Looking at the neatly prepared application sitting on the desk before him. “It says here that you worked for 30 years at Citibank. Exactly what did you do for them, Mr. Wood?” “Mostly, I cleaned up messes.” “Well, we’ve got over 650 students here and no shortage of messes.” The superintendent thought that staffing this janitor job has been nothing but a pain, 3 different guys in a year and a half. I guess rocket scientists with clean records don’t aspire to empty wastebaskets, mop floors, or clean bathrooms -But this guy? I’m bound to get some lip on this, especially from Sue. “You understand George that the district will do a thorough background check on you. I don’t want my time wasted again -if they find anything, you’ll be out the door” George smiled. “There won’t be any problem, Sir.” The superintendent noticed that while George’s clothes were simple, there was a crease in his slacks and his shoes had a shine, and his mostly grey salt and pepper hair was cut neat and short He thought, wow, haven’t seen a well-groomed janitorial applicant before and a “sir” to boot. The hell with Sue, it is late September, and we need a janitor. “Can you start tomorrow? “
George found his way back to his old Chevy truck which hehe bought after looking at dozens of Craigslist trucks. Had someone looked closely, they would see a perfect very plain dull grey paint and that the truck was scrupulously clean – not a speck of dirt on the floor mats or in the bed. George had replaced the tired old engine with a modern crate motor with fuel injection, 4 wheel disc brakes, and a new ‘hush’ muffler system. He had designed the truck to be as reliable and quiet as possible. She was, as they say, a sleeper. Kate hadn’t said a word to George” about the $25K he spent because as she told her sister, “he’s entitled to a toy after all these years” George started the truck and headed out of the city, 35 minutes late,r he pulled into his driveway. George parked the truck next to two late model Toyotas. Nothing too flashy, mind you, just reliable. The 3200 sq ft stucco French provincial mortgage-free home was purchased by George and Sue 22 years ago when George landed a division controller position with Citi 10 miles away. The home’s real value was its top-ranked school district with killer academics and a consistently top-ranked football team. George was convinced his oldest success at college was a direct result of the town’s high school. The power of a good education was not lost on George, and he had a great appreciation for teachers.
Kate was in the large eat-in kitchen and asked, “well did you get that’ job?” George nodded. “Your sure you want to do this?” George looked up and said, “You know I’ve been bored to tears since I retired – besides, work is my exercise” Kate decided to let it drop since George generally was very level-headed about things. George and Kate were a match made in heaven. They both were strictly LBYM (live below your means) types. 30 years of work and thrift had the couple very “well-heeled” to the tune of several million dollars in a portfolio of stocks and mutual funds. George’s need to work wasn’t financial.
Later after dinner sitting in his leather reading chair, he rationalized to himself I hadn’t lied – I did clean up messes, just not the type the superintendent thought. He vowed I’ll give them value for the money they pay me. I want a simple low stress job to keep me busy and get me out of the house. If they knew I was a former bank executive with a couple of graduate degrees, I seriously doubt they would ever hire me – “overqualified.”
The next day George arrived at 2 PM sharp for his six-hour shift and was quickly introduced to Leon, the senior custodian. Leon was at least 6’4″ and weighed 300 pounds, and had been a fixture at Hamilton High for 14 years. He took George for a school tour and told George the what and where of his duties. Mop the bathroom, fill the paper dispensers, empty the trash, sweep the floors “And don’t get caught sleeping.” Leon wheezed when they climbed to the second floor. George couldn’t help but wonder how anyone in such bad shape could do a physical job like being a janitor. The answer would become apparent – Leon, like a few others at the High School, did as little as possible.
George had been with on the job for two weeks when the kids had stopped looking surprised to see the custodian busy. A few of the girls actually would say hello. As he walked the halls, his impression solidified – The beautiful old building was clearly neglected and poorly maintained – “budget cuts,” Leon explained. Yet George could see many areas that would benefit from some plain old elbow grease. George figured working at a steady pace, he could complete his duties in 3 hours, leaving 3 hours to either goof off in the boiler room or be productive. George was never one to be idle. George decided that the faculty lounge needed his attention. He asked Leon if he could get some paint for the faculty lounge. Leon inquired if he had been asked to paint the lounge? George said no, but it needed it. Leon thought about a bit and said there might be room in the custodian’s fund for a couple of gallons of paint. George didn’t know was that Leon had used the custodian’s fund as a personal bank account for some time now. Numerous withdrawals, all with bogus material receipts and, of course, no deposits. Leon was now in a panic. If he didn’t fund the paint, George might start asking questions. Leon had earmarked the remaining funds for a couple of trips to Atlantic City and some expensive dinners out with Louise. George, he decided, like the last guy, had to go. The question was how and when. In a few days, Leon produced 5 gallons of paint, A roller, and a few brushes.
