Every day, the janitor whose name Sandra did not know, swept the floors of the office complex. The CEO, an eternally-energetic man named Kent, who routinely used words like “synergies” and phrases like “move fast and break things”, had insisted the entire building look like a home. He banned the thin, standard office carpet in favor of wood laminate floors. They made for fun games of Office Chair Demolition Derby, but also required careful sweeping to collect all the crumbs of the organic seed-based snacks the mini-Kents who inhabited the desks around Sandra ate all the time.
She watched him move the broom in certain, deliberate patterns around the floor, careful not to miss a single square inch. His lips moved as if he were talking to himself, or perhaps singing, and the motion drew attention to his mostly-grey moustache. He didn’t look particularly old to her, perhaps in his early 50s, but the thought popped into her head that he was easily the oldest person in the company. And there he was, sweeping the floors too late on a Friday night.
“Excuse me,” she said. He looked up. Blinked. Looked at her with the deepest brown eyes she had ever seen.
“Ma’am?” he asked, and leaned on his broom.
“I don’t mean to bother you but…what’s your name?”
“Mine?” He genuinely looked surprised. “Merle. Merle Gilman.”
“Merle. Is that short for anything?”
“Sounds like it should be, doesn’t it?” He laughed, and the sound made Sandra feel a little bit happy herself. She liked the sound of his voice. It was deep but didn’t rumble, warm but not full of the fake, forced, come-on sensuality the other men in the office used when they talked to her. Like she wasn’t the best writer they had. Like she was just there to check the gender and race boxes on the questionnaire they sent to the state every couple of years when they renewed their company grants. She came back to the conversation, realizing he was staring at her oddly.
“Sorry,” she said. “Kind of—”
“Got lost in another thought?” He finished her sentence so easily she barely considered being upset about it. “Don’t you worry about it. Happens to me a lot, too. There’s a lot to think about these days, right?”
This time, she chuckled and noticed the twitch of a smile at the corners of his eyes. “You can say that again. But look, I’m sorry to have bothered you. I know you don’t want to be here so late on a Friday.”
He shrugged. “It’s not a trouble at all. I work better when I don’t have to work around everybody. I can clean things up and reinforce the patt–well, you know. Janitorial stuff.” He scowled, just for a second, like he had said something he hadn’t wanted to say, like he had forgotten himself a moment. “Anyhow,” he said, and swung the broom in a short arc across the floor in her direction, “Your desk is last. After that, I can get back to hearth and home and Animal Crossing. It’s not a cool game, but I do have a house there to redecorate.”
She laughed. “Cool? I think it’s very cool. And I just redid my house last week. Got tired of all the old furniture and changed everything! One evening we’ll compare notes, okay?” And, just like that she surprised herself by inviting the janitor whose name she now knew into a part of her life that she shared with no one else in the office. It was small, to be sure, but important to her. Now he knew.
And it seemed to make him happy, which also made her unexpectedly happy. “I think I’d like that, Sandra.” She cocked her head when he said her name, unsure how he knew. As if by magic, he answered the unformed question. “I pay attention to what people call each other. Names are important. There’s good magic in a good name, you know. Besides, I empty your garbage. You get junk mail?” He nodded at her wastepaper basket and shrugged.
She laughed again. “I should have known. Thanks for the laugh. It’s been a long day and I needed it.” She stood and swung her sweater around her shoulders. “I’m glad we talked, Mr. Merle. Have a really good night.”
He nodded. “You too, Sandra. Drive safely. Be safe every hour.”
As she left, she thought about what he had said. No. She thought about how he had said it. It sounded to her a very old thing to say, almost a magical thing, like she might read in one of the books she dared never to bring to the office lest Kent or one of his wanna-bes see it and think she was less than a Serious Hustlepreneur. As she pushed the door open, she looked back at Merle. He was pushing the broom in small arcs and circles in front of her desk, between her desk and the others, moving in a circle counterclockwise. His lips were moving again and, this time, she could have sworn he wasn’t speaking English at all.
That’s when she remembered he never had told her if Merle was short for another name. Another longer, much older, much more famous name. She would make sure to ask him that right before they shared their Animal Crossing secrets
Look, I know the Friday Fiction stories are only supposed to be 250 words, but this one got…out of hand. I honestly can’t explain how I got from a janitor pushing a broom to some sort of romance and also urban fantasy. This just happens to writers sometimes. It’s usually best to follow the story path you see until it ends. Then you can go back and figure out if it’s worth sharing with others. I think this story is worth it. I hope you will too!
Play along with the prompt here.
(Photo Credit: Mariakray on Pixabay)