On any day, behind these walls, you will find extraordinary people. A thousand of them have come and gone, and hardly a one was recognized, was truly seen. There’s no time here to practice seeing people. Too many tasks to be done, people to move, counsel, wipe, bathe, clothe, unclothe, feed, medicate, and so on. But I was just a janitor, and I took a slow pace to focus on seeing people. For whatever reason, my boss never bothered me or told me to speed it up, perhaps because I’m a very tall imposing person – who knows.
One day I happened upon a woman, about 30, I would guess. She had a cartoonish haircut, as you’d give a child in the 1960s, a pageboy I think they called it, but it didn’t fit a woman like that.
I noticed her eyes – I called them “pinball eyes” because they were bouncing around in what looked like a random motion. And then I realized that her glances weren’t arbitrary – that she was watching my mopping intently. So I created different patterns with my mop to see if she would follow. I drew wet swirls and boxes and followed as her eyes traced the mop head, almost mesmerized by it. Then I made a sun, and she glanced towards the window. I wanted to be sure she understood, so I turned her chair and pointed up at the yellow orb, and she gave me a little nod. I traced a bird, and she locked her thumbs together, flapping her fingers as her bird flew. Then I made a house with smoke coming out of the chimney. At this, she put her fingers to her mouth, inhaled and exhaled as if she were smoking a cigarette. I pointed to myself and did the same. She reached her hand out. I looked around before reaching into my pocket, retrieving my pack, and giving her one. I didn’t give her a lighter or anything, but she didn’t seem to mind. She just smelled the tobacco as if it had been a long time. Finally, I drew a big star on the floor and pointed to her. At this, she closed her eyes, dropped her head and shook it, “no.”
I was so sad to see her do this that I touched her hand, which I am not supposed to do, and for good reason. She pulled her hand away violently. Despite my efforts to engage her again with other images, she continued to look down. At a certain point, I had to leave her and continue to the other areas.
I knew that it could be a long time until I saw her again. The facility is enormous, and I’m not the only janitor there, plus they move the residents all the time, so I had no idea when or where I would see her next. Still, I planned for that eventuality as I continued cleaning. I would practice other images – a cat, a dog, a tree, a car, and so on. Even as I did this, none of the other patients engaged with the tracings or with me.
Then one day I saw her again. She was out on the large fenced patio, which I’d been instructed to sweep of leaves. I stayed a good distance away from her so that I wouldn’t spook her, but made sure she saw me. I kept my eyes down. Then I swept the leaves up in the form of a tree and pointed to a large oak visible on the property. She shook her head. Then, slowly, she pointed at me. I didn’t understand at first, and then I got it. I smiled. In high school, my nickname was “Sequoia.” I spread my arms out like branches and waved a bit back and forth so that she would know that I understood what she meant. She grinned at this. I decided to take a chance, and used the broom to sweep leaves to form a star. I waited to see how she would respond. It took a while, but eventually she smiled slyly, pointed to the star, and then pointed to herself. There was such a twinkle in her eye that it warmed my heart. I smiled back and nodded. Some people will say that she only responded that way because the staff often gave out star stickers to residents for collecting used napkins after dinner or humming during sing-alongs, but I believe she had realized that she was, deep inside, a bright, shining light.
Heather Robinson writes fiction and non-fiction and is drawn to dark comedy, quirky characters, strange circumstances, and ethical conundrums.
She’s the author of Dementions, a satire about a young doctor trying to succeed at a cutting-edge clinic focused on shortening the suffering of elderly dementia patients and their family members. Other works have been accepted by Prometheus Dreaming, Defenestration, Datura, Lyrical Passion Poetry, Friday Flash Fiction, Bewildering Stories, ThornLit, Door Is A Jar, and Fiction On The Web.