George arrived on the following Friday, eager to get cracking on the faculty lounge. He immediately started on the trash, which was the most time-consuming task. Twenty-five classrooms in the north wing, the cafeteria, and finally the administration area. As he approached the administration area, he heard a loud female voice. “That kind here at Hamilton, are you out of your mind? We hire our own here” Then he heard the voice of the superintendent, “Sue, we are talking about a part-time janitor’s position, not the head of the history department. It is my responsibility, and it is done; he’s hired.” Sue Blake wasn’t the type to take no for an answer – “John, you have not heard the last word on this!” She stormed out of the superintendent’s office and nearly ran straight into George and his trash cart. Her shock at seeing George was apparent. She quickly collected herself and disappeared down the hall, muttering, “this is outrageous.” George continued collecting the trash and finished all his tasks in a record two and a half hours. He practically jogged to the lounge, quickly pushed the furniture to the center of the room, tossed some plastic over everything, and had at it. Just over three hours later, George pushed the last of the furniture back to their places. By the time he finished cleaning up, it was 8:30 PM. George didn’t think anything about working a half-hour past ‘quitting time.’ Hell, he had worked until 1 or 2 AM many times with the bank. The difference was, he exited the building into a locked parking lot. Security would often follow you to your car. At Hamilton, the staff parked in a poorly lit lot surrounded by a razor-wire topped chain-linked fence that remained locked during the day. George had no illusions about the security offered by that fence – here at Hamilton; a Sherman tank probably wouldn’t be enough. George didn’t know it but had an unwilling ally: Leon when it came to safety. Leon was known to crack heads with kids who choose to come around after hours for trouble. The kids and everyone else stayed away.
It was only when George stood at the door and looked at the only vehicle in the parking lot that George realized he was alone. His truck was at the farthest spot in the lot, about 30 yards away- the only spots available when we arrived. He took a deep breath and jogged out to his truck, jumped in, locked the doors, started it, and even though the windows were fogged, he was quickly headed for home. George said out loud, “Thank god it is a quick straight shot to the highway.” He thought to himself; I don’t think I’ll mention my parking lot anxiety to Kate. No need to worry her. George made a mental note from now on, and I’ll move the truck next to the door after the teachers start to leave. I think I’ll see if I can get one of those remote starters, and I’ll leave the defroster on- yeah, that will work. George thought, Jeez, ‘that kind’ do people still think like that?
Margret Sawyer had been an English teacher at Hamilton for more years than anyone could remember. At just a hair over 5ft tall and 105 lbs, she would seem to easy prey for Hamilton’s rowdier students. However, acting up in her classroom was a mistake students made only once. Margret was a pit bull who had no fear of getting in the face of students twice her size. She was an expert in breaking the wills of those who would challenge her authority. The years had honed her teaching ability to a razor’s edge – no student left her class not bettered for the experience.
Margret was the first to see the newly painted faculty lounge on Monday. Very little got past Ms. Sawyer. In addition to the walls, she noticed the sink and surrounding countertop where she cleaned her teacup each morning had been scrubbed clean – Possibly for the first time in 15 years. Looking further, she saw all the tables were clean, and the floors swept. Wow, she thought can it be that someone else cares? I’m sure it wasn’t Leon. That lazy bum isn’t good for anything. Margret hated Leon because he and all those like him had allowed her school to deteriorate. She thought I must have a chat with our new custodian and thank him.
“Mr. Wood, might I have a word with you?” George looked up from the floor. He was mopping to see Ms. Sawyer looking at him. “Yes, mam?” “I just had to tell you how much we appreciate the nice work you did on the lounge. It hasn’t looked that good in too many years. Every time I see you, you’re always busy” George beamed and answered, “well, thanks, I guess I feel that Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having except as a result of hard work.” Margret immediately recognized Booker T Washington’s quote and thought to herself, how is it that this janitor comes to know a quote from a black man who died 100 years ago? George then commented, “you can thank Leon too. He bought the paint from the custodian’s fund.” She responded, “I see; well, thanks again, and have a good evening.” Ms. Sawyer walked away thinking custodians fund? I didn’t know there was such a thing. Well, that something that might be worth looking into. Does Leon have responsibility for school funds?
