THE NIGHT MAINTENANCE MAN
by John Tavares
Occasionally, when she felt lonely and depressed on graveyard shifts at the hospital, June had late night trysts with the night maintenance man in her locked broom closet and cleaning supplies room, which was surprisingly spacious. Amidst shelves with rolls of paper towel and toilet paper, rags, scrub pads, spray bottles, brooms, and mops, near the emergency department fire exits, she found surprising gratification in orally pleasuring the night maintenance man. His kisses, caresses, and hugs she found affirming, a relief. Divorced, in his early sixties, a recovering alcoholic, curious about her relationship with Wayne, the night maintenance man also asked her about Doctor Spirit, for whom he sometimes did handyman jobs at her three-bedroom house near the hospital.
Meanwhile, Wayne worried about June being friends with Doctor Spirit. He didn’t want his girlfriend socializing and partying with Doctor June, or plain hanging around the family physician. Doctor Spirit earned a shitload of money and had too many hoity-toity, high net worth friends for his liking.
“High net worth?” June demanded, with a sense of outrage and indignity. “What is that supposed to mean?” June protested she earned a union wage, making more in hourly wages than some community college or university graduates she knew earned and had plenty of perks and benefits, like prescription drug coverage, sick days, and extra vacation time. Wayne, though, constantly reminded June she was just a high school dropout and a lowly cleaner in the regional hospital in Beaverbrook.
Wayne was on disability; he suffered a cardiac condition, a congenital heart defect, and angina pectoris whenever he strenuously exerted himself physically, at work or during exercise or even recreation, sometimes even when he was eating a heavy meal or sleeping restlessly. When a bout of angina struck, he sometimes feared he was having a heart attack and panicked. Since Wayne came from a German immigrant family of workaholics, his heart condition and chest pains didn’t stop him from taking odd jobs, or occasional handyman work with the night maintenance man, which didn’t involve considerable physical exertion, as a taxi dispatcher, a store clerk, or even a ward clerk at the hospital, renowned as a centre for rural medicine. At times, he even helped the night maintenance man when the hospital supervisor, who didn’t need to worry about the two difficult personalities getting along, summoned him for a casual shift.
Invariably, though, a pattern established itself where he became frustrated with a problem at work or more likely flabbergasted at a person, a co-worker, customer, or, worse yet, a supervisor. Subsequently, he lost his temper, had a huge outburst of anger, or a massive outburst of bile or argumentation and verbal abuse. Immediately afterwards, he apologized and tried to make amends, but it was usually too late, since he frightened and scared co-workers, so he was forced to return to disability insurance, either because he aggravated his heart condition or suffered a full-fledged attack of angina, bordering on a heart attack. Usually, one of his angina attacks, with its abrupt chest pains, sweats, and dramatic display of symptoms, was enough to disturb and frighten co-workers in and of itself. Consequently, supervisors or bosses were likely not to call him back to work; he was on probation, a temporary worker, or working casual, and workplace bosses in Beaverbrook were renowned for their conservative attitudes and work ethics and simply didn’t like to take chances. Still, June ignored his advice and exhortations.
June continued to spent time around Doctor Spirit because they had such a good time together, dancing, drinking, partying, shopping. June often didn’t have enough money to shop for luxury and high-end brand names like Doctor Spirit, but she often bought her gifts because June made for such a trustworthy friend, something of a soulmate, and fun loving. Besides, even though June didn’t use illicit drugs, and had to be persuaded to utilize prescription drugs when she was ill or in pain, she loved beer and rye, vodka, and gin. She knew where to draw the line, but she also knew, through friends or friends of friends, where to score some pot or even coke, which Doctor Spirit liked when she was stressed or needed to smoke or snort some stuff or do a few lines.
