Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lester and the Janitor

My friend Diana enlisted me in this neat traveling journal project called Pen Tales 20. Twenty notebooks were sent to twenty different people. Each person writes a 2-page story in the journal, then passes it on to another person to add another 2 pages.

You're supposed to keep the journal for only five days (fail) and write in longhand (digital printout fail). The one guideline I actually managed to follow was engagement with the previous entry, which was Diana's, which was a strange story about a girl's escape from an insane asylum. In the last couple lines, the girl happens upon the cottage of the asylum's janitor and opens the door, where she beholds "a sight of wonder."

I took over post dot dot dot and wrote this:

With the low, unfamiliar alarm filling the streets of town with word of my escape, the janitor couldn’t hear his own door opening. Wind slammed it shut behind me. It shook the walls of the cottage, and the janitor’s eyes widened at the sight of me. I could sense his terror filling the space between us. The room was dense with smoke and the sweet, charred smell of something burning. Suddenly, I felt a giant shadow move over me. I looked up. I fainted.

When I came to, a weak gray light was streaming in through the crescent aperture in the top of the room and staring down at me from the rafters with two eyes glistening darkly like chocolate was the biggest bird I have ever seen.

It was black as midnight, the feathers on its head rustled against the underside of the roof. It had to be twenty feet. Its claws were as fat and wrinkled as the trunks of a stand of birches. I covered my mouth with both hands and stifled a scream.

The janitor had repositioned himself in front of the fireplace. He was seated in a rocking chair before the fire, turning the crank on his strange instrument. It had a ring of long metal rods, which fanned out from the crankshaft. It was like a Gatling gun, expect at the end of every little rod was a fluffy white cube, like a marshmallow. I sat up quietly and when I tried to slide off the cot, my legs wouldn’t move. They were fastened to the frame by chicken wire.

The bird quacked as it tried to extend its wings in the narrow space above. It sounded like a St. Bernard.

I began to cry. The janitor stopped cranking his instrument.

“Please,” I whispered. “Please, let me go.”

“I can’t do that,” he said, in a pleasant drawl.

In all the years I’d been at the asylum, I’d never heard him speak. I’d seen him every day, watched him through the bars of my room as he dirtied the linoleum floor with a greasy, knotted mop.

“What is that thing?” I said. Its horrible beak, the size of a small boat, gleamed silver in the dimness. One of its smaller feathers had fallen to the floor and landed with a thud beside the room’s only table, like the oar of some hell ship.

“That’s Lester,” said the janitor, standing and rolling his contraption away from the fire on its casters. His eyes, half-lit by the orange flames, glanced back and forth between the bird and me. There was a tiny spot of soot on the tip of his nose.

Lester woofed again, and in the ensuing silence, I realized that the alarm was no longer sounding outside. It was almost dark. The janitor lit an oil lantern. It was almost embarrassing how quickly they’d given up looking for me.

The janitor began to pluck the tiny balls of fluff from the ends of his contraption. They were bent and charred black now. He tossed one into my lap. It landed on my white gown, streaking it with soot.

Sniffing it, I realized it actually was a marshmallow.

I bit through the crunchy, burnt exterior, into the hot, gooey insides. A million tiny pale strands fell over my fingertips. The sugary smell was dizzying. I thought I was going to faint again. It had been years since I’d had a marshmallow, but I knew that I had never tasted a marshmallow like this, roasted with such care and for so long. “It’s heavenly,” I said, my cheeks full of goo. The janitor smiled sadly. He plucked the other marshmallows from the ends of his contraption, perhaps four dozen in all, and formed them expertly in his thick, dirty hands into a roasted marshmallow the size of a volleyball.

“Feast!” the janitor shouted as he heaved the mass up towards the ceiling, where it rose, seeming to pause in front of Lester’s beak for a split second, just long enough for the giant beak to separate and pluck it out of the air with weary skill. The hollow knock of Lester’s beak as it snapped over the marshmallow goo echoed through the cottage. The janitor kept looking from Lester to me, me to Lester, his eyes wild with delight. There were shelves all around us full of unopened bags of jumbo marshmallows.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like him,” I said.

“You’re the first person’s ever seen him,” he said, wiping his hands on his overalls and popping the last marshmallow into his mouth. “Besides me.”

He gulped hard and stuffed his hands into the space between his flannel shirt and his overalls. He was looking at the wire around my ankles with remorse. “Sorry for tying you down,” he said, soon snipping me free with a pair of scissors. “We’re not used to guests.”

We sat at his table and he told me the whole, sad story of how he had come to be the owner of a creature such as Lester. His Ma had left him in a campground near the Mississippi border with nothing but a bag of marshmallows and a baby bird flapping blackly about a little birdcage. “She said she was just going down the road to find some graham crackers.” His chin crinkled with sadness. “That was the last time I seen her,” he said, sitting before his contraption and the fire once again. “I kept waiting for her to come back.” I reached for his shoulder, and when I touched him, he reared back as though stung.

“You’re still waiting for her, aren’t you?” I said.

“I reckon I am,” said the janitor.

The janitor wept silently, and the tears cut clean lines into the dirt and grit of his knuckles. Above us, Lester hopped from one rafter to another growing agitated. He barked a word that sounded human.

“Some more!” Lester cawed again.

The janitor said nothing, only wiped his eyes quickly and spun the contraption even faster into the fire. I kept glancing up at the door. I knew they were out there, laying in wait for me. I couldn’t stay. I had to think. Just then, a knock came at his door.


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