by a contributor
Escolástico Guerra twists the blunt tip of a No. 2 pencil into the business end of a manual sharpener. He must crank the handle, for the thing’s fastened with bolts to its table. It’s not old and cheap like the load-bearing wall-borne lathes in his shanty hometown’s high schools, or colleges, so only the soft clinking of interlinking gears issues. At least until the A/C activates. Then, it’s hard to hear anything. The sharpener collects shorn leaves of typical yellow from his No. 2 pencil. Loose-leaf graph paper on the table before him bears erased Christian names and the grayed pink remains of rubber spent erasing. Fluorescent tubes light this little operation, and the room smells distinctly like shop class. The translucent receptacle attached to the sharpener looks about filled to capacity. Escolástico removes the blue cap that matches his jumper and fans himself without hope for cool. Not likely to break an actual sweat, but it sure does get muggy down here. Wet drops gather on dials and pipes that run all the way up into the rafters. He leans back in a wooden chair not designed to recline, rears back up on its hind legs. He unfastens the cap, takes a long pull from the Thermos he fills every AM with water. It sounds like someone’s unlocked the door at the top of the stairwell, a key to which few people in the building possess. Usually no one disturbs Escolástico at work, only occasionally in case of “emergency”: flooded sink on the tenth floor, busted escalator, scheduling conflicts or requests for vacation. For the most part, Escolástico scribbles into columns the names of African- and Central American low-wage City employees. He must schedule each shift so everyone gets hours without anyone working overtime, so employees don’t work successive third and first shifts, so Chaquita and Maquinta, for example, or Jarrell and Rashod don’t wind up waxing the same floor at the same hour and risk heated confrontation. These are things he weighs in his mind and considers. He considers also the high price of brand squares in bodegas, and instead usually rolls his himself. Today though, however, he removes one he found on his small kitchen’s naked table, one that’s especially fat and aromatic, from the front pocket of his navy blue jumper. The Thermos, he places on the table. A wide row of fresh lead faces away from his person, toward the stairs, down which it sounds like someone’s made progress. Escolástico lights up. He’s half done. So far, he’s completed two complex grids of 7×3, each row subdivided to indicate assignments for the building’s twelve floors. It’s a system of his own design, not one he learned anywhere from anyone. Dick Daily’s central air kicks on. Or rather, the building’s rooftop HVAC unit rumbles, pipes rattle, vents sigh. Escolástico hears all this down here, the building’s daily respiration, every hour at predetermined times. The basement has no sprinklers and cannot detect smoke, and it sounds like those footsteps are nearing. Escolástico breaks sweat, exhaling, and swears to himself in Spanish. Undoubtedly cooler upstairs, at this point, behind the building, in the alley, what with the breeze coming in off the lake. But he prefers short breaks in the basement to smoke squares or stretch limbs than interrupt what he’s doing to scale the stairs and cross the school’s populated, terribly energy-inefficient two-story atrium, out the revolving doors installed to save energy, around the corner of Lake and Wells to a place of relative cover, out of the way, between the school and City Hall, in the alley. Instead, Escolástico Guerra remains seated at his small desk in the basement of Dick Daily Junior College, whoever’s on his way down now about to dismount that last step, and schedules next week’s shifts as he smokes. He doesn’t wax floors, or restock TP, or wash the vast windows of DDJC’s atrium’s façade. He doesn’t clean up after students, or put up with their shit, or lock up the building at night. Not anymore anyway, not after spending the better part of his own personal youth mopping floors and dishing out slop, guarding his own back and others’. These things speak too near to other things he regrets, of long hours and interrogation. Of dark rooms of disappeared. Of the gnashing of teeth of cheap sharpeners.
Diego Báez writes regularly for Booklist and Whole Beast Rag. Other work has appeared most recently in Kweli, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Higher Education. He lives and teaches in Chicago.