A base idea of mine for a story about a humble job and a man raging to be free.
| "Yes, sir."
Bernie sighed and returned back to sweeping as the door closed shut behind the manager, but it opened again after only a few seconds.
"Why do you take that shit from him?"
He didn't understand; Samuel was not a janitor like him. Samuel paid his dues by cooking lunches for the school and, despite this, he was a man of pride -- somewhat. He, at least, stood straight when working. He received thanks and got his hot meals. Samuel didn't have his hard work pissed on.
Samuel walked over to the mirror and examined his hair. Using a little bit of water from the sink, he styled it around differently.
"I know you bust your ass around here, man. That's very respectable," Samuel said. "Thing is, that's only half the bridge. See, you gotta put up for yourself when management tries to tear you down. Very few people ever goin' to just hand you the respect you deserve for how you work, even if things should be that way. It's tough. I know."
Bernie silently continued to sweep.
"Look," Samuel said, turning from the mirror to face him, "there ain't nothing worse than having to go to a job that you don't like, especially when you ain't got options elsewhere. But, only you can make it better for yourself. You have to stop -- "
The door opened again. In came the manager.
"I'll be seeing ya, Bern," Samuel said quietly as he walked towards the door.
"Shouldn't you be doing something productive, Samuel?" the manager asked him, blocking the door. Samuel's gaze was high but did not meet the manager's haughty eyes.
"I'm on my way, sir. Don’t work yourself up too much or your toupee'll start to slip off."
"Keep up your smart-assin' and I'll see to it you find another job," the manager told him, eyeballing Samuel as he pushed past him. Then, when Samuel was gone, he turned to Bernie. "And you! I thought I told you only five more minutes to have this place spotless. It's still a mess!"
"I'm working on it, sir."
"What? Speak up! Don't mumble!"
The manager walked around, studying the restroom.
"You've been wasting too much time. You'd better start picking up the pace or else you can plan on not coming back."
Oh, if only. It would be so much better if he didn't have to come back, which begged the question: why did he keep coming back? Poor treatment, lousy pay, and bottom-end types of work were not what compelled him to return. No, it was because he needed to in order to survive. Even if surviving meant hanging tightly to a flimsy, meager life.
There had been a day long since passed when Bernie used to imagine himself soaring up from the roots that he had always been, the roots that laid buried beneath the ground and a sky of potential, but his hope had always been put aside because of the sought out trait of patience. Anything that would ever be truly good would take time to grow. But, looking back now on those days, he realized that he had failed somehow along the way. He had never progressed past the sapling stage. Nowadays, he found himself pushed over, walked upon, and trampled back into the earth he had strived to rise from.
Hope was not something that came easily to those with experience. That is to say, maybe the light was still there, just hidden behind doubt of the capability of making change, but he no longer held the sense that he steered his destiny as much as he had when he had been just a teenager. Whether by youth's naivety or brilliance, hope had come much easier when he was young. A dozen years of cleaning toilets every day had made him realize that his life was at a dead-end. It also invoked that doubt that life would ever be any different, and that in itself was miserable.
Whenever a person's job affects their life outside of work in a negative way, there is a problem. Bernie found it hard to feel even remotely respectful of the man he was after cringing in the face of the higher-ups of his job time after time. Any woman he felt he had a chance with wouldn't even give him a slight turn of the eyes to acknowledge his advances. There was no reasoning the mind out of feeling completely incompetently worthless when the body is utterly ignored and so shamefully rejected. Nights like those would pass with a dizzy blur. Alcohol had become Bernie's retreat all the more ever since he had discovered its ability to drown out his pains. The problem with alcohol, though, was when he woke up the next morning and had to return to his shitty job and shitty life, he was already longing for more.
Maybe that was the reason he could never be like Samuel. He had come to think of work as a necessary evil. And, given his choices -- of lack of choices -- for other jobs, he strived just to get through the day. If doing so compromised having pride in himself, so be it. It made life and work so much simpler not to say a thing to put him out of place. But, as Samuel had made him realize, taking the easy way out also had its consequences.
Therefore, the struggle was always imminent. It meant staying content -- or as much so as could be -- with life as it was, rather than putting forth pride in exchange for security, food. As tough as life seemed, it could always be worse. Bernie had an apartment, he had dinner and T.V. Many people across the United States could not say the same. Even though he recognized why Samuel acted out the way he did, Bernie was not willing to take the risk of stepping out of his bounds and losing what little he did have. Mediocrity and its acceptance were the reasons why he no longer had hope.
Religion came to mind at the thought of that word. So many he had seen in similar circumstances had taken refuge in sacred texts and their promises of unimaginable peace. Religion was something Bernie himself had very mixed feelings about. The concept of infinity frightened him more than absolutely everything. The figure of Jesus the Messiah was a man he held great respect for, like a long lost friend or a father who had died before Bernie could really get to know him. Death in and of itself was mysterious. He had come to think of the words "death" and "Heaven" as synonymous, a thought that, too, scared him. "Heaven" was a very vague term in the Bible's words. It really offered very little in actual relativity to get a sense of what may come. If the "unimaginable peace" that "Heaven" was turned out to be the same as death -- that presumed emptiness of existence and everything -- what was there to look forward to even in religion? Ironically, "Hell" made him satisfied. If there was a separate option to "Heaven," could that mean that "death" and "Heaven" were not truly the same after all?
But it was too much to examine all at once. Religion was one of the most important aspects to each and every individual life. Even atheists, with their resounding determinations if not to disprove God but come to terms with the truth, focused on religion as much as any man, if not more. Religion could not be summed up in simple terms. It's philosophy required lifelong thought, and since thought was a thing private to each person, it should be expected to rank as much a part of existing as breathing, eating, or sleeping.
When Bernie finally finished cleaning the bathroom, he turned out the light and left. More than half a day's worth of work was still ahead of him. He was ready for the night. But, since it was only the middle of the day, he made his way over to the cafeteria instead of home. He collected his lunch -- which was cold, as expected -- and sat down at a nearby table. He was alone for only a moment, and then Samuel saw and joined him.
"What's going on, Bernie?"
Bernie tapped his fork hard against his tray.
"You know I hate that question, Samuel," he said. "What do you think is going on? I met the president while cleaning the urinal he pissed in? My answer's always the same and it tires me out saying it."
"Whoa, relax. I was just making conversation."
"Great. Lousy conversation."
"Would it be better if I didn't come over at all?" Samuel asked. "I suppose then you'd be happy being all alone, no friends at all."
"You don't make me feel any better by coming over anyway, reminding me how I have no friends. Thanks a lot for your company."
"See? This is what I'm talkin' about."
"You being all lippy with me. How come when management comes around you become Mr. 'Yes, Sir,' 'I will, Sir?'"
"We've went over this a thousand times, Samuel."
"Well, I don't get it."
"No, of course you don't, 'cause you had to -- "
"Had to what?" Samuel asked, suddenly terse.
Samuel shoved him, causing him to spill some of his food.
"Say what you have to say, man!" Samuel demanded. "Come on, now."
Near by, two teachers in the middle of conversation paused to look their way. Bernie and Samuel quieted down.
"This is always your damn problem, man," Samuel said. "Whenever you get a little adversity in your face, you freeze up. You withdraw off to your thoughts and decide to hell with everyone else. Makes me wonder if you'd even fight back if someone started to hit up on you."
Samuel stood up and then walked away. Bernie stared solemnly at his food for a moment, no longer hungry.