Even Rat Pups Laugh Once in a While Part 6
Brian Moore | Delilah Buckle
Friday — Tracy Bates
Departing Custodian: Mr. Stuart
Arriving Custodian: Mr. von Grawbadger
My dear Mr. von Grawbadger,
Day shift wishes you warm welcome to the start of yet another graveyard shift! I am writing you now well past the end of my own shift, because an event transpired that occupied the hour I usually set aside for you. And I expect to enjoy time spent without interruption by our contemptible bells.
You might have already observed that you are one uniform short of the week’s full compliment that was to have been delivered from the laundry today. I can explain that. But first, I request a favor …
I would like for you to come to the school during your off-hours so that you may meet Shelly, who you will remember had been the principal caretaker of the fair rat mother now enjoying our collaborative care. I had thought of showing her the rat family’s new quarters myself, but then figured, why not let the Architect show his own handiwork to her?
She’s been bringing her garbage to me as I take my lunch every day.
Won’t you please come in, perhaps as early as Monday? Please?
Now, as to your uniform …
During period six (of eight, you remember) I was approached by a harried and distressed Counselor Lopez. By means she neglected to relate to me she had obtained knowledge of an incident at the boys’ restroom. She indicated an inclination to assist in any way she could, but had commitments she could not break — the administration of aptitude tests, the results of which would inform the career decisions of the young boys and girls who had submitted to them. She literally threw up her hands. “I can’t be everywhere at once!” She insisted she could be of no service anyway until I had first established order at the scene. Then she went back to her office.
I arrived at the restroom to find Principal Rhee, Coach Hayes, and Father Groeschel standing outside the door. Principal Rhee received me as though I were an off-duty paramedic that happened upon a wreck on the Interstate. “Oh Mr. Stewart! Perfect. You must have a sixth sense.”
I humbly explained that I was outfitted with only the standard package of five senses. No sixth sense accounted for my presence. Rather, I had come at Counselor Lopez’ suggestion. Principal Rhee seemed nonplussed. “But I sent for Counselor Lopez.”
“I can assure you she is inclined to be here. But she has also determined that she can be of no service here until I first bring order to the scene. Lastly, she is busy. Assisting students in choosing a career optimally suited to their aptitudes.”
Principal Rhee heaved an exasperated sigh. She nodded in the direction of the boy’s room door. “There’s a boy in there. We think he’s hurt.”
“Okay, but I’m the janitor. Is there a sanitation emergency requiring my skills, training, and expertise?”
Coach Hayes said helpfully, “Hell yeah, there is.”
“All right, I’ll let Coach Hayes explain,” Principal Rhee yielded.
Coach Hayes cleared his throat. He applied a hard twist to the spiral notebook already rolled quite tightly in his hands. He delivered the promised explanation.
“He shit himself.”
“Oh! That’s a shame.”
He brandished the notebook and barked toward the restroom door, “It’s a disgrace!”
“Why yes. Yes it is,” I concurred. The succeeding pause in the conversation felt pregnant. I terminated it. “So, I’m prepared to commence with mop-up operations once the boy’s been removed from the scene and the area perimeterized against accidental incursion by innocent passersby. Will someone arrive soon to remove the boy?”
Principal Rhee turned in the direction from which I had come. “We were hoping it would be Counselor Lopez. If any of us had training for this sort of crisis, I would have assumed it was she. But evidently she has more pressing matters she must attend to.”
“You know,” Coach Hayes ventured, “we could just leave him in there til after school’s out. Then if his mom comes, she can go in there after him.”
Principal Rhee’s rebuke was sharp. “Nonsense! At the end of the school day, the kids are going to need to use this restroom. Some of them will have very long bus rides to get home.”
Here Father Groeschel finally entered the conversation. “The drivers don’t stop for bio breaks.”
Principal Rhee went on. “We have just an hour and a half to clean it up.”
After another pause I inquired, “Are we all standing out here because he is dangerous?”
“Oh, for Chrissakes, Stu.” Principal Rhee pointed sternly to the door. “He’s covered in shit.” Immediately she turned to Father Groeschel. She said contritely, “Oh, I’m sorry, Father.”
