By Attila Zønn
The back door was open.
Alex called, “Mama?” But there was no answer.
He climbed the steps to his room and heard a noise coming from Mama’s room. Her door wasn’t closed all the way so he pushed it open and called, “Mama?”
Mama was kneeling on the floor in front of the bureau with the big mirror. Her head was covered with a scarf that had red flowers and her hands were clasped together. There was a lit candle on the bureau in front of pictures of Nagymama and Nagyapa and a bronze crucifix.
Mama jumped when she saw Alex.
She came towards him saying, “No, no, no, Alexandru. No, no.”
She knelt in front of him and held him at the shoulders and said in a crying voice, “You must not tell Tata you saw me like this. Please. Never tell Tata you saw these things. Never.”
Mama stood and took off the scarf. She blew out the candle and put it with Nagymama and Nagyapa and the crucifix in a shoe box, then opened the closet and put the box deep inside, covering it with shoe boxes. She came back to him smiling, wiping her eyes.
“What can I make you? Anything you want I will make it.”
She led him out of the room, and going down the stairs she said, “Is there a new toy you want?”
Mama looked nervous when Tata came home. She kept staring at Alex. Tata was not in a good mood. Usually when Tata was this way, Mama asked him what was wrong, but today she stood silent.
Tata went to the fridge, took out a beer and opened it. He looked at Mama and said, “Some people are so stupid.” He took a long drink.
“That Ray—he is such a character. Do you know what he said?”
Mama stood still, silent, stiff. Tata looked at her and asked, “Are you all right?”
Mama nodded. She said, “What did he say?”
“He said, he and I are in the same boat.”
Mama frowned. “What does that mean?”
“He is missing a toe. Frostbite from when he was a child. But how can he say we are in the same boat? He is missing a toe while I am missing a finger, from the hand, the hand that has lifted humanity and taken us from the jungle to rule the world. The same boat? Yes, he has a slight limp, but his affliction is hidden. Mine is here.” He lifted his hand. “It is the first thing people see when they meet me. And they will always ask what happened. And I am sick of explaining it. In the same boat? Hardly, my UF—fucking—O friend. If it wasn’t for these hands humans would still be swinging from tree to tree fighting over bloody coconuts.”
“Did you tell him this?”
“I should have, but, you know, I do not want to create a conflict with the man who gave me my job.” Tata came to the table and sat down. He turned to Alex, and said, “My son, is there anything you want to tell me?” Alex looked at Mama who looked back at him with wide eyes.
“What do you mean Tata?”
“I mean, I am at this new job at your school for two weeks now, and I have never seen you once.”
There was a reason why Tata hadn’t seen Alex at school. Alex was trying all manner of stealth to avoid Tata. Before he left the classroom he looked both ways down the hall to make sure Tata wasn’t doing one of his janitor things, and if Tata was that way, Alex went the other way, very quickly. And while he fast-walked away, a cold sweat overcame him as he hoped Tata wouldn’t call out to him. That would be a terrible thing—if Tata called out to him in front of all his classmates.
Already the word had gotten around about the mean new janitor who had made Stacey cry that day when she had to go to the washroom. She had come back quickly, very upset, and Miss Sharps asked her what was wrong, and Stacey had cried out that the new janitor had stopped her from crossing the floor he was mopping because it was wet and he wasn’t finished, and don’t come back until it has dried.
Miss Sharps left the class saying, “Well, I’ll get to the bottom of this!”, but she also came back quickly and her face was so red, and she looked a little confused, but then she walked over to Alex at his desk and stared down at him for a long time. Alex had turned away and focused on his hands.
Now he said, “I don’t know why, Tata. It just happens that way. Do you want me to come and find you sometimes?” Tata looked at Alex in that suspicious way that Tata’s face went when he wondered if Alex was telling a lie.
“That won’t be necessary,” Tata said, and reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a folded piece of paper and opened it. He turned to Mama. “Do you know who this is?”
Mama came to the table and looked down at the paper. From where Alex sat, it looked like a picture of one of those ancient kinds of statues that had their arms cut off.
Mama shook her head.
“His name is Janos,” Tata said. “In English they call him JAN-US.”
“He has two heads,” Mama said.
“No, he has two faces—one looking forwards, the other looking behind him. He is the keeper of the gates. His name is where the word janitor comes from. My position was named after a Roman god!” Tata laughed, took another drink of beer, then sat smiling.
Alex wanted to tell Mama right away that he would never tell Tata that she was still mumbling in front of a crucifix but Mama was doing so many nice things for him that it was fun being the boss of Mama.
It was the last day that Alex would have Miss Sharps as his teacher, and he was glad. Next year he’ll have a new teacher and Alex hoped that teacher will like him. And he looked forward to the wonderful summer coming up when he can run free with his friends and not have to show Tata his homework.
Miss Sharps brought her cat to school. He was a big white cat with black patches and his name was Oscar. Miss Sharps said Oscar wasn’t feeling well. That’s why she didn’t want to leave him home today. Oscar looked scared. He was hiding under everything because the girls wanted to hold him. He hid under the bookshelf and the girls wanted to pull him out but Miss Sharps said we shouldn’t force him out because it would scare him more.
Nancy said, “My mom works in a pet shop and she says cats feel better when they are high up. We should put him on top of the bookshelf.”
“No,” Miss Sharps said. “Let’s just move the desks against the walls to give him more room.” After they had pushed the desks to the edge of the class Miss Sharps went to the fridge at the back of the class and got some milk and a small dish.
“Alex,” she said. “Would you like to give Oscar some milk?”
This surprised Alex and made him so happy because after all these months Miss Sharps had finally talked to him. He took the milk and put it just in front of the bookshelf. Soon Oscar stuck his nose out and then his whole body and he started licking the milk. The girls giggled. Oscar didn’t finish all the milk. He stopped licking and froze, and then he moved out to the middle of the class, walked in a circle, then stopped and pooped all over the floor. It wasn’t a hard poop. His poop came out like when Mama made pancakes on Sundays sometimes and poured the batter onto the griddle, and the girls went,“Ewe!”, and the boys laughed and Alex saw Miss Sharps hurrying to the intercom with a big smile on her face, and she pushed the button and asked for the custodian to come to room 104. She said there was a slight spill.
Tata arrived with a mop and a metal pail on wheels, and when he saw what he had to clean up his face turned red. He didn’t look at Alex or anyone else but went about cleaning the cat’s poop. He tried soaking it up with the mop and made swirls on the floor and all the kids laughed, and Tata’s face was got redder and redder. But he cleaned it, and poured something on the floor that smelled nice and out he went.
Alex felt Tata’s embarrassment, and he looked at Miss Sharps who was looking at him with a big smile on her face.
That afternoon it was party time. Stacey wanted to show everybody how good a singer she was. She sang a song that was playing on the radio. It was about a dead skunk in the middle of the road stinkin’ to high heaven. Miss Sharps came from behind her desk and slapped Stacey in the face. She had her terrible face on when she said, “We must never make fun of God’s creatures!”
Alex felt the slap and thought Stacey wanted to cry but she didn’t. She held her cheek, and as Miss Sharps walked back to her desk, Alex put his hand on Stacey’s back.
©Attila Zønn 2017