Hearts

Casey, idiot that he was, couldn't resist tossing a parting jeer over his shoulder as he strode off down the pristine hallway, snapping his yellow rubber gloves from his hands. "Best of luck with that one," he said through a disgustingly fake grin. Clifford watched him leave, wearily clutching the handle of his mop as he rolled his eyes. For everyone else on the maintenance staff, the janitorial duties they performed were seen as a stepping stone, a temporary engagement, something on the side to tide them over. He and his ever-present mop had often caught snatches of excited whispers about job offers across town, chances to escape the retirement home, to escape the brooms, feather dusters, and Clorox that stained their hands with a perpetually citrus scent.

His mop would glide around the corner first before he followed, smiling and nodding slowly as the staff members bubbled over with their cheerful news. Clifford would sweep behind them and between their shoes, wordlessly continuing on down the hallway though the action usually produced the intended laughter. Thoughts of his mop taking a wrong turn and stumbling with a splash over Casey's shoes were not uncommon, but Clifford usually dismissed them in favor of keeping the only job he had ever had.

The repetitive sweep of the mop danced a practiced tango with his quiet footsteps; his feet would slide out of the way just in time to allow the mop to take the lead, twisting and turning in such a way that his footprints were always swiped clean. As he stood in the doorway of the Azalea Room, he glanced up meekly at the clock, noting with faint disappointment that he had finished with a three minute drag. He was getting slower in his old age; fairly soon, the vibrant swing dances he and his mop had performed in the spring of his life would become demure, ponderous waltzes. This meant, too, that he would miss more and more of I Love Lucy reruns when he returned home for the night; that may have been the worst part about getting older.

Clifford propped the worn handle of the mop against the door, peering into the expansive darkness of Mrs. Carter's spotless room. She and Casey got along terribly; considering his unkempt hair and sleazy excuse for a smile, he wasn't all that surprised. He ran a hand along the room's molding, rubbing his fingers together when dust collected on them. As a janitor, Casey was about as incompetent as he was disagreeable. This, too, was unsurprising.

His eyes adjusted in stages to the darkness until they revealed a sliver of pale light from the half-moon framed by the window's green curtains. Clifford followed the stream of light until it revealed Mrs. Carter's bed, cutting across it diagonally to alight upon the feathery white curls that framed her face. She took a rasping breath, shifting so that her right eye and cheek were thrown into sharp relief by the moonlight. Her sunken cheeks seemed ready to collapse, the emotions she had experienced throughout her life permanently engraved into her face as wrinkles. Clifford examined the floor as she slept on, deeming it clean enough for it to be left alone. He replaced his mop, dripping, into its bucket, rolling the cart away to the janitor's closet after he quietly closed the door.

Mrs. Carter's grandchildren had been in to see her about a week into her stay. As he mopped the vacant Wisteria Room, he could hear them, their multiple voices varying in pitch and tone, punctuated by their mothers' obligatory presentation of family news. Mrs. Carter's brassy voice, occasionally interrupted by weak coughs, floated above the others, as if a silken scarf tossed into the wind by the bustling crowd of her relatives. His mop took the natural path around to her room once they said their goodbyes, twisting and twirling over an orange juice spill in the doorway before sweeping around to greet Mrs. Carter first. Clifford looked up when he followed, standing up straight and nodding as he smiled in the friendliest way he knew how.

Mrs. Carter seemed unsure how to arrange her hands. She sat up in bed, folding them neatly in her lap before replacing them at her sides. She changed her mind again as her eyes narrowed, giving him a scathing once-over from her vantage point beneath the quilt her daughter brought that day. The mop dripped quietly.

Mrs. Carter pursed her lips, her clear blue eyes critical beneath her fragile eyelashes.

"You're black."

Clifford nodded, meeting her gaze steadily.

"Yes ma'am."

