I keep referring to Charlie as my teacher, but I haven’t told you how he got that way yet or what he taught me. Before I get to that, though, I should tell you a little bit about being a janitor. I’m serious; hopefully why this is relevant will be clear later.
As I mentioned, my job on campus was on the cleaning crew. The dorms and classrooms were cleaned by the people who used them, and the Dining Hall was cleaned by its own staff, so we just cleaned common areas, plus the areas where the staff and faculty lived. That last was a tremendous opportunity for the curious, since students were not otherwise allowed on the master’s floor, even by invitation. They made themselves so available to us most of the time that they needed some place of their own to hide. The school being what it was, where and how they lived was a secret. Only the cleaning crew knew.
The masters lived on the fourth floor of the Mansion. They didn’t all live there—some had houses in town, and Sara and her family usually stayed in the loft in the barn—but each of them had a room to go to, plus a couple of common rooms. There wasn’t much space, considering that fourteen people had less than four thousand square feet among them, but what they had was uncommonly nice. All the furniture was hand-made, the floors were some kind of honey-colored wood and mostly covered with hand-woven rush mats or rugs, and they had a library of the most fantastic books. Their dining room faced the dawning sun with floor to ceiling windows, and they could clear away the tables and use the space for yoga or dance whenever they wanted to. Every room had a balcony, and since the fourth floor was smaller than the third, they could step out of a door to a kind of rooftop garden. In the summers they grew tomatoes and basil out there, among other delights.
Mostly, we only cleaned their common rooms and the bathrooms and swept the hallway. We’d do whatever dishes they left for us, and if a light was out or a faucet dripped we’d pass the word on to maintenance. The private rooms were kept closed. But I remember, one time in late April they asked for a spring cleaning and left their rooms open. I got assigned the job, so there I was, wandering around the masters’ rooms by myself.
None of them were labeled—there were no name-plates. I knew the faculty had the rooms along the south wall, while the staff had the rooms on the east, but otherwise it was a guessing game. Some used their rooms simply as offices, while others looked lived in. Some were obviously normally a mess, given the haphazard way things had been shoved into boxes and under blankets, while others were clearly always neat as a pin. Some rooms were obvious; Sadie, the head cook, lived with her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayla, so the room with child’s things in it was obviously theirs. Joe, an intense but little man who headed the security group, lived with his husband, who was also named Joe, so again the room obviously shared by two men was theirs. The second Joe had nothing else to do with the school, though he came to breakfast sometimes, plus some of the community events. We called him Cuppa Joe, to distinguish him from Security Joe. Then there was my boss, the head janitor, who was just Joe. Two students were also named Joe, plus one named Josephine, and another named Joanne. I have no idea why the school attracted so many people named Joe or Jo. There were two Charlies, too, though the other one usually went by Chuck, and almost half the women of my year called themselves Raven. You can’t make this stuff up.
Finally I found myself in a well-kept room with a futon folded into a couch, a desk with clean spots in the dust where personal items had been removed prior to my arrival, a few shelves and trunks of clothes and papers, and yet another bookcase. I looked over the books. One shelf was entirely dedicated to some serious scientific books, mostly on ecology, but there were two very serious-looking botany texts, another on mushrooms, and another on beetles. Another shelf was dedicated to field guides—trees, shrubs, birds, scat, bird’s nests, tracks, wild flowers, and so on. Then there was a shelf half full of books on writing, with the rest of the space taken up by horticulture and popular-market books on wildlife-friendly landscaping. By his books, I recognized Charlie.
Obviously, he had organized his books by topic, but the top two shelves seemed to be rather mixed. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sat next to Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Two translations of the Bible kept company with Sand Country Almanac, Desert Solitaire, and Honey From Stone. Two books by Rainer Maria Rilke stood next to The Bhaghevad Gita and the Tao Te Ching. I saw books by Gary Snyder, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tom Robbins rubbed shoulders with Tom Wessels, whose book was the only one of the lot not smudged, cracked, and dog-eared. Evidently, the book was new. I thought at first that these shelves were for books that didn’t belong on the other shelves, a kind of catch-all, but something about the collection kept tugging at me. “It dawned on me” is a cliché, but try to imagine you’ve never heard it before. Try to remember the dawn, how slowly the light and color come up so you can never quite be sure when night ends and the day begins until suddenly you see the sun and the day is clearly here. That’s how I realized that these two shelves were dedicated to Charlie’s understanding of Spirit.
I looked slowly about the room I was supposed to be dusting. I saw birds’ nests and pine cones, dried flowers and smooth stones. I saw a photograph, framed in silver, of a small dog, but no human images. I saw rugs, knick-knacks, a walking stick, items made and given by a lifetime of students. I saw both pairs of Charlie’s shoes, the work boots and the sandals, meaning that wherever he was at the moment, he was barefoot. I saw the hammock swung on the balcony where Charlie slept when the weather cooperated.
And on the desk, I saw a tin whistle.