The Janitor

Julie Harthill Clayton

Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova

Franz was accustomed to foul smells. As the school’s janitor for more than thirty years, he’d mopped up vomit, feces, rotten banana peels, and the locker room stink of adolescent boys’ sweat. He’d swept discarded trash of all sorts. His own skin smelled permanently of ammonia and lemons. The young men at the small German boarding school loved the way he smelled. It reminded them of their homes far away.

Franz began to notice a new smell emitting from one of the first year boys. Loneliness. He noticed, too, an older boy who smelled of guilt. Franz knew then, without knowing just how, that this boy had been the one to vandalize the headmaster’s office. Just as he knew that the lonely boy was missing the brother who had hung himself two years before. The new smells were dizzying.

Franz put down his mop and bucket, and sat on a bench in the hallway. He tried to block out the smells, but the fetid scent of shame wafted in the air from the direction of the math classroom. Perhaps the rumors about Herr Hauptman were true after all, thought Franz. Most powerful of all, and coming from all directions, was the smell of deep secrets: carnal longings, abusive homes, alcoholic mothers, even the smell of a murder covered up. He never knew the smell of sorrow was so pungent.

Faintly, through the fog of dark smells, his nose was tickled by the smell of contentment. Caramel apples with cinnamon, a hint of fresh-cut grass, a tease of chicken noodle soup simmering on the stove.

Franz sensed that with his new knowledge came a great responsibility. Just as it had always been his job to ensure the cleanest school in the district, it was his job, now, to keep the school awash in the aroma of happiness.

He began rising early—before the cock’s crow. Tending to the school’s happiness required extra time. He poured his daily cup of coffee, attended to his grooming needs, and then left his pleasant room on the school grounds to begin his new chores. He left a note for Herr Hauptman—“I know what you’ve done”—thereafter the algebra teacher resigned; he never was able to find another job. Franz invited the lonely boy to help him clean the auditorium. The boy began to smell of ripened peaches. The vandal, Alfred, confessed after Franz gave him a certain look. Alfred began to smell of roasted chestnuts.

The dark smells never entirely went away. Life at a boarding school always had its share of sadness and homesickness. But gradually joy replaced sorrow. More families sent their boys to the school. When they visited, parents just felt right about the little school. Cozy, they said to themselves as they left.

When Franz died in his sleep, on a cold winter morning, it was said that he had a serene smile on his face, and folks swore there was a trace of tangerine drifting through the air.

Julie Harthill Clayton writes book reviews for Lambda Literary Foundation, Clarion Press, and ForeWord Magazine. She will soon launch her fiction review site, SmartnSassy Fiction. Ms. Clayton has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Urge Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, and other small publications. She is currently working on her first novel, Intrusions of Beauty. Email: nowritersblock[at]

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