“Mr. Vargas” by Noah Ashenhurst


If Mr. Vargas asked him who he thought he was, what the hell he thought he was doing, what would he say? What could he say?  But Mr. Vargas never asked; he never said more than ten words a night to Joseph, at least not in the past three months. “Hey,” Mr. Vargas would say, or “cold night,” or maybe “rainy,” and Joseph would slow down for those words, listening to each syllable, hoping there would be something more: a declaration of love, a suggestive phrase, a promise of something in the supply room that smelled of bleach and Pine Sol and Mr. Vargas’s cheap aftershave.

Every day at four he would pass Mr. Vargas in the supply room, and they would exchange hellos, maybe a word or two more, as they organized their buckets before parting to clean the pencil-marked desks, empty the trashcans full of soda bottles, vacuum the classrooms, refill the soap dispensers and paper towels, mop the sticky bathrooms and toilets. Joseph cleaned the classrooms on the first floor, the boys’ and girls’ locker room, and occasionally the small auditorium. Sometimes he could hear the squeaky-wheeled mop bucket and the click, click, click of the mop as Mr. Vargas drew it across the hallway above (like crickets on a humid summer night), or the distant hum of a vacuum and a series of toilet flushes reverberating down the hall. Most of the time he knew where Mr. Vargas was, could imagine what he was doing; he rarely saw him as they moved about like ghosts from classroom, to hall, to classroom, to hall, to bathroom, and back to hall again.

He didn’t know Mr. Vargas’s first name, and while he wanted to ask, he still couldn’t do it. It was too late now for real introductions, and Joseph was afraid he would be as dumbstruck as he had been the day he first saw Mr. Vargas, the head custodian of Lincoln Junior High.

Mr. Vargas rarely smiled and always wore an old denim shirt, paint stained jeans, and once white tennis shoes. Tall and thin, his short receding dark brown hair was flecked with gray, his eyes a dull brown, but Joseph loved his skin and his mysteriously cool charisma that radiated like a warm scent. Mr. Vargas’s skin, the color of coffee and cream, had no crows feet lining his eyes, no laugh lines hugging his thin lips, no creases across his forehead. His fingers were long and elegant, their symmetry broken only by the thin gold wedding ring.

Now Joseph stood in the boys’ locker room, surrounded by the rank smell of mildew and stale sweat socks, with his eyes closed and his pants around his ankles, “abusing himself” as the nuns used to say. He didn’t like this about himself, he didn’t like the highpoint of every day taking place in a locker room thinking about Mr. Vargas’s skin against his own, and the escape it gave him. The rest of his day was filled with sleeping, watching TV, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, bringing his mother meals in her room, taking her to her appointments, or helping her to the bathroom. Sure his mother was difficult, sometimes swore at him for burning her frozen pizza, complained about the too hot bath water, but her MS had made things hard on both of them. It made Joseph’s ugly divorce seem unimportant.

Had he known Mr. Vargas back in Decatur maybe he would have been able to salvage things with Gail, imagining she was Mr. Vargas. But Gail would have wanted more than he could give; she would have wanted a child. How could he blame her?  He didn’t really. She was young, twenty-four, ambitious, and didn’t know what Joseph had already learned by thirty-five: life was full of random uncertainty and disappointment. He blamed Gail for wanting the house, a new car, and reminding him of the five years he wasted. She didn’t want to hear about his “lifestyle choice” and the serious relapse of his mother’s MS. She just wanted what she believed Joseph owed her, in cash.

So he quit his job at the dealership, convinced his mom to sell her house, and left Illinois without telling anyone. They drove across the country to Oregon, his mom bundled in the passenger’s seat of her old white Buick. Joseph knew Gail would send a lawyer after him, would try to squeeze more money out of him, so he had to get a menial job, a job where they wouldn’t ask too many questions. Joseph didn’t do drugs, didn’t have a criminal record, and when he applied for the substitute custodial position at the school district office he didn’t put down his two years of college or his last two jobs, and nobody asked him what he had been doing for the past eleven years.

