Simeon was in the supply closet, taking a break and eating his supper: bologna and mustard sandwiches. As was his custom, he was also reading his Bible as he ate.
Simeon had spent nearly forty years working at the school as a janitor, and he took pride in his work. He wasn’t the smartest man, he was quick to say, but he knew cleaning inside out. Even so, he was getting older, and the job didn’t go as smoothly as it used to. He was taking more breaks each evening, and the hours required to get everything done were growing. Worse, his eyesight was deteriorating, meaning he had to bend down to inspect his work more often than he liked.
It was his eyesight that was bothering him at the moment. He took a bite of his sandwich and brought the Bible closer to his face, reading aloud slowly: “They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.” The words came haltingly. Simeon put the book down on a cleaning cart to his side and rubbed his eyes.
“Having trouble?” The voice came from the open doorway. Simeon looked up and saw a young boy of about twelve, with dark hair and dark eyes.
“I thought everyone had gone home for the day,” Simeon replied. “Sorry, I don’t believe I’ve met you before.”
“The name’s Josh,” the boy said. “And I think I’m the only one still here, besides you.” He gestured to the open Bible. “Having trouble?” he asked again.
Simeon smiled. “My eyes don’t work as good as they used to,” he said. “Reading is getting a bit tricky.”
Josh strode forward. “Here, let me help you,” he said, taking the Bible into his hands. He continued the story where Simeon had left off, reading Jesus’ response to the request of James and John. “To sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give,” he finished, “but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.” He let the Bible drop a little and turned to Simeon.
The old man shook his head. “I don’t really get it,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Josh asked.
“I mean, why does he tell them no? If anyone deserves to sit by Jesus, surely it’s the disciples.”
“Oh,” said Josh. “You see, James and John want glory. They want power and prestige. But that’s not what Jesus is all about. He makes it clear a couple verses on: ‘For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”
Simeon nodded slowly. “Okay, I get that. But then who does Jesus have in mind when he says others will sit at his right and left? I’ve always wondered that.” He rubbed his nose and took another bite of his sandwich.
Josh smiled. “Now that’s a good question. We get the answer a few chapters later.” He flipped through the book, then traced his finger down the page. “Here we are,” he said. “‘And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.’”
Simeon started. “What?” he said. “You mean Jesus meant the robbers he was crucified with?”
Josh laughed. “Like I said, Jesus came to serve, not to be served.” He closed the book and handed it back to Simeon. “James and John were seeking glory—they wanted to be Jesus’ right and left-hand men. But Jesus had a very different idea of glory.”
They were quiet for a few moments. “You’re smart,” Simeon said at last. “I’ve been reading this book for years, and I never thought of something like that. I don’t think my pastor ever preached it that way before either.”
“You ask good questions,” Josh said. “That’s sometimes the best place to start.”
Josh visited Simeon often in the weeks that followed. Sometimes Simeon would be sweeping the floor when Josh would appear from around a corner. Or he would be emptying a garbage can when Josh would suddenly be at his side, helping him lift the heavy bag. But no matter when the boy arrived, it was not long before they stopped working to talk.
Simeon needed the breaks anyhow, he reasoned, and he was happy for the company. But they would inevitably visit longer than he planned. Sometimes hours passed as Josh read to him from the Bible or prayed with him.
The janitor knew the relationship was odd—a schoolboy teaching a man well into his sixties. But then, Simeon had never held himself to be very clever. It didn’t surprise him that a child might be smarter than him. Simeon became Josh’s willing pupil.
He looked forward to these afterschool lessons, but they came at a cost. A backlog of work was beginning to accumulate. He tried to move faster, but the effort was counterproductive; he tired too easily and needed to take even longer rests. “Better to go slow,” he counselled himself. “You always were more of a tortoise than a hare.”
He was bending over one day in the supply room, squinting to read the detergent container for his mop water when a voice from behind called his name. He turned in expectation, hoping to see his friend. Instead, he found the principal.
