The theatre was vast, dark, and silent. A single bare fluorescent bulb burned coolly overhead. Its soft light suggested the outlines of tiered seating, descending on three sides from the entranceways off the mezzanine down to the smooth bare floor of the stage. In this place, at this hour, all was suggestion, as if the soft hushing of the fans, the barred cross-hatch of shadow and light cast by the overhead walkways, and the cascading folds of black curtain hung from the far railing of the mezzanine were mere possibilities, sketches in the half-light of what was and what might be contained within these four walls. In a place like this you could lose yourself, and with a start, he realized that he had.
He stood slowly and turned toward the door. This was perhaps the quietest place in the downtown of the city, a jewel of silence hung at its very heart. He knew that as the theatre door swung open at his touch, the world of light would assemble itself before his eyes, coalescing into forms and shapes and colours, with hard, clear edges decisive in their being and in their knowledge of themselves. And beyond the quiet light of the lobby there would be the pulsing, grinding light of the street, so hard and so clear and so vivid that he could blink and rub his dazzled eyes for a lifetime without comprehending the immensity of the shapes that it revealed. It was all beyond him, unknowable in a way that had only to be sensed firsthand to be believed. What he did know was that the theatre door would close behind him slowly, ending with a click so soft it would leave the grand silence within undiminished, because he himself had tuned the door’s mechanism to honour and preserve that silence.
He had used to tell people, when they asked, that he did cleaning and maintenance at a mid-sized theatre downtown. Later he had tried saying he did building management, but in truth he liked the ring of his original job title, custodian, because he knew that in the old Roman tongue it meant keeper, or guardian. Now when he was asked, he more often mentioned the name of the theatre, and was proud when the name was recognized, disconcerted when it was not. He wanted it to be known. He didn’t know anymore whether what he did needed to be justified, only that it needed to be done.
Monday mornings after a visiting performance would find him mopping scuff marks off the stage floor and chocolate milk off the lobby floor, vaccuuming pink ballerina feathers out of the dressing rooms and chip crumbs out of the seating vaults. Toilets needed to be scrubbed and glass doors polished, toilet paper re-stocked and garbage hauled away. That much would often carry over into Tuesday, and then Wednesdays would be his day to clean the administrative offices upstairs. Thursday he might chat with the HVAC technician about a rattling duct, or walk around the building testing emergency lights. Friday could be a touch-up day to rectify mid-week messes, or a chance to replace burnt-out bulbs and broken flush levers.
Most of the work he performed in silence, immersed in the eternal hush and hum of the building’s systems, his only company the creature whose body was the air currents in the theatre and dressing rooms. He knew which doors needed to be kept propped open to keep this creature happy, and he knew at what times it was alright to feel his way along the basement corridors in darkness and when it was better to switch on the lights. He had learned through practice how to cast his mind on long, wordless trajectories that would carry him through the morning or the afternoon while his body and senses did their work.
Lunch was a special time of day, the time when he surfaced from the vast, dark interior of the building to eat with his co-workers upstairs. It was important to spend time on the surfaces of things, because surfaces were where things met and touched and got comfortable with one another. He and his coworkers solved the word jumble in the newspaper together every day, and when his cousin had died they’d given him a card with all their signatures and best wishes inside. He liked them, and that went deeper than the surfaces of things.
When the stage lights came on and the symphony musicians assembled to rehearse their great craft, he would sometimes watch from a high corner of the theatre as they drew from the wood and brass and huge vaults of air overhead an art so subtle and enormous you could miss it if you weren’t paying proper attention. But when he closed his eyes he understood that they were technicians like he was, master builders of an invisible architecture that unfolded in the mind’s eye as soaring arches, lofty columns, images vast and glittering, before resolving once more into silence and darkness. From them he had learned that art was not truly an act of creation, but a calling forth of what lay in things already; the seeing and the calling forth constituted a craft that must be learned with patience and practiced with a quiet zeal for excellence. He wished he could share with them in turn the way the silence that preceded and surrounded their music treasured them, as a cathedral treasures the prayers of worshippers long gone.
In the silence that remained when they had gone, in the cathedral of their absence, he cleaned the way they played music — quietly, zealously, glorying in the accomplishment of a task that by next week would have to be performed all over again, from here to eternity. To him it was true ritual; not the superstitious repetition of arcane formulae to banish dirt and germs and clutter, for the great god Entropy dwelt in all things and his kingdom would never be overthrown — no, ritual was the careful tying of the here and now in its passing to eternity in its unchangeability. Each time he cleaned a bathroom it was an act of adoration, of the same order as the songs of praise raised up by monks bent over the scrub-brush on the floors of temples and cathedrals everywhere, world without end. It was that adoration that had sustained him through the years of work in the darkness of all that he did not know.
You could lose yourself, or find yourself, or both, in work like this. What was it that he did, in the final analysis? As he reached for the door that would take him out into the light, he felt somehow that there was a word for it, a word that had been lost, or its meaning forgotten, or maybe both. He was the keeper of the silence where the word had been, a watcher in the darkness of what might be. If you walked into the darkness and closed your eyes, you could almost see it. And maybe that was all there was. And maybe that was all there.