Once there was a medical complex – a hospital. Gary, the janitor, had worked there for many years. He had terrible back pain; it kept him from working more than an hour without resting for a few minutes. It felt like icicles being threaded from his buttock to his toes, as if the Devil had invented his limbs to transmit sensations of pain.
His boss Mike ignored the doctor’s letters. “The floor needs to be cleaned, and who else is going to do it?” His boss had been a janitor and had climbed up the ranks of Environmental Services. But his boss no longer used a uniform. He wore a full suit and a bowler hat, a different color for each day of the week.
Mike took off his hat and waved it up and down the corridor to show the expanse of Gary’s responsibilities. “You need to clean all the way from the nurses’ station to the elevators. And I don’t need to tell you about the buffer.”
The buffer is a large vertical silver machine, a little like a diminutive Zamboni or a Tostite attached to a stick. Gary had to push it up and down the corridor. The only thing that kept him going during his shifts was thoughts of his kids at home, including his new ones. He was a new foster parent to two twins, a 6 and a 9 month old, and they were in court to adopt another child of 16 months they had been foster parents to for years already. He was calling him and Debbie Mommy and Daddy! Even the Devil’s fingernails down his buttock and leg could not drown out that realization.
Money was always tight. It was a constant in his life, much like his back pain. There wasn’t much he could do about either. He had tried numerous strategies to ease the financial pinch: he had tried investing, which he had precious little liquidity for and less talent. He had tried to rent out his basement but got stuck with some cousin’s wife’s cocaine addict of an ex-boyfriend. They had boarded up the windows he had punched out and changed the lock on the door.
The number of back pain remedies he had pursued was endless, and pointless. It was part of him now, the niggling needles, the icicles that could never melt. His brother Jermaine had a ringing in his ear, and whenever they got together it seemed like he, Jermaine, had a compunction to explain it. “There’s an awful sound in my ear,” Jermaine would say, tugging at his lobe, “so if you feel like I’m sounding funny, you’re probably right!” At that, he would chuckle.
Gary didn’t want to tell anybody about his back anymore; what was the point? It didn’t help. It was him and his back, his otherworldly back dealing out suffering like an avenging angel, on their island of pain, growing every day.
So he tried his best to do what Mike told him and be a good worker. He left his apartment in East Baltimore at 5:30 am every morning to be at the hospital at 6.
The first time he had been at the new hospital building was just a couple of weeks ago. He felt like he was walking into a palace, something you might have seen in one of the fairy tales his grandmother used to read him, his grandmother who had raised him after his mother had run off and his father got sick from cancer and couldn’t sit up in bed anymore.
The more he looked at the gleaming walls, the more he saw the fingerprints of everyone he worked with. There were the prints of Terry’s big, thick hands which you would often see, at home, wrapped around a beer bottle. There were the smaller hands of Marilyn, who had several kids at home.
He liked some of the people at work and he didn’t like others. There were some he couldn’t stand the sight of, and it made his back feel better, if only a moment, to think of the people he didn’t like breaking their backs cleaning the walls and floors, nudging gigantic dumpsters from one dank room into another danker, larger room, undoing the chain on a rusty door.
He went day after day to face the machine. He felt his back start to clench up as he walked down the hall toward it. He felt like the buffer itself was a guy out to get him. Which was ridiculous, but then why did he have nightmares that the machine was chasing him down the hall?
After a while, the machine was hurting his back too much. He thought that might mean something, that he had lost all feeling. He panicked, turned it off, and leaned against the wall for a minute. Then, losing strength, he found himself slumping to the floor. He thought he smelled food cooking, or was that people delivering lunch to patients?
He had to take a few days off to catch his breath and let the pain wash over him as he lay down in bed like a piece of driftwood from a shipwreck, soaked in sweat and immobile, buried. He wasn’t sure he would ever be able to get up again. The pain was all over him like a caravan of fiery worms roaming from place to place over his body.
His work called, actually it was someone from Human Resources, who had no idea, as usual, what he did for a living, it didn’t make any difference for him that it was a union shop. He paid $132 yearly for union dues, for nothing. He was supposed to report back to duty.
How was he supposed to go back to work? He called Jermaine.
“Gary, you sound like shit,” said Jermaine.
“Mother would have your hide to hear you talk like that.”
“She’s been dead for 5 years, Gary. “ Gary heard Jermaine’s 3 kids, all adopted, all under 4, and all as loud as a tin can tied to a cat’s tail, caterwauling in the background. He could not stand noise when his back hurt.
“Do you have anything I could take for pain? I can’t take this anymore.”
Jermaine allowed as he had some left over Percocet in his medicine cabinet. He had tried some for his headaches, but they made him groggy. Maybe they could help Gary.
Gary had asked his doctor for some strong pain medicine but the only thing he was offered was a pill for inflammation. Just like everything else, this hadn’t helped much. He had started drinking again more than he used to, going back to the six-pack on Saturday, with three or four beers on Sunday. He had put on some more weight.
He wasn’t sure though that he wanted to use Jermaine’s medication. He had met people who were on Percocet. They were just like the junkies he had hung out with twenty years ago, before he got clean. Roberta, his wife, took such good care of him. But this was taking a toll on her, his not being able to go to work.
He prayed on it, as he often did about hard problems, that Sunday at church. He sat there, while the choir was singing, while the preacher was preaching, and waited for some answer to come. He noticed the walls of the church. They were dirty. Someone should give them a good cleaning, but not him. Not until he figured out what he needed to do, and not until he had gotten some answer from the one above.
That evening he took a couple, not having received any answer, and he felt somewhat better. Or, not better, but at least with the icicles dulled to fingernails. He wasn’t sure that it was enough but maybe it might help him in the long run. But that night, as he was starting at the medication bottle, standing there in front of the bathroom mirror, he didn’t notice Roberta coming up behind him.
“What in hell are you doing, Gary?” he heard. He didn’t look back.
“I’m going to take this medicine -”
“You know what that shit does to people.”
“I’m not people. I’m me. And I hurt.”
She started crying. “I have so many plans for us. I can’t have you become some sort of junkie like your brother.”
He didn’t look back; he took another pill and told him that he would ask himself how he felt tomorrow.
The next day he felt a little groggy, not all that different, but the needles weren’t all that sharp, he told himself, or trying to convince himself. From day to day, from week to week over the next months and years, it was no longer clear to him what he was feeling or what he was supposed to feel.
He went to the doctor, and the doctor – actually, the nurse outside – asked him how much pain he had. Was it still a 10? It was a 10. The needles were always there, but now he knew there was a way to get them less sharp. He wanted to dull them but it felt like a chase, like he was on a bus racing towards an ever receding mountain range.
When he went to work, his boss knew to expect less and less of him. He didn’t know whether to feel ashamed at himself, exasperated at his boss’ thick-headedness, or then again touched that he had turned out to be a human being after all.
The walls seemed cleaner and cleaner every day. He didn’t think he was working any harder but maybe he was operating the machine better. He could have sworn that once he saw his own reflection smiling at him from the floor. But with this pain he couldn’t smile – he knew better than to believe his own eyes.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a writer in Baltimore who writes poetry and short stories (and translations) in Yiddish and English, and by day a mild-mannered primary care doctor.