James Klein – Secret Base Janitor

All I gotta to say is I ain’t got time for anyone’s bullshit, you know? That includes you, your friend here, your one-way mirror over there that’s supposed to make me think it’s just a mirror and I am not being watched. Hello there, assholes!

“Not being watched…” Ha! You jackasses know where I worked, right?

Let me tell you a story about when I first got my job. Well, my old job. Can you believe the hoops they put me through to get that damn janitor job? Background checks, security checks, pissed in more jars than… I don’t know, man. Than some machine that pisses in jars or something. All to be a janitor. A goddamn janitor. Sure, HR called it “engineering maintenance” or some crap like that. I don’t know who they do that for. HR must be run by aliens or some crap. Cleaning up vomit or buffing a shiny black floor until you can easily look up someone’s skirt while walking is not “engineering.”

Okay, I’ll get to the point.

So I join up.  I get my briefing by Mr. Gemini himself. Not me alone. We’re a group, but I am the only janitor in the orientation. Apparently, he liked the personal touch. Same old bullshit. Anyway, briefing’s done, I get to work, and get told that on the weekends I can go to the mainland and whatever I want. Ship leaves the docks at 5:30 am in the morning on Sunday. If I don’t make it, then at 5:31 am I can goddamn swim for it because if I am not on the facility by 6 am, they’ll find me no matter where I go.

Yadda yadda. I worked at secret bases before. Hard to wonder how they remain secret with all the chest-thumping they do.

So anyway, my first weekend I get to the mainland and put my week-long plan into action: drinking. I’m not yet close with my teammates. I just met them and let’s just say there’s a language barrier in some cases. And not the languages you’d expect.

Anyway, close to the docks there’s this place called “Pirate Mike’s.” “Pirate Mike’s” is a straight-up dive. It’s for people who absolutely have to get to the nearest bar possible the second they leave a ship. That’s me. So I enter “Pirate Mike’s.”

I don’t know who Mike is, but clearly, he doesn’t give a shit about anything. The place is hung up with crab nets or some shit, and lobster boxes and anchors and shit, all done up in a “good enough” vibe. I knew I discovered home, because “good enough” is my family motto. You don’t get in my career by shooting for the moon and making it. My job doesn’t define me.

“Pirate Mike’s” does.

So I go in and grab a barstool and some woman with anger issues and the mustache of an 11-year old boy comes up and takes my drink order. Hell, it’s “Pirate Mike’s,” so I order rum. When she asks me what kind, what the hell am I supposed to say? “Rum dug up in a treasure chest on the beach?” Or “run swiped from a pirate king?” What the hell do I know about rum? I just want a drink. I don’t want no dialogue about rum. So I just say “rum.”

And this startling blonde woman sits next to me and says, “I’ll have what he’s having.” I look around and I am the only “he” in this immediate area, so I shrug and say “it’s your funeral. I got no idea what I’m getting.”

So she laughs. Laughs! It’s like this cocktail party laugh, like how you imagine how fancy cocktail party laughs go. Some polite “ha ha ha” no louder than a cat fart. So I look her over and I will tell you: she was not for me.

I can clean up if I want to and shit, but this woman… this was too much woman. This was an expensive woman.

I ain’t saying she’s a whore or nothing. It wasn’t like that. It was more like you look at the woman and you can see the upkeep. You can see the gym membership and expensive perfumes and the dental work and the healthy foods and the decades of not having to worry about money all over her. This was a smart woman who invested in herself. This was an expensive woman who would own your ass.

And honestly, I am a cheap man. I’m spending my first weekend on the job drinking at the cheapest, closest place I can find. And I am winning at that, you know? Mission accomplished.

So this expensive woman shows up and I know what’s what.

“Hi,” she said to me and sticks her hand out like a trained dog. “I’m Prudence.”

“Nuh-uh,” I said, and I shook my head. I didn’t take that hand. You never know how much you gotta pay for that. “I don’t know who you are; and ma’am, I don’t wanna know. I just want to drink away my weekend and go back to work. I don’t want no trouble.”

She laughed her cocktail party laugh again and said, “Me? Trouble?”

So I laughed MY party laugh, which is loud enough to cut through the party noise of sixteen people and a cheap stereo turned up high. So I said, “Ma’am, you are wearing clothes that would cost me several years salary, carrying a tiny, glittery black handbag, wearing heels that frankly I’m amazed you can balance on, you’re dressed up, gorgeous, and sitting in a bar in a neighborhood that looks like it is recovering from some seriously messed up shit. And no one has come close to bothering you. You,” I said, pointing at her, “are trouble.”

