“The Janitor”

Runner Up in CL's Fiction Contest 2019

Mr. Chester is so old his skin isn’t even really black anymore. It’s sort of blue-gray, but surprisingly still smooth for him to be damn near 95 years old. He chews — smacks rather — on a licorice stick, his favorite candy, and wheels a little closer to me. I notice how large and thick his hands are. Not typing- or smart phone-holding hands like mine, but hands that were designed by God to endure a tougher existence, one that Mr. Chester didn’t have a say in. I imagine he worked in the fields during his childhood, but in his adult life, for over 60 years, he carried a mop and a broom around Whitmore High School in my small hometown in eastern Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta.

I mount my iPhone on a portable tripod and place it on his feeding tray nearby. “I’m going to record what we talk about today, okay, Mr. Chester?”

“You puttin’ me on TV?” he asks with a toothless grin, as he inspects my phone.

“No, sir. On the radio. Remember I told you I work for a public radio station in Memphis?”

“Okay. I forget sometimes,” he replies. “Maybe the TV next. Like Fred Sanford.”

I smile to myself. Nothing would actually make me happier than to be doing this with a documentary crew.

He scrubbed the floors and toilets in a place where his own children weren’t welcome, at least initially. Those cold, moldy, yellow-tiled bathrooms with no stall doors (in the men’s restrooms anyway) where the piping was so antiquated it seemed like you were going to get sucked down the toilet when you flushed it.

He and his wife Lucille, who passed away five years earlier, started “courting” after they met at church when they were 16.

“She waited on me ’till after the war and we jumped the broom in 19 an’ 45,” he tells me with a bit of sparkle in his clouded gray eyes.

The babies started coming soon after — almost one a year until 1954. The principal of the high school at the time, a veteran named Mr. Tillerson, offered him the janitorial job for about $17 a week right before his first child was born. It was good money to Mr. Chester, but he still chopped cotton in the summer and picked it during fall break to help out his daddy, who was a sharecropper on the Boone farm. Sunup to sundown was the only way he knew how to be, especially when there were mouths to feed.

He holds out his hands to me: “I always had some kind of way with these. I used to have nightmares ’bout getting my hand cut off in the war. Don’t right know what that was all about.” He wiggles his fingers.

I instinctively wiggle my fingers too and glance at my pale and privileged white hands. These tech-savvy but self-entitled hands that have never picked or chopped cotton, held a baby of my own, or scrubbed a public toilet to feed my family. I make a silent vow to never again complain about a sore neck or fingers cramping from being hunched over a computer.

He only finished the eighth grade. History was his favorite subject, especially the stories about Honest Abe Lincoln and the Civil War. There weren’t any black high schools nearby at that time, as those didn’t come around until the late 1940s. He continued his learning as best he could, reading any history book he could get his hands on. There was a really smart history teacher at Whitmore in the ’50s named Mr. Jonakin who really knew his stuff, according to Mr. Chester. He was so enthralled by him and his stories that he would make sure and mop the area outside of Mr. Jonakin’s classroom at certain times of the day so he could eavesdrop on the lessons.

“That was the cleanest spot in the whole damn building,” he says proudly.

To my surprise, he tells me he didn’t encounter much racial animosity from the staff or students in his early years (although I’m sure he wasn’t looking for it), but he would overhear slurs or black jokes. They weren’t directed at him per se, but as colored folks were taught to do in the Deep South at the time, he kept his head down and minded his own business. He recalls it was the early ’60s when whispers of integration started floating through the long, locker-lined hallways of Whitmore. “The only colored that’s gonna set foot in this school is Chester,” he once overheard the superintendent tell a group of teachers. By this time, however, he was thinking about more than just his job — his kids were getting older and he worried that they would miss out on a good education. He was determined they weren’t going to pick cotton or scrub toilets. “They were just as smart as any white kid in Whitmore,” he says.

Randall was Mr. Chester’s oldest child. A picture of him as a teenager hangs on the nursing home wall near where I sit. He was tall and slim but “solid as a telephone pole,” according to Mr. Chester. I wonder to myself what he would have looked like as an adult.

“A couple black kids, one was Mrs. Ruby Tredbow’s girl, tried for about three or four years beforehand to get in on the first day of school, but all the white men on the school board would come up there with the sheriff and keep ’em out,” he says. He points to Randall’s picture, “Randall was top of his class at the colored school. I guess being my son might’ve helped him too.”

Randall was one of five black kids (and the only boy) finally allowed to integrate Whitmore in 1963, nine years after Brown vs. Board of Education. A Democrat named Charles Stanton, who went on to become a state representative, became superintendent that year and convinced the school board it was time to progress, especially if they wanted to keep receiving federal funding.

“Seemed to me like the boys were jealous of him. He got good grades and ran track real good. I thought everyone would eventually warm up to him. It was hard on him always keeping to himself but he wanted to go to the university in Pine Bluff real bad. He had filled out the paperwork before it happened,” Mr. Chester says.

“It” being Randall’s murder. His body was found a month before he was to graduate from Whitmore, in April of ’64, in the thick pine woods adjacent to the baseball field. I remember playing little scrimmage games on that field as a kid, and when a foul ball was hit into that haunted abyss, no one would retrieve it. Randall had been beaten to death with a baseball bat so badly that half his skull was crushed. At first, the local police fabricated a story about it being drug-related, and for nearly nine months no one was charged. When one of the three white boys responsible for the killing got drunk and bragged about it to his girlfriend and her friends, townsfolk got wind of it and forced the police to investigate. The boys attended school with Randall.

“An all-white jury let them off with manslaughter and they spent ’bout seven years in jail. Never did tell us why they did it.” Mr. Chester’s voice trails off. I can sense the pain is still there, even over 50 years later.

I ask Mr. Chester why he didn’t leave the school after what happened.

“I felt close to him there. Sometimes, on a really blue day, I would think I seen ’im walking down the hall, but then he would disappear. Ain’t nobody but God give me the strength to push on through. I was determined all my other kids would make it. All of ’em walked across the stage and got they diploma there.”

He tells me one of his proudest moments was seeing his baby girl Teresa graduate as Whitmore’s first black valedictorian in the class of 1972, the same year my father graduated. Teresa went on to get her PhD at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. One of Mr. Chester’s other daughters, Beverly, became an English teacher at Whitmore and taught me during my first two years of high school. She was one of the first people to recognize that I had a way with words and encouraged me to pursue writing as a career. I always looked up to Mrs. Beverly and admired her kindness and silent strength — to be able to walk the hallways of a place where not long ago she wouldn’t have been allowed and to teach the family members of not only the men who murdered her brother, but the descendants of the white Whitmore community that enabled such hatred to exist. I kept in touch with Mrs. Beverly after school, and she was the first to give me her blessing when I asked to do this interview with her father.

“I s’pose Beverly was one of the biggest reasons I stuck around so long. I loved going to work and seein’ her in the same classroom Mr. Jonakin teached. That really was something.”

Mr. Chester retired in 2005, the same year I graduated from Whitmore. I went off to college in Memphis, majored in journalism, wrote dozens of stories about various aspects of life in the South, and thought about Mr. Chester’s story often.

He wheels over to a nightstand and pulls out a large ring of keys — the ones he carried around the school for 60 years. “I can still tell you what door each of these keys go to,” he says as he flips through them with his calloused hands. “Some days, if I’m feeling a little lonely, or get a little confused ’bout where I am, I pull these out and count ’em. Helps to remind me I’m still here.”

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