The Janitor

(Originally posted to September 19, 2004)

Inigo Valdez did not look as we had expected him to when we answered the ad in the paper. Offering his services for a meager rate of $50 a day, he was short, with a bristly mustache and a gray cap. His age was indeterminate, could have been anywhere from 40 to 60, and his eyes were difficult to make out beneath his brow, which was coated in sweat.

Nerves characterized him, he told us, as he had been deliberately excluded from entry to the country due to the Patriot Act. Some amateur border patrol agents at the gate in El Paso had accused him of having ties to Hezbollah, which he had denied outright, and even so his visa was rejected time and again. Finally, at his wit’s end, he had chosen to ford the rapids of the Rio Grande illegally, risking his reputation and freedom to enter the country.

According to the interview we conducted with him, he hadn’t even done so out of economic desperation, as he had come from a decent family in Cancún. According to him, his father, Ricardo Valdez, had been the owner of a beach resort. Inigo had been attracted to the opulence and attitude of we gringos, had learned of American geography and dialects at the Autonomous University of Yucatan in Merida, and craving adventure had envisioned himself a sort of modern-day Zorro.

His obligations to his father got in the way, however, and soon he found himself in middle age. No women were interested in him, he was despondent and reckless, and after scuffles with the aforementioned bureaucracy he threw himself headlong into the States, determined to acquire a low-paying job and remain under wraps.

This was how, he said, he had found himself, after many days of hitchhiking and a short excursion to Yellowstone on a Greyhound bus, in Fort Collins. In that time he had picked up on the local phrases, had shaved the beard that showed up conspicuously on his ID, and had ultimately decided to settle in Northern Colorado because he assumed, due to the semi-rural and centrist atmosphere, it would be the last place the Feds would think to search for him.

We told him that he would need to show up 5 days a week to clean the shelves and that he could also borrow whatever he wanted for the weekend, to enjoy at his own pace. He gave me a firm handshake and told me he’d be ready bright and early the next morning, and we supplied with him a uniform and some other equipment.

True to his word, he stepped off the bus at exactly 7:15 A.M. with no objections and without saying a word, and in that gray cap he went directly to his business. At around noon he took one of the tapes off the shelf, turned it over wistfully in his palm, and asked me if he could listen to it on his Walkman. Of course, I told him. It was Perry Como.

As he swept the floor and sprayed it with lemon-scented disinfectant, he related how the music was nostalgic for him due to it being played regularly at his father’s resort over the loudspeakers. Something about Valdez Sr.’s ailing health, how if Inigo wasn’t found by the government his father would find him first, and that he would likely be expected to attend the funeral and would likely inherit the property, a prospect he wasn’t particularly looking forward to considering his spur-of-the-moment sensibilities.

The way he inspected every wall was methodic and mesmerizing, thorough. He left no stone unturned, pausing to look for cobwebs under light fixtures and mildew behind racks. Over the next week he became a regular fixture around the premises, and spent all his time combing every room with bleach and ammonia, save his periodic breaks at 3 P.M. and 8 P.M. when he went outside for lunch and dinner, which he brought with him on the bus and kept in our mini-fridge. He wasn’t very talkative with anyone besides me, in whom he seemed to confide a great deal.

Perhaps it was that they were jealous of him, being the only paid worker. Or perhaps it was just that he largely minded his own business, ambling along the dirt paths, stretching his arms, breathing in that clean and refreshing Boulder County air. He was especially fascinated by the layout of the grounds, the arrangement of the respective buildings, and gradually developed a routine by which he was able to reach each one as fast as possible if an inspection was needed.

He didn’t ask any questions about the dust, not where it came from or how there was so much of it piling up in the corners and in the ashcans, or what it was composed of. He wasn’t the type to ask questions, because he knew that the Feds would do the same to him if given the opportunity. Questions and inquiries generally made him uncomfortable. Early on he asked me what I would prefer, and I told him he could do whatever he thought was best, and he generally did.

His routine was cut short a few nights ago.

I and Asphasia had been working late, consumed by a stack of 35 millimeter film which I told her I could restore. I was fiddling with one of the projectors we had on site, trying to feed the film onto the reel. She came back into the room with a bag of peanuts from the pantry closet, and sat down and watched me work. She ate the peanuts slowly.

I’m not sure why I was still holding onto some sort of extant hope by then that she was interested in me as anything other than a friend, which is what we had been ever since our days at CU Boulder. To be honest, it was difficult for me to think of her as anything else than that. We both had our own internal problems, but she was worse off than I was. Since we started out here, she had lost some weight, bags appeared under her eyes, and half the time she looked like she was having an aneurysm.