Father Groeschel chuckled. “Apology accepted. Overall, I would say that you have been remarkably composed under the circumstances.”
Coach Hayes was again helpful: “And that’s not all that’s covered in shit.”
“Come again, sir?”
“According to a witness,” Principal Rhee began, “the boy didn’t just defecate on himself and leave it at that; he went on to smear his feces all over the interior of the restroom.”
“Ah!” I interjected. “Now I understand why you are all so happy to see me.”
“Our Lord and Father has a special place in heaven for you, Mr. Stewart,” smirked Father Groeschel.
“To lose control of one’s bowels during adolescence and in front of one’s peers would be unfortunate …”
“It’s a disgrace!”
“… but then to go on and compound the tragedy by desecrating the interior of this august institution …”
Principal Rhee cut in. “He had help.”
“Come again, ma’am?”
“He didn’t just ‘lose control of his bowels. He had help. He’d been attacked.”
“’Attacked.’” Coach Hayes rolled his eyes. The tone of his interjection suggested he was prepared to dispute Principal Rhee’s characterization of whatever scuffle preceded, perhaps even instigated, the defecatory event.
But Principal Rhee would not be engaged. “I’m assuming he defecated while undergoing an attack, probably by …”
“We don’t know who attacked him.” This from Father Groeschel.
“You know,” Coach Hayes warmed up to lob more helpful insight, “it could be that he was attacked because he shit himself. That would make sense.”
“True,” conceded Principal Rhee. “We don’t know which came first: The attack or the defecation.”
“But the attack is not what matters here,” counseled Father Groeschel. “Let us always remember that what matters now is the boy’s reaction to it. I pray he finds it within himself to forgive those who beat him.”
“Beat the shit out of him,” sniggered Coach Hayes.
“I bet if he’d been paddled when he was younger, he wouldn’t be laying in his own shit today,” theorized Principal Rhee while regarding the spiral notebook constricted in Coach Hayes’ grip.
Here quoth the Priest: “Spare the rod … well, you know how it ends.”
We all nodded solemnly.
We stood for an awkward minute or two, watching the door. Expectantly. Or perhaps hopefully. Coach Hayes broke the silence. “Principal Rhee, Father Groeschel and I have a game tonight to prepare for,” he said. Then he unrolled the spiral notebook to wave it, for the first time since I had arrived, without menace. “And in fifteen minutes I’ve got an algebra class to conduct.”
I leaned interestedly toward the Coach. He opened the notebook for me. In it I saw plays for the afternoon’s game.
All three seemed ready to run away to matters graver than the plight of an injured boy wallowing in his own excrement. I volunteered to relieve them of the imposition thrust into their routines by the current situation. “Why don’t I reconnoiter, come out, and report status to you?”
“Would you please?” My recollection is I heard all three say this simultaneously.
“Let me get a blanket.”
Coach Hayes heartily endorsed my request. “Good idea. Cover him up so nobody sees him on his way out.”
“In that special place set aside for you in heaven,” said Father Groeschel, “the Lord our Father will certainly reward you for preserving the boy’s dignity with your thoughtful gesture.”
“Right.” I worry now that my tone might have been taken by my audience as a tad sardonic, but at the time I thought it appropriate.
I left them. When I returned with a moving blanket the Principal, the Coach, and the Priest had abandoned their post after scratching out a simple sign onto a sheet of paper ripped from the Coach’s spiral notebook. “Out of Order.”
I pushed through the door. I need not describe the smell: My nose has not the sophistication to discern much from the scent of any specific student’s excrement. I was unable to detect anything remarkable about it. But judging from the color and consistency of the feces, I was able to ascertain that the boy’s medication is an antidepressant, and an SSRI at that. Zoloft most likely by virtue of its continued dominance in the market, though Luvox has been making some inroads so might also be a safe bet.
Regardless, the feces testified to a dosage adequate to render the boy inoffensive to anyone.
The boy indeed lay on the tiled floor, pants still around his ankles. When I saw his bare legs, I was reminded of your theory that if one were to cut the legs off any depressed student one would find the innermost rings made insubstantial by Ritalin, the gateway to a life of chemical dependency approved by parents, educators, pediatricians — and of course by Novartis, manufacturer of Ritalin.