Joseph had always liked to clean, especially the few years he’d lived on his own. He liked the transformation of chaos into order, the smells of bleach, ammonia, hot water, and sponges. And he thought that by being a substitute custodian he could be invisible and unfettered, but he soon got tired of worrying where he would be sent each night, and having to rethink and recalibrate his route, so he applied to Lincoln, where he met Mr. Vargas. Now he knew exactly where he wanted to be.

A door squeaked. “Mr. Reynolds?” Mr. Vargas asked.

Joseph’s eyes popped open, and he scrambled to pull up his pants. “Yes?” Joseph said.

Joseph heard footsteps, and Mr. Vargas stepped around the partition. “Mr. Reynolds?” Mr. Vargas asked.

“Yes?”  Joseph said, his nervous hands now in his pockets, trying to take deep breaths without looking suspicious. He knew his face was flush from exertion and embarrassment.

Mr. Vargas narrowed his eyes at him. “What are you doing, Mr. Reynolds?”

Joseph noticed the almost undetectable lilt in Mr. Vargas’s speech, perhaps Caribbean or Cuban. For a second Joseph was distracted by Mr. Vargas’s perfect skin, and then he tried to think of a reason why his mop bucket was still by the shower stalls, why he wasn’t wearing his gloves, and why a relatively clean rag laid at his feet. “I lost a contact,” Joseph said.

“Ah, I see.” Mr. Vargas looked relieved, but didn’t smile. “I would just forget it, these floors are, well, you know.” He opened his palm as if to suggest a surrender to choices, and Joseph noticed his callused hands. Even though he knew it was to be expected (he had developed some himself), it pained him to see Mr. Vargas’s skin so mistreated.

“Yes, you’re right,” Joseph said, “I was just about to give up.”

“Mr. Reynolds,” Mr. Vargas said, “I need some help moving tables to the gym for tomorrow’s conferences.”

“Yes, right, of course, I’ll be right there.”

Mr. Vargas stared at him a moment more, as though he was considering saying something else, but then he turned and disappeared around the partition. The door squeaked open and closed.

Joseph shook his head and smiled at his quick reflexes, thinking on his feet, and the fact that no one had oiled the locker room door in years. But then he realized his fly was wide open. Shit, he thought, feeling his face turn another shade of crimson. He walked, head down, to meet Mr. Vargas in the cafeteria.

* * *

Many of the tables were already folded up, and Mr. Vargas was rolling the rest across the smooth floor and lining them up in front of the doors to the gymnasium. Joseph watched Mr. Vargas for a few moments, admiring the way he moved so fluidly, so confidently, and then Joseph attempted to fold a table by gripping the end and pushing and pulling the fake wood table into the shape of an A. But the table merely squeaked, moaned, and folded itself flat again. Even as he continued to try pushing and folding the table, lifting it a few more inches each time, it would simply slam flat.

“Here,” Mr. Vargas said, walking over. He stood near the center of the seam, putting his hands underneath, one on each section, and popped the table upward so the ends slid quickly toward the center, and Joseph, who was leaning against the table more than he meant to, stumbled.

“Oh,” Joseph said, out of breath and starting to sweat, amazed by how easy Mr. Vargas made it look.

Mr. Vargas rolled the table away, and Joseph folded the rest of the tables as Mr. Vargas had shown him, and helped wheel them over.

After an hour of working together, they had unrolled a thin protective covering over the gym floor and lifted, rolled, unfolded, and arranged the tables in the gym just as the assistant principal’s diagram indicated.

“Thanks.” Mr. Vargas unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a bright white undershirt, and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve.

“Sure,” Joseph said, and turned to go back to his solitary work in the boys’ locker room.

“Hey,” Mr. Vargas said, “You want a soda?”

“Sure, okay, that would be great.” Joseph smiled.

Mr. Vargas bought them both drinks from a vending machine, and they walked out to the landing of the main stairway. Mr. Vargas sat down on the top step, leaned against the wall, opened his soda, and took a long swig.