“Oh. Hi, Mr. Wente,” he said simply. He didn’t like the man. Mr. Wente had not been with the school long—he was the fifth principal since Simeon had begun working there, and he was easily the least friendly of the lot. He was a bald, round little man, and he had a tendency to wear his ties too short. The look was not very becoming.
“You’re doing well, I hope?” Wente asked as he walked into the room. Simeon nodded. “Good,” Wente said. He examined the shelves and continued speaking. “Let me just get to it, Simeon. I’ve noticed a certain…decline…in the quality of your work lately.”
Simeon said nothing.
“Of course, everyone has off days,” Wente carried on, still examining the stock room. “But this isn’t just a matter of days. For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been hearing complaints from the teachers—garbage cans that haven’t been emptied, floors that haven’t been swept.” He waved his hand in an indistinct way. “The whole place is a mess.”
Simeon put down the detergent container. “I know,” he said simply. “My work hasn’t been its best the last little while.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Wente interrupted, turning to face Simeon.
“I’m getting back on the right track now, though,” Simeon said after a moment. “I’ve been so tired lately. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better soon.” He smiled unconvincingly.
Suddenly Josh was at Simeon’s elbow. The janitor turned to acknowledge him, but Principal Wente just carried on. “Yes, well, see that things improve soon. The school can’t go on like this indefinitely.”
Wente walked to the door. “And Simeon,” he said, looking back, “I’m serious. If you can’t keep up with the work, we’ll have to find someone else who can.”
Simeon nodded slowly. Wente left.
Josh didn’t say anything. A minute passed, and Simeon reached down to pick up the detergent. He put it on the cleaning cart. Josh picked up the mop. They collected the remaining things they needed, then set out to clean the hallways together in silence.
“Come with me,” Josh said. “I want to show you something.”
A week had passed since the principal issued his ultimatum. Josh hadn’t visited Simeon during the past several days, and his absence was both a pain and a relief. Josh had become a close friend, and Simeon missed him. But the boy was also a distraction from his real work.
The janitor had tried to catch up after Wente had confronted him, but it was difficult. His eyesight was getting worse. His energy was too soon spent. He was falling behind again, even without Josh’s interruptions. He knew that his employment with the school must soon come to an end.
Josh’s reappearance this evening was therefore a bright star in the darkening twilight. And so, when Josh asked, Simeon left everything to follow him.
The boy led Simeon to the carpentry shop. They padded through the sawdust to the back, where something lay hidden under an old sheet.
“Go ahead,” Josh said, handing Simeon the corner. “Pull it off.”
He did. Beneath the sheet lay a piece of furniture that Simeon did not recognize. But he knew at once it was a thing of art.
Its shape was a little like a chair without legs—but only a little. It had two narrow sides, with a squat base at the bottom and a sort of small lectern at the top.
But it was not the shape which surprised him most; it was the ornamentation. The woodworking was remarkable. Intricate scroll work of ivies laced the two sides, with delicate little birds—sparrows, Simeon recognized—worked into the design. The feathers of the birds were inlayed with a darker wood, accenting the rich red stain which covered the whole piece. Burned into the centre of the book rest was the silhouette of a crucifix.
Simeon ran his fingers over the wood. It felt smooth to the touch. “It’s beautiful,” he said at last. “But,” he turned back to Josh, “what is it?”
Josh beamed. “It’s a prie-dieu.”
“A what?” Simeon asked again.
Josh laughed. “A prie-dieu. It’s French for ‘pray to God.’ You can kneel at it while you read your Bible and pray. Like this.” He reached down the piece of furniture and swung out its hinged bottom. It revealed a cushioned pad upon which he knelt down. Then he folded his hands on the small lectern which sat at the top. “Your Bible goes up here.” He grinned, opening his hands like a book. “Right up close to your face, so no more difficulties reading.”
Simeon was incredulous. “You mean it’s for me?”
“Of course,” Josh said as he stood up. “I made it for you.”
Simeon didn’t understand. The workmanship on this was more exquisite than anything he had ever seen. How could a boy of twelve do something like this?