The boy — victim or perpetrator depending upon your prejudice — was one Tracy Bates. I will not describe his state in any further detail out of my desire to preserve his dignity. I wrapped him in the blanket, then sat with him. We chatted. We exchanged a few jokes — “Got some toilet paper stuck to your shoe,” and, “You tucked your shirt into your underwear.” He seemed in remarkably good humor despite his circumstance.
Eighth Bell rang. I took up a station just outside the door, warding off the innocent, re-directing them to the other restroom until the halls were clear, at which time I escorted Tracy to the safety, comfort, and privacy of our custodial office. There I let him wash. He was in need of fresh clothes, so I gave him your uniform because only yours was the correct size. I rang the office to inform the secretary, Mrs. Bush, that I had Mr. Bates with me in the custodial office and to request that she please ring me back when his mother arrived. Mrs. Bush confirmed the spelling of Mr. Bates’ name three times, so I expect that this blight has been duly recorded in his Permanent Record. I suggested it might be best for Mrs. Bates to drive to the loading dock at the rear of the school to pick up her son, rather than meet him at the administrative office in the front of the building right at the end of the day. Mrs. Bush praised me for my thoughtfulness.
All went according to my wishes. At the dock, I wished Mr. Bates and his mother a good day. Thus the incident was closed without further incident.
So there you have it: Why you are missing one uniform.
Please remind me: Whom do I have to kill to get your graveyard shift? Oh! You. Well, do not let it worry you.
By now I’ve monopolized enough of your time. I leave you to your shift. And wish you good night.
Monday — Tracy Bates Defends Himself
Stu on second period reconnaissance saw the AV contractors descending a ladder. Without breaking stride, he pointed to the ladder and said, “Do me a favor guys? Fold that thing up, put it away? It’s a hazard. Kid nearly died last week.”
He passed them. Behind him he heard one contractor apologize insincerely.
He was making a beeline for the custodial office because von Grawbadger had said ‘ok’ to his suggestion that he come in to meet with Shelly. That was good news. But the old bastard had not committed to any specific time.
He opened the door to the office just as the bell to end Second Period rang, and was elated to find the wiry and short von Grawbadger there, feet up on his own desk, head leaned back, fingers interlaced across his belly.
Evidently he’d commandeered the radio. Where Stu should have been hearing an orchestra, he instead heard only two dispassionate voices.
Stu greeted him. “Hey Jarhead, quit dickin’ with my radio.”
“I couldn’t take any more of that classical shit,” von Grawbadger replied without opening his eyes, or in any other way motioning to acknowledge Stu’s presence.
“What is that, NPR?”
“Oh, the Squid can spell! Yes sir. It’s how I found out rat pups’ll laugh if you tickle ‘em.”
“I never got that to work, by the way.”
“Well you know they don’t really laugh, dumbass. They just chirp or something, and it’s too high for you to hear. You need some kind of instrument to be able to tell. If you listened, you’d know.”
“Did NPR tell you how to demonstrate rat pup tickling if you haven’t got one of those instruments? Shelly’d probably like to see that. So would I.”
Von Grawbadger cursed.
With a nod to the radio, Stu asked, “Who they talking to?”
“Some military historian. I guess he died so they’re replaying this interview.”
Stu listened, heard some talk about Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler. “They talking about World War Two?”
“Most of the time, yeah.”
“They all talk about World War Two.”
“’Course they do: It’s the easiest one to teach.”
Stu grabbed a pencil. He was looking into the cage for a pup to tickle when he heard the historian say, “War is the most important time in our history.”“You say the guy died?” he asked.
Von Grawbadger was saying, “If I’d made war the most important time in my history, I’d have never stopped fighting” when Third Bell rang. When it finished, he cursed. “I don’t miss those goddamn things.”
“I can fix it so you never hear those goddamn things again.” Stu moved to a grey electrical box on the wall. He popped it open. It was largely empty, way too big for the little mechanism centered inside it. He pointed the pencil as though threatening to stab it.
Von Grawbadger smiled. “You ever show that to the chimps?”