A few days later, George began to wonder exactly where Leon disappeared to after he ‘cleaned’ the south wing. Sound carried in the old building, and by 6, when there weren’t any after-school activities, George felt sure he would have heard him. But he heard nothing. One evening, when most of the staff had gone, George saw Leon walk across the street from the school and head into a low-rise apartment building. He didn’t see him return. George learned that the school had once used time cards when he ran into Ms. Sawyer, who said, “I’m tired tonight. It is time to punch out?” George gave a quizzical look, and Margret responded, oh, we had time cards until someone vandalized the time machine.
As a kind of thanks for the job, George had turned his attention to the superintendent’s office. He carefully cleaned the old wooden bookcases and replaced the books as he found them. He dusted everything and wiped down the big desk when he noticed a document with the bold title 2019 Operating Budget. He felt a little ashamed, but he picked it up and scanned it. Almost at the very bottom, he saw it in a notation Custodians fund $30,000. He couldn’t help but wonder what Leon could be buying that cost $30k. And he made such a fuss about buying those replacement flood lights bulbs. At about the same time, Margret Sawyer was sitting across town in the small home kitchen that she shared with her cat Scarlet wondering the same thing. Getting a copy of the school budget was no problem at all. She simply asked Superintendent Coal for it “for a class project.” That’s how the document happened to be on the desk. As George carefully replaced the document and went back to his cleaning, a plan began to formulate in Margret’s mind.
George swung by the exit door 5 minutes before quitting time and pressed the button on his key fob, and heard his truck turn over and start. Moving the truck closer to the door, the remote starter, leaving the defroster on, and replacing the burn-out floodlights with new powerful LED bulbs on the building made all the difference. He didn’t exactly feel safe but, he was a lot less anxious when leaving at night. Still, he scooted out to the car keys out and was about to jump in when he heard voices in the distance. He didn’t wait around to see who it was. He jumped in and was rolling in no time at all.
The next morning Sue Blake – was boiling mad. She thought if one more person talks to me about how wonderful the faculty lounge looks or how much safer they felt since he replaced the parking lot lights, or how nice the new janitor is – I will explode. Don’t they see it? He’s stealing one of our jobs. Her dad had struggled to stay employed for as long as she could remember up until the time of his death. While he blamed no one, she thought he was a man that the deck was stacked against. How could John hire this guy? There must be something that we can do. She was determined to speak to John about this again – perhaps if she had a conversation with a few of the PTA ladies…
A few days later, six teachers from the south wing appeared at superintendent Wood’s office and asked for a minute of Johns’s time. “How can I be of help? ” Luke Waterman, the history teacher and apparent leader of the group, said, “It is simple, we want George to be assigned to clean the south wing” All John could get out was a “what.” Luke wasn’t phased a bit he said it again “I said we want George to be assigned to clean the south wing” John was incredulous and said, “what is this all about” Luke calmly said, “We are tired of being treated like second class citizens – the North wing has waxed floors, clean bathrooms and even smells better. The South Wing is a disgrace. This is a friendly request John, but we are serious and not above filing a grievance with the Union,” John said, “give me a few days to look into this… ” Luke responded, “ok, John, you have until the end of the week.”
The superintendent did all he could to wait for a full half-hour before he walked up to the north wing. He thought, I don’t want them thinking they run me. Yes, the floors looked shinny, he ducked into a couple of the boy’s rooms, and yes, they were spotless, and is that Lysol I smell? He made his way into an open classroom, and the old wooden desk had been oiled. He wandered over to the south wing – the floors were the first thing he noticed, no shine and dust and debris on the floors. He doubted they had been swept in some time. The bathrooms had a smell, and it wasn’t Lysol. John had seen enough. He decided to come back tonight and see what was going on.
It was a little past 7 PM, and George was on the second floor with the floor buffer running full tilt – Frank Sinatra was keeping him company playing on a small portable stereo sitting on the floor nearby. George would use earphones at home, but here at Hamilton, he liked to hear what was going on. When John Wood came around the corner, George looked up and said, “Hello John.” “George, do you know where Leon is?” George explained while they worked the same hours, he rarely saw Leon. John replied, “now that I can believe,” and he walked away.
John spent an uncomfortable sleepless night worrying about Leon’s inevitable unpleasant confrontation. He was surprised to see the senior partner of Walsh and Company’s district auditors was waiting for him when he came in the next morning. “ I need to see the custodian fund records immediately.” “What’s going on, Fred?” “I am not at liberty to say” “Ok, Fred, everything is in the locked cabinet right there.” An hour and a half later, Fred Walsh came into John’s office with three pieces of paper. Look at these, John, and tell me what you see. John studied the papers and said, “ok, three receipts for various cleaning supplies” Fred said, “each receipt is about a month apart, right? Then why are the receipt numbers sequential?” It took John nearly thirty seconds to arrive at the inescapable conclusion the receipts were fraudulent. “I’ve called over there at General Supply, and they have no record of these purchases.” It appears someone got hold of a stolen receipt book, and I think we both know who that someone is. Fred said, “John, I’ve known you for ten years, and I know you had nothing to do with this. We received an anonymous tip that something was ‘hinky’ with the custodian’s fund; that is all I can tell you.”
