The floor smelled of peppermint. It cleared his nose. Jimi scrubbed the mop across the tiles, the mop tracing a fluid arc through space and time. Mopping was a cosmic dance that cleaned and set right the world. As he moved his will went out through the mop. He felt the bump of each piece of gum, the stickiness of spilled soda. His fingers rested artfully on the handle, making minute and uncompromising adjustments. He was the maestro and the mop was his orchestra.
When you mop you can’t use too much force. You can’t brazenly rush in, casting about your strength like an overeager boy. Do so and the water will splash up on the walls and show you just how sloppy you are.
You can’t be too timid either. If you move the mop hesitantly over the floor, hoping that the grime will loosen itself in appreciation of your kindness, you’ll only smear things around. The walls will stay clean but the floor will remain dirty.
Today’s floor was full of pieces of food ground in with the heel of shoes as they ran. It was like that every day, but today was worse than usual. Game days were like that. Jimi encountered the resistance of the rough spots and reacted seamlessly, moving with it, applying more pressure in proportion. More dirt required more strength, but the key was not to overreact. It was like a dance, the mop an extension of his senses. More dirt meant a firmer, more focused dance. But never brittle and broken.
The gum came free and he moved onto the next spot. He smiled, his face calm. The world was in focus. His muscles danced as he moved. He was present.
Then he wasn’t. She had been there again today, on the bus. Her petticoat bright and blue, orange scarf around her neck. The book in her hands was thick, a man on the cover, long hair blowing in the wind. This was the fourth day in a row. Each day he smiled at her as she got on, and then sat facing forward, unwilling to go back to his customary window-watching and unsure of how to do anything else.
Being present is not a valley, not a local minima in which a ball comes to rest. It is a peak, a maxima from which any movement is bound to take you back into acceleration, wheels spinning anxiously, throwing out thoughts and words in any direction.
Tomorrow he would turn to her and ask her what she was reading. He liked to read. No, that was stupid. Of course he liked to read. Maybe he would ask her about her favorite book, and she would smile at him and laugh, her voice warm as she talked about it. Pride and Prejudice maybe, with all the attraction and arrogance of Mr. Darcy.
He wasn’t much like Mr. Darcy though. Not a lot of money for one thing. Not too keen on having authority either. And he certainly wasn’t good looking. But he could do okay, he thought, struggling back into his fantasy. She’d ask and he’d talk about his favorite. What was his favorite? There were so many stories. Hard to pick just one.
If not tomorrow, maybe he’d talk to her the next day.
And then he was done. The floor shone, damp with water that was already dry on the far side. He put the mop in the squeegee and and watched the water pour out of the mop head and into the bucket. It was a marvel what one could do with levers and fulcrums. Stonehenge had been built with them. The pyramids too. Damn near every wonder of the world he figured. Maybe everything else too.
He wheeled the mop bucket out of the room and kicked the stop out to let the door close on the cafeteria. His night was almost over.
There was a loud crash in the boiler room. He didn’t usually lock it seeing as he was the only one around at night. Could be some kids that had snuck into the school and found the boiler room unlocked. Maybe someone was hurt. And then suddenly he was running, the mop falling ungracefully to the floor, no longer part of the dance.
One of the big double doors of the boiler room stood open wide. Definitely not how he left it. He turned and went inside, his footsteps precise and balanced, his body relaxed but ready. If someone was hurt he would be there.
The darkness of the room was sharp. It filled his eyes as he stopped, analyzing. Presence. That he always left the light on flitted by on the edge of his consciousness, more of an additional piece of information than a thought.
He pressed his fingers together, hesitating. Would kids turn the light off?
His arm went up slowly to the light switch, fingers reaching out to ease it on. The sharp darkness was replaced by bright overhead lights, and with them came the quiet beat of fear.
He could hear the soft hum of the furnace and nothing else.
“Hello?” He said. No one answered him. They must be badly hurt.
The boiler room was a dirty place. It was organized in rows that split off from one wall, the shelves filled with stacks of old equipment, replacement parts, cleaning supplies, cases of toilet paper. A lot of it was used and replaced often enough to be new, but other things hadn’t been touched for years. Since Jimi came on the job at least. Which was eight years ago now.
Jimi moved along that wall slowly, his hand trailing on the painted cinder blocks. Maybe it wasn’t that they were hurt. Maybe they didn’t want to be found.
His fingers twitched as he went. They were ready to act even before there was anything to act on. It wasn’t a good state. Wasn’t relaxed. It wasn’t feeling the pulse of the moment. Overreaction could be as deadly as staying still.
Perhaps there was no mastery in fear. No way to stay relaxed in the face of something unknown. He knew the mop, the feel of the wood handle, the scrape of dirt on the floor. But he didn’t know danger. Maybe you could not touch the world with the ease of practiced awareness unless you had lived the practice.
But there should be parallels between one thing and another. Between the way your fingers stay on the pulse of the mop and the way your mind stays on the pulse of danger. But maybe that wasn’t true. He wanted it to be but maybe it wasn’t.
He reached the last row. Whatever it was, it had to be here. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
True control began when you let go.
Jimi eased his head around the corner and stared into the pile of junk in the back. Then he screamed.