The mechanism, which was the timer that controlled the ringing of the bells, had not been seen by any student over the course of Stu’s entire career as a day shift janitor at the school. That no student had ever asked to see it was rather disappointing to him whenever he thought about it. It seemed to him a reasonable thing to demand an audience with the device prior to subjecting oneself to its tyranny.
Stu had confided to von Grawbadger long ago a desire to encase the little assembly in Plexiglas, then direct the students to shuffle past it like Cold War Soviets observing Lenin’s Tomb.
“They’d destroy it,” von Grawbadger had scoffed.
But Stu hadn’t given up on the idea, which is why the question stung. He answered, “Not yet.”
They talked more about the bells, war, the cameras, anything that came to mind. Third Bell rang, and Stu was reminded of the point of von Grawbadger’s visit.
“Shelly will be with Miss Johnstone now. You know what you’re gonna do?”
“I’m gonna show her the goddamn cage, then I’m gonna go home and get some sleep.”
“And tickle the pups,” Stu reminded him.
“Yeah, sure. Anything you want.”
They talked more, for the better part of the period in fact, until the visitor from graveyard shift asked, “So is she coming here, or are we supposed to go there?”
Stu blinked. He’d assumed she’d come to the office, since that’s where the cage was. But on reflection realized he’d never established who was to go where. “Shit, we’re running out of time,” he cursed, checking the clock.
Then they heard the shrieks of children. von Grawbadger looked piqued. “Livelier on day shift these days than I remember it.”
“Somebody’s having a good time.”
Stu opened his mouth to gush his elaborate plan to bring Shelly and the Jarhead together when he heard a sound that was completely out of place on school grounds, and then another round of shrieks.
Von Grawbadger took his feet off the desk, looked to the door to the hallway concernedly. “What the fuck was that?”
“Not sure.” He cocked an ear. He heard wailing, and crying, and pleas coming from the hallway. “Oh god no.”
Von Grawbadger shrugged, shook his head.
“Tracy Bates! I wrote to you about him on Friday. I know what’s going on!” He ran to the door but stopped short. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! He took me seriously. Holy fuck!”
“Took you seriously about what?”
“The gun! The gun, that stupid son of a bitch!” He grabbed the doorknob, yanked. The cries came louder now that the door was open. He realized that to go into the hallway was not courageous, but stupid. Still, he knew he had to do something. He whirled, searched the office. “I gotta fix this, gotta fix this, gotta … “ He spied the hatch. He ran to the ladder. “I can fix this!”
Von Grawbadger meanwhile had moved to the phone, picked up the receiver. “Where are you going?”
“What are you going to do up there?”
“I’m gonna stop him! You coming with?”
Stu paused on the ladder. “On your feet, soldier!” He yanked open the hatch.
“What am I gonna do?”
“Find him for me!”
“You’re outta your fucking mind! What am I gonna do when I find him, except die? I ain’t no bullet sponge.”
But Stu was already into the hatch, looking down the full length of the school. For once the building’s absurd design worked to Stu’s advantage. From the hatch he had only one direction to go: Straight along the sequence of girders forming the mainline over the hallway for the entire length of the building and directly under the peak of the roof. He planned to race right along it without having to bow or stoop.
He breathed deep from a draft carrying dust and the scents of droppings and grease. Nothing in the space moved, yet he heard a deep rumble suggestive of a conveyance.
He started out along the girder, replaying in his head the conversation he’d had with Bates in the restroom, the conversation that led to the massacre unfolding beneath him.
He remembered seeing his own hand press flat against the stainless steel plate on the restroom door. He remembered swallowing hard to put down a reflux of contempt brought on by his passage through the stench of perfume and cologne still wafting in the vacuum left by the Principal, the Coach, and the Priest. He went through.
He remembered the boy, prone on the floor, ankles bound close together by his pants, in a swirl of diarrhea.
“If you’re my guardian angel, you’re late.”
“Oh no sir, I’m no guardian angel. I’m the janitor.”
The boy swirls a finger in the shit. “Probably as close as I’m ever gonna get.”
“What’s your name?”