“I’m a bit of an artist,” Josh said simply, answering Simeon’s unspoken question. “I like to make things.”
Simeon breathed in. “I’m almost afraid to use it,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Josh countered. “A thing like this is best appreciated in the using of it, not in admiring it from a distance. The beauty of its form mirrors the beauty of its purpose.”
Simeon did not return to work again that evening. With Josh’s help, he moved the prie-dieu to his storeroom. Josh left shortly afterward, but Simeon stayed for several hours more, kneeling, reading his Bible, and praying. He thanked God for Josh.
The broom dragged over the floor clumsily. Simeon stretched it out again, and a spasm shot up his back. He winced. “No good overdoing it,” he thought to himself. He glanced back at the floor and squinted. “Probably clean already. Still, I should bend down and check.”
But Simeon did not bend over. He put the broom on the cart and began pushing it back to the supply room. The halls were clean enough for tonight. He would go home and get some sleep, he decided, and then get an early start on things tomorrow. He would catch up. He would.
He rounded the corner and stepped suddenly into chaos. What he was seeing was impossible. A mob of men and women, children and adults, were pressing in on someone, shouting, jeering, swearing. Someone threw a punch. The child—for it was a child—stepped back. There was terror in his eyes.
“Oh, God,” Simeon gasped. “It’s Josh.”
He tried to step into the crowd, to separate them from the boy, but his legs refused to move.
Principal Wente was beside the janitor now. “Save him,” Simeon thought. The crowd parted and the principal stepped forward. He looked down at Josh. “Filthy little bastard,” he sneered. Then he struck the child in the face, sending him flying.
Pandemonium erupted. They were all on him now, students and teachers. And now Simeon saw his pastor there too, and several of his fellow church members. They beat the boy, clawed at his face, ripped his hair. Someone smacked him in the head with a baseball bat. Another stomped on his chest.
There were dozens of them, hundreds even. The faces moved too quickly; Simeon couldn’t tell one from another anymore. And suddenly Simeon was there too, striking Josh’s face again and again. He brought his foot down on his neck. He heard bone crack and laughed wildly. It was an ecstasy of blood, and he lost himself in the carnage.
When Simeon came to, a moment or an hour later, the mob was gone. He looked down at his feet. The boy was dead, battered beyond recognition. Blood pooled around him. Bits of bone and flesh covered the floor.
“Oh, God,” Simeon moaned, trembling. How could he be dead? How could someone so beautiful, so good, be dead? What was happening? What had they done to him? What had Simeon done to him?
He cradled the broken body in his arms, weeping uncontrollably. He did not know how long he knelt there holding the boy; minute passed after minute, until Simeon lost all awareness of the world around him. The world was nothing.
“Simeon!” A shout woke him from his stupor. He was still kneeling on the floor where Josh had been murdered. The blood was still there, but the body was gone.
“What are you doing, Simeon?” The words came from behind him, angry and sharp. He turned unsteadily and squinted.
It was Principal Wente.
“What are you doing?” Wente demanded again. “I’ve been watching you for a full ten minutes. You’re just sitting here, doing nothing. What are we paying you for?”
Simeon blinked, confused. Wente strode towards him, clearly furious.
“Look at that trash!” he shouted, pointing to the corner by the doorway. A chip bag and a crushed juice box lay on the floor. “I’ve had it with your laziness, Simeon. Get cleaning or get out!”
Simeon rose to his feet unsteadily, stumbling in the process. He tried to speak but nothing coherent came out. Wente thrust the cleaning cart towards him and stormed off, swearing.
Simeon felt as though he were walking through water. Every step took effort. Even his thoughts seemed sluggish. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t remember. He reached for a trash bag to go collect the garbage Wente had pointed out.
But Simeon did not pick up the bag. Instead, he took his wash bucket and knelt down where Josh had been murdered. His chest swelled with heavy sobs as he pulled the sponge across the floor again and again. This couldn’t be happening. Josh couldn’t be dead. And yet, the blood was there. The blood was there.
