Back then, we weren’t always ashamed. We cheered in the boy’s day room when we qualified for Summer Jobs & Hope in Raleigh, thirty minutes away from Mid-State Psychiatric. Moose would collect trash, whack weeds, and cut grass at Sunshine Park. Royce would man a pool’s snack bar and mop the mildewed locker rooms. I would sweep, strip, and wax a high school’s halls.
“Can’t wait,” Royce said, “to cash my first paycheck!”
“Me also,” Moose said. “Gonna buy me some baseball cards!”
“I want a Walkman,” I said, “that plays CDs!”
“Them are the best,” Twitch said.
Twitch didn’t apply because he already worked on the hospital farm, shoveling shit, feeding chickens, and milking cows.
“Y’all lucky,” he said. “I smell like barnyard!”
Jeffers, our favorite healthcare technician, poked his head in the door:
“Boys, be frugal—a penny saved is a penny earned!”
We rolled our eyes, but he was right.
The next morning, in the retired prison worker van, Jeffers shipped us to our new jobs.
“Work,” he said at a light, “defines a man’s character.”
“So does money,” Royce said.
“Yes,” Moose said. “Money!”
“Agreed,” I said.
“Contentment makes poor men rich,” Jeffers said. “Discontentment makes rich men poor.”
“Huh?” Moose said.
“You speak gibberish?” Royce said.
“Benjamin Franklin,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers dropped me off first. In the back of the van, Moose kissed and fogged the glass, and Royce stuck out his tongue. I climbed the school’s steps, carrying my state lunch: a pimento cheese sandwich, a green apple, celery sticks, and bottled fountain water.
On the steps sat a blonde girl in a sun dress and a blond boy in blue soccer shorts.
“Who’s that?” she said.
“Some prisoner,” he said.
I turned to wave goodbye, and Jeffers said, “Work hard today!”
The blonde girl and blond boy laughed, but I didn’t care: I was a Janitor’s Assistant!
The Head Janitor met me at the door.
“Todd’s my first name, but call me Mr. Todd,” he said. “You’re my assistant. Do as I say. No lip. I ain’t sign-up for this shit.”
“Got something good for you today,” he said. “Do it right, and you can sweep, strip, and wax the halls.”
“Follow me,” he said. “And bring your lunch.”
Behind the school sat a pile of old desks, a green dumpster, and a one-eyed, black cat underneath a broken-down bus with busted-out windows and the STOP sign dangling from a wire.
“Desks gotta go,” Mr. Todd said.
“Unfit For Fall,” he said.
I remembered Jeffers saying, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” after a Raleigh Flea Market Friday in the retired prison worker van, and us kids sighing at another of his wise sayings that made sense later, at night, when we couldn’t sleep from snoring roommates and swirling prison lights across the street.
Mr. Todd rubbed his hands and spit chew juice over his shoulder.
“Ready to work?”
By its top I grabbed and hurled a desk but it smacked the dumpster’s edge and scraped down the side.
“Lord have mercy,” he said. “Put some muscle in it!”
I gripped the legs and tossed the desk over the edge. Mr. Todd clapped.
“Bravo!” he said, and laughed—and I smiled for doing something right on my first day, even though he was really picking on me.
“Got some leaky pipes to fix,” he said. “I’ll be back later. Remember: I ain’t sign-up for this shit.”
The next desk I tossed was three-legged and engraved with BECKY loves DWAYNE.
“Love is a sweet tyranny,” Jeffers once said in Coed Optional Bible Study, “because the lover endureth his torments willingly.”
“Where’s that from?” Cecilia asked.
The desk crashed in the dumpster.
On my first day, I tossed a hundred Unfit For Fall desks in the giant green dumpster, and climbed in the broken-down bus and ate my lunch made by the basement cafeteria ladies. I hated pimento cheese, but the basement cafeteria ladies were nice, and pinched my cheeks and said, “sweet child” and “look at them dimples!” whenever I went through the line, and so I ate for them—and for the kids back on the ward who didn’t qualify, or the ones disappeared or dead.
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred with it,” Jeffers once said for grace, after Cecilia was found dead on railroad tracks, a bullet in her head, a day after running away with her murdering, grown man boyfriend.
“Proverbs,” Jeffers said, answering for us kids who were too sad to ask.
I leaned my head against the seat and hoped Mr. Todd would let me sweep, strip, and wax the halls.
“I’m a Janitor’s Assistant,” I whispered to the imaginary driver up front, the woman driving me to a regular school, like the one outside my busted window, a school where kids didn’t disappear or die and took bubble sheet tests to get into college.
“I’m a Janitor’s Assistant,” I whispered again and again, until I fell asleep to the wheels humming, and the brakes squeaking for kids to hop aboard.