A few days later, Leon had no reason to notice the two unmarked police cars parked in the employee parking. He walked from his car to the building and was quickly surrounded by two police officers and taken to John’s office, where he was handcuffed, read his rights, and was put under arrest. It had days since Fred had discovered the fraud – ample time for the police to gather evidence and plan a discreet arrest.
Sue Blake had heard one of the janitors was being arrested -I knew it was a mistake to hire that guy, she thought. She made a beeline for John’s office in time to see Leon being led out in cuffs. She said out loud, “Oh my god no” Leon was crying. George was watching from nearby, incredulous, not knowing what to think. John spotted him. “George, can I have a word with you” once, inside John’s office, he explained that the school had put a call to a temporary agency for 2 temporary custodians to get the south wing thoroughly cleaned, and he would appreciate it? If George would supervise them? George sensing John’s predicament, said sure John “anything to help.” What John or George didn’t notice was the knowing smile on Margret Sawyers’s face as the police were leading off Leon.
That night at hundreds of apartments and homes in the neighborhood, many a child could be heard saying, “Leon the Janitor was arrested for stealing. The cops walked him out in cuffs. “Janie saw it all, and Leon was crying” Many a parent anguished – can’t We even send the kid(s) to school to get away from that stuff. Nearly all wondered about who and how the scandal was uncovered. It was the big item of discussion with the faculty – who was the tipster? Only Margret Sawyer wasn’t wondering. She took a chance that her suspicions about Leon’s character couldn’t be wrong. An anonymous typewritten note to the district auditors is all it took. They had no choice but to investigate. She thought: I knew they would find something.
With the help of two temporary workers, the quality of life for the south wing teachers and students improved dramatically. George and his new crew were able to get the south wing up to “George level” (the superintendent’s description) in just over a week. By then, the district auditors had determined that Leon had embezzled nearly $60,000 in the last 6 years. George couldn’t help but think about all the improvements he could have made with that money. In time George read, Leon was be convinced to sign away his pension to receive a reduced sentence. The staff noticed the improvement in cleanliness and that little broken annoyances like a light switch here and a burnout light there were being repaired or replaced. George judiciously used the remaining custodian’s fund to great effect. But now, all expenditures were carefully supervised and approved by the superintendent.
Leon had no friends other than his girlfriend Louise, who lived in the low rise across from the school. Leon knew she didn’t have any money to bail him out. Sitting in county jail, Leon had time to think about his current situation and blame everyone but himself. A decades-old assault charge in Louisiana had inclined the judge to keep him behind bars. He learned from his court-appointed lawyer that someone had ratted him out. But Who? Who would do this to me? Time after time, he came to the same conclusion: George. George was the only change in the system that had worked for Leon for years. I should have had him fired sooner. Leon played out the scene of his revenge in his mind time and time again, and each time it became a little more sadistic.
Roberto (Robert) Sanchez, 53, was a retired policeman who wanted to supplement his pension with a part-time job. Naomi, 51, his wife, was 4 years away from retiring- her 12 to 8 PM shift at the hospital would dovetail nicely with the 2 to 8 PM part-time janitor’s job as two empty-nesters Roberto didn’t like sitting home alone when Naomi was at work. Every day of his working career, Roberto always had a partner. Even in the many Moonlighting jobs as a carpenters helper, drywaller, security guard, and a few others that he and Naomi used to fund their daughter’s college, he never worked alone. Roberto was particularly proud that after 4 years at state university, between his daughter’s partial scholarship and he and Naomi’s thrift, she didn’t have any student loans- Maria was a great kid and was on the Dean’s list every year but her first. Now she was in her 3rd year teaching math at Hamilton. Maria learned about the janitor’s position before there was an advertisement. She asked Mr. Wood would he talk to her father. Mr. Wood, a married man, was grateful that all she wanted was a job interview for her dad. Maria was drop-dead beautiful with long brown hair and dark eyes. There was no way he would say no to anything she asked.
George was introduced to Roberto, and they hit it off right away. George talked about the job’s responsibilities, and before they knew it, they chatting like old friends about their children. Both had daughters who attended or were attending state u studying mathematics, and both were very proud. George asked Roberto would he be comfortable cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors, and collecting trash. I was a cop, George said I was often dealing with trash, and at least here, the trash doesn’t carry a gun. I want some honest work to bring in some money to help supplement my pension. George gave John the thumbs up, and Roberto started the next day.