He spent the night scrubbing the same spot, weeping. Early the next morning, he left the school—left all his supplies on the floor, left the bucket unemptied, left the trash by the door. His head hurt. Everything hurt. He stumbled home and exhaustion overtook him.
He returned to school two mornings later. He could barely see. His thoughts were like mud. The boy was dead. That mattered, he knew. He should do…something. But the clouds in his mind wouldn’t break. There was no sun. All was dark—all shadow, all sorrow.
On his arrival, he was immediately summoned to the principal’s office. Wente sat in his chair, his face purple with barely controlled rage. “You know why you’re here,” he said icily once the door was closed.
Simeon heard the man as if from across a chasm. He sat down slowly and let his head droop forward.
“I’ve never met a lazier piece of shit in all my life,” Wente was saying. “Garbage everywhere, floors caked in filth. And that’s nothing on your insubordination. I told you to pick up that pile of trash by the doors two nights ago. And what did I find yesterday? The garbage still there. Your supplies still there. You had done nothing. Nothing at all.”
Simeon barely heard him. He understood the words, but they wouldn’t resolve into anything meaningful.
“Look at me, Simeon.”
The janitor looked up slowly towards the principal.
“We’re not paying you to sit alone in your closet reading your Bible,” he snapped. “We expect you to do a little work from time to time.”
Why did any of this matter? Why was he listening to Wente? The boy was dead.
Wente continued speaking, but Simeon’s gaze slid off the principal and out through the window to the playground beyond. There he saw a figure dancing several hundred yards away.
Simeon suddenly sat upright. The figure was Josh. He was laughing and smiling, waving to Simeon from across the grounds. His dark eyes flashed with joy and his hair twisted wildly in the breeze.
There was no mistake. Simeon saw him clear as anything. That was Josh. He was alive. He was alive!
Wente was still speaking. “…What I’m saying Simeon, is that you leave me no choice: we’re letting you go.”
Simeon was openly crying now. “Oh, thank God,” he whispered. “Thank God.” His eyes never left the dancing child outside.
Wente was taken aback by this response. He noticed Simeon’s gaze and followed it. He looked out the window at the empty playground for a moment and then turned back to Simeon.
“Well, then,” he said hesitantly, stroking his tie. “I’m…er…glad that this is satisfactory for both of us.” He paused. The rage in his eyes faded as he looked at the weeping, grey haired man in front of him. “I…I know it’s been a bit difficult for you as of late. I guess your age is catching up to you.” He gave an awkward smile. “Maybe it’s time you got some well-deserved rest.”
Simeon was still crying. Wente cleared his throat. “Forget everything I just said. We’ll call this your retirement, not a firing.” He paused again. “Why don’t you just head home. We’ll, uh, we’ll talk in a day or two about holding some event to mark your long service.” He stood and ushered Simeon out of the office.
Simeon went out in dazed jubilation.
“Go pack up your things,” Wente said kindly. “And don’t forget that pulpit-thing you’ve got stashed away in the closet. God knows what else we’d do with it.”
The janitor didn’t hear him. Once the principal had retreated to his office, Simeon ran to the school doors. He raced across the playground to Josh, gathered him into his arms, and wept for joy. Tears streamed down both of their faces as they laughed.
“I don’t understand,” Simeon said at last, as the two of them stopped to catch their breath.
“No,” Josh said. “I’m sure you don’t. But come, let me explain it to you.” Josh led them to the swing set. He sat on the nearest swing, his shoes dangling above the sand, while Simeon settled on the ground by his feet. He could not take his eyes off the boy. Josh began to speak.
The principal found Simeon there hours later, slumped on the ground by the swings. His eyes were open and his mouth was fixed in an expression of terrible joy. He was dead.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council. His writing, both sacred and secular, has been featured in various publications, including First Things, The National Post, The Mythic Circle, Amethyst Review, and more.
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Photo Credit: “Janitor’s Abandon” by Dan, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.com. Modified by Veronica McDonald.