Joseph sat down on the top step opposite Mr. Vargas, against the wall of the stairway, wondering how he could sit closer without being obvious. The drink was cold, but he wished it was a beer just the same.

“This should be beer,” Mr. Vargas said.

Joseph laughed and soda came spurting out his nose, burning his sinuses and spraying down his shirt. He was mortified, and felt his face flush again.

Mr. Vargas stared at him, one eyebrow raised in a question.

“Sorry, I was just thinking the same thing,” Joseph said, wiping his face with a dry corner of his shirt.

Mr. Vargas nodded and looked down the stairs, and then out the large clerestory windows that hours ago had flooded the stairway with light. Joseph followed Mr. Vargas’s gaze and saw nothing but distorted reflections of two small figures, sitting far apart, the yellow lights of the parking lot, and a few scattered house lights.

Neither man spoke for a few minutes, and Joseph stole quick glances at Mr. Vargas, who still stared out the windows. He wondered what Mr. Vargas was thinking, if he worried about his wife cheating on him, if his kids were out running with druggies, or maybe he worried about a bet on a football game—a bet that might allow him to buy the new truck he had been eyeing, or a bet that would make him have to sell his house and move into a small apartment with another family and their three grown children, two dogs, a parakeet, and—

“My father always wanted me to become a teacher,” Mr. Vargas said.

Joseph looked over. Mr. Vargas was still looking away. Joseph’s first instinct was to say, “Excuse me,” but was glad, for once, for his shyness.

“I told him, in a letter, that I worked in a school, and he believed I changed my mind about college and became a teacher, something that had been denied him all his life. I didn’t want to tell him. I know it gave him hope. Who am I to meddle with hope?”

Joseph shrugged, but Mr. Vargas still stared ahead.

“He wanted to move here, he always talked about moving here, but he had so many obligations, so many people who relied on him. And the older he got, the harder it became. I guess I should have encouraged him more, but…” he trailed off.

Both men were silent again, and Joseph, anxious to hear Mr. Vargas speak more, wanting to continue the first real conversation they’d had, said, “My mother has MS, multiple sclerosis.”

“Oh,” Mr. Vargas said, and turned to face Joseph. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Joseph said, regretting not rehearsing what he would say given this chance, and now he was faced with the awkwardness of trying to explain. “I mean, it’s not great, and it’s a relapse, so it’s not like I’ve never seen her in a wheelchair, it’s not like I’ve never had to take care of her.”

“She lives with you?”  Mr. Vargas said.


“That’s nice. That is ideal. My kids have all moved out. My wife and I ‘cramp their style’ they say. They’re all working or in school now, they have lives of their own. My youngest daughter, she thinks maybe she’ll be a teacher, but I’m not sure, she lacks focus.”

Joseph could relate. Since dropping out of college to help take care of his mom during her first flare-up, he had never regained the focus and drive he once had. He couldn’t imagine more nights coming home late from working at the pizza joint and studying for a test or typing a paper until he fell asleep on his books, and the hours he spent at the library doing research for some random project even when he was too hung over to eat, too tired to sleep.

“She like kids?” Joseph said.

Mr. Vargas nodded.

“Maybe she’ll do it then.”

“Maybe,” Mr. Vargas said, and turned his melancholy gaze to the window.

They were quiet for a few minutes as each finished their soda.

“Time to get back to work,” Mr. Vargas said, and stood. He looked down at Joseph for a second and then turned away. His eyes were glossy, red rimmed, and Joseph thought he might cry.

“Yeah, okay.” Joseph watched Mr. Vargas walk down the hall and disappear into a classroom. He wanted to go after Mr. Vargas and ask him about his father, where he had grown up, and how he came here. He wanted to tell him about his own father, the man who had walked out on them when Joseph was eight, and whose existence was confirmed by an occasional postcard. Instead, he waited until he heard the sound of Mr. Vargas’s vacuum, and descended the stairs to finish cleaning the locker room.

