s nest, so the rough sense of hot air circulating from out to in merely had to match the early wave of all-day shoppers. On the few times he had missed this nicety, he had gotten resoundingly chewed out by the managers, who worked on the top level; he shrugged these off, knowing that hot air moved up, and they would soon be satisfied and forget.
     He knew the long-term and short-term shoppers also moved in waves, and waves within waves, and he had a sense of their rhythm. There was the general daily inflow and outflow, modified by lunchtimes and dinners, and more inexplicable currents of “rushes” that seemed to happen every day for no reason at the same times. O1’ Charlie was aware of this and more, but thought little of it, it being part and parcel with his own rhythm these twenty years. One does not need to think about one’s bloodstream to live, beat, or bleed. The janitor could keep it to himself, so he harboured all these things in his workaday heart, having as little to do with people as possible. His favourite time was closing time, if he was working then, when the lights shut out and the sleeping building cooled into a mockery of death.
     He’d gotten his tea together, up on the snack bar shelf, free to him. He walked down the dark stairwell with the hot drink in his right hand, cursing quietly that they had put all the good teas away, that all that was left was the imports. All he could find was a little “gunpowder green” tea, hardly tea at all. Too light on the caffeine. The stairwell was awfully cold, and he remembered the furious managerial attacks from above that had so plagued him the last time he forgot. Yes, they blew over, but the management was never fun to deal with in the meantime.
     He paused to snap the styrofoam of the teacup with his nail, plut, plut, as he thought: was it late enough to turn on the radiator on this side of the building? Plut, plut. The little waves in the cup darted from the edges toward the centre, adding up and sending up a drop, then reverberated off the sides opposite to make a few standing waves. This exercise helped him think because it diverted his eyes, always so busy. Plut plut. He would turn it on. The pipe wasn’t far away, so he walked off the stairwell over to the main valves and paused, tea in hand. Right hand. Damn, he’d twist the knob with his left.
     He pushed stubbornly until, at last, hot water coursed into the pipes around him with a jolt. His frame shook with the sudden movement, and the waves in his teacup spilled over, spilling a few drops of boiling water on his hand. Charlie howled at the pain which made him jolt again, spilling more. He howled. More. Howl. More. The pain fed on itself, but he could not bear to throw the teacup away.
     For a brief instant he could imagine this feedback of pain continuing forever in a bottomless cup, and this final weight on his nerves caused his heart to leap! His hand went limp, tea spilled all over his now-crumpled frame, and his body draped itself over the hot pipes. His head lolled over in a frozen mask of disbelief. He was dead.
In the morning, the angry manager could not get into his store, but called a locksmith to let him in. Meanwhile, he paced as furiously as the rising sun behind him, every minute becoming a further argument to fire Ol’ Charlie at last.

 

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
poetry, prose, and artwork © individual authours | website created by Alana Paul