“Looks like you could use this blanket, Tracy.” Tracy snorts hard, says “Uh! Fuck!” He either coughs or sobs. He spits blood.
“So you are happy to see me.”
“I don’t want to see anybody.”
“That’s understandable. But now that I’ve seen you, I can’t just leave you. Let’s sit you up. Tip your head back. Clamp your nose shut. Swallow the blood or spit it out, don’t sniffle. Give it a chance to clot. It’ll clot eventually.”
“Is it broken? It feels broken.”
“Well, let’s see.” Hands wrap Tracy’s head, feel the wet hair, the thumbs gently push Tracy’s nose. “Hear any crunching?”
“Then it’s not broken.”
From a location further up the line, between Stu and the front entrance to the building, the screams of many, many children broke into his reminiscence. Many heartbeats passed, then came shots. Then more screams at an impossibly high pitch. Several feet ahead of him a panel popped, then flopped a couple more times as though being battered. Stu hastened to it. He peered carefully around it.
There on the floor below him stood von Grawbadger, holding a mop and looking up expectantly at Stu. Then he pointed to a door with a glass window.
He swore, then said in a hoarse whisper, “I’m guessing he started here.”
Stu opened a panel just inside the door he knew to be just below him. On the floor Ms. Tharpe lay in blood. Lots of blood. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and said to himself, “That’s hardly surprising.”
“’Mr. Stuart.’ I’ve seen you. You’re a janitor, but your nametag says ‘Mr.’ on it.”
“Yeah. So you kids treat us with respect.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“Man, I wish.”
From the open panel came a murmer, then shrieks. He looked down through the panel, discovered there a tight knot of boys and girls surrounding the corpse of Ms. Tharpe, reaching up to him, calling out to him, heedless of the fact they were all still in very real danger. “It’s Mr. Stuart! Mr. Stuart! Take me!”
More shrieks, followed by more shots, followed by more shrieks. He reached a hand through the opening to quiet the children, but the gesture had the opposite effect. Against his own established credo, he yelled, “Goddammit get to shelter! I have to go to save the others! Please! Take cover!”
And he left them.
“Got a girlfriend, Tracy?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“Well, if it doesn’t work out, I have a girl for you.”
“I don’t know yet. But I’ve seen her work. It’s reminiscent of what you’ve done here. It differs in the medium — she prefers menstrual blood, where you seem more comfortable working in your own feces.”
“Oh. Sorry about that.”
Directly ahead, and rather far ahead, another panel popped. Von Grawbadger was moving pretty quickly.
Stu took his bearings. He was right across from the girl’s restroom. Von Grawbadger might be just outside Miss Johnstone’s room. He swung through the drop ceiling as quickly as he could to catch up.
“Sorry? Why would you be sorry? How do you even know what I’m talking about?”
“’Cause it was my … ‘whatever’ that did it. She told me what she did in there.”
“She told you about throwing her bloody tampon around the shitter? How does that conversation get started?”
“She’s an artist.”
“Oh. Say no more. Anyway, no apology necessary. Stuff like that happening is my job security. You wear a rubber, by the way?”
“She wouldn’t let me. She wants to get pregnant.”
“She wants to get pregnant. Now I get it.” “Wow. That might be a first.”
“No, dude. It’s not.”
“Tracy, she could use some help, too.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You gonna be there for her?”
Tracy puts out his hands resignedly, looks around restroom. Another sob. Stu says, “I see.”
“So me getting beat up — is that job security for you, too?”
“Nah. You shitting all over this restroom, that’s my job security. You have any idea why they did this to you?”
“My … ‘whatever’ tried to publish a comic making fun of Coach ‘cause he sucks at algebra.”
“What makes you think so?”
“’Cause that’s what they said. It’s not like it actually got published. Miss Johnstone refused to print it. She ran some other bullshit comic about how the cameras were gonna be really awesome.”
At the open panel Stu looked down to von Grawbadger, who again was pointing to the room immediately next to him. He choked a bit, lifted a panel. Miss Johnstone and Shelly in more blood.
Through the screams of recognition and calls for salvation from the children hiding in the room below, Stu realized Shelly had never had a chance to tickle the pups. He further realized he’d never seen Shelly laugh.