June especially liked and admired Doctor Spirit’s collection of jewellery. Wayne leaned back in Doctor June’s comfortable reclining chair, in front of her massive high definition wide screen television, watching reruns of a crime drama series from her collection of DVDs. Meanwhile, June dusted, swept, and cleaned Doctor Spirit’s home, one of three houses she owned: in Winnipeg, where she was born and raised; Thunder Bay, where she attended medical school; Beaverbrook, where she wanted to practice medicine for the rest of her career. Doctor Spirit herself was working at a nursing station and clinic up north, treating indigenous patients at an Oji-Cree reserve of Tea Lake and the Cree reserve of Tobacco House. Wayne didn’t understand how Doctor Spirit could have such an eclectic and expensive collection of aboriginal art and artifacts and jewellery, especially living in a town with such a high crime rate. In fact, although Beaverbrook didn’t make any lists of violent cities, because of the rural municipality’s relatively small size, Wayne, who grew up in Southern Ontario county renowned for its Mennonite community, thought with all the murder, assaults, and sex offenses, Beaverbrook had to be the most violent small town in the province.
Still, June told her Doctor Spirit kept her large jewellery collection as a long-term investment. June especially admired her beautiful large pearl necklace. Around the time June complained she couldn’t survive the long winter and chilly spring of Northwestern Ontario in general and Beaverbrook in particular and would succumb to cabin fever, and longed for a cheap beaches vacation in Cuba, she received an invitation to her niece’s wedding in Winnipeg. Determined to go all out, loosen her inhibitions, in attending the wedding, June bought an expensive tailored gown, designer shoes, and high-end brand name lingerie. She almost maxed out on her credit cards. Wayne kept shaking his head and gruffly exhaling; he didn’t even want to join her in attending her niece’s wedding; she was making such a humungous deal out of the occasion, blowing the event out of proportion, trying to present an image of herself manufactured, artificial, fictitious. Wayne thought nobody looked better than June and liked to brag she was built better than a brick outhouse, but he also thought she dressed down better than anybody and still looked hot. With her curvy figure and cleavage, she could get away with wearing the same tank top and pair of faded blue jeans for a more than a week without anyone noticing.
Wayne wanted June to take Doctor Spirit to the wedding, but June, consuming a few beer and shots of vodka, became defensive and argued and fought with him, insisted he accompany her. June didn’t want to give people, friends, and relatives the impression she was a lesbian, if she brought Doctor Spirit.
“I thought you told me Doctor Spirit wasn’t a lesbian.”
June was also very defensive about her relationship with Doctor Spirit and was adamant and insistent and argumentative Doctor Spirit wasn’t a lesbian. Doctor Spirit liked to smoke pot and do a few lines of coke the odd time, when she was stressed or needed energy to party, but “she isn’t a lesbian.”
Despite Wayne’s insistence June invite Doctor Spirit, June, who eschewed unconventionality, insisted it was proper and normal if she went with her boyfriend. Seeing how June admired her clothes and wardrobe, and how they were virtually the same size and measurements, Doctor Spirit asked her if there were any clothes or fashion items she wanted to borrow. June was so relieved she asked if she could borrow her necklace of gleaming satiny pearls, strung together with a gold braid.
“That’s all?” Doctor Spirit asked.
“Yes,” June said, surprised that Doctor Spirit didn’t express any concern or reservation.
Worried and concerned, Wayne asked, “How much does a string of pearls like that cost?”
“Probably about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Wayne gasped. “Leave it alone, June; they’re too expensive.”
But June donned the luxurious string of pearls, shimmering, gleaming, and felt like magic. Wearing the string of pearls, she felt like an entirely different woman, like the chief executive officer of the hospital, for which she worked as a cleaner for the past two decades, or like the mayor of Beaverbrook. Even though Wayne thought the pearl necklace was loud and ostentatious, even a bit gaudy, for a wedding, he did admire the transformation that took place in June; for a change, she wasn’t grimacing, grinding her molars, and her brow wasn’t wrinkled with worry or concern. She wasn’t fretting and preoccupied with worries about the hospital, workplace politics, arguments and personality conflicts with co-workers and crew bosses, and, best of all, she wasn’t obsessed with money, and making certain all the bills were paid and on time, and actually, preferably ahead of time. Still, he almost thought it was the height of folly wearing such ostentatious pearls like that to a wedding.
