After the clouds had threatened all evening the rain began just as the elderly man carried the trash bags out to the dumpster. It was only a drizzle, more a nuisance than anything, and he refused to let it slow his progress. With one eye on his watch and the other on the task at hand he worked quickly and finished in record time. On any other night he’d have gone back directly to the office building for the recyclables. But tonight he had one more undertaking, this of a personal nature, to complete before returning.
With the rain picking up slightly he yanked down the brim of his tattered baseball cap to better shield his eyes and walked with steady determination towards the two automobiles remaining in the darkened parking lot. One was an old, dented Saturn whose driver side window was patched with duct tape; the other a brand new minivan. The vehicles so mirrored their owners it was apparent which one belonged to him and which to the last employee working in the building.
At his car he opened the passenger side door, rummaged behind the seat and removed a crowbar off the stained floor mat. Then he slammed shut the door and proceeded briskly to the building’s entrance. Beside the two glass doors under a small overhang was a trash receptacle and the elderly man leaned the crowbar against it.
There he lit a cigaret, inhaled deeply and rechecked his watch. There was plenty of time yet; it was only 10 of nine. Still he looked into the building at long carpeted hallway and held his gaze in the hope the employee would materialize so he could get on with the test he devised for him. But except for bags filled with recyclables and shipping boxes leaning against the wall the hallway was empty. No matter, he knew even if it began to downpour he’d wait there for the young man to leave the building.
After taking a few more drags the elderly man finished smoking his cigarette. Although the trash receptacle was at his elbow he knew better than to use it. During his first night on the job he learned it was there for the building’s real staff, for employees who were looked at straight in the eye when they were spoken to and who were acknowledged when they spoke to others.
Since this excluded him he defiantly flicked the butt to the concrete and crushed it with the heel of his boot until it disintegrated just as he had done every weeknight for the past decade.
For this evening marked his 10th anniversary as the building’s janitor. This was an important milestone; it was the longest he’d been employed at a single job. Even longer than the fast food, landscape and car wash jobs combined. For a man with little formal education he had done remarkably well. As he approached 65 he had a job, a second-hand car, some money set aside and a roof over his head.
Did it matter to him that he had to scrub toilets, empty garbage cans and collect recyclables to achieve this? No, he didn’t care what he did for a living. When so many friends and loved ones struggled to find work or in desperation turned to crime, he was grateful to the Lord for the opportunity He provided to make money.
Did it matter that in doing his job the people he came into contact with ignored him? For years he would grumble and curse about it, but when his wife called his attention to the subject he’d say he was blowing off steam, that it didn’t really bother him. But these were boldfaced lies that fooled no one. Their ill-mannered behavior mattered so much it grew to sicken him until recently he could stand it no more.
That’s why this Friday evening as he stood out in the rain he wasn’t thinking about how blessed he was to be working for 10 years. Nor about how far he’d come in a quarter of a century since he moved down to Plainsboro, New Jersey, to be closer to his wife’s family.
Instead he was thinking about the act that would throw everything he had away, everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
For Pedro Ramirez was contemplating murder.
He didn’t look like someone who was capable of committing a violent act, let alone such a heinous crime. In fact the idea ran counter to how he had lived his life. Growing up in poverty in a rat infested single bedroom apartment with his mother in Newark he rejected joining gangs, despised guns and was never in trouble with the law. As an adult he was happily married to a lovely woman named Lorna for 35 years until recently when she died of complications from MS. In all their time together he never laid a hand on her or so much as raised his voice above a whisper.
By all accounts he was a kind, gentle man. But even kind and gentle men can be pushed too far.
At hearing the sound of shoes scraping against the carpet Pedro turned and saw his intended victim racing towards the glass doors. The janitor didn’t know the employee’s name or what he did for a living. All he knew about the young man was he had curly red hair, a red goatee and that he followed the same routine each night this week. The employee exited the building sharply at nine and walked past Pedro who was standing by the trash receptacle enjoying a smoke break. On each occasion the young man offered no words of greeting, no nod of the head, not even a grunt in acknowledgement. He treated Pedro like an invisible man.
A cooler head would have prevailed and the events would have been dismissed if this was isolated solely to the young man. But the janitor believed this inexcusable behavior was widespread among the staff. For a decade whenever anyone worked late and Pedro needed to step into their office to collect their trash or recyclables the employee continued staring blankly at their computer screen without uttering a word to him. Similarly if anyone stepped into the bathroom or the kitchen area while Pedro was cleaning it the employee went along with his or her business and pretended the janitor wasn’t there.
Last evening when the young man ignored him for the fourth consecutive night Pedro decided to take matters into his own hands. To coincide with his 10th anniversary working as an invisible man he would give a test to whomever was the last employee exiting the building.
The test itself was simple. Pedro would stand outside where he’d be either acknowledged or ignored. If the employee, in this case the young man with the curly red hair, acknowledged him he’d pass the test and be allowed to go home. But if he ignored Pedro he’d flunk the test and the janitor would take a crowbar to the back of the young man’s head.
Pedro knew his reaction was extreme and his dear wife Lorna would not approve of his barbaric behavior. But he felt this was the only way to guarantee the employee would pay him any attention, for when the beaten, bloodied young man screamed for help he’d have no choice but to speak to him. And when he did the shoe would be on the other foot; it would be Pedro who’d do the ignoring. For the janitor planned to pretend he didn’t see him. Then as the life blood poured out of the man’s head he would know what it was like to be Pedro Ramirez, he would know what it was like to be invisible.
As the employee reached the glass doors and placed his outstretched hands on them Pedro picked up the crowbar and hid it behind his back.
He watched attentively as the young man threw open the doors, hurriedly stepped outside, crooked his head slightly to the side and glanced blankly at him. Pedro was sure the young man was going to acknowledge him but instead he continued en route for the parking lot until he stopped abruptly with his back to the office building.
“God damn it Jeanne!” the employee yelled.
Confused, Pedro looked around the parking lot for whomever he was talking to until realizing the young man had spoken into a small phone attached to his left ear.
Pedro tightened his grip around the crowbar, brought it to his side and began walking slowly towards his victim. Each step he took brought him closer to realizing his dream of making someone else feel as he feels. As he was nearly upon the employee he could clearly hear his side of the conversation.
“Why shouldn’t I take that tone with you? Every night this week I told you to keep the girls up, Jeanne. This’ll be the fifth time in a row I’ll come home and they’re already in bed. And when I leave in the morning they’re still asleep. Since I’ve started this job they haven’t seen me at all. Jesus Christ, it’s like —”
Although unnoticed, Pedro was now only standing a few steps behind the employee. He brought the crowbar shoulder length, raised it above his head and was determined to strike the back of the young man’s head with one ferocious blow when he heard him cry:
“ — it’s like I’m invisible to them.”
Pedro lowered the crowbar, letting it slip out of his fingers and smack the ground. For he knew there was no need to hurt the young man and force him to walk in his shoes. Not when he already knew what it felt like to be invisible.
Joseph Venanzi lives in Trenton and works in Princeton. With co-author Kurt Kusenko, he sold material to MTV Productions, and Antarctic Press published their comic book, “The Hep Squad.”