He became convinced he’d never seen any of them laugh.
“I saw that. That was a bullshit comic. You wanna tell me who it was that did this to you?”
“Yeah. But what good would that do? Who’s gonna protect me?”
Stu looked back to von Grawbadger expecting that he’d be moving on. He wasn’t. Stu craned to understand why. And he did. Von Grawbadger was standing at the opening to the Commons, a huge, wide-open space with no cover. And, he was looking at four athletic boys lying just ahead of him in another pool.
Shrieks. Shots. And more shrieks.
Von Grawbadger had evidently steeled himself. He looked not at Stu but across the Commons. “He’s right across here. I’m running,” he said resolutely. “Get with me.”
“I’ll be there.”
Von Grawbadger took off. Stu flew over girders, around struts, under or over ductwork, collecting dust, grease, and droppings with his sweat.
“Good point. But you know, sooner or later in life you gotta learn to protect yourself. It’s part of growing up.”
“That’s what Coach kept saying.”
“That’s what Coach kept saying — when?”
“When the guys were beating me up.”
“Coach was here?”
“Not right at first. He came in after the swirly. He kept yelling, ‘Protect yourself, fight back!’ and shit like that at me. ‘If you can’t protect yourself, you’ll never survive!”
“He just stood there yelling?”
He arrived at another popped panel. Without bothering to check in with him, he opened a panel over the room von Grawbadger was standing outside of.
Mr. Donovan. Dead Right There.
“Did I just get Coach in trouble?”
“So there’s a dead Coach around somewhere,” surmised Stu.
“How the fuck am I supposed to protect myself in that kind of situation? I mean, it was four guys. How do you protect yourself against four?”
Hang in there, Tracy. I have some good news for you:
Again, he’d been seen. He heard more shrieks of recognition, more appeals for salvation. “Take me, Mr. Stuart! Lift me up!”
He quieted them, only to hear von Grawbadger curse, “Whoa shit” from the open panel. He crawled back to it, peered below.
Von Grawbadger, directly below the opening, spoke loudly as though he didn’t realize Stu was near. “Tracy? Mr. Stuart wants you to please stop.” He raised his hands.
A familiar voice challenged, “Why should I? Nobody stops when I ask them to. And who the fuck are you?”
“I am Mr. von Grawbadger. That’s my uniform you’re wearing. I’d appreciate it if you washed it before you bring it back.”
“Fuck if I’m bringing it back. It’s mine now.” Stu saw von Grawbadger silently accept Tracy’s assertion. “Why aren’t you afraid of my guns?”
“Because I know you, if only just a little bit. Mr. Stuart told me about you. Said you were a good kid, he liked you. He’s on his way now.”
When Tracy asked, “What for?” Stu could tell he was approaching von Grawbadger.
“He said he enjoyed his conversation with you the other day, but he’s worried there might’ve been a misunderstanding.”
That’s quick thinking for a Jarhead, Stu couldn’t help observing.
“In a couple years, you can — you should — defend yourself … “
“Whoa shit.” von Grawbadger took a step back.
“… with a gun.”
Into the space directly beneath Stu that had been occupied by von Grawbadger stepped Tracy Bates. He trained a pair of guns on the Marine. “I understood everything he said.” He craned as though disbelieving his own eyes. “Is that a mop?”
“Yeah. Well I like what you’ve done with the nametag. Keep the uniform.”
“I intend to. So where’s Mr. Stuart?”
Stu kept his voice calm. “Tracy, I’m up here.” Tracy, startled, swung his guns upward. Behind the barrels, his face betrayed fear. Then recognition. He lowered the weapons.
Then he smiled. “I wanna come up there.”
Stu shook his head. He put out both hands in a gesture meant to dissuade Tracy. “No, son. I’m … ”
Because he had lifted his hands, when the bell rang he had been anchored at only two points rather than the three he knew to be the absolute minimum for safe voyage in the drop ceiling. On his way down he grasped a strut of angle iron but with only one hand. He swung hard just once from that hand before he felt his thighs in the weak but stabilizing embrace of a thin old man. The hard steel edges in his grip raked his palm, crushing the bones and tendons of his hand. His wrist popped. But he held on. Just long enough for a sniper to draw a bead.