Right when it seemed I had the projector set up, Inigo came running in, clutching that peculiar gray cap in his hands with an incredible force. He was out of breath and the veins in his neck were visible, dripping with perspiration. He was screaming, incoherently. Asphasia offered him some peanuts, and he took them and gulped them down, and then went over to the water cooler to douse his forehead.

“What’s up, man?” I asked. He was trembling, his nervous system careening into overdrive. I offered him a chair so he could sit down.

“El hombre del sombrero!” he yelled at me. Those eyes, usually demure and timid, were now wide open, his throat dry and cracked from all the running he had done. It was then that I realized it was 8 P.M. and he had probably been out eating his dinner, which usually consisted of a deli sandwich and peach, in his usual spot on a grassy knoll overlooking the highway.

“Tell me more,” I said. He hesitated somewhat, and then his breathing became slower and he replaced the cap onto his matted hair. He told me to close the blinds of the window, as if there was something out there he didn’t want to see. I pulled them down and the room was immediately thrown into deep evening shadow, as if on cue the projector sputtered to life and the film displayed a sweeping panorama of a vibrant city street from what appeared to be the 1970s.

“El hombre del sombrero,” he repeated. “Fuck’s sake, you don’t know Spanish. It’s not that hard. Be quiet or he’ll hear you.” He pulled us closer, lowering his cadence to a whisper.

“My aunt told me about him when I was young,” he said, furtive glances to us both. “She had difficulties with her pregnancy, doctor prescribed her some kind of sedative. This disrupted her circadian rhythm, she would wake up at midnight and sleepwalk, stuff like that. And she saw him, and now I’ve seen him. He knows I’m here.” His eyes seemed transfixed on the projector. Light peeped out from the cracks in its shell, lines of exposure crept over the walls and furniture.

“He is the most fucking evil pendejo,” Valdez continued. “He was chasing me, in the grass, through it. Goddamn, trapped on all sides, need to get out of here, please, drive me somewhere-” His hands were moving around, and he looked as if he was on the verge of having a heart attack, so finally Asphasia gave in and took him out to her car, and I stayed behind to watch for anything suspicious outside.

Hours passed and I wasn’t able to make anything out, but it was overcast so I could have missed it. I kept looking behind my shoulder for whatever reason, flinching. Hoped I wouldn’t become like Inigo. Whatever he had been witness to had been enough to make blood congeal. It had been terror manifest. By eleven I saw the headlights of the car pull in, and she came in without making any noise and sat down next to me, and we both reached out and felt the sides of the projector.

“Where’d you take him?”

“His house,” she said. “I had never been to it before, actually. It’s a duplex in Fort Collins along the border of East Dale, he has all these drawings and charts on the walls. Looked insane. I asked him about it, but he just slammed the door in my face and said good night.” She was tired too, so I reached across and put a reassuring hand onto her shoulder.

“Probably for the best,” I told her. “You look sleepy yourself. How about we call it a night?”

She connected with my pupils, and I with hers, and for just one tantalizing electric moment it seemed as if she was going to perform the inevitable and reach across the table and pull me onto her face and press her lips against mine. But it wasn’t inevitable. We stayed where we were, and then she got her coat and stood up. I heard the sound of her engine idling a few minutes later, and after that I think I fell asleep on the chair.

The next day Inigo didn’t show up for his shift, or the day after that, or the next day. He was absent, and we hoped that he was just sick or exhausted, but the weekend passed and I waited at the bus stop, expecting to see those leather shoes stepping off the platform. Absolutely nothing.

I do think he saw something out there that night. And he didn’t have the courage to face it head-on. Since he’s been gone the dust has kept gathering. Place gets dusty, you know. Chloe told me what it was, a while back. She’s probably lying, but it’s disturbing to have around, anyway. Make you cough. Inigo was willing to take it out, confront the problem, but without him it grows by the hour.

I went up to see how he was doing yesterday. I spent the drive up I-25 listening to that same Perry Como tape, pulled up in front of the address Asphasia had given me and knocked on the door. No answer. I called out. It was then that I realized the door was unlocked. So without as much as a second thought I stepped inside and looked around.

Glued to the ceiling, to the walls and a bookshelf and covering most of his bed, were amateur sketches of an eerie silhouette, wearing a trenchcoat, with a wide-brimmed hat and enveloping cloak. Hundreds of these drawings, jutting out from the floorboards and arranged in patterns, tacked into the drywall here and there. But no sign of Inigo. Inigo was gone.

Today we decided not to mention him anymore, bring him up to the local police. He’s beyond the reach of the law, beyond our reach. I don’t think we can do anything for him, although maybe we never could have to begin with. Maybe some people are just naturally unlucky.

Wherever he is, he’s found some kind of peace. Whatever that means these days.