She smirked and for a moment I could see the mask slip. It confirmed my read on her.

“So I can’t have a drink with you?” She asked.

“You can have a drink away from me, near me, above me, below me, wherever you want to drink because you don’t seem like the kind of woman who doesn’t do exactly what she wants. But no, you can’t have a drink with me.”

She shrugged. “I’ll have a drink next to you, then.”

I shrugged and mustache lady delivered our rum.

We took the drink at the same time and it went down about as smooth as broken glass. I was still going to get my drunk on, but this was going to be an uphill battle. When she coughed I could tell she had the same experience.

“Not so easy going down, huh?” she asked and elbowed me.

“Ma’am,” I said, “if you’re expecting a conversation, you’re going to have a very long night.”

She shrugged. “We’re having a conversation now, and I got all night.”

So I called mustache lady over and ordered another, knowing the expensive woman would order the same. No sense in only one of us suffering.

So it turned out that mustache lady’s name was Lucy and I should stop calling her mustache lady because that is disrespectful. She’s nice enough but gruff. I can understand that.

Expensive lady, Prudence – she was a difficult read for about an hour, but I got her after a few drinks. She stuck on me like a white shadow. As the bar filled up with people, all cheaper than me, everyone left her alone. Here’s the thing when you grow up like all of us save the expensive woman did: you get a danger sense. You know when to look away (always,) when to not get involved (always,) and who to leave alone (everyone.) And this was a woman you pretended don’t exist.

Now, as the drinks flowed into the evening I was sure that some asshole would get his liquid courage up, talk too big to his friends, and then pester Prudence. THAT I wanted to see, so I didn’t shoo her away. I didn’t welcome her, but I knew she was going to stick with me and I knew this woman was a shit magnet.

She did not disappoint.

I almost couldn’t hide my smirk when this guy showed up. Big man. Big all his life. He carried it, you know? This was a bull who’d been a bull for a very long time, and he was apparently used to people getting out of his way. Hell, I was all ready to leave when he told me to get up from my barstool and go because I was a “waste of a pretty lady.”

He actually tried the whole “is this man bothering you” bullshit even though Prudence and I hadn’t said word one to each other for the better part of an hour. Hell, she was bothering ME! I wasn’t going to explain that to beefcake over there. I was just ready to go. I was drunk, but not drunk enough for this shit.

“He’s not bothering me,” she said, “you are.”

He blinked, stepped back, pointed to himself, and said “me?” His friends hooted in the background.

Now here’s the shit I remember from school. Greek tragedy. You know that shit? People sticking themselves in the eyeballs with needles and incest and shit. What the fuck is up with the Greeks, anyway? Anyway, here’s what I remember about it. It’s like in these plays, you know what’s going to happen from the first line. I mean, you know exactly how this is going to play out. There ain’t no question about what is going to happen. It’s how it is going to happen, and it’s fascinating to see these stupid assholes fall into the trap, you know? Shit, I LOVED that.

So I was watching beefcake signifying, you know? He’s getting himself up, feeling himself. His asshole friends in the back are not helping. “You gonna take that from a bitch? Who’s the bitch now?” Shit like that. So they’re egging him on, and he’s getting his strut back. He sidles, you know. He walks like he’s a slithering snake. But big dogs think they’re small dogs, you know? He thinks he can pull off this “smoove” shit when really he looks like an avalanche in slow motion.

“Hey, baby,” he said. “I ain’t bothering a FINE woman like yourself. Now I’m gonna sit down next to you and we can talk about us.” And there’s a hint of a threat in there. He’s sure she’s gonna say yes, even if she’s saying no, you know?

And ain’t this the shit? The whole bar starts watching. I am pretty good at gauging the mood of a room. It’s a handy trick that tells you when to get your ass out of a place like “Pirate Mike’s.” And the bar starts noticing this shit. I mean, the place ain’t big to begin with. And now the play is starting and everyone knows exactly how this is going to end.

I mean shit, a woman like that just doesn’t come to this side of town dressed like that without some nasty surprise.