George sensed Roberto didn’t like working alone, so they established a routine – they would tackle the classrooms individually. George kept the north wing, and Robert took the much improved south wing. Then they would meet up and tackle the administration area, cafeteria, and finally, the gym jointly. George quickly realized he enjoyed having a second set of hands to move desks and spot messes needing attention. They worked well together, and George appreciated the company and could now plan and execute some bigger projects. George confided in Roberto that his least favorite part of the job was the sprint to the car at “punching out time.” Roberto just said, “oh, I don’t worry about that, but your right to be careful. This is a terrible neighborhood.” George attributed Roberto’s lack of fear to 20 years on the police force.
Sue Blake had not given up on getting rid of George – she had been busy at every PTA meeting trying to poison the waters, but she wasn’t getting anywhere. The kids were providing positive feedback about Mr. George and now Mr. Roberto. The school somehow seemed to be a happier place since Leon was gone. And now the bathrooms were habitable! Try as she might, it appeared George was here to stay.
Much had changed for Leon. In the two months he’d been at county jail-he had lost: 40lbs, his pension, his job, and he had pleaded guilty. In doing so, the school district had been made nearly whole. His court-appointed attorney hadn’t been useless after all. He argued that the wrong had been righted, and Leon hadn’t been any trouble in many years. The judge said he would “take it all under consideration” and rule later. The judge also thought about the chronic overcrowding in the state prison system. Leon was shocked when they returned his clothes, and he was set free. It was a long cold walk over to Louise’s apartment. Leon was swimming in his old clothes. He thought to himself, George, payback time is coming.
Leon needed to get back into that school and retrieve the $2,200 he had stashed in the boiler room – It was all the money he had in the world. He would need that money to tide him over until he found another job. Then there was George. Hamilton is in a very violent city. Leon thought if George was found in the parking lot with his head bashed in, his wallet and truck missing, everyone would think it was a carjacking gone bad. Probably some addicts, what a tragedy. There just can’t be any witnesses.
Before George came to Hamilton, nearly every teacher thought – nothing ever changes in this dump- filth, neglect, and incompetence. It’s funny how having a clean faculty lounge and bathroom to use, the shine on the hall floors, and the progress against long-overdue simple maintenance items had a psychological impact. A few of the women teachers now were on occasion sporting that “dress too nice for work that I had been saving.” A tie or two appeared made a long overdue appearance.
Two weeks before the students got their time off for the Christmas holidays, a small ‘long lost’ Christmas tree appeared in the faculty lounge. George had found it weeks ago stored in the boiler room. George was secretly a big kid when it came to Christmas; It was the food, “It is a wonderful life,” “A Christmas Carol,” and story, and the various versions of Scrooge. Then there was George’s favorite old recording of Pavarotti in Montreal. The season had George smiling every day.
It was Thursday night, and George was eager to get home; His niece, Lisa, was on a business trip to an office nearby and Stayed with George and Sue. He promised Sue he would be home early enough to spend some time with Lisa. Had George not been completely focused on a quick trip home, he might have noticed Leon hiding in the shadows behind Roberto’s car. As George reached out for his truck door handle, Leon stepped out and hissed, “Hello George, it’s payback time,” and proceeded to take a swing at George’s head with a 48-inch long lead pipe. George was shocked but managed to fall back and avoid the pipe by inches. While George was sprawled on the floor, Leon moved in. This time there would be no missing. George said out loud, “Oh God no..”.
George opened his eyes after a few seconds when the expected blow never came. Leon was lying lifeless -on the floor near George, Roberto was speaking into his cell phone, “I would like to report a shooting at Hamilton high school, you can roll an ambulance, but there is no hurry.” George swore he never heard the two shots that stopped Leon. Roberto said he didn’t have time to think about it – it was the programmed response of 20 plus years on the police force. The police came, took statements, and Leon’s body was removed.
It hadn’t occurred to George that retired police like Roberto had a carry permit. Roberto confided to George he had never fired his weapon, other than at the range, in all the years he was on the force. George thanked Roberto profusely for saving his life.
Roberto said: “I always wondered if I could do it, you know, shoot someone- now I know.”
If you enjoyed this short story, may I suggest you click on the following:
The Mower – A Free Short Story
Raymond Mills, M.B.A., M.S. has spent over 30 years of his career as a Controller and Investment Bank and Credit Card Technical Auditor. He now spends his time writing his blog, short stories and running his boutique Microsoft Office software customization business.
You can contact Ray @ by emailing him Here or by using the contact form on the right border.