In his judgement, it was a mistake for her to wear the pearls to the wedding. He thought this belief was confirmed when he noticed what a big distraction the pearls were at the wedding, diverting the attention of well-wishers and attendees, when wedding guests should have been directing their gaze and compliments towards the bride and groom. Now Wayne started to worry.
Meanwhile, anxious about his appearance and dress, worried about the way he looked, Spirit forced Wayne to follow her advice and made an appointment with him with her hairstylist to have his long, scraggly hair, which was greying and whitening, styled and his beard trimmed. Wayne usually avoided the barber or hairstylist because he occasionally suffered a distressing and seemingly unprovoked attack of angina in the chair. When they finally drove to the Winnipeg in her beat up pickup truck, Wayne thought it ironic. Even though they were dressed elaborately and ornately, very formally, particularly for residents of Beaverbrook, they stayed at the cheapest accommodations they could find in the west end of Winnipeg. They roomed at a grungy motel at the far end of broad, wide Portage Avenue, near a strip joint, a porn shop, a used bookstore, and airport motels, where jetliners and aircraft constantly flew overhead to take-off and land at Winnipeg International Airport.
Earlier, while they rode in her four-wheel drive truck along the TransCanada highway, he took several photographs of the pearls with his cellphone. The wedding was a stupendous success, from everybody’s perspective, although Wayne was annoyed at how June seemed to upstage everybody with her gown and particularly the string of pearls. Wayne became annoyed with all the compliments about the pearls. He also annoyed June when he kept reminding her she couldn’t really fess up to the true owner of the pearls.
Then there was a hostage-taking incident in the hotel, according to one group of guests. No, there was a fire in a washroom, according to another group of guests. To avoid bad publicity, since this was the second incident involving a customer with a firearm or bathroom fire caused by a discarded cigarette butt in two months, hotel customers were moved by a shuttle bus to a more comfortable and luxurious hotel downtown, apparently owned and managed by the same hotel and motel chain. Wayne and June couldn’t return to sleep, though, because they started arguing. June insisted Wayne was jealous of her looks and appearance.
“No, June, I admit it, you’re a sexy looking woman. You have a pretty face and an attractive body. I don’t know why you don’t look after yourself better, because at home you’re always wearing torn jeans and my denim and plaid shirts, which are way too big for you.”
The couple continued to argue, as, looking as if they had attended a formal royal reception for the Prime Minister and Queen in the ballroom of the Fort Garry hotel, the couple went to a twenty-four hour coffee and doughnut shop near Portage and Main. When the argument still hadn’t exhausted itself, they went to the restaurant for iced tea on the Esplanade Riel alongside the Provencher Bridge over the slow flowing muddy waters of the Red River. Then they walked downstairs and down a flight of escalators into the underground pedestrian concourse at Portage and Main.
June became nervous as, lost, they circled around and around in the underground concourse, through the brick corridors and passageways and steel and glass doors, up and down stairwells and escalators, backtracking, trying to find the exits at the northeast corner of Portage and Main, searching for a shortcut and the subterranean concourse entrance to their hotel. Shortly after midnight, there was a large group of indigenous youth lounging in the concourse, waiting for the last Winnipeg Transit bus, to take them to their homes near the railyards, taverns, pawnshops, service stations, used car dealers, and parking lots and big box stores in Transcona. Nervous in the summer city night, though, June didn’t want to ask the group of indigenous youth for directions.
“Don’t they have anything better to do than lounge and loiter? It always bothers me when I see those people hanging around in the doorway of the pool hall, video arcade, or liquor store in downtown Beaverbrook.”
“Yes, June, we’re so well to do, upper class,” Wayne said, clucking, clicking his tongue.
When they arrived back at the hotel room, June noticed the pearl necklace was missing. In a panic, they backtracked, retraced their tracks and followed their footsteps, walking back along the route they took along the concourses, sidewalks, and streets of downtown Winnipeg. June thought one of the indigenous youth deftly snatched the pearl necklace, but Wayne thought she was the victim of her own biases. The youth didn’t get near her, never mind the pearl necklace, and Wayne engaged in a friendly chat and conservation with them. They filed a police report with the Winnipeg Police department and attached a few photographs, detailed close-ups, monochromatic prints, of the pearl necklace, printed from the scanner and fax machine in the hotel lobby, which Wayne took with his smartphone.