At eleven, Joseph entered the supply room, put away his mop bucket, gloves, and cleaning supplies. Surprised that Mr. Vargas wasn’t there, he threw his rags into the old trashcan that served as a hamper, and waited, wanting to say goodbye for the night. After ten minutes, he stepped into the hall, straining to hear the sounds of the vacuum, the old mop bucket, a chair or a desk being slid into place, but he heard only the faint hum of the heating system and the annoying buzz of florescent lights overhead.

Joseph considered going to look for him, but realized how awkward that could be. Yet he worried that Mr. Vargas, in his sadness, perhaps even desperation, had hung himself with an extension cord from the pipes in the girls’ locker room, or that he had fallen on the wet floor, thrown out his back, and now he was slipping in and out of consciousness, hoping someone would find him. Or maybe he already left. That thought led Joseph to consider another host of problems since he had never locked up; he didn’t even have the outside key. Just as he was about to start his search, he heard the faint sound of squeaky wheels on the floor above. Relieved, he made his way quickly to the old Buick.

* * *

Gloria, his mom, was asleep when he got home, but, like usual, she had left on the TV. He grabbed a beer from the fridge, ignoring the mess—pots and pans, dirty plates, and empty cans—his mom and the neighbor lady made of the kitchen. He sat down in front of the TV. Every Which Way But Loose, with Clint Eastwood was on, and he turned the sound up. He vaguely remembered seeing it as a kid, and it was oddly funny then, but it was surreal now: a orangutan, a granny with a shotgun, and a Hollywood-style motorcycle gang. The best part was Clint in his 70’s bouffant, bulging biceps, and infamous squint—he was pretty hot in his gruff, smart-alecky way. He had the sort of devil-may-care bravado, that middle-finger-in-your-face every teenage boy aspired to. As we get older, Joseph wondered, do we ever really grow out of the adolescent fascination with cocky confidence, the swagger of it, no matter how ridiculous it is to our rational self? The answer was clear, Joseph knew, as he sat there imagining that he was watching Mr. Vargas rather than Mr. Eastwood strut his stuff. Squinting, he could almost imagine his smooth, brown skin. The thought gave Joseph a hard-on and he considered unzipping his pants, but then he heard something from his mom’s room.

He muted the TV, and listened for a minute, but heard nothing more. He left the sound off, unzipped his pants, and held himself. His mom called out from her room.

“Shit,” he said to himself. “What now?”

He tucked himself back in, zipped up, and walked to her room. He was surprised to find the bed empty, but then noticed her on the floor. He flipped on the light to help her.

“Oh Christ!  Mom, you okay?” he said helping her sit up.

“Joey, honey,” she said. “I don’t feel too good.”

“Yeah,” Joseph said, “Everything’s okay now.”  He checked her head and face for bleeding, found a large bruise on her forearm. The neighbor, Mrs. Trent, had forgotten to put the bed rail up. “Damn, Mrs. Trent, that stupid woman.”

“Joey, don’t use that kind of language about Trudy, she’s a good woman, she keeps me company while you’re at work. “

“Mom, she forgot to put the bar back.”

“No that was me. I was trying to get out of bed to use the bathroom. I slipped.”

“Let me help you,” he said, and put his hands under her to lift her to the wheelchair.

“No, wait.”

There was a strong whiff of urine, his hands damp. “You already went, didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry, I tried to hold it.” She was embarrassed.

“Why aren’t you wearing your Depends?” He set her in the wheelchair.

“Honey, you know what I think of those. I am not a baby. I will not wear a diaper.”

“You can’t be getting out of bed in the middle of the night.”  God, this woman exasperated him; no matter what he tried she seemed to work against it. “I can’t always be here to help you out of bed, sometimes I have to work. You need to wear one.”

“I know, I know, but honey.”

Joseph grimaced. “Let’s get you cleaned up, you smell a bit…”


“Well it’s true,” he said, and wheeled her to the bathroom.

