by Ryan Sartor
I got a job as a custodian because I thought it would be a good occupation for an aspiring writer. I had gone to film school, but soon realized I didn’t understand cameras or where to put them, so I decided I would write fiction: novels and short stories.
I knew that I needed to acquire two things: life experience and a job that provided me with a room, outside of my apartment, in which I could write. I thought to sign up for a co-working space, but I got anxious imagining the other members. Would they also be writers? Would they stop me while I was working and ask questions about my personal life? Would I tell them that I didn’t want to talk, be labeled “difficult,” try to get back my deposit, and find out it was too late because I’d locked myself into a six-month agreement?
A custodian job at William Allen High School seemed like a much better fit. Sure, I’d occasionally have to mop up formaldehyde or stack chairs, but once I was done cleaning for the night, there’d be thirty-two empty classrooms in which I could work.
Before applying, I visited the school, which couldn’t have been more regular. There were four hallways: green, red, yellow and blue, each filled with teachers and students. There was an auditorium, a gymnasium, a band room. Nothing was too nice or too old.
During my interview, Devin Reed, the hiring principal, seemed puzzled almost immediately.
“You’re a filmmaker?” he said, sitting behind a large, wooden desk. He was older than me and thinner, wearing a thin blue tie. “Shouldn’t you move to New York or Los Angeles?” I admired his waist line and respected his skepticism.
Since I’d already attended college on Long Island, and worked at various internships in the city, I felt it was now appropriate to live, for a while, in “real America.” I’d perhaps one day move to New York or Los Angeles, but I also hoped that my writing, in time, would become so good that I’d be able to live wherever I wanted, and maybe someone would publish my novel and a film producer would ask if I could write a screenplay based on it.
“Oh, you went to film school?” the producer, a woman, would say, “Well, why don’t you direct it as well?” And then the film producer and I would fall in love and all of her friends, like Eminem and Warren Beatty, would be impressed that I wrote novels. “I wish I could write one of those,” Eminem might say, while he and I ate caviar.
“I’m trained as a filmmaker,” I told Devin, back in his office, “but I think I’d be an excellent custodian. I’ll look for dirt.”
He raised an eyebrow at “look for dirt,”which had sounded more affected, more rehearsed than I’d hoped.
“I found the job posting on the bulletin board at First Presbyterian on Tilghman,” I said, looking out the window at a cardinal, robin, some red bird, fidgeting on a branch.
Devin lit up when I said “Presbyterian” in a way that told me that he himself had posted the job notice, or at least that he’d specifically told someone who worked for him to post it there.
The church was quite old, which was common in Allentown. I sat in the second row, every Sunday at ten a.m. and left after the final hymn. I wanted to be noticed without engaging.
I was not Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran or Catholic — though I’d been raised Catholic — but I went to services as a way to meet people and scope out job prospects.
When I’d dated, my parents only ever had one question: “Is she Catholic?” Most everyone enjoyed associating with like-minded people. It made sense that Devin Reed, when interviewing potential custodians, might wonder, “Is he Presbyterian?” and care deeply about the answer. I never actually came out and said that he and I shared a faith, but let him believe what he wanted.
Before the meeting was over, Devin shook my hand, smiled and told me he’d think about it, but I knew that I had the job.
Growing up, my mom, a dark-haired woman with excellent posture, often accused me of trying to “coast by on charm.” I resented that she knew this fact about me. As young as three years old, I’d follow her around the house, complimenting her dress or new hairstyle, hoping she’d soften up and reverse some prior punishment or buy me a toy that I’d wanted. She never caved. I wasn’t sure what lesson to learn from this, but maybe I’d gotten the job at William Allen because of my charm, or my manipulation, or just because they needed a body to push a broom. Regardless, I was employed.
Everything was going well at William Allen. The students were nice enough. The good ones wanted to know more about my internships in New York City. “Yes,” I said, “MTV was cool.” The bad ones thought I was something of a premature loser. They never said it out loud, but I could tell by the way they moved to the other side of the hall and whispered, sometimes laughing. I watched them, in real life, spending their teenage years making fun of a guy who wasn’t even that much older than them, who could talk about Lil Uzi Vert and ppcocaine if they’d only asked, who cleaned old gum stains off their lockers hoping in return for just a “hey, thanks,” or even a nod, it didn’t have to be a verbal acknowledgement. If they couldn’t grapple with the fullness of my existence, I felt pretty confident that such behavior was proof of their lack of maturity or evidence that they would burn in hell for having said mean things about me. I went back and forth on this outcome, depending on how much sleep I’d gotten the night before.
Ultimately, I didn’t mind the lack of respect as I was doing some of the best writing of my life. Every night, after I finished my chores, I’d post up in room 336, pull a yellow notepad out of my backpack and get to work. This one story I was working on was particularly autobiographical and I did worry a little about what my friends and family might say when they eventually read it. I was pretty confident that they didn’t read my work, though.
I was writing in 336 on a Friday night when I heard a voice down the hall, someone screaming.
“You think I don’t know that you’re cheating on me?” a woman’s voice shook the walls. As she got closer, I recognized it: Marlene Sampson, AP English. Forty, maybe forty-five years old. I forgot what her hair looked like, maybe a bob.
“I’m out!” she yelled, likely into a phone. “Don’t worry where I am!”
I was in her room. I thought maybe I could head out the door as she approached, pretending that I’d been cleaning, but it was probably too late for that excuse. The clock on her wall was stopped, I’d been meaning to fix it. At this moment, I wished that I had a cell phone so I could check if it was ten p.m. or four a.m. Even in my current state of panic, I had to admire myself for having been so lost in writing that I couldn’t nail down the time within six hours.
“I’m going home to light your clothes on fire!” she screamed, maybe twenty feet away.
I ran, as light-footed as possible, to the closet at the back of the classroom. It was stuffed with erasers, chalk, markers and textbooks. I folded myself into the barely human-size space between the edge of the cabinet and the back of the wooden door, closing it gently, right as she entered the room.
I stared into the darkness and heard rustling through drawers, the clink of glass, the swill of something maybe brown, maybe clear. I felt the advent of a sneeze and thought I heard the sound of her leaving, but maybe she was paused in the doorway, waiting for me to come out.
I stayed in the closet for what felt like hours. I said prayers to God and then one to my mom. If Marlene Sampson was still there, I debated whether I’d tell some charmed-up version of the truth or just lie. When I opened the door, finally, no one was in the room except for me. The sun was coming up and I saw what I thought was the same red bird that had been outside of Devin Reed’s office the day that he’d hired me. Maybe it was a different red bird, though.
Ryan Sartor writes a lot of TV pilots and works on Duncanville on Fox. He lives in Los Angeles.