So he walks forward and there’s this black and blonde blur and now his friends are carrying him out and he’s weeping like a kid with a skinned knee, crying “I just wanted to be friendly!” She’s back in her seat like nothing at all happened and we might as well be invisible because ain’t NO ONE looking in our direction, which is a pity because after all of that not one hair is out of place.

So predictable, really.

So I know why she’s there and shit, and I tell her. “I can think of a couple of people you might be working for,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter because I have the same message for all of them: fuck off, I ain’t saying shit.”

She nodded. “You saw what I can do,” she said. “I could do that to you and worse.”

I nodded, still not looking at her. “I know you can, and if you work hard I might give up the mix of cleaning products I use to remove the most difficult stains out of a carpet. I may even show you how to unclog an industrial toilet without getting a spot on you or the floor if you ask nice. Otherwise, I got nothing.”

“You’ve got eyes on the ground, James,” she said.

“You showed up thinking I’m gonna drunkenly confess my all to a pretty woman who’ll show me attention, then you threaten me, but it doesn’t matter because I have the same answer for all scenarios you throw at me: fuck off, I ain’t saying shit.” And I’m still not looking at her, because to look at her is to acknowledge that she has some presence or purpose in my life, and she doesn’t have either.

I can hear her sigh. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll catch up to you later, James” and she starts to leave and that has me scared. Because although I talk a big game, I know I am two broken fingers away from saying absolutely anything someone wants me to say, and I know she’ll feel nothing when she breaks them. So, no… I never want to meet this woman again.

So she stands up and starts walking out and I call out, “Hey, be careful out there!”

While she’s walking away, she says “I can handle myself.”

Then I said, “Yeah I know. I was talking to anyone outside you might run into.”

And she laughs a non-cocktail party laugh. It’s a loud bark of a laugh. The kind of laugh that cuts over the noise of a crowded party and a noisy portable stereo and I think that is the only genuine thing she’s done all night. It’s expensive being that woman, and it costs more than money.

So that weekend no one messes with me. I mean, no one. Panhandlers don’t ask me for money, no one side-eyes me, nothing. I am a ghost in that hood. I make my port of call easy because I don’t drink on the Lord’s day. I’ll wake up hungover as shit but won’t drink.

I make my berth and head back to the island. It’s me and a couple of other people in my team. I didn’t know them by name yet, so I thought of them as Shorty, Longy, Greasy, Squinty, Scar, and Fat Butt, like they’re store-brand versions of the seven dwarves.

Stinky isn’t there. “Hey,” I said and turned to Longy. “Where’s….” Now I don’t want to say “Stinky.” That’s disrespectful, but I don’t know the cat’s name.

Greasy shook his head sadly and said in this Russian accent, “we don’t talk about it.”

“Why? What the hell happened…”

“We don’t talk about it,” he repeated and in exactly the same tone.

I think I know anyway. Some beautiful woman came over to him, they drank, and he talked or agreed to something stupid. So now I have to wonder what kind of job I got myself in. Then I have to remind myself that I am making about ten times what I was making before so I know exactly the kind of job I got myself in: one that pays an obscene amount of money for the shit I would do anyway.

I nodded, said “cool,” and watched the ocean slip underneath me.

So I got back to the island and already I have a ton of shit to do. Clogged toilets, the black floors aren’t shiny enough, removing dust from everywhere, shit like that. Being a janitor means I get access to all areas at certain times of the day, so I am doing my rounds on a very set schedule.

Some people can’t take it, but I love that predictable shit.

So I am listing in my head all of the shit that taking two days off have delayed and wondering how the hell I am supposed to get back on schedule when one of the officers approaches me. I still wasn’t used to the uniforms. I mean, in the Army, uniforms made at least a little sense. Not these.

All black, which provides no camouflage in the jungle outside or in the caverns here, and white helmets! Bouncing targets that say “hey! Shoot me here!” And black leather boots that click on the ground while they walk, but aren’t rubberized or tough in the sole, like they contracted the uniforms out to some fucking Italian designer.

But mine is not to wonder why, you know? Not at this salary.

“Service Engineer Klein,” he says, “You are to set aside your cleaning utensils and follow me.”

Now I should mention, I didn’t have no “cleaning utensils” with me. I was sitting on this large buffing machine the size of a truck buffing out the gym floor. Fat Butt called it a “Zamboni” or something like that. So I am sitting on this giant machine buffing the floor when white-helmet comes up to me asking me to drop my “cleaning utensils.”