The shot seemed oddly distant considering it came from just below him. Pain exploded from his knee. What had been supporting him from below went slack and became a dead weight pulling him down. He let go.
“No shit. So you need to just hang on a little longer. When you’re carrying that gun, nobody’s gonna bother you.”
“What if somebody does anyway?”
“Then you use it to let them know you’re serious.”
“Hm. Something to look forward to, I guess.”
“Yeah. Something to look forward to.”
He lay on the floor, still in the weak embrace of von Grawbadger, who had crumpled underneath him. Face against the floor, he by turns wailed and sucked wind through clenched teeth, instinctively trying to draw his injured parts to his breast. They protested his efforts with even more pain.
So he tried to lie still, on his side, eyes clamped shut. The old Jarhead hugged him, hard, and turned his head against Stu’s belly. The tender gesture hurt.
Stu heard shouts come to him as if through a long cardboard tube.
“Get down! Get down! GET DOWN! Drop your weapon, asshole!”
“It’s a fuckin’ mop! We’re the good — oof!”
He opened his eyes, turned his head in time to see von Grawbadger fall to his knees to his right, grimacing and with his arms around his own rib cage. The mop lay on the floor in front of him.
Confused, he looked down to his waist. He saw clutching him a thin man wearing a custodial uniform. He stared uncomprehendingly at the back of the head, which was covered with thick, dark hair.
Tracy Bates released him. The boy curled in a pool of blood, attempting to attain the fetal position. Stu pushed at the boy’s shoulder to separate from him, to avoid the pain of any of his further movements. The push attained distance enough for him to read the blood-soaked nametag.
Tracy looked to him. His teeth, by turns, clenched and chattered. Until he very deliberately, but also very quietly, spoke.
Stu wanted to hear, but couldn’t for the shouting going on between von Grawbadger and the S.W.A.T officers. So he shouted, “He’s saying something! Shut the fuck up!”
He looked to Tracy with an imploring expression.
Tracy drew a gurgling breath. “You’re late.”
Stu barked like a beaten dog. “I know, son. I know! I’m sorry!”
“I could use a blanket.”
Tracy shuddered. Then he was dead.
“Goddamn gurney could use some shock absorbers,” Stu cursed as paramedics wheeled him out the school’s front entrance. He wished von Grawbadger were accompanying him, but understood the old man was probably busy answering questions from the same authorities that had battered his rib cage.
Across the parking lot that long ago he had come to refer as “The DMZ”, outside the chain link fence, he saw Father Groeschel laying hands on the heads of children. He saw Counselor Gonzalez throwing up her hands, and Mrs. Szmiegle standing with the back of one of her hands to her lips.
He tracked a man moving frantically through the crowd. The man was shouting toward the school entrance, where Stu lay in the gurney waiting to be loaded into an ambulance. He could not hear the man’s shouts, but was pretty certain of what he was saying.
Satisfied he’d guessed correctly because the sound of her name in his head fit the movement of the man’s lips, he said vacantly, “Hello Mr. Shelly. I am Stu. Your daughter wants us to meet.”
He lifted an arm to wave, but felt the tug of an IV tube, so he stopped. He liked what the drip was doing to him so didn’t care to interrupt it. The pain ebbed a little bit more. He passed out just as he felt himself being lifted.
Von Grawbadger watched Stu’s bandaged knee rise and fall slowly under the influence of a Continuous Passive Motion therapeutic machine. He hadn’t watched long before Stu, reclining against pillows, began to feel self-conscious. To relieve the awkwardness he tried for a second time to tell his guest that the CPM was meant to prevent atrophy, and nothing more, despite appearances.
Von Grawbadger asked, “You sure you wouldn’t rather be alone with it?”
Stu smiled the grotesque smile of a man in codeine-fueled stupor. “No.”
They were in Stu’s bedroom watching a program hastily put together by one of the 24-hour news networks within, he guessed, literally hours of the shooting. von Grawbadger had said he’d seen it, or clips from it, many times since his release from questioning about his involvement. He had also said that he’d not wanted to see it, but there was no avoiding it or the similar productions of the other networks — they were all running them continuously, near as he could tell.
