Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cleaning Guy

Sometimes when Pablo pushed the enormous, wheeled, plastic trash receptacle down the hallway, he would see faces among the bags of waste. Faces from his past, from the once-war-torn home he'd left behind, and from his more recent life in this new world, where after twenty years he still couldn't speak, couldn't understand what people were saying. The trash bin was his scrying glass, the rhythm of its wheels coaxing memories forward that he didn't want but couldn't hide from himself.

He lived alone among others like him, others who spoke what he spoke and ate what he ate. It took him a long time to commute here at night to collect the trash and clean the floors in this place where suffering and healing touched at the edges. He had a wife who had found another man, and a six-year-old son he was never allowed to see. His back ached and his false teeth were loose, so even if he did find someone who spoke and understood Spanish, they kept rattling around in his mouth when he talked to them. His life was one of silence, loneliness, and prayer. His faith was everything he had, everything that mattered.

There was a doctor where he worked at night who sometimes spent the night there on duty. She looked young - just a kid, though she must have been older than she looked. She always smiled and said, "Hi, Pablo" whenever she saw him. She would say hi to Anita too, who cleaned the women's locker room, and Campbell, another guy on the housekeeping staff who had recently quit the night shift.

One night, when there were no emergencies in the operating room and the women in labor had all given birth, this doctor was in an office along the corridor where Pablo did most of his work. She saw him walking by, pushing the giant trash can along, and she ran to the doorway. "Pablo! Pablo, may I ask - where are you from?" And Pablo realized he understood what she was saying, though she was speaking fast. The doctor spoke Spanish.

"El Salvador," he replied.

All of a sudden the doctor was excited. She threw her hands up toward heaven and said she needed help with something, some music project or something, and wanted to learn about his country.

"Were you there during the war?"

Her Spanish was a little rusty, and sometimes she had to take a moment to find a way to express herself, so more often than not she would just blurt out such questions, questions which should have been jarring but which Pablo found strangely normal. Tell me about it, she was saying. Tell me what you saw. I want to know. I need your help.

They talked for a long time. Anita came and emptied the office wastebaskets while they were talking. Across the hallway, the recovery room nurses were turning monitors off and packing up their last patient for transport. Bits of story came rushing out of Pablo, and the faster they came, the more there were. He couldn't understand how something could feel both painful and wonderful: to remember, but also to be heard.

"It was even worse, then, than what the movies about it show," the doctor said. "How on earth did you survive?"

"The mercy of God," Pablo said.

But what of those who had perished? the doctor was thinking. Were they meant to know no mercy, to be tortured and treated as if they were more worthless than the dust and excrement on the road, and then left by the road to die?

What a topsy-turvy thing, this night. The war had taught him that people were worthless (though his faith proclaimed otherwise), and he knew he was nothing, nobody, but then here this doctor was hanging on every word as if nothing were worth more to her at that moment. What was it the young people said? W - T - F, or something like that?

Then somehow they were no longer talking about the war. He talked about this life, how he rediscovered his faith, how it sustained him in his solitude now. And as he talked, his heart opened more and more, and he could feel something changing, as if a beam of light were shining into the chambers of his heart and illuminating them from within.

"God has a purpose for you," Pablo said to the doctor. "Find it." And he began to pray over her. The words, like his story, came spilling out almost involuntarily. It was almost as if he were not the one praying, but rather some other voice, an energy like a wind blowing him along, blowing through him. The gust intensified, carried his words toward her; he felt another power at work, something from beyond the two of them, and he trusted it.

When he finished his prayer, he opened his eyes and looked at the doctor. She had her eyes closed and her hands folded in her lap, her head bowed as if receiving a blessing as Pablo stood over her. Then she opened her eyes.

"I don't know why we had this conversation," he said to her, with tears in his eyes. "But I thank you." Then he went back out of the office and continued pushing the bin of trash down the hall.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for a deeply moving story.

T. said...

Thank you for taking the time to read it. It was such a mysterious experience that I had to step outside of it and write about it in the third person, as if it were fiction, even though it isn't, in fact.

Kim said...

Yes, this was very moving. Thanks for sharing.

The Girl said...

Thank-you for taking the time to speak to him, and for sharing with us.
It was very touching. You have quite a gift for the written word.

Unknown said...

You write exquisitely.

Jo said...

Thank you for sharing - it's a very moving piece. And all the more so for being true.

medrecgal said...

Wow...of all the fascinating, interesting, and otherwise cool things I've read on this blog, this one really got me. In a world where people are so often tangled up in things like social status and all of that, it's nice to read a story now and then that transcends all of those not-so-nice aspects of humanity and cuts right to the heart. Wonderful!

Jane said...

WOW! What a story! It is one of the most frustrating things on the planet, if not the most, to be unable to utilize our spiritual gifts, I think. The gift of prayer is such a wonderous one...I'm so glad for you and for Pablo that he was able to use it that night.

Mommydoctor said...

Goodness, T. This really happened to you? What a lovely piece- how amazing that you chose to write it from his perspective. Can't wait to read more!

T. said...

Not only did it actually happen, but also the next morning I had coffee in the next town over with a fellow-blogger-friend and this guy whom I now think of as Born-Again Bikere-dude struck up a conversation with us and wound up praying over us too!

What are the chances? :)

Thanks, all, for your kind comments!