June begged the police officers to treat the theft of the pearl necklace with the utmost discretion and secrecy. She provided them with detailed descriptions of the First Nations young men, with their tattoos, piercings, hoodies, bandannas, baggy jeans, high top sneakers, sweats, and steel toe boots. But Wayne argued with her and protested the accusations, saying they had no evidence the necklace was stolen, adding June was starting to sound racist saying the indigenous youth had taken the string of pearls. Willing to admit he didn’t recall totally accurately, because, against doctor’s orders, he drank several beer and whiskies at the wedding reception, he demanded what would teenagers want with gaudy pearls anyway? The underground concourse would have probably had closed circuit video surveillance evidence if anything untoward happened. They stayed an extra four days in Winnipeg, searching for the necklace, but the pearls didn’t turn up anywhere they searched. June insisted on checking all the pawnshops, thrift shops, consignment stores, and jewellers in Winnipeg, along Main Street, and around the exchange districts, downtown, and especially near the casinos.
“I can’t see anyone being so foolish as to take an expensive necklace to a pawnshop on Main Street, unless, unless—”
“Don’t you dare say it. You’re full of bull sometimes.”
Wayne tagged along and followed her around the city in dismay and frustration. Then June realized she needed to return home for work as a cleaner at the hospital. By Wednesday, after walking endless miles in downtown Winnipeg and making countless pay phone calls, after visiting pawnshops and consignment shops along Main Street and Portage Avenue and around the Exchange District and the casinos for the necklace, she surrendered her intensive, tireless search. Wayne figured she was finally acting rationally about the loss, until she made the decision.
“I’ll have to buy her a new string of pearls.”
“You’re crazy. How are you going to be able to afford pearls?”
“I’ll borrow the money from the banks. I have a personal line of credit. I’ll use my credit cards.”
“Just wait. Why don’t you simply come clean with Doctor Spirit? Tell her what a shitshow the weekend turned into after the wedding. She’ll understand.”
“Are you being sarcastic? She bought the jewellery for an investment.”
“Then she must have insurance.”
“No. I don’t want to sacrifice our friendship.”
Wayne tried to dissuade June and argued with her, telling her she was acting foolhardy, out of excessive pride. Still, June visited banks, payday loans offices, mortgage companies. After endless trips to bank branches, credit union offices, and mortgage and loan companies, following endless walks and hikes along Winnipeg streets, during which she broke the heel on her shoes and bought a new pair of walking shoes, June lined up and cobbled together financing for a new string of pearls. Wayne grudgingly accompanied her to the most expensive jewellery store in Winnipeg. He watched incredulously as she bought a pearl necklace identical to the one she thought was stolen from her. She borrowed to the maximum against her credit cards. Without consulting with Wayne, she borrowed to the limit on his credit card as well. The credit card charges led to a huge row and argument, during which June backhanded him on the cheek, breaking his front tooth, which bothered him because he didn’t like making trips to the dentist and he was proud of what good care he took of his full mouth of shiny, white teeth. Then, after a trip to several banks and credit unions, June took out a second mortgage on her home. She even got two different payday loans, at exorbitant rates of interest, from cash stores downtown, around Portage Avenue and Main Street.
June shouted she considered herself an honorable woman and it was shameful and embarrassing if she didn’t live up to her obligations.
“The clasp broke and you dropped the string of pearls without noticing,” Wayne said. “That’s my theory.”
To replace the pearl necklace she was confident was stolen from her, June bought an identical looking pearl necklace from a jeweller, whose elegant hands moved like a magicians’ beneath the bulletproof glass counter. June thought he wore the finest suit she ever saw on a man, and his luxuriant dark hair had a fashionable contemporary hairstyle, with a stripe of grey hair running from the back of his head to his forehead, which reminded her of the pattern on a skunk’s fur coat, at the most expensive jeweller in Winnipeg. Wayne couldn’t believe her actions or understand her willingness to assume the tremendous burden of debt and onerous interest payments, all for the sake of a pearl necklace. When they arrived home, June returned the pearl necklace without comment to Doctor Spirit, except for profuse expressions of gratitude.