“Where am I gonna drop this?” I asked. “Am I gonna drop it through the floor? I’ve got this whole gym to do!”

But he doesn’t care. So I shut down the machine, climb down off the rig, and follow him grumbling the whole way.

They take me to the nice part of the base. I mean, really nice. This is where the other half lives, you know? So I straighten myself up as best as possible. Luckily, my suit is black too, with a yellow stripe running down the sides letting everyone else know that I am there to clean up after their shit. So you can’t see any specs unless you’re really looking. And in this section of the base, they might.

Anyway, I straighten up, remove my hardhat that I have to wear all the time, and sit in this huge office, thanking the Lord that I don’t have to clean this place yet. I bet they go over this place with a flea comb and will kick whoever’s ass needs to be kicked if a speck of dust is out of place.

Did I mention the guards? This place is filled with guards. They’re not guarding me. They don’t even look at me. They’re just staring off into whatever dream zone guards stare at when they are guarding. Not that they’re inattentive or anything. I know any sudden movement I make will be my last.

So I wait for what feels like five hours but was probably a minute when the door opens and the largest guy I have ever seen comes out. He’s bald, has a white eye with a long pink scar that runs over it, and is wearing an expensive suit. Even better, he has a metal left hand. It’s articulated and everything. It looks like a prop, but I can already see it is real. Already my head is flooding with questions: how does the hand work? DOES it work? How strong is the grip? Does it run on mind rays or some shit like that?

I see you like that “mind ray” shit. I’m not a scientist, don’t hate on me.

So also my instinct kicks in and I realize that the LAST thing I should be doing is staring at this dude’s hand. So I look away. But that’s like calling attention to it because a giant with a metal hand is in the room and I am not looking at him at ALL. I am looking at everything in the room that is not occupied by a metal-handed giant. Which I feel like calls more attention to it than if I was just looking at it.

So suddenly I am trapped in this loop where I am not looking at once of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen and all I can think about is how it works and I know that asking this guy will make him say “I’ll show you how it works” and that’s how I get choked to death so it’s best I just don’t look at him and that is when I hear him yell “HEY!”

So I look at him and he looks angry. “How many times do I have to call you? The boss wants to see you NOW!”

“Yes, sir,” I say as I hop up and walk through the door. I almost bump into the doorframe trying to not see or touch him.

And surprise surprise on the other side is Prudence the expensive woman leaning up against a desk and looking at her phone and a bearded guy who looks like a Venture Capitalist for the tech industry in California sitting behind said huge desk with his feet up, beaming this huge smile.

“Come on in!” He yelled as if I was going hang out in the waiting room with metal hand goliath standing in the doorway. I was already in, so I saluted as sharp as I could.

“James Klein!” He said happily and stood up. “Welcome to the organization! I know you’ve met Velvet.” He indicated the expensive woman.

“She introduced herself to me as Prudence and then drank at me for a while,” I said.

Mr. Gemini laughed. “Drank at you! I love it! Velvet tells me that you handled yourself well that evening.”

I was confused at that. Really, I had no idea what he was talking about. “Handled what, sir?”

He walked around his desk and leaned against the front. “No sir here,” Mr. Gemini said. “Call me Steve. Yeah, Velvet said that your actions were exemplary.”

“Honestly, Sir… Steve. I don’t know what Velvet told you. I drank all night, kept to myself, and didn’t say a goddamn word.”

“Which is perfect for this organization! That is all we ask. Keep your mouth shut, don’t talk to strangers, do your job to the best of your ability, and I will shovel tax-free money into your bank account and you can retire in comfort. I had a good feeling about you at the orientation. I like to get to know all of my employees. I am sure you’re going to work out here, James. Can I call you Jim?”

“Call me whatever you want, sir. Steve.” I said.

He laughed again. “We’re going to get on fine, Jim. Prove to me that you’re trustworthy and the sky is the limit for you. There are always new openings in my organization!”

I wasn’t about to ask him how those openings opened or what this organization did? I knew the price for my lack of curiosity, and they paid me ten times that amount.

“Anyway,” he said, “I just wanted to let you know how welcome you are here. Your little tete-a-tete with Velvet was the final test. Welcome to the Gemini family!” He came over, nearly shook my hand clean off. I wondered if that was what happened to beefy-man’s hand.

So I went back to my Zamboni or whatever with one prevailing thought: “fuck that guy.”