She looked to the window, her head turning first before her eyes darted around, the lines on her face betraying the angry emotion she felt. The dogwood tree that gave the elegant retirement home its name had just begun to bloom; the pink petals trembled in the breeze. Clifford paused momentarily before deciding against opening the curtains further, completed his tour with the mop, and left the Azalea Room.

Mrs. Carter had been bedridden for a month before they spoke again. The familiar routine of a brisk foxtrot about the Azalea Room with his mop was shattered by a simple phrase on a kind morning in early April.

"What is your name?"

Clifford immediately straightened, hands tight around the handle of his mop.

"Clifford."

Mrs. Carter's mouth made a straight line as her eyes searched his face for an answer she would never ask for.

"Charming."

"Yes ma'am."

His white teeth were radiant against the somber color of his skin as he smiled in thanks; his mother had thought so too when she named him. Mrs. Carter looked back to the window, her veined hands coming up to grasp her shoulders in a defeated self-embrace. The newly installed air conditioner whirred into life on the floor, drying the wet streaks the mop left behind as Clifford toted it out.

He could imagine the nurse smiling apologetically as she gently took the phone back from Mrs. Carter's smooth hands, clicking into the hallway in her low pumps. Clifford grimaces as the triangle and point of her footprints imprint the drying floor; he sweeps the mop over them for good measure even if the woman's shoes were clean.

The Carter family had stopped visiting somewhere into month three; as temperatures climbed, so declined the patience of the Carter grandchildren during their visits. Their good behavior began to rely on rewards such as water parks, movies, and ice cream, none of which could hope to include their bedridden grandmother.

Clifford's mop glittered as it picked up various bits of confetti strewn about the floor; not five minutes prior, the nurses had come parading over to him with a cake neatly adorned with "71" candles and a modest gift. He nodded along, thoroughly embarrassed, as they chanted "Happy Birthday" before placing the cake in the nurses' station largely untouched; he had seen the blatant hunger in their eyes for it even as they clutched their diet sodas and fresh fruit. Casey's immediate advance towards the cake was rewarded with a threatening glare. Clifford grinned, satisfied as Casey skulked off, chagrined, to flirt with the home's doe-eyed intern.

He let the mop stand guard outside the Azalea Room's door as he walked inside, a single piece of cake impaled with a fork in one hand. Mrs. Carter looked up as she was jarred from her solitude, silently accepting the cake with both hands as it was wordlessly offered.

"I hear you're 71 years old?"

"Yes ma'am."

She took a thoughtful bite before quietly adding, "So am I."

A day later, he found her embroiled in a befitting game of solitaire, and challenged her to hearts instead. When asked if she had won, he responded as he usually did, and God, had she ever won.

A month later, Mrs. Carter - Anna, he had learned - smiled at Clifford over her victory at Old Maid. Every wrinkle painting her cheeks deepened to show that her smile had not always been rare; far from it. Through his laughter, Clifford realized he had gained his first victory as well.

A minute later, Anna patted his hand in the wake of his defeat during bridge. Both watched the contact curiously, as if Anna's hand might leave white spots on Clifford's skin.

Clifford knows immediately what has happened before he even crosses the threshold of the Azalea Room. For once, even Casey has nothing to say. He watches as Casey mills about, eyes uncertain as they look to Clifford as if waiting for direction. He replaces the mop to its bucket, one hand patting his shirt pocket where the deck of cards created a comfortable weight as he peers inside the room.

A man close to his age, his skin an even, dark mulatto, sat quietly in a folding chair at the foot of Anna's bed. Clifford echoes his shuddering sigh; empathy.

The mop precedes him as always, the man looking at it first then up to him, acknowledging him gravely though his eyes spelled desperation. Clifford maneuvered the mop so as to stand by his side, refusing to look at what he knew he would find lying on the bed.

"My name is Clifford."

The man studied his laced fingers.

"So is mine."

"We were...friends."

A rueful, knowing smile answered him first.

"So were we."