He drew her bath lukewarm, the only way she could tolerate it these days. He helped her into the tub, reassuring her, like always, that the water wasn’t too hot. Even though she was shaky and weak, he ignored it and held her up in the bath while she soaked. Her wrinkled nakedness and strange folds of flesh were so familiar that he barely noticed them anymore. After a few minutes, he helped her out, dried her off, and helped her with her robe.

“What about my nightgown?”

“Mom, they’re all dirty, I’ll wash some tomorrow, you’ll just have to wear the robe. Plus, it’ll keep you warm.”

She muttered something under her breath, but he knew she would be fine in a few minutes. He wheeled her to the bedroom where he stripped off the soiled sheets, replacing them with a clean set. He lifted and lowered her onto the bed, adjusting her robe and pillows. She was getting worse, especially in the last two months. Soon she would be immobile, and then what?  An old folks home of some sort he supposed, but he knew she would hate it, she would feel like he had abandoned her, and wouldn’t that be true?  They would probably have to sell the house to pay for it. It was all too much to think about tonight. It would have to wait until tomorrow.

“You okay, Mom?” he asked, and turned off the light. “Everything better?”

“Yes, honey, much better,” she said and looked up at him. “Will you keep me company for a while?”

“Geez, Mom,” he said. He was tired, too tired even to see if Clint was still on.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to spend a little time with your old mom,” she said, only half-jokingly.

“All right,” he said. He helped her move over and then lay down beside her, squeezing himself uncomfortably onto the edge of the small bed.

Staring up at the ceiling, his thoughts drifted back to Mr. Vargas, worries about him, and whatever had happened to his father. After fifteen minutes, which seemed to Joseph like an hour, he figured his mom had drifted off, so he slid out of bed.

“Joseph?” his mom said. “You’re leaving already?”

“No Mom,” he lied, “just getting comfortable.” He nestled back into her.

“Oh, okay.”

“Go to sleep Mom, it’s late.”


“Yeah Mom,” he said, trying not to sound exasperated.

“I want to be cremated, okay?” she said.

“That’s a hell of a thought.”

“It’s realistic honey, I am dying.”

“You’re not…” he started, but couldn’t finish because he knew it was true. She was dying.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Everything will be fine, everything is going to work out okay, you’ll see.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, but didn’t believe it.

“How was work tonight?”

“Work was all right. It was fine,” he said, thinking of Mr. Vargas’s hands, the smooth backs and the rough palms he would never feel. Unlike his mom, whose skin he knew like his own. She wouldn’t live to see another year, he knew then. A tear rolled down his cheek and onto the pillow, making him shudder.

Noah Ashenhurst’s first novel, Comfort Food, won an Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Regional Fiction (West-Pacific). He earned his MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop (Pacific Lutheran University) where he had the opportunity to work with authors Ann Pancake, David Huddle, Kent Meyers, and Jess Walter. His short fiction has appeared in Absinthe Revival, Apparatus Magazine, The Autumn Sound Review, Beyond the Margins: A Literature and Art Magazine, Brittle Star (UK), and Write This. Noah is currently teaching in Olympia, Washington and submitting his second novel for publication.

Read Ashenhurst’s comments on Max Detrano’sJasper Rincon’s Loft.”
Notes from Susan Frith, Associate Editor

I was struck by the sadness and beauty of this piece. Mr. Vargas pulled me in with its unrushed pace and convincing portrayal of two disappointed school custodians who mop separate floors of the same building and wonder how their lives might have unfolded differently. The author draws a nice parallel between Joseph’s fantasies for the unattainable Mr. Vargas and the intimate daily sacrifice of caring for his sick mother. Well done!

Comments on this story by Max Detrano, author of “Loyalty Comes Free”
There is an element of, or resembling purgatory to the setting of Noah Ashcroft’s short story, “Mr. Vargas.” Two men from improbable backgrounds come together night after night to perform the tasks of school custodians. At once, a story of lost plans and missed opportunities; it is also an oddly tender but gritty story about the redeeming power of love, hope, and commitment. You won’t come away unmoved. Bravo.

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