Stu on the other hand was seeing it for the first time. A half-hour into the program he remarked to his companion that the production values of the program were outstanding — its visuals and pacing were absolutely hypnotic. Then he mumbled, “I can’t wait for the journalism to start.”
Once in a while the program did surprise him with a fact he had not known. Whenever it did, he would groan, and look to his colleague for explanation. Each time von Grawbadger either shrugged or shushed him. Regardless, he directed Stu’s attention back to the TV.
When the program’s narrator mentioned that a boy named Timmy had been found in the hallway outside the girl’s restroom, and that his last words to his classmates had been, “Follow me, I can lead you all to safety,” Stu cried out.
“He killed Tim?”
“Winged him. Shush!”
Indeed, the program next showed Tim very much alive and in a hospital bed with a microphone in his face. “I’m glad nobody followed me.” he was saying, “I never found the ladder.”
“He’s a friend of yours?”
Stu answered without hesitation. “Yes.”
“Well he thinks very highly of you.”
On the television the reporter had asked Tim why he hadn’t sought cover in the restroom. He answered without a trace of guile, “Because girls can’t pee if it’s not private.”
The janitors laughed.
Next was Principal Rhee, who read from a prepared statement. “As the Principal of this august and renowned learning institution, let me assure the parents, faculty, staff, district administrators, and elected officials of our fine, loving, and resilient community that all necessary emotional support will be provided to the survivors. But also we must never lose sight of the criticality of re-establishing normalcy in the lives of these poor children. I pledge to everybody watching that everything will go right back to the way it was before the horrible tragedy visited upon us in the form of a disturbed young man. We will re-open this school as soon as Monday, to begin the process of healing these brave, brave kids.”
Von Grawbadger growled, “She talks the way you write.”
When the NRA President said, “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun,” Stu sputtered, “Fuck you. Von Grawbadger stopped him with a mop.”
“Yeah I did. And no flashbacks!”
Stu grinned again.
The program ended. Stu thanked von Grawbadger. “That took my mind off things for a little while.”
“You got nothing to worry about, Stu.”
But the reassurance was no help. Even under the influence of the painkillers, Stu felt the anxiety of a middle-aged man who’d lost everything he thought he could depend on, including and especially his sense of self-worth. “No. I’m finished,” he moaned, watching his destroyed knee flex and straighten. “I’ll never be a janitor again. What am I gonna do?”
“Hey! I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do.” Von Grawbadger rose. “That Tim kid? He told everybody about you once the snipers bitched about a janitor falling from the ceiling onto Tracy Bates. He wanted to save your reputation. And I took all your Shift Transition forms, gave ‘em to a pretty, young reporter who seemed like a nice enough gal. She said you could get a book deal, and turns out she was right. She’s got a publisher lined up. People wanna hear your story, Stu. They’re interested.”
“They like my writing?”
“They like your story. They hate your writing. The publisher said you write like a — hold on a minute, I wanna make sure I get this right, there’s a list.” He fished a note out of his breast pocket. “A bureaucrat, a politician, a lawyer, a public school official … ”
“I thought you said they didn’t like my writing,” Stu said, confused.
Von Grawbadger folded the list, put it back into his pocket. “They’re sending a ghostwriter, Stu.”
“Oh. What for?”
Von Grawbadger put out his palms. “Not my words, okay? The ghostwriter’s job is to make you sound more … human.” He rushed ahead. “You’re not finished, Stu: You’re the luckiest man alive! One day you’re shoveling garbage into an incinerator, the next, you got a book deal! A motherfucker of a story falls right into your lap, you lucky son of a bitch.”
Stu regarded his knee for one full cycle.
The graveyard janitor folded his arms. “Look at me. Here’s what I worry about: People are gonna blame you. Maybe a lot of people. Some already are. So they’re not gonna like you.”
“A bunch of people I don’t know are not going to like me?”
“You don’t blame you, do you?” “No sir.” Stu shook his head dismissively. “I blame the guy that made the cage.”