Over the following months June took extra shifts at the hospital to help pay off the payday loans, the credit cards debt, the bank loans, the personal line of credit, and even the second mortgage. The credit statements that arrived in the mail each week boggled Wayne’s mind. Then June sought additional work and started moonlighting at part-time jobs on weekends and during the evenings and late nights. She cleaned office buildings downtown and washed dishes after hours at restaurants. She dispatched taxis and drove taxi-cabs, school buses, chartered buses, and delivery motor vehicles. She took whatever extra part-time jobs she could find, aside from her job cleaning in the hospital, to pay off the loans and personal lines of credit and credit cards bills as quickly as possible. She no longer had time for the simple pleasures they both enjoyed. Previously, Wayne enjoyed taking a drive to Dryden to shop with June at the Walmart superstore and eating hamburgers at the A&W restaurant on Highway 17 and sundaes and milkshakes at the Dairy Queen in Dryden. He even enjoyed strolling along the boulevard and thoroughfare to Robin’s Donuts or Tim Horton’s in Beaverbrook for coffee and doughnuts, even though the walks occasionally left him gasping and short of breath and the doctor ordered him to drastically reduce caffeine, sweets, and high cholesterol food. His favorite activity with her was watching movies on television, videotape, or DVD, but now with the unending saga of paying for the lost pearls she possessed no free time to spend with him. She just worked. After he argued and quarrelled with her about the long hours she laboured and the fact they never spent time together, he lost his temper and exploded. She wound up calling the police. Later, even though she called the emergency police line, and was called to testify against him, she refused to take the stand in court against Wayne. She then described him to the crown prosecutor as her former boyfriend and long-time lover, the man she still hoped to formally make her husband. After he took anger management courses, the crown prosecutor agreed to drop the charges, even though June never intended to testify. He did feel personally betrayed when she called the police and that helped him decide.
He benefitted immensely from the personal coaching and counselling sessions. Still, he decided it would be best for them both if he moved out of her house, and went their separate ways. The day he moved she sobbed and cried and tried to restrain him add prevent him from leaving. When she continued to beg him to return and said she wanted to have his baby, Wayne thought,!, and her pleas fell on deaf ears. After moving out of her house, he found his own apartment in a small social housing complex, where he could read his paperback books, novels, and watch movies online in peace. Finally, Wayne started exercising regularly at the local gym, and managed to lose plenty of weight. Eventually, the surgeon and cardiologist were convinced he would survive and he had open-heart surgery, including catheterization, a stent, and valve replacement. He even started jogging on the treadmill at the park and recreation department fitness centre. After he lost fifty pounds and took a course and passed an exam, he managed to find work as a security guard at the hospital.
He worked nights at the hospital. Since he worked the graveyard shift, he mainly stood behind the main desk at the entrance and spacious lobby of the hospital, checked personal and corporate identification, and signed in guests. June often dropped by after hours, after her own late afternoon and night shifts and between part-time jobs, to visit him. She begged him to return, to come back into her life, since she nurtured the dream of getting married to him, in an official ceremony, even if it was merely a justice of the peace or another municipal official at the town hall.
Several years after she lost the pearl necklace, she had only a few thousand dollars left on the “pearl” loans and second mortgage to pay off. She looked haggard and tired, dressed in loose worn, ripped work clothes, whereas in the past she liked to wear tight clothes, form fitting boldly colored uniforms, which accentuated and flattered her figure, now thin and bony. She let her once well-tended wardrobe go ragged and hardly washed now, except when a supervisor warned her about her appearance, her scraggly hair, or body odour.
Months and years of long hours, endless workdays, and hard labour to pay off loan payments and high interest wore June down. She no longer possessed the leisure time to party–never mind socialize—with Doctor Spirit. One night Doctor Spirit was invited to a presentation and dinner in the boardroom of the hospital to listen to a speech delivered by the premier of the province of Ontario and the Beaverbrook regional hospital CEO. Meanwhile, June chatted with him at the front desk when Doctor Spirit arrived. In fact, Doctor Spirit kept walking back and forth between the boardroom, in the administrative section of the offices, and the intensive care unit because she was literally caring for a patient. She feared this patient to whom she had gotten close might be dying.
June joked: “You’re not wearing your pearl necklace tonight.”
“Of course, not,” Doctor Spirit snapped. June gazed at Wayne: neither ever observed Doctor Spirit grow impatient or short-tempered or snap before so they both barely contained their surprise. Tired, carrying her high heels and stethoscope in her hands, Doctor Spirit replied, “Those pearls were fake. These so-called pearls are made from cheap synthetic glass. The premier would see these pearls are fake. Anyway, they were a gift from my former boyfriend, who was a stalker and domestic abuser and a con man.” Neither June or Wayne, neither of whom had ever seen Doctor Spirit look so bitter, could believe their senses. “I only keep those fake pearls as a reminder of how evil and phony and what great con men can be. The man who gave me those fake pearls was a jeweller in Winnipeg. He had the most beautiful hands, which always wore fancy, sparkling, expensive-looking jewellery. He looked like a male model, except he had this thick dark hair with a grey pattern like a skunk pelt. He kept telling me pearls are timeless, immortal—they’ll be your legacy to your niece and nephews. When I had this so-called pearl necklace appraised and authenticated by virtually every authority on pearls I could find in Toronto, though, every last one of them assured me, along with the jewellers I saw in Montreal, they were genuine fakes, not worth more than a few hundred dollars. They’re made from some cheap synthetic glass or material—but the ex kept trying to reassure me they were genuine, timeless pearls from Tahiti, or some South Seas islands. From the way he talked, you’d think pearls were the ticket to an afterlife.”
Wayne sputtered on his takeout coffee. Doctor June, worried Wayne was asphyxiating, tried to ascertain if he was choking, but he assured her he was all right. He assured her he never felt better, but June looked stunned.
After Doctor Spirit left, they argued, oblivious to the occasional visitors, patients, and medical staff. Wayne insisted she tell Doctor Spirit precisely what happened and request the return of the genuine pearls. June wearily no longer even regarded as a friend but more as a workplace acquaintance and superior. The night maintenance man, at the other end of the spacious lobby, working on a faulty air conditioning and air filtration unit, incredulously eavesdropped on the lively argument, as they rehashed the whole history of the pearls.
Then Doctor Spirit’s pearls went missing. Relieved of the burden, she mentioned the loss, jokingly, in passing reference to June, who tiredly mopped the women’s washroom and scrubbed the toilets. June couldn’t believe how cavalier Doctor Spirit was about having her house broken into and the pearls stolen, even if she believed they were fake. June couldn’t contain her anger or control herself and blamed Wayne. But the night maintenance man, who overheard the contretemps between Wayne and June, still sometimes did odd jobs for Doctor Spirit. He fixed the plumbing in her bathroom several months earlier and knew where she kept a spare house key. Doctor Spirit suspected it might have been the dog walker, because she left the door unlocked for her, but she didn’t care either way and thought, goodbye and good riddance. The night maintenance man left the pearls in the bottom of a tacklebox in his unheated garage. He forgot about the necklace, since he had absolutely no use for a jewellery and had no idea how to sell or fence them and unlock their value. Several month afterwards, when the night maintenance man left his trailer and boat parked at the boat launch, a teenage angler stole his tacklebox. He kept the tackle and tacklebox, and from the boat launch tossed what he considered a bizarre discovery of costume jewellery into the lake. Although June was hoping to marry him officially, after she originally tried to blame him and insisted he return the pearls to their rightful owner, Wayne ended up refusing to speak with her again.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996), and the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). His writings have been published in various magazines and literary journals. Set of his short stories has been broadcasted at the Sioux Lookout